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It finally hit me. I do not want to be in Seattle. How often I’ve dreamed of returning, and only a few days after doing so, I want to leave. I want to go home. There’s no sunshine in Seattle. It’s only wind and rain and darkness. I knew that, but still. I want vacation time to be over. I want to go home. Back to Louisiana. Back to my bed and ice cream maker and KitchenAid and comfy clothing choices and familiar stuff. Back to my Nana. Back to tell her about the adventures I’ve had during my latest travels to Missouri, California, Indiana, and Seattle. To laugh about things we’d find hilarious and silly and absurd. To listen to her talk about family members and old times. To glance at her in that cheeky way that we do each time someone says “conversation.” Our inside joke. To recite together, “Please take care of yourselves and each other.” And then, “we will, Luster.” Because that’s how we hear how other journalists pronounce Lester Holt’s name. To make us peanut butter and banana sandwiches with homemade bread for lunch, and ice cream for those days we have quiche or pizza or split pea soup with chopped up carrots and smoked sausage. To figure out what to make for supper, but to surprise her with a savory roast, preferably lamb. To wake up in the morning thankful when I open my laptop and see that she’s sent me an e-card, and to send her one back, and then call her to say good morning and tell her I love her, every single morning, even though she lives next door to me and I can just run over there anytime I want. To watch Gunsmoke, or “the crotch” as she calls it (due to the butt-shot in the opening scene), every morning and every evening. I have no TV here where I’m staying in Seattle. I need to go home so that Nana and I can watch British bakers on Saturday morning. I could make us little pastries to enjoy while we watch it. If I can go home and see Nana, I’ll even rent a car and drive an hour away to make my quarterly $400 shopping spree at Trader Joe’s. It isn’t as fun here since I can’t buy things I think Nana would like. Her golden raisins. A fun pizza. Vegetables and cheese. It’s not the same. Although it might be hard, I would even try to enjoy watching Judge Judy with her, although I can hear her now. “Well, you don’t have to watch it just because I do. We can find something else to watch together later.” I’ll find a way to do a little work here or there or else we can move into a two-bedroom apartment and I can register as her caregiver. I am her caregiver, although she wanted her own space so she moved in next door instead of getting that much smaller two-bedroom apartment. She was right. It would have been too tight.
Back home, Friday, August 20, around 3:30am, Nana phoned me to say she’d fallen on her way to the bathroom and couldn’t pick herself up. She’d somehow managed to crawl to the phone to call me. I rushed over immediately and tried to help, tried to pick her up. I knew she just wanted to get back in bed and rest. But I couldn’t do it. She moaned from the pain in her hip. As I looked around, I noticed her left foot was turned out, and my heart sank. Please don’t let it be what I think it is. The thing that had happened to too many of her friends. One of the things we were so thankful for that had never happened to her. That and dementia. She was sharp as a tack, as they say. I asked her reluctantly if she wanted to call 911. I was at a loss. Through everything I’d been doing, able to do — the cooking, the washing, the nursing, the plumbing, the bill paying, communicating with outside forces, the camaraderie with each other — here, I was helpless. She was worried her insurance might not cover it. “What is the alternative,” I asked.
I called 911, and within minutes they arrived. Meanwhile, I’d placed a pillow beneath her head and one beneath her feet and covered her with a blanket to make her more comfortable. The guys who showed up were nice, quick, confirmed immediately my fears, she’d broken her hip. While they lifted her up onto the gurney and into the van, I raced around gathering things. Things I might need for a few days’ stay in the hospital. Things she might like to have when she woke up from surgery. Because she’d probably have to have surgery, right? Toothbrush. Toothpaste. Face cream. Clean underwear. Comfortable pajamas. Comfortable clothes for returning home. Because, even half-asleep, worried, confused, I wouldn’t allow myself to think otherwise.
We’d chosen to go to the orthopedic hospital nearby because we thought it would have fewer Covid cases; they had been skyrocketing in Louisiana. But when the drivers called to confirm, they were told one of the main machines was down. So they turned around and took us to the central hospital campus. There were very few people in the emergency waiting area where I was told to stay until they called me back. About an hour later, they ushered me into a quiet area where they’d decided to keep her until surgery, making sure to shield her from any viral cases lurking in the main area. They’d given her morphine for the pain, but it still hurt, so I asked someone to bring me an ice pack for her hip. It seemed to help a little. I hoped. They also brought me coffee. Even though I hadn’t been drinking caffeine, it felt warm and comforting, and I drank it all.
