Note: This was written before my grandmother passed away in 2016
In the eighth grade, I declared that if given the choice, I would have pulled the plug on Terri Schiavo. Ms. Turner, my science teacher, nodded in recognition of my lone hand in the air, her lips forced into a tight smile that told me she respected my opinion, but disagreed. My classmates were not as understanding.
“Ooh Tonesa, you going to hell for this.” Ashley, my tablemate, scooted her chair away from me, giving me a look she usually reserved Paula, the only white girl in our eighth grade class. I tried arguing my point, but was shut down by everyone in the vicinity of my seat.
“But what about the video of her smiling,” Ashley jabbed her finger at me, “her husband just wants her dead so he can get a new wife.”
I didn’t debate her point, but knew that a smile on a thirty-second clip from a news report was not evidence of life, and that if Terri Schiavo’s husband’s had come to the conclusion that it was time to remove her from life support, it was with good reason.
The year I declared that I would end Terri Schiavo’s life was the same year my maternal grandmother could walk around without an oxygen tank, after years of struggling with a broken lung damaged by a blood clot. There was a time she got close to death, spending nearly all of 1976 in the hospital with her already weak lung filled with fluid from pneumonia. My mother was eleven, standing in the dimly lit doorway of my grandmother’s hospital room at Cooper Green snapping the buttons of her green corduroy jacket while doctors told my great grandmother to prepare for a funeral. My mother did not what to touch her mom.
“I couldn’t,” my mother told me, “why would I touch someone who was going to die?”
My grandmother died in 2006, and in the days leading up to her death, I did not go see her.
How it is Starts
The deaths of my maternal grandmother and the patients I visited as a hospice volunteer started with a fall, something in their body falling apart. Broken bones. Blood darkened black from ischemia. Organs that refused to function. But for my paternal grandma, it is had been different. She has fallen several times, broken her ankle, and busted her colon, but her body has healed and thrived. But part of her is gone and has been for quite some time.
One evening when I was seven, my father took my sister and me to see her at her townhouse. She was lying in bed, not looking at me or my sister, but somewhere on the wall in front of her. Clothes cluttered the room, bunched in corners and on the dresser, some soured with sweat and food stains.
“Have you come to see me fall?” My grandmother’s eyes, always popped wide, were unfocused. She held her hands caged in front of her, fingers bent toward palms that shook with palsy.
My sister sat closer to her, trying to make eye contact. She frowned, the little scar between her brows being more prominent as her forehead wrinkled in confusion, “No grandma, we came to see you.”
I didn’t know why I was there other than I had been brought there by my father. I did not want to sit by my grandmother who would not look at me, hug her when she was incapable of hugging me back, or sit by her bed surrounded by undone laundry. I wanted to see her fall. I wanted to see how it was possible for legs as thick and sturdy as hers to collapse underneath her. I said nothing.
When Grandma Azalene was Sick
I did not believe my father when he called and told me Grandma Azalene might die soon. It was not wishful thinking that she would live, but exhaustion. I had heard this before in the previous summer five months after she had broken her ankle. She refused to move out of her bed and could no longer live by herself.
“She’s at St. Vincent’s East. You might want to go over there soon.”
“Mmhm. I know. Momma told me.” I plucked at a loose string on my blanket It was spring break and the last place I wanted to be was a hospital.
“I’m sure she would like to see you. She’s still a human being.”
I did not go, even after her colon burst and it seemed that this would be her final trip to the hospital. There were too many times she cried wolf. Too many nights my father, after a full shift at the steel mill, went to see her because something, not a bone or her heart or her lungs, was broken inside of her. She wanted her us to love her pain and that’s all she had, and when we stopped coming she gave up. Unlike my maternal grandmother, my father’s mother can walk around without struggling to breath and live, if she chose to. She could still cook for herself, bathe herself, paint her nails, and do her hair. But she has given that up, not because of aging body or a failing memory, but a mind that is telling her she is gone. I could not understand her then, propped up in bed staring at a wall surrounded by dirty laundry. I still cannot understand.
If given the choice, I would still pull the plug on Terri Schiavo. I would still raise my hand for the value of living over keeping someone alive who has disappeared. But there are no machine keeping my Grandma Azalene alive. She breathes on her own. She eats on her own. But every day I wait, ready for it all to fall apart.