These words repeat over and over in my head as I hold the weakened hand of a woman who almost crushed mine in her grip just the night before. How do I let her go? I always feel like a little girl in my grandmother’s presence, and this time is no exception. That little girl wants her to stay and play and talk and hug. There is a grown-up part of me that wants her to let go so she can be free from a body that is failing her, even though her mind never did. These two parts are in an emotional tug of war.
Breathe…Don’t breathe. Stay…don’t stay.
When I found out that she was not doing well, I refused to believe it. The little girl in me crossed her arms, stomped her foot and shook her head. When I finally accepted reality, I was frozen. What do I do? How do I do it? It was clear that doing nothing was not a viable option, so I took a deep breath, made plane reservations, drove two hours to the airport, parked (hoping to remember where I parked), and flew to her. My one hope was that I would make it before she died. I wanted to see her and tell her I love her.
I have such fear in facing her death. My experience with death in the past has been encompassed by feelings of desperation, helplessness and anger. I am afraid that I will fail to be a support to her and my dad, who needs me to be strong and present, not mired in the past.
My feet start to feel leaden as I approach the door to her room, so I take a deep breath and remind myself that this is not about me. It is about her—about letting her know how much she means to me and will continue to mean to me. I practically storm into the room with a force that contradicts my fear.
I walk over to her bed and call to her. She opens her eyes and sees me…really sees me. She knows me, talks to me and is elated that I am with her. She tells me about her love for and pride in me. Forever words—what an amazing gift! As I say goodnight to her and kiss her lips, I have no idea if that will be our last conversation, but it could not be any more magical.
The last words I remember her say are, “We have such a great family!”
Breathe, don’t breathe. Stay, don’t stay. The next day is one of waiting and knowing this will most likely be her last. I desperately want to crawl up and lay beside her, and I am not sure why I resist. Instead, I sit on her bed and hold her hand, feeling the strength of her heartbeat even as her breathing gets slower and more labored. I can feel panic threaten to overwhelm me as her breath comes in gasps. I realize that she is not struggling or anxious. She is just as she had been the night before. Fearless. Peaceful. So I relax and talk with my family about our memories of her. We smile and laugh and pray.
For her last hour, I visualize her running, free and joyful, although I have never seen her run. In my mind, I ask her to run, tell her to run, beg her to run. My battle within is over. Don’t breath. Don’t Stay. Just Run. I am still holding her hand as she draws her last breath, and I can almost feel the wind in my face as she runs…still holding my hand.
Author: Lisa Foreman
Editor: Caroline Beaton