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well lived

I Loved My Grandmother. So I Had to Let Her Go

The hardest decision I ever had to make.

Woman with black hair poses for a photo beside an older woman with red hair and a white dress. They both have huge smiles.
This photo was taken when we surprised my grandmother for her 90th birthday. She didn't want us to come, but we "defied" her and she was thrilled. Photo credit: Courtesy of Alisa Schindler
Two sets of hands clasp one another. One of the hands wears a bracelet.

Who Cares for the Caregiver?

I’m not brave.

If I was I wouldn’t have let Debbie Whatshername torture me in 7th grade; shoving me in the halls and “accidentally” blowing sawdust in my face in home economics.

I would have traveled abroad for my junior year instead of hiding in the safe arms of my boyfriend who would later become my husband.

I would swim in the ocean instead of watching from the shore.

But I’ve never been a risk taker. I’m the practical, responsible one, which is probably why my maternal grandmother named me as her healthcare proxy. She had a DNR (do not resuscitate) order and strict instructions not to prolong her life with any medical intervention.  We both knew that her son, my father, wouldn’t be capable of carrying out those wishes. Which left her daughter, my Aunt Lily.*

“Lily will keep me around just to torture me,” my grandmother said, half joking. “I don’t think she can do it.”

But I could?

“Yes, you can do it.” She affirmed, reading my mind with her psychic grandma powers. “You’re strong like me. Pull the plug. I’m not afraid. When it’s my time, it’s my time.”

But I was not strong like her. No one was.

Black and white photo of a young woman sitting on the sand at a beach in a one piece bathing suit. She is wearing a large straw hat and smiling for the camera.
All glamour and guts in Brooklyn, circa 1940s. Photo credit: Courtesy of Alisa Schindler

She was a woman who changed the name on the birth certificate of her sister’s child—in response to her actions she simply replied, “I did him a favor. Barry was a terrible name.” She had a bite that could casually rip you to pieces, but she’d drop everything to tenderly stitch you back up with homemade chicken soup and a shiny bauble, haggled over at a local yard sale. She cared for her mother after her stroke, her father sick and dying, her husband on disability and her two children, all while holding multiple jobs. She doled out advice to her extended family and they deferred, whether they liked it or not. My grandmother stormed through the world and the world stepped aside. She was a true matriarch.

“Hey,” I said, deciding it was time for a new conversation. “Let me tell you a funny thing that Leo did yesterday.”

Despite stories about my children being her favorite topic, she wasn’t having any of it. “Don’t change the subject,” she snapped. “Now say you’ll pull the plug.”

“I’ll pull the plug,” I dutifully replied.

She breathed relief; warm and familiar, a satisfying exhale left over from her lifetime of smoking.

“Good girl,” she said and patted my hand.

Those “good girl” pats fueled my inner need for her approval. I was her favorite, or so she said. I’m sure she said that to all her grandchildren, but of course, I really was. Who else was strong like her?

But when she found herself in the hospital, attached to oxygen and hooked up to antibiotics and other medical necessities that kept her going, I was not strong at all. Seeing her lying there, helpless and weak, so unnatural to the vital, formidable person she was, devastated me. Still, her face lit up in pleasure at the sight of me. “My Alisee,” she rasped. I brought pictures of my boys to hang around the room, spoon-fed her teaspoons of chocolate ice cream (her favorite) and babbled on about nothing, until finally petering out and giving in to the silence. I held her manicured hand, the one that tickled my back, wiped my butt when I was a baby, and patted my arm. “Good girl.”

Woman in white wedding dress smiles as an older woman with red hair in a white dress caresses the bride's face. They are outside and the bride is holding a glass of champagne in one hand.
While I can't remember exactly, I'm guessing my grandmother was saying, "He'd better make you happy or I'll beat the crapola out of him." Photo credit: Courtesy of Alisa Schindler

“Get out of here,” she whispered, but I shook my head, dropping fat tears as I refused. When the nurses came in to put an oxygen mask on her, she fought them, not wanting the mask. I stood back by the door, but I could see her looking at me, willing me with her eyes to go. She did not want to be seen like this. She did not want to be like this at all. Her last conscious act was to lift her arm, make a weakened fist and direct it at me.

The next day, she never opened her eyes at all. I ran in to the doctor, frantic over her condition. He told me the only thing to be done was to stop doing anything. I stormed off, went back to my grandmother’s room and silently cried, staring at her weakened form, willing her strength, hoping for hope. She lay unmoving; every once in a while, unconsciously ripping the oxygen mask from her face. She didn’t want it.

“I stood back by the door, but I could see her looking at me, willing me with her eyes to go. She did not want to be seen like this.”

I knew what she wanted.

Years ago, when she first became compromised and retired in her apartment with the help of a loving and patient aide, she informed us that her bags were packed. She was ready to kiss her ass goodbye, often wondering why she was still here while almost all of her family and peers were not. This was all taking too long, she complained.  Soon she would need new luggage.

Days passed, and the big decision lay as heavily as the congestion in my grandmother’s chest. Should we or shouldn’t we. Was there hope? Oh God, was there any hope?! This was not what I signed up for. Only it was. I had to let go. But how can you let go even when you know it’s the right thing? To say you can pull the plug is one thing, to end the life of someone you love is quite another. There would be no more “hello pussycat,” throaty laughter, or tiers of red hair. No more shoes thrown, jewelry dangling and food pressed upon me. No more hope. No more breath. No more Grandma. 

I flew back to New York and my aunt flew in to keep the bedside vigil. After a week of torturous back and forth over the phone, we removed her from life support.  The moment my aunt left the room for a minute, she passed, meeting death on her own terms just as she lived her life.

We probably should have done it days before.

She wasn’t afraid. I was.

Because even though I am strong, devoted and responsible—capable of spending the next weeks and months dealing with paperwork, figuring out financials, speaking with the crematorium and memorial places, and being a voice of reason in my family—I didn’t want to do any of it without her.

I’m not brave.

But I am a “good girl.”

 *Name has been changed.

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Published June 19th, 2018
Two sets of hands clasp one another. One of the hands wears a bracelet.

Who Cares for the Caregiver?