My hands clutched the door handle tightly. I was angry with my relatives, and frustrated with the fact that my parents weren’t taking a stand for her. They were going to kill my Granny today. She’d lain on the bed for less than a week, and yet they had made the decision that she would not recover.
There she was, her chest heaving labored breaths, as a ventilator provided her weakened lungs with oxygen. A crust had developed on right side of her mouth, the product of a covenant between the saliva, skin, and a large tube. Her tongue had become thick and sluggish, and they swabbed her mouth every hour-on-the-hour with a swab that smelled of lysol and lemons. There she lay.
I had just seen her a few weeks ago, sick, with a cold. It wasn’t pneumonia, or anything that serious. It was only a bad cold. She was sitting on the new, floral patterned sofa she had just bought, which would in future days inhabit my family’s living room. We said “Hi”, and gave her a kiss, and then retreated to our usual spots in the small living room: My mother to a recliner, my sister at my Granny’s side, my Dad to the edge of the kitchen. My brother and I fought for the warmest spot next to the gas logs. Honestly, it really didn’t matter, as the blower put out enough hot air to roast you alive from 20 paces. It was more a marking of territory, and I managed to win. Whether I prevailed through brute force, or stole the spot from him as he went to use the bathroom, I couldn’t tell you.
It was a short visit, but with plenty of time to talk. For the sake of this story, I wish I could say we discussed something profound. We did not. The usual “Goodbyes” were said. She didn’t walk us to the door, or do the usual schtick of “be a clown”. “Be a clown” was a tradition. To an outsider, it would be absurd. To us, it was priceless.
The process went like this: My Granny and Papa would walk out into the middle of the circular driveway, and bow and flourish crazily. While they are doing this, my parents slowly turned our minivan up the driveway, towards the road. We would roll down the windows, and yell “Be a clown” in a sing-song way, all the way down the driveway, until they disappeared behind the long, double-row of magnolias and crabapple trees. It wasn’t a fondness for clowns that endeared us to this ritual. It was the fact that two retirees would get out in the middle of their yard, and act like fools for three little kids.
That night there was only the lonely tire swing, and an old tobacco barn watching us as we drove out of sight.
A few days later, we received a call: My Granny had been found facedown on her bed, bleeding from her nose, and she wasn’t responding. We rode to the hospital, praying the whole way that she would be okay, that she would somehow be able to talk. We arrived to a waiting room, full of relatives. My PaPa was there, looking worried and tired, with his oxygen cart in tow.
Days passed in that waiting room. Some claimed they had seen signs of life in her: A toe moving here, a tear there. Pastors came and consoled, folks took lunch orders, others just sat. After three or four days of this, the elephant in the room began to thrash about wildly. There were discussions of when we should pull the plug. Now, given the fact that a week had not passed, some of us were more than hesitant to speak about the termination of life. After all, the vitals were strong, the brain was still showing signs of life. She just was not responding.
My immediate family reasoned and pleaded with the other brothers and sisters, and to my Grandfather. It was all to no avail. They would pull the plug on Tuesday.
The drive to the hospital was a quiet one, sandwiched between sniffles and supplications to God for her deliverance. It was gray and rainy, not to mention cold. A tire blew out, and we kids all worried that they would disconnect her without us. I tried to help my Dad change the tire, but he shoed me back into the car. Come to think of it, he probably welcomed the diversion from the inevitable.
Finally, we resumed our trip, towards a destination none of us cared for. As we entered the Critical Care waiting room, the smell descended on me. That hospital smell, with the scent of soiled bedding and stale bodily fluids. Hopelessness for the nose, just in case your other senses missed the cue. We made our entrance silently,with a few tense greetings whispered amongst my Mom’s brothers and sisters, out of the necessary courtesy.
By the time we arrived, everyone had taken their turn at the bedside, and bid her farewell. We were the last. The machines gave us their lackluster welcome, a steady drone of quiet, but substantive bloops, bleeps, and the occasional buzz. The prominent sound of the ventilator drowned them all out, and in that moment all we could think about was the person on the bed. There she was, my Granny, a formidable woman. She’d borne three children, overcome depression, breast cancer, and dealt with a double mastectomy. She was a fighter. Now, her life was no longer in her hands, and she’d have been hopping mad if she had been able to speak.
Everyone of us kissed her and prayed. We begged her to fight. Mostly we cried. In my case, slobbered and bawled. Then my hand gripped that door handle. I stood in the way of my family leaving. I refused. Eventually, my father moved me out of the way. My mother calmed me through tears. I walked out to face the rest of the family.
Then, we waited 5 minutes, and walked right back in, just after they took her off the ventilator. We sang hymns and spirituals as they shut down the machine. In an outcome nobody expected, my Granny breathed on her own, and continued to breath…for days. My relatives were no longer guilty of murder in my eyes. A weight was lifted. She improved so much that they moved her from the Critical Care floor, to the regular floor that housed stroke victims.
That move did it. Her body went into shock, her face turned green. Within two hours of her reassignment, she died. I was at home that day. My mom called to tell me. I sat emotionless. Tapped out, I walked through my living room. The final images of a life spilling over into eternity filled my mind.
This time, she was the one driving away from me. She had made the final turn, and I was the one waving goodbye in a silly fashion, bowing and flourishing. A singular voice resonated as the window was rolled up one last time….
Be a clown. Be a clown….