The young orthopedic surgeon came in and told us her x-rays showed she had fractured her hip, but they were opting for a partial hip replacement instead of a full, which would put her back on her feet in a couple of days. They would also schedule some physical therapy to help make the transition easier. He was positive, cheerful even. Yes, there was always the possibility of complications, but everything should be ok. I felt at ease. I’d hoped she did too. I’ll help her as much as I can. Whatever she needs, I’ll be there. She wanted to rest. Told me she just wanted to go home. I wanted to take her home, but how would she make it without the surgery? They’d placed an external catheter between her legs. How convenient and practical that is, she voiced. And maybe when she gets back home, we could get her one of those so she wouldn’t have to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. I agreed. The nurse let us know they sold them at the shop up the street. I made a note to look up pricing and see if her insurance would cover it. I knew she’d want to know.
We listened to old Baptist hymns via Pandora on my phone. I sent a message to my uncle to let him know she was going to need surgery. A few hours later, they came in to take her away. I didn’t want to let her go. And before they wheeled her onto the elevator, I stopped, myself and them, so I could tell her I loved her. “I love you too,” she said back, looking directly into my eyes.
I felt a shiver but shook it off. I’m not going to think like that. Each time she has any kind of procedure, I worry, and I’m just not going to think like that. But I was worried, because for every doctor visit, I wear my red shoes, and that morning, I hadn’t worn them. Even though I knew it was a silly superstition, I could have kicked myself with my multi-colored Converse. Although there was some red in them, and they were more comfortable than my other ones, they weren’t completely red.
I was told where to wait, and during the next several hours, I had another coffee and something to eat. Maybe a sandwich, I can’t honestly remember now. I tried to stay safely socially distanced from people, which wasn’t too difficult. I read. And I watched those people I did see, mostly the women leaving the hospital who had just given birth. There were many of them that day. All this new life coming into the world. Some quietly snoozing. Others screaming their heads off. But new life, that was nice.
It was sometime in the afternoon that my name was finally called. I was taken to a room and told to wait there for the doctors. Normally, after one of her skin cancer surgeries, they’ll come in, tell me everything went fine, say she needs a few minutes to wake up, and I can go back and see her soon. I worry each time, so it’s gentler when they tell me this and I can breathe again, anxious to see her sweet face and take her to Burger King for burgers, fries and ice cream. This time, I waited in that room for several minutes until finally they arrived. Two doctors, one with a terrified look on his face. This time was different.
Wait, what? That’s not what you’re supposed to say. That’s not what normally happens. I should have worn the red shoes. Is this my fault because I didn’t wear the red shoes? She will wake up. She will be fine. But you said everything would be ok. You said she’d be up walking in a couple of days. What happened?! What did you do??!!!
We parted ways, and as I walked back down the hall, the tears gushed from my eyes and nose and mouth like a wild, roaring river. I felt sick. I’d always imagined I’d feel sick. But I felt sick and weak and this wasn’t supposed to happen. Somehow I made my way to the elevator. The woman behind me asked me if I was ok. I shook my head “no.” She kept quiet. The doors opened up for me on the 7th floor, and due to Covid, the visiting hours were stricter. But as soon as she was in the room and stable, they said, they would let me know.
About a half-hour or who knows how long later, I was able to go back, down a hall, to the left, down another hall, another left, and maybe four glass-enclosed areas to the right to see her attached to machines, a ventilator, asleep, bag attached to her hip to allow any seeping blood to be released. “Hey sweet Nanyla,” I sang as I walked in, hoping she would hear me and open up her precious little eyes. I sat beside her, taking everything in — her pallor, the machines, the packaging that said Ballard, which reminded me of Seattle, the TV overhead, the glass doors where the nurses could keep a watchful eye. One of the nurses came in and asked me if I had any questions. I wasn’t sure what to ask. She left me alone and closed the door and curtain to give us privacy. I cried. I brushed Nana’s hair back with my hand. I held her hand. Just like when Mom was in the ICU, sometimes Nana’s finger would twitch. She knows I’m here, I told myself. I tried to straighten myself up. Stop crying. Be strong for her. She’d want you to be strong. And positive. We’ll get through this. We got through everything else. She’ll wake up. I knew she was tired. She would often joke that she’d have to go sometime. But not now. Not like this. I’d always prayed it would be quick, but I meant in her sleep quick, peaceful. I worried often that I would go next door one morning and she would be lying peacefully in her bed, gone to visit our ancestors. And how sad and terrifying that would be, but at least it wouldn’t be painful. And once or twice, when she hadn’t emailed me at her normal time, and I’d gone next door to check on her, I ended up breaking down in tears of joy when I found her awake and so cute and about to get out of bed but she was feeling lazy and that’s why she hadn’t emailed me. But she’d wake up here too, just feeling lazy, and she needed some good sleep. Right? My heart hurt that she hurt at all and I prayed she wasn’t in pain now and was just getting a good afternoon nap. She’d missed her normal nap at 12:30. And she’d woken up so early.
