Life in the State of Dying
I kneel on the carpet, in front of the carefully lined up rows of plastic shoe containers. Each one labeled with the style and color of the shoes inside. In some styles of shoes my Grandma had bought five different colors, so she could properly match her shoes with her outfits.
Most of the shoes won't ever enclose her feet again- the cancer has started to effect every aspect of her bodily functions and her legs and feet are painfully swelling up. Slippers still fit- barely.
The day is late and cold. Although it is May and everyone should be out in their yards planting and weeding- people are preparing for a blizzard. So buckets cover delicate new plants and sheets are spread across flowers beds -- a sheet won't keep the cold, wet snow from damaging the plants- but the hopeful gardeners crosses their fingers and hope that Mother Nature isn't too brutal.
My Grandma, who suddenly went from walking with a cane last week, to needing a wheelchair this week- sits in her pajamas- everyday she is less likely to dress, which for a woman who was always dressed in carefully pressed skirts and blouses- and the collar carefully adorned with one of her pins- it is an unsettling sight.
She sits in her wheelchair next to me- holding one of Grandpa's shirts, an equally pressed long sleeved buttoned down Western shirt in white with a small floral print on it- but a masculine floral print- the colors in orange and yellow and red.
Her fingers, which have become quite gnarly and slender in just the past weeks, plays with the fabric.
"I should throw this out," she says, as her fingers tangle tighter in the fabric. "It's so thin bare, he can't wear it anymore."
I wait, knowing from the far off look in her eyes that she wants to say more. Bean, who is helping me sort shoes and clothes, is patiently waiting, shifting back and forth on her feet, obviously in her teenage hood not sure what to say and for being Bean and having a habit of always saying the wrong thing- is practicing her nodding a lot this afternoon. She knows her great-grandma is dying- she knows we're helping her sort her material life from the journey she is embarking on- and she doesn't have the experience to say anything that makes this task even easier.
And so she nods and without complaining- has been helping me vacuum my grandparent's house, and even scrubbing their bathrooms. There are very few words I can say to her, except, "good job kid."
Grandma knots her fingers in the fabric. "I can't throw it away yet."
I look up into her face. "Grandma, you don't have to. We'll put it on the shelf."
"There's a story to it. When your Grandpa used to work at the church doing the lawn mowing, he would sometimes get attacked by bees. We finally figured it out it was only when he was wearing this shirt. They liked it."
I chuckle along with her, remembering a time when my Grandpa wasn't bound by an oxygen cord and giant tanks of oxygen- when he could walk without taking deep breaths of air because otherwise he wasn't taking in enough breath to make his legs function. The deep guttural sounds he has to make to force enough air into lungs as he shuffles across the floor startled Abu at first- she thought he was going to die right then and there. Now I notices she discreetly watches him- ready to help if he should need it.
I take the shirt and gently place it on the shelf. When they are gone, I'm not sure if I'll be able to toss the shirt- she has given it life, attaching a story to it. A memory. Meaning.
Damn it. I didn't think helping Grandma sort her closet and drawers would be so difficult, but a few times I have to take a deep breath and force the tears back.
"I can't believe it's going to snow," she says. "I didn't need to see snow one more time."
Before she goes.
"Now you get to see Grandma's secret." She says with a huge grin.
I chuckle. "All your shoes?" It's no secret- I know she has a love of shoes and the dozen upon dozen of pairs attest to it.
"Now I know where Bean gets her love of shoes from. Do you know when she was two I could keep her busy for hours if I gave her a shoe catalog?"
Bean wrinkles her nose and then she laughs. She can't deny her love of shoes either. If she didn't have giant feet, she wouldn't mind trying on some of Grandma's shoes. They aren't old lady styles- they are fashionable and elegant and classy.
Bean helps me sort. We have a pile to try to sell to the consignment store, a pile for donation, and a trash pile.
Only one pair of shoes goes into the trash pile- the others have been so well taken care of- they can be shared. If we had the same foot size, she would have given them to me- for interviews at my paper job. The pride I hear in her voice when she mentions my paper job. She has read every article I have written and saved all of them.
"Front page, huh?" She smiles. My latest article actually made the front page just the day before and she mentions that when we sort her clothes she's hoping that there are some items I can wear for my professional career.
Grandma is tired after we finish sorting the shoes, so the clothes will have to wait until after the weekend. Sunday is Mother's Day and I know my Mom plans on bringing her some wonderfully beautiful flowers in a pretty vase.
Grandma's last Mother's Day. My Mom's last chance to give her mother something for Mother's Day. The day will be bittersweet.
I know my Mom will not say what she really wants to say- sharing emotions doesn't come easy for her and I'm hoping that the flowers speak volumes to my Grandma.
Mom has been going over there every day, cooking meals and tending to them.
Her chronic pain condition makes it difficult- love makes it happen.
When we go to leave, Baby Blueberry skips over to my Grandma and gives her a huge hug, she skips over oxygen cords and gives my Grandpa an equally big hug with tiny pudgy arms. She doesn't understand, but there is an understanding in her eyes that seems so wise for a two year old. She knows they need the love and in her generous spirit she gives it.
Her easily given hugs thrill them and they talk about it with my Mom, who is staying to serve them the spaghetti she made, after we leave.
In the car I tell the girls thank you for the help. Thanks to Bean for helping make their bed, to the extreme specific way my Grandma wanted it and for helping sort her shoes. She nods, and says, "the old people need help." A typical teenage nonchalant statement, but her patience and compassion she displays with them shows me so much more.
Abu says she doesn't mind playing with Baby Blueberry while I do stuff and asks wasn't I proud of her for watching her for so long.
Yes, I answer, thinking of their sweetness as they played together, but then my thoughts drift to the boxes of shoes in my car. I wish I didn't have to drop them off. To separate this material life from what comes next.
But it comes.
When I arrive home, I look around at the stuff that surrounds me and realize I don't own any of it. I'm borrowing it, using it, enjoying it, but one day- it gets sorted and divided- some kept- some tossed-
and so I spend the evening dancing and being goofy with my girls and then get down on the floor and play unicorns and princesses with Blueberry.
And I realize as I pen this blog, that for the rest of my life when I think about the process of dying- I will think about boxes of shoes, a certain teenager helping me put freshly laundered bedsheets on my grandparent's bed, well-loved shirts that aren't meant for the trash, skipping toddlers with pudgy little arms full of love, and a tired Mom cooking her parents spaghetti.