It’s taken me quite some time to write this, so here it goes:
They say that death is just part of life. I have seen more than my fair share of deaths, but never had I experienced it in my own family. This past Sunday marked five months since my family and I laid my beautiful, precious Grandma to rest.
Grandma had been feeling sick for over a year when we finally found out that she had lung cancer. No one knows how she came to contract it, because she never smoked a day in her life, and no one in our family smokes either. Grandma seemed to take the news well; upon discovering that she had cancer and that the specialist was recommending chemotherapy, she just said, “Si se me caí el cabello, ¡me compro una peluca!” (“If my hair falls out, I’ll just buy myself a wig!”)
Unfortunately, the specialist’s recommendation came a little too late. The various doctors that had previously treated her during the course of the year had misdiagnosed her condition as simple pneumonia, so the tumor that had developed under her right lung was left to grow unchecked. It had fused itself with her lung tissue and had begun to spread to the rest of her body. By this point, there was really nothing that could be done for her. The specialist recommended hospice instead and estimated that she had three months to live.
No one told Grandma of the specialist’s timeframe. She had been fighting all this time to stay alive for one event in particular, and news like this would probably just devastate and discourage her, so we agreed to not tell her. No one told the specialist, though. When Grandma went in for a follow-up on July 15, he gave her his prognosis: she had only a few months to live.
For two days, it seemed as though the news had not fazed her. She was understandably upset that no one had told her, but she was fine. By Saturday, July 18, though, her health had begun to deteriorate rapidly. She found it difficult to walk even short distances and her breathing was very shallow. My mom and my aunts (who had been taking care of her) were very concerned that she would not make it to my youngest aunt’s wedding on Friday, July 24. Grandma had been looking forward to seeing her youngest daughter and child get married for a very, very long time and now it looked like she wouldn’t be able to witness it.
On Sunday, July 19, my aunt decided that she would get married that day. She knew Grandma was holding on just to see her on her big day, and she didn’t want her to suffer through five more days of agonizing pain just to do so. She threw all her plans and preparations to the wind, and the entire family descended upon my grandparents’ home that afternoon to take part in the wedding. Once the groom arrived with his family, there was little time for formalities and introductions. (This was the first time our families had met.) Grandma was wheeled out of the house onto a little porch overlooking the driveway; I had never seen her so fragile. As soon as my grandparents and the groom’s parents greeted each other, my uncle performed the ceremony with Grandma overlooking the entire scene. She had difficulty keeping her head up, but when she mustered the strength to look up, you could see a faint smile on her face. She was happy.
That evening as we celebrated with my aunt and her new husband, we also spent time with Grandma. It had become evident that she probably would not live many more days, so we tried to spend as much time with her as we could. We are such a loud family that we probably annoyed her more than anything, but again, despite her pain, she was happy. When it came time for everyone to go home, we each individually said goodbye to her; I was reluctant to do so. It pained me deeply to see her in her condition, and somewhere inside me I knew I would not see her alive again. All I could timidly say to her as I fought back tears was, “Bye Grandma. I’ll see you later. I love you.” Her last, faintly-spoken words to me as she tried to nod in agreement were, “I love you, too.” I gave her a hug, and we left.
I cried myself to sleep that night. I could not bear to see Grandma that way. I asked God that if she was going to recover that He make her recovery quick, but if not, that He let her pass away peacefully and quickly so that she didn’t feel any more pain. I just wanted my Grandma to be well.
Early Monday morning, July 20, Grandma’s children returned to her home to be by her side; the aunt that stayed with her overnight had alerted everyone that her breathing was extremely shallow and sparse. She was not able to recognize anyone anymore, and she struggled to even keep her eyes open. At 9:09 in the morning, as she was about to get her hair washed, Grandma took her last breath. Her five children and Grandpa looked on as she calmly moved from this life to the next.
