Press play to listen to me read this post aloud:
Earlier this year I put together a zine called Loose Ends and Loneliness: A Zine About Transition Times.
I wanted to explore those occasions in life when things are changing and you’re not quite sure who you are or where you belong or what you’re supposed to be doing anymore. I invited a handful of friends to contribute short pieces and recollections, and they wrote brilliantly about divorce, basic training, spontaneous cross-country moves, and so many other essentially liminal experiences. My own essay centered on the six months after college graduation that I lived with my maternal grandmother before she passed away from lung cancer.
I wrote and revised and scrapped and rewrote multiple drafts of my piece, trying to get at exactly the right tone of confused longing and seemingly thwarted ambition that suffused that time for me. I’m mostly OK with the finished piece and how it turned out, even though I knew I’d probably need to revisit that time of my life in writing again eventually since there’s so much to say about it.
I just didn’t expect to have an occasion to revisit it again so soon.
A big, meaningful chunk of the story that went unwritten in my piece as it stands now was the narration of the actual day that my grandmother died. Not only the narration of the day, but a character study of the major other player in the afternoon’s events, my best friend’s mother, Mary Ann Becklenberg.
I’d known for years that Mrs. B. was a long-time employee of Hospice of the Calumet Area, which was the same hospice team that had been called in to provide care for my grandmother in the last six or so weeks of her life. As a typically narcissistic teenager, though, what did I really know about what hospice care entailed? At least until I was immediately exposed to it.
My grandmother’s physical health went into sharp, sudden decline in the last three-to-five days that she was alive. But that final day, she must have taken a turn for the worse that freaked me out enough to call over Mrs. B. She lived very near to my grandmother’s house and I knew she’d be able to get to me much quicker than the actual case worker who’d been assigned to us.
Many of the details are a blur to me now, but I remember Mrs. B. arriving immediately to help me make my grandmother more comfortable in the hospital bed that had only recently taken the place of her favorite blue recliner in the living room. Mrs. B. helped me adjust the sheets, clean up some bodily fluids, and taught me how to slide my grandmother’s body up to the top of the bed, using the white sheet underneath her torso like a sling.
As my best friend’s mother, Mrs. B. was primarily known to me as an ebullient hostess-with-the-mostess, always quick to laugh, gossip, and revel with friends both dear and recently made, young or mature. But here I got to experience a new, remarkable side of her personality—her professional acumen, her sixth sense for when to offer gentle instruction versus letting me take the lead, her calm certainty in the face of my own grief and panic. How many deathbeds must she have been at over the course of her career as a social worker to have been able to remain compassionate and unphased in the face of this most momentous transition in a person’s life?
“Allison, these will be her last breaths,” she stressed to me, quietly but firmly, as my grandmother began gulping desperately for air.
And, as it became clear, as I clung to my grandmother’s left hand while I crouched at the side of the bed, that she had indeed taken her final breaths, Mrs. B. let me collapse into tears, providing space and safety for me to have my own emotional experience freely, while standing literally beside me, solidly holding the space, lending her inimitable strength, but not rushing to comfort or otherwise distract me. I’m pretty sure she was also the one to have called the ambulance, and recommended that I step outside into the backyard so as not to have to watch them physically remove my grandmother’s body from her house for the last time. She was masterfully efficient and unquestionably authoritative, yet possessed of a supreme delicacy that protected and sustained the bedrock emotional reality of everything that had just transpired.
I of course saw Mrs. B. many times in the ensuing years, at the holidays, at her other daughter’s wedding, at my own father’s wake. Her Alzheimer’s eventually became discreetly apparent but never overly distracting or disturbing to me. The essential radiance of her personality was more than enough to patch over any memory or cognitive fog that may have been affecting her, at least in those moments when she knew she had to be “on” in public. Even in my final visit with her at the nursing home just this spring, though she was mute and unresponsive, I was fascinated to notice the last kinesthetic traces of her personality still lingering in her muscle memory—the way she would suddenly lift her arm or shift her weight was so persistently Mrs. B. that I found it hard to resist a naïve belief that she might open her eyes at any moment and start chit-chatting with me again like old times.
And so, though of course I’m enormously sad over her death, for my sake as well as her family’s, I can’t help but marvel, admiringly, at how much of her essence still remained present despite the brutality of the Alzheimer’s, at how much she allowed her life force to be felt by her many, many loved ones, right down to the very end. And because, in my own mind, I associate her so much, and so positively, with my grandmother’s death, in many ways I feel like she’s simply gone back to work again, quietly yet authoritatively being the one to show us all how to make a graceful, and grace-filled, exit.