The nurse allowed me to stay a little longer past the cut-off time, but then asked me to leave. I could return later. I think I had a third cup of coffee at that point, but it wasn’t hot enough and not very good. I drank most of it anyway. The waiting room was quiet. Most people had chosen to leave and come back later instead of sticking around like me. But I didn’t want to leave her side let alone leave the ICU waiting area. So an hour later, they opened the doors again, and I went back in to sit with her, and hold her hand, and cry, and straighten myself up, and look around the room, and play her music, and sing to her, and pray.
After that visit, it wouldn’t be until the next morning that we were allowed back in. A friend brought me home from the hospital. I stayed in Nana’s apartment that night. I wanted to sleep in her bed, smell her scent, be as close to her as I possibly could. In the middle of the night, I felt sick. The acid had built its way up. I rushed to the bathroom, and out it came. Every last drop of coffee I’d had that day, in the toilet, mixed with tears of sadness and exhaustion and fear. The toilet could have my coffee, and anything else it wanted. All I wanted was for Nana to wake up and come home. I cried myself to sleep.
The next few days, I stayed in the ICU waiting room when I wasn’t allowed to be next to Nana. They were busier. One large family who didn’t wear their face masks up all the way and cried constantly. I got it. And another, several family members of friends, one who rocked back and forth, screaming. I think it was his sister who had been in a car accident. She wouldn’t recover. This was too painful. No one should have to go through any of this pain, neither the patient nor the family members.
The next few evenings, I spent binge-watching Harry Potter movies. It was an easy escape. I could be somewhere else, where magic was possible. My uncle had called me later that first night. He hadn’t received my message in time to speak with her before the surgery. We worried together, he too watching Harry Potter movies, from prison. He sometimes called during my visits with Nana so he could talk to her. Maybe between the two of us, she would listen and perk up? He spoke to the nurse a couple of times even though his requests didn’t make sense. But he was willing to try anything. Me too, aside from leaving her on a ventilator for a year or longer in case she woke up. She wouldn’t want that. In fact, she’d already signed a paper saying she didn’t want that. Though if I’d thought there’d been a chance she’d wake up in a few weeks or months, I might have done it. I also thought of those Covid patients who might need ventilators. Some might say, “Screw them if they chose not to get the vaccine.” But I can’t think that way when I know people are suffering. Life and the decisions we make can be strange and confusing. What was fair?
Over time in the hospital, some things had changed, not necessarily for the better, and others remained the same, not necessarily for the better. Nana’s arms were getting puffy. Little fluid blisters had popped up. I asked each nurse why they were there, why she was so puffy, and couldn’t they lower the level of fluid. She couldn’t have been comfortable. But they told me it was normal. Still, Nana always hated feeling fluffy, after she’d eaten too much or hadn’t exercised enough and her pants would get tight. Nothing worse than feeling fluffy. There was nothing they could do, they said. They’d also put this sticky goop in her hair for a brain scan, which showed there might have been some damage. I didn’t like either of those things. I didn’t want to think of any brain damage, because there was still a chance they were wrong. I didn’t like the sticky goop either and wanted it out of her hair. She would neither want to wake up with that stuff nor … not wake up with that stuff in her hair. One of the nurses let me wash it for her, much as I had every Saturday for the last several years. I brought shampoo and conditioner with me, and they placed a plastic bag underneath her head to catch the water and found me a hairdryer. It took some effort, but I finally got it out, and soon her beautiful, silky hair was back. I’d just been thinking that week that it would soon be time for a little color. But I didn’t get the chance. Her hair looked and smelled better at least. I think it made her happy. Still, she didn’t wake up to let me know. The nurse brought me some scissors and a small baggy and allowed me to cut some of Nana’s gorgeous hair as a keepsake, just in case. I told her how much I loved her scent, and she recommended I put some of Nana’s clothes in a large baggy and seal it. I did both of those things, while still holding onto hope.
I continued my back and forth letting her know I would be extremely happy if she came back but if she was tired and wanted to go be with Mom and everyone, I would understand. And then I would break down in tears begging her to come back to me and then feel guilty for being selfish. I wanted her to know I could be strong, but I didn’t feel very strong. I felt like a 5-year-old. An orphan. Lost. What would I do without her?
