Helen Bower Warner was 95 when she died on April 20, 1992, in St Joseph’s Hospital in Murphysboro, Illinois. She had been 95 on March 20, exactly one month to the day before she passed away. I remember that I had a vague sense that there was some significance to the date – a number in the 20s. I was born on February 23rd, and my mother and father were married on August 23, 1922.
Because all of my eight children called her Gramma, I did too. Life finally left Gramma at 10:10 a.m. as I stood by her bed watching her slowly stop breathing. It was so matter-of-fact. The doctor asked me if it was all right to take her off of her life-support system (we had discussed the situation thoroughly earlier that morning), and I had said, “yes.”
I told the nurse that I wanted to do it, so she showed me the connection in the small plastic hoses to uncouple. I did that and then went back to the left side of the bed where I had a good view of her, picked up her hand, and watched as the grand old girl stopped breathing. That was it. She just stopped breathing without the help of the air being forced into her lungs through the tubes in her nose.
I had tears in my eyes, but I wasn’t crying. I wasn’t sad. I was grateful that I was there to bid farewell. I asked the nurse to leave the room and then I said audibly, with a slight sob, “Good-bye, Gramma.”
I said “good-bye” because when my father had passed away, I hadn’t been able to see him before he died. I had been rushed home from Austria, where I was in the Army, and didn’t make it back before he passed on. I remember calling mother and telling her to get through to him (he was in a coma) and tell him to hold on – to tell him I was coming home. I had gotten angry at mother (it was mother then because I hadn’t produced any grandchildren for her yet), because she was unable to communicate with him and he had died before I arrived. I was upset for some time that I hadn’t been able to say “good-bye” to him.
I felt that a “good-bye” was important as shorthand for “Thank you, I love you. Thanks for always loving me, no matter what.” But you can’t say things like that out loud, face-to-face to your parents. You can’t think about it when they’re dying, so you have to say simply, “good-bye.” They would have known what it meant. Gramma always knew exactly what I was thinking.
I was surprised how straightforward, how simple, how uneventful death was. Five minutes later I was out in the hall talking to the doctor and they were pushing a gurney with Gramma on it down the hall in the opposite direction. She was covered with a sheet and I couldn’t see her beautiful face.
As I walked out of the hospital, I didn’t think “she is at peace now,” or “she’s gone to a greater reward.” That’s silly superstition. I was actually in awe of her. Two nights before, Gramma had been sitting up in bed in the hospital in her pink, quilted, silk bed jacket talking to us: me; Sandie, my wife; Chas, her grandson (age 12); and Sean, her grandson (age 9). She looked better than she had in ten years. She had makeup and bright lipstick on. We were complimenting her on how wonderful she looked. She said to Sean, “Sean, will you draw a picture of me?”
We all laughed, and Sean demurred – no paper and pencil. The next day she was to have surgery on her colon – she had a cancerous growth that was blocking her intestines. I had talked her into having surgery. She hadn’t wanted to go through it, but I told her that we weren’t ready to lose her yet. However, before they operated, Gramma had a massive stroke and left the conscious world.
As I walked out of the hospital that morning, I knew precisely what had happened. Gramma had no intention of being operated on. She had said “good-bye” to all of us. She was going out looking like a million. The next day, having been satisfied with her farewell to her youngest grandchildren, she willed herself to die. Gramma had decided it was time. Her will power had always been strong, but this was awesome. She had defied all of conventional wisdom and caused her stroke. She had willed it.
I couldn’t be sad; it’s what she wanted. It was selfish for me to want her to go through an operation she didn’t want. It was OK. I felt OK because I had said “good-bye, Gramma,” and I had said it for me. But saying it out loud and one-on-one had made it real, made me whole. She didn’t have to hear it; she knew what I meant, as always.
I drove back to the home in Ava where she and Louise, her younger sister, were born and still lived. In the car I thought how fortunate I was that I didn’t have to deal with a sad death, a death in which someone died who didn’t want to die, whose will was working to keep them alive. My father hadn’t wanted to die, and I was furious for years that he didn’t have a goddammed choice. Gramma had a choice, so it was OK.
It’s not right; it’s not fair that people don’t get to choose. Fate or some supreme being doesn’t choose who will go and who won’t, random viruses and random diseased cells and random crud in the arteries choose. So random death makes me seethe, and it makes me mad when we can’t say “good-bye” to ease our souls. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over not saying “good-bye, Dad.” I’ve said it aloud many times since he died in 1954, but it hasn’t quelled my anger at him going too soon, for not having him around longer.
I’m glad I was there and that I could say “good-bye, Gramma.” It was enough – she knew how much I adored her. And now she’ll never know how much I’ll miss her. The anchor for my soul was gone.
Michilinda, Michigan: 1940