My siblings and I arrived at our grandparent’s home at about 9:30. We didn’t know that Grandma had already died. The first thing I heard when I walked in was Grandpa on the phone explaining to someone that Grandma had died. I walked into her room, and there she was lying on her bed in a salmon-colored nightgown, her arms at her side and her mouth agape. I had always felt that I was just another emotionless guy; nothing had ever been able to move me to tears except for an occasional movie (and mostly because of the musical score at that), but when I saw Grandma lying there lifeless, my mind seemed to break down and all the water in my body rushed to my eyes. I knelt by her side and I cried, my tears falling on the hands and arms that helped raise me.
Soon enough, the whole family was once again at my grandparent’s house, but this time for a more somber occasion. We each had our time to cry and we all recalled better times when Grandma was still alive. The worst part, though, was when the person from the funeral home arrived. For some reason, the funeral home decided it only took one person to carry a body onto a gurney, wheel the gurney out of the house, and load the gurney into the funeral home’s van, so they did just that: they only sent one minimally-trained person. This mortician (for lack of a better word) came into the room, put a tag on Grandma’s toe, and wrapped her in the blankets on which she was lying. He needed help carrying Grandma’s body to the gurney that he had set up in the living room, so my aunt helped him with that, but he hadn’t fully prepared the gurney, so he laid Grandma on the floor while he finished making his adjustments. You read that correctly: he laid her on the floor! My mom helped him put Grandma on the gurney, and I, with blurred vision from all the tears, helped him carry the gurney out of the house. He loaded the gurney into the van, and he drove off. The entire house full of weeping mourners slowly became tranquil.
Grandpa and my aunts and uncles made preparations later that afternoon for Grandma’s funeral and burial. It was all so sudden; we weren’t prepared for Grandma to die so quickly. Through the rest of the week, I tried to maintain my composure, but I broke down once or twice. I couldn’t believe that Grandma was gone.
In the evening of Thursday, July 23, our family held a viewing so that everyone that wanted to could come pay their respects. People started to arrive slowly and it quickly became crowded; it was standing room only! I knew that Grandma had touched many lives, but to be able to see just how many was an amazing privilege.
Early the next morning, we held a memorial service at the church in East Los Angeles where Grandma faithfully worked by Grandpa’s side for so many years. I, along with my uncles, a cousin, and my dad, had the honor of carrying Grandma in. We sang some of her favorite hymns and took time to reflect. It was the first time I saw Grandpa cry.
There is a cemetery close to the church in East LA, but Grandma never wanted to be buried there; she said it was too loud! So, after a thirty-minute ride out of Los Angeles, we arrived at Grandma’s final resting place in Glendora. I, again, helped carry her to her gravesite. We held a small service there, and we watched as they lowered Grandma into the ground in her pale-blue coffin. We said our last goodbyes and threw in flowers into her grave. Grandpa took a white rose, kissed it and dropped it in. My 100-year-old great-grandfather (Grandma’s dad) recited a poem before he threw a flower in. We looked on as they lowered a concrete barrier into her grave and as they covered it with sand and dirt and as they topped it off with sod. Grandma had been laid to rest; she was no longer coming back.
I really still can’t believe she’s gone. I find myself thinking at times that she’s just at home waiting for us to go visit her. I think that I will see her at our next family gathering. It’s really strange to think that I will never see her again while I live on this earth. It’s strange to think that I can’t ever talk with her again, or hear her laugh, or taste one of her delicious meals!
I miss her dearly. We went to visit her grave in September for her birthday. (She died one month and six days before her sixty-fifth birthday.) This Thanksgiving wasn’t the same without her, and this Christmas probably won’t be either. Though I know I will see her again one day, I find myself reminiscing and crying at times.
Through all of this, what has surprised me the most is discovering that I actually have feelings. It’s not that I knew I didn’t, it’s just that I never really felt them. Grandma’s passing has triggered in me an energy that had not been there before; a willingness to try to be better at life. I hope I can live to be the kind of person Grandma was.
“Every lament is a love song/…/Until I’m with you I’ll carry on” —Yesterdays by Switchfoot
Merry Christmas and very happy New Year! Let’s not let it go to waste!
I love you always, Grandma!