Do you think you would choose to be with someone you love when they took their last breath? Could you bear to see someone die before your very eyes?
I once thought that would be the most horrible scenario I could ever imagine. How could my heart survive that? How could you go on after witnessing someone you cherish and love so deeply leave you and this world forever?
When I was quite young, I used to stay with my paternal grandmother as often as I could -- she was "Nanny" to me. I had a fairly rough childhood, as many have, and she and her apartment were my sanctuary. She pampered me, spoiled me rotten and catered to my every whim. She let me dress up in her nightgowns so I could pretend I was going to a fancy ball. I got to put on all her jewelry and make up, smearing her red lipstick all over my lips without her correcting me or telling me to "stay in the lines." She took me shopping and to the movies and would let me take luxurious bubble baths when we got home. I loved her with all of my heart.
In her early 90s, which places me in my early 30s, she had a stroke. I was shocked when I heard this -- she had never been sick a day in her life. She was kept very busy taking care of my Uncle Eddie who had been disabled in a near fatal car crash when he was in his early 20s. They lived together all of their lives. When he called to tell me she was in the hospital, I dropped everything and raced to her bedside.
I expected to find her unconscious, but to my surprise and delight, not only was she awake, she thought she was in one of her favorite places, her kitchen, cooking dinner. She didn't recognize me as her granddaughter but was happy to share her activities with me just the same. She was from Chattanooga, Tennessee and hailed a very southern accent. "Hunnnnie, I've got to get my beans snapped and my ham in the oven, company is a comin' and lord knows, baby, they'll be hungry!" I was happy to play along and asked many questions about her recipes and techniques.
She hung on for a few days, and Eddie never left her side. On the third day, I suggested he get a cab home and clean up. He walked with a cane and fortunately had never been housebound due to his accident, but it did take him much longer to perform even the simplest tasks. I thought he could use the break, and he needed to bathe and change clothes. He was happy to comply; he was tired and grumpy. I assured him I would not leave her side, not for a moment. He left and I was once again alone with my Nanny.
She was now unconscious but not in pain; she was very calm. I held her hand and sang a bit to her, she loved hearing me sing. I have never understood this, I sound like a wounded animal but you know grandmas, those things never matter to them, we are their grandbabies, everything about us is magnificent!
After about two hours, she suddenly awakened and looked right at me. I'm sure for that moment, she knew who I was. She looked around for a few seconds and then focused on me once more. Our eyes locked and in that moment, I knew it was the last look we would ever exchange. She held my hand a little tighter and I laid my head on her chest and whispered to her that I loved her, I loved everything about her and her gentle soul. I thanked her for giving me all the love my own mother couldn't and for making me feel special and worthy. Then, I sang "Danny Boy" to her, it was one of her favorites. She died listening to my out of key rendition of "Danny Boy," but I know what she heard was the song of the angels. I was her grandbaby.
I believe that when it's possible we choose who we are with when we die. She didn't want to die in front of her son, Eddie -- she knew it would be too much for him to bear. This is why she looked around for the few moments she was awake, to make sure he was gone.
I was honored that it was me she chose to share her last breath with, that it was my face she chose as her last to gaze upon and my voice she wanted to hear lulling her gently into God's loving arms. I would not trade that moment, that experience for all the fame and fortune in the world. It was the ultimate gift she bestowed upon me that night. The gift of her last look and her last "I love you" she so clearly shared with my spirit in that last, long gaze into my eyes. She trusted me to take care of Eddie's heart and all the hearts of those that loved her so. She had great faith in me; one of the only people in my entire life that ever did.
I miss her each day, so much sometimes I don't think I can bear it and have now realized all I need to summon her to my heart is begin to softly sing that sweet song she loved so... "Danny Boy."
Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen and down the mountain side
The summer's gone and all the roses falling
It's you, it's you, must go and I must bide
And I shall hear tho' soft you tread above me
And all my grave will warmer, sweeter be
For you will bend and tell me that you love me
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me