August 25, 2021, my sweet, precious, beautiful, wonderful, spunky, sassy, 94-year-young grandmother passed away in my arms in the ICU, with Judge Judy on TV in the background. I made sure something she’d like would be on. Five days after the complications, the doctors had confirmed there were no changes and most probably wouldn’t be any, at least not for the better. They did not rush me, well one of them tried to but I got mad at him, so he backed down. I’d hoped she’d breathe on her own. They removed the machines and let me lie in bed next to her. I wanted to hold onto her and tell her how much I loved her, so I did just that. I put Judge Judy on TV and snuggled in close to Nana. About 25 minutes later, her breathing shallowed and she was gone.
I’ve wondered several times about what she meant when she told me she wanted to go home that morning. What did home mean for her? Home, her apartment home? Or another home? She wanted to be cremated so she could travel with me. She’d already told me that a few years prior. I found the spot in her hometown where the house that she’d grown up in had stood and scattered some of her ashes there. That was always a place she’d loved. Maybe that’s what she meant by home? When I did scatter her ashes that day, they drifted up in the air and butterflies flew around the golden grass. The time was 11:11. It was breathtaking.
September 2, I woke up, still sleeping in her bed (which also used to be my mother’s), hearing a little voice nudging me, “What are you still doing here? There’s nothing left for you here. You wanted to travel, so travel.” I’d already told the apartment manager that I would be moving Nana’s things out by the end of October. But I once again found myself dialing his number and asking him if it was too late to give my notice as well. I was both relieved and terrified when he so understandingly said that was fine. I would have four weeks to sort through, cry over, donate, pack up, and move into storage two apartments, two lifetimes. That and purchase plane tickets and plan trips and cancel things and forward addresses and go through food I’d just recently stocked up for Nana and see friends, all while grieving and feeling brainless and maneuvering my way through a global pandemic. I even got my booster shot as I knew I would be around multiple people and visiting those possibly immunocompromised. Going to the hospital with Nana was the first time I had been around so many others during the pandemic, aside from going to the grocery store occasionally or taking Nana to the doctor. It was overwhelming. I did it. I also had a going away party that I didn’t realize was a going-away party until I sat there and heard my friends who I hadn’t seen in months say wonderful things about me. It was surreal, and magical. Boeuf bourguignon, champagne, wine, tinned fish for appetizers, laughter, smiles. I’m leaving. I hadn’t realized it, I’d kept myself so busy.
I visited cousins in Missouri, a friend in Indiana. I went back to Louisiana to tie up loose ends, make a few doctors visits and see more friends, and was gone again less than a week later to visit more cousins in California. The day I arrived, the fatigue and sickness kicked in, and I was in bed for a few days, which I needed. It was as if my ancestors said, “Finally you’re with family; now you can rest.” I did some of that and had massages and a beautiful spa day to try to put myself back together, but I also ate, drank, cooked, went to Disneyland and the Van Gogh exhibit, saw a friend in L.A., stuck my feet in the Pacific Ocean and headed north once again to the Pacific Northwest.
Here I am, in the same friend’s house I used to live in years prior, in the city I’d asked Nana several times to move to with me, although I knew she never would. Here is the familiar place I grew up in during many of my 20s and 30s. But like everything, it has changed. There are still the beautiful fluorescent leaves swaying against a platinum sky. The rain, of course. Easy enough means of public transportation. The market. The museums. The coffee. There is also the increased amount of homeless. The closed businesses, others that only offer things to go. The obnoxious, misplaced stores or condos. And the wind. What’s up with all this wind? Is this home?
What I knew and lived for eight years in Louisiana is behind me. And although I’d thought a million times about traveling and seeing friends and working around the world, all I can think of now is that I want to go home. Mom and Nana are with me all the time. I brought some of their ashes. Pawpaw is here too sometimes. I can feel them. But I want more. I need a map to go back in time and make sure they all know how much I love them and laugh and eat good food and calm them when an argument arises and watch funny shows and appreciate every single moment with them. And still, that would never be enough. Nana’s passing has brought my uncle and me closer together, despite all the prior tragedy and trauma. It seems surreal, but he is my last close family link and serves as what little anchor I can hold onto right now. We are worried about each other but are trying to grasp what precious memories we have, hoping neither of us has a major breakdown, wondering how to make sense of anything. The 5 J’s, he reminded me recently: Jimmy, Jewel, Joyce, Johnny and Julie.
I am grieving now. And soon, I will need to get a job. I am slowly re-exiting the womb, although it looks like an intriguing and terrifying world out there. I’m not so sure about what to make of it. It was so cozy in the bubble, even if I did get restless. Here, I wonder if the sun will ever come back out. “Great things are in store for you,” I hear/feel them say. “We want you to be happy.” Ok. I’m listening. I’m trying. I will do this for you. For me. For us. Wherever we go will be our home. Today, Seattle. Tomorrow, the UK? Paris? Who knows? Whatever path the wind takes, that’s the one I will follow … home. And it sure has been windy. xo