I was putting on my makeup and getting a thumbs-up review on my outfit from my husband when the phone rang. “Mrs. Moses?” “Yes?” I listened as a woman informed me that my 91-year-old grandmother had fallen and hit her head at the rehab facility where she was recovering from pneumonia. She was being taken to the emergency room. I was the emergency contact for my grandmother and my 93-year-old grandfather while my parents were set to vacation in Morocco the following day for three weeks. I called my parents who were getting ready to meet us to celebrate, and a half an hour later, the four of us stood smartly dressed, derailed from my 40th birthday dinner and instead in the intensive care unit of the hospital.
A somber faced doctor delivered the news that the fall had caused bleeding in my grandmother’s brain. He started talking treatment options– none of which she had available to her because she was 91 years old. Maybe he was trying to reassure us that if we ever took a tumble, our circumstances wouldn’t be nearly as dire. He did offer that she wasn’t in any pain, and as we all sighed with relief, he added it was very likely she wouldn’t make it through the night. We sat in a collective silence letting it all sink in. My grandmother would get her hair and nails done every week. She stayed up till after 10 watching TV. She called me once, sometimes twice a week. She loved chocolate. She was feisty and opinionated. She knew things were facts because she said so. (Like, you can call a home Kosher if you eat all your traife on paper plates.) My grandmother had chutzpah. And nonetheless, my grandmother wasn’t going to make it.
But she made it through the night. “Grandma, do you want me to tell you a story?” I started to recite Little Red Riding Hood. “…and when Little Red Riding Hood came to the woods, who do you think she saw?” I paused. Suddenly my grandmother piped in, “Her boyfriend?” With surprise and laughter we welcomed my grandmother back. We were gifted a few moments like that. When I told her that her daughters were flying in, she responded, “No one told me!” A signature comment of hers that intoned her annoyance about not being the first to know. She nodded when asked if I was a better story teller than my mom, (can’t blame her for choosing me – my mom’s version of “The Three Little Pigs” was an example of classic literature being butchered as the wolf was “big” and “fat” instead of “big” and “bad”…) and most importantly she acknowledged with nods, eyebrow raises and the occasional hand squeeze that she knew family was there.
My grandmother moved without much pause from Intensive Care to Palliative Care and then finally to Hospice. Her room was crowded with mostly untouched sweets and a plant with purple flowers. My dad and my husband went over to break the news to my grandfather. He reluctantly resides in an assisted living facility battling the confusion of Parkinson’s. He insisted he see my grandmother immediately. While being pushed to the van in his wheelchair, my grandfather’s foot dropped, causing the wheelchair to tip over, hitting his head on the floor. My grandfather then headed to the ER via ambulance with a head injury of his very own. And “Moroccan Chicken” was the dinner special in the hospital cafeteria.
I sat for three hours in a full ER waiting room. My grandfather bandaged like a solider with five feet worth of gauze wrapped around his head, his wife in a hospice room a few floors above. I felt like I was in a movie. A movie where everyone is whispering loudly in the theatre that the storyline is ridiculous – the situation contrived. Feeling like I had nothing to lose, I began loudly pleading with the receptionist. “People are taken in order of the seriousness of their condition. I’m sorry.” And my grandmother’s condition didn’t count. My grandfather became fixated on her white coat. “There’s the Doctor!” “Pop-Pop, that’s not the doctor. She’s the receptionist.” When we finally got in to see an actual doctor, I’d had it. I did the ugly, snotty cry explaining the whole unfolding drama in detail, pleading with him to hurry up and do whatever needed to be done so we could unite my grandparents. “I could have completed the head scan by now,” the doctor said. He promised to get my grandfather upstairs as soon as possible. The doctor followed through and my grandfather had a chance to say his forever goodbye to his wife of 71 years.
The next night my grandmother died. She had a traditional burial and we sat Shiva for a day. My grandfather got overwhelmed with all the people, asked me to take him to his room and told an aide, “Shut that party down!” He asked me what everyone was doing there. “It’s Shiva Pop-Pop. We’re sitting Shiva for Grandma.” “Oh.” He said and then asked to get ready for bed. My kids said that Shivas are fun, the only problem is that in order to have one, someone has to die. This is true. And normally, when we think about death and the things that go along with it, it’s not amusing and definitely not described as “fun”. But there were so many moments that took us by surprise from beginning to end, that although a significant loss had occurred, we also gained something wonderful in the process. And my grandmother, although dying, was the life behind it all happening.