Monday, March 3, 2008

The Grim Reaper Strikes Out

This Mercury Retrograde wouldn’t be complete without a visit from the Grim Reaper, although once again he left with only his dick in his hands. At work, my staff are very compassionate and know my grandmother is sick. I said in passing to my Receiving supervisor, “Why does she allow herself to be in torment like this? Why doesn’t she just let go?!” And Duane looked at me like I had lobsters coming out of my ears. “Because she wants to LIVE like the rest of us!” he exclaimed, offering a reality check that shined a light on how different I am from the people I work with. I don’t believe that death is the end. I believe it is a transition. What’s important, however, is what my grandmother believes, and she’s a die-hard atheist. The old broad has always said, “Heaven and hell are right here on earth – there’s a little bit of heaven and a whole lot of hell!” She, like her oldest daughter, believes that after death there is nothing, and so, for better or for worse, this life is the only shot they’ve got.

Last week, my grandmother, Thelma, went back to the hospital for a serious infection caused by chronic and inoperable kidney stones. She’s almost 87, and it was the second time in the last three months, too. About two weeks ago, a respiratory thing went through her rest home like wildfire and it left Thelma’s immune system depressed (Notice to Visitors: If you aren’t feeling well, rethink your visit, please). The infection reared up, this time presenting with a new kind of bacteria. Her nurse, Joyce, the one that can communicate with her and read her well, was on vacation. The home’s doctor prescribed a wide spectrum antibiotic that did nothing, and by the end of that week, she was too sick and confused to take any of her pills no matter which pool nurse was talking too loudly in her face. When she got to the emergency room, she was dehydrated, dirty, seemingly uncared for, making no sense whatsoever, and very, very sick. She even had open sores on her shins where the shin socks had rubbed through (telling me she fought the rest home staff who tried to help or clean her – her skin is very thin, easily torn – and she despises when people mess with her feet or legs more than anything).


The sicker Thelma gets, the more difficult Thelma gets. By this time, she was spitting at people (hit the bull’s-eye, mommy), an undignified behavior that she would deny were she better, although it does encourage people to leave her alone. I guess in a way, it serves it purpose.

Thelma's Knee

As per usual, it took two days for her bacteria culture to return from the lab. This is how they’ll know what specific antibiotic to administer. During those two days, and for some idiotic reason, hospital staff continued to struggle with Thelma and oral medication, which resulted in her getting no medication at all for her stomach, pain, arthritis or anything else. Those pills were being fired all around her hospital room (p-too!). By Wednesday, she wasn’t just in a state, ranting, chanting and worried; she had achieved a completely new plateau of freaked out. She was in anguish this time, beyond mere torment, crying with real tears, and was absolutely inconsolable, as she was back in November. She wanted her mother. She was worried she was a bad girl. She wanted to go home. She didn’t want to die. When the nurse gave her a derivative of morphine, I watched my grandmother fight that medication tooth and nail because she was sure she would die if she fell asleep. This is a demonstration of incredible will and sure fire fear. At one point Wednesday night I asked her, “Are you scared?” and she answered, “Scared shitless.”

There was my grandmother, called “Mam” by her grandchildren, under all that muttered misery, the thread of her consciousness still visible, although the hospital staff just put dementia on her chart. She’d claimed the word “shit” as hers long before I was born. I stood there at her bedside, stroking her forehead, trying to catch a bit of what she said through the cluttered muck of her muttering, and I watched her wage a spiritual war with herself.

I wonder … maybe it was the Grim Reaper come to visit, with his long black cloak, the scythe at his side, worrying Thelma with promises of darkness and bleak finality, whether or not she thought the job was well done or even complete. Maybe it was He who made her tired, draining her life’s spark with his empty, skull socket eyes and downloading what was left of her kidneys. Perhaps it was the threat of his final vow that had her so terribly frightened. Who are we to say what it was had her so upset … after all, it is her beliefs that shape her experience.

I know what I saw, though. And I know my grandmother.

Thelma, in her pain and confusion, was distilled once again by the onslaught of her illness. She was a little girl, calling out to her mother, and afraid that she had been bad. She’d never been bad to me. She’s never, ever done me wrong. She took me in when I needed refuge, supported my creative endeavors, and made sure I had skills to fall back on.

No, it’s not her grandchildren she cries about.

Thelma cries for her own children, and needs to know she is forgiven. It is the call of the blood that makes her cry out, makes her reluctant to let go. Crippled by the depth of guilt she feels for every single mistake each of her three daughters has ever made, Thelma raged all night long in her anguish. She didn’t sleep. She never stopped crying out.

three girls three

I wonder if my grandmother’s three daughters will release her from this anguish when she calls for it again. Each time she gets these horrible infections, she comes a bit closer to her end game. I’d say Thelma came pretty damn close this time, judging by how upset she was.

But as I’ve said many times, I don’t come from kind people. My Aunt in Georgia, Thelma’s oldest daughter, is academically brilliant but has suffered incredible loss of her own. It almost broke her heart and her spirit beyond repair. The anger she feels for her mother, and the overwhelming guilt she feels herself, is barely held in check. My mother, the middle daughter, is the one who made the most tangible mistakes, and if you asked her, she would say that Thelma decided early on that she was a naughty girl. She figured why not go with it, and so takes responsibility for nothing. The youngest of the three has a more perfected veneer, but she is the closest geographically and concurrently the most reluctant to let go.


As if by magic, Thelma woke up Friday morning in her hospital bed, completely clear eyed and absolutely starving. Leslie and I stopped at the hospital before I went to work. Her nurse, Ethel, was absolutely floored. The Come Back Kid had done it again. The power of Thelma’s sudden recovery made converts of the hospital staff around her, and Leslie and I watched in amazement as they all chattered and ran around to get whatever Thelma asked for. When it was time to take her pills, though, Thelma started to argue, because, after all, old habits die hard. It was Leslie who got her attention.

“Thelma,” my Leslie said, “do you want to die?”

“No, of course not!”

“Then you have to take your pills,” Leslie gave me the eye. “If you don’t take your pills, you’ll die in seven days!”

I heard the nurse gasp in the hallway.

The truth hurts, and at times it is the way we communicate that truth that penetrates the thick skulls of those we love. I know this from first hand experience. Thelma needed to hear the truth, and even though it was a little skewed, she got the message. I even caught her rolling her eyes.

Yep, the Grim Reaper had struck out this time.

The old broad was back ... again.

1 comment:

zoso4jen said...

Donna, you have incredible insight on your Thelma - she is an amazing woman with such strength and determination. And she cheats the Grim Reaper - truly amazing. I truly admire you, Leslie, Elizabeth and especially Thelma.

My grammy did those things - swear, spit, fought when it came to medication and needles. Grammy passed away at the young age of 91 ... and she fought until the end, when she succumbed to the blissful state of comatose. But, oh, did she fight to that state!

Hugs to you, Leslie, Elizabeth and Thelma


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