Saturday was Steelhead -- the mother of all races for me this year, and the culmination of my year of training. But, on Saturday morning, rather than donning my tri top and wetsuit, compression socks and arm coolers, I readied for the day with a smear of lipstick, a simple black dress, the most delicate black heels I own (grandma loved heels), and a handful of kleenex.
On Thursday, July 23, 2009, my 91 and 3/4 year-old grandmother slipped on some outdoor stairs leading to her nephew's home. She fell backwards -- something any of us could have done -- and landed heavily, hitting her head quite hard. She lost consciousness almost immediately; it was never regained. She was with family from the second of the accident -- her nephew's wife was home when my grandmother stopped by (unexpectedly, I might add) and was there to call the ambulance. Grandma was life-flighted to the nearest hospital that could handle that sort of injury, in Toledo.
Last Thursday, I was under the weather. I had gotten only four hours of sleep the night before, and had had a stressful day of my own. SJV and I were sitting on my couch when I got the call from my mother. We didn't yet know the full story -- so mom gave me the cliff's notes version, and said she would call back with more information, and let me know if I should make the 4.5 hour trip straight away. SJV and I agreed that everyone was overreacting. Grandma was an independent, strong, courageous woman. She lived on her own; she drove herself where she wanted to go (much to our chagrin, and notwithstanding our protests); she conducted herself with grace and class, and valued her privacy. SJV and I thought that she fell, but that the EMS would take her to the hospital, where they would do a quick scan, proclaim her right as rain, and send her home, where she would complain about the fuss that had been caused and the fact that everyone would know that she had been taken to the hospital. (She had never had surgery, had never broken a bone. At nearly 92 years old, grandma was in amazing health.)
The second call that I got was far more grave. Grandma had both an epidural and subdural hematoma, and they hoped that she would hang on until family arrived. There was nothing they could do. Suddenly I was a flurry of activity -- trying to get my bag packed, trying to get someone to care for Idgy the Cat, trying to let work know that I would be taking Friday off. SJV let me borrow his car, and I started out at 9:00 or so -- hit some major traffic (thanks, Obama, for messing up our streets when you come into town) and finally got to The Toledo Hospital at 3:00 a.m. (or so) on Friday morning.
Grandma and I spent a few hours there alone, in the dark morning hours on Friday, a ventilator breathing for her, and all manner and sorts of monitors keeping track of how she was doing. It was quiet; other than my voice as I talked to grandma, there was only the whirr of the ventilator, and the rock of her body as the ventilator worked for her. I told her all of the things I thought she might not know; how amazed I was at her strength, how proud I was of her independence, how glad I was to have her on my side, and how much I respected her.
Katie, my grandmother's nephew's wife, was there as well, although she was sleeping when I arrived. Soon, my mother would arrive after driving all through the night from Missouri; my sister would fly in from her home in Georgia, and my aunt and uncle would arrive from Virginia. We were told that Grandma would not be long for this world without the ventilator. She had a living will; my uncle had that in her papers. We did not have to make any difficult decisions -- she had made them for us. At 4:45 on Friday, they removed the ventilator and all other forms of life support while we waited outside her room in the neuro ICU, shuffling our feet and trying to talk about somethig that wasn't as ... hard ... as what we were doing, and what we were going to do. They called us back in, and we surrounded her bedside -- crying and holding each other, waiting for grandma to take her leave.
An hour passed. Then two. Grandma was obviously stronger than anyone had imagined. Four (or so) hours later, my mother and I had to leave -- we had to go home to Grandma's house and get some sleep. I think we both expected to get a call during the night, but none came. Over the next five days, my mother, my aunt, my sister and I took shifts through the night and the day -- holding Grandma's hand, singing, telling stories, reading from her Bible, watching Lawrence Welk.
As each day came and went, and melded into the next, the doctors would arrive en masse, asking if we had any questions, appearing perplexed that a nearly 92 year old woman would survive day after day without any form of nourishment or breathing assistance. But, for those of us that knew Grandma, it was certainly like her. One doctor looked at us and said: "She has a strong heart, and strong lungs. Pretty amazing." Indeed.
Ultimately, Grandma waited until we were all at her bedside (unexpectedly, actually, as my mother and I felt anxious back at Grandma's house and came back to the hospital before our "shift" began) to pass away. Five days after she was removed from life support, on July 28, 2009, my Grandma passed away surrounded by family that loved her so very much. We sang to her, caressed her hair, held her hands, and told her how much we loved her as she left this earth.
And so, on Saturday, August 1, SJV and I piled into a car devoid of triathlon gear, but packed with heavy emotion. We didn't tune up our bikes, or assemble our race belts. But what we did do required just as much endurance, and just as much strength. Perhaps my training over the summer was in preparation for those moments. Who can say.
I can say, however, that my Grandma was an amazing woman. Spunky and classy, and full of life. I hope that I've inherited my Grandma's heart -- strong and persistent. Determined. Unwilling to take no for an answer. Unwilling to let anyone else control her life, and, ultimately, her death.
Live life to the fullest.