Thursday, June 18, 2009

Father's Day 1972 Revisited, Part 17: Grandma Randall Crosses Over

Even health food nuts die, eventually. It seemed grandma Randall's time had come. My dad used to drive out to visit and check on her on her little 5-acre place in Romoland, an undeveloped rural area not far from Hemet. There she lived alone, grew all her own food, and played her favorite hymns a little Hammond organ. On one of those visits, dad noticed she was quite jaundiced. He took her to see a doctor who promptly admitted her to the Circle City hospital in Corona for tests. Nothing was found in the first set of tests, so more were scheduled. I should mention that our dad was the administrator of this small private hospital and so grandma got the best of care. Further tests were inconclusive and could not pinpoint a source of her problem. Meanwhile, grandma was going downhill, getting weaker by the day and losing weight rapidly. X-rays were taken to check for anything which may not have been detected by the other tests. Everything looked OK. Nonetheless, grandma condition kept worsening. Finally, for lack of anything to do, it was decided to do exploratory surgery to see if the doctors could find any explanation for her rapidly failing health. Finding nothing they sewed her up and sent her back to her room.

The doctor attending her said our grandma didn't have any disease, cancer had been ruled out, no infection could be found--in fact no medical cause for her worsening condition was apparent. The nurses monitored her vital signs and kept her comfortable. Another week passed by and her condition continued to deteriorate. The day came when the doctor suggested to my dad that the family be called in because, "Your mother's time has come. She is eighty-six and her organs are simply shutting down. Your mother is dying of old age, nothing else. The family should see her this evening--I don't think she'll make it through the night." I went to the hospital accompanied by my girlfriend and soon-to-be fiance', Cher, to say goodbye to my grandma. This was all new to me. I knew next to nothing about dying people or what to do around a dying person. I met the family in the hospital cafeteria where they had gathered. My dad filled us in on what the doctors had said about her condition. There was nothing to be done. She was comfortable, not in pain, but failing fast. It was after nine o'clock. We each ate our chosen comfort food from the cafeteria vending machine and chased it with coffee which was overly strong, being left on the hot plate much too long.

We held our little family meeting there at a round table in the nearly empty cafeteria. It was a small hospital, after visiting hours, and there were only a few others in the cafeteria, mostly hospital staff. As my toddler cousin entertained herself pouring piles of sugar on the tabletop, we each took turns acknowledging the inevitable along with our sadness and agreeing that grandma had had a long and full life. It was decided we would take turns privately saying our goodbyes to grandma in person, one at a time. My turn came and I walked tentatively down the dimly lit hallway, not knowing quite what to expect. What I found was a woman who looked much too small and already dead. Her face looked only vaguely familiar, for her teeth were not in. But more than that, her face looked starkly skeletal, her cheeks and eye sockets sunken to an extreme degree. There were the obligatory tubes and wires and things still dripping and monitoring while doing their own death watch. Besides the occasional soft beep of of her heart monitor, the only other sounds were the rattles and gasps which came at unnervingly long and infrequent intervals. The time between them was so long I would get myself poised to spring out of the institutional bedside chair and go call into the hallway for the nurse. Just when I was about to do this, her chest would heave and noisily draw in another gurgling gulp of air. This happened several times in the few minutes I spent with her and it set my nerves on edge. I didn't say anything to my grandma's form and didn't even know what I could or should or wanted to say. I just kind of did my duty--a nightmarish duty it seemed--by spending those minutes in her room. I felt at a loss for what to even to think about during those minutes. I felt out of place, embarrassed at my own awkwardness. To myself I seemed like an intruder, even as her grandson. I escaped back to the cafeteria in the briefest time decency would allow in order to show I had done a proper farewell and had not just stuck my head in the door of her room. I felt a little guilty for not knowing how to say goodbye to a dying loved one. They hadn't taught us that in vacation Bible school. It being late, and all of us having taken our turns, we hugged one another and each headed home. Someone from the hospital would call in the morning with the news.

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