Death and the days of our lives

Writing a soap opera and waiting for my grandmother to die, I didn't know who would finish first -- she or I.

By Kerry Madden
Published August 21, 2000 7:30PM (EDT)

"Monsignor said we can use 'Danny Boy' but not 'When Irish Eyes Are Smiling' at the funeral Mass," explains my aunt Sally. We are at the wake for my grandmother, whom we called "GrandMary." She lay in her casket, dressed in the sky-blue dress she'd worn at a granddaughter's wedding. She wore her glasses too; rosary weaved between her fingers; magenta fingernail polish. Aunt Sally's two daughters had painted them the night before she died; GrandMary's chest rose and fell in bursts of breath as the sisters lovingly manicured each nail.

"Why not 'Irish Eyes'?" I ask.

"It isn't Catholic enough for church. The Irish tenor is afraid to sing it without Monsignor's permission." Aunt Sally sighed.

There was an audible groan from those standing closest. It was one of the GrandMary's few wishes; she rarely asked for anything for herself. It seemed such a small thing too. But I knew no one was going to call Monsignor on it because it was also something she would have hated for us to do. We've got "Danny Boy," now leave it alone before Monsignor axes that one too. God love him.

"You should have just asked for forgiveness," says my mother. "Not permission."

"That's right," says Aunt Sally. "What are they going to tell us? That she can't have a funeral Mass at St. Ann's ever again?"

Two weeks earlier, my brother, Casey, had called and said, "You need to go see her. Get on a plane now. I have a frequent flyer ticket. Use it."

I knew she'd been sick, but at the age of 86, GrandMary was one to rally, so I had been determined not to go. We were worried about money, waiting for my writing jobs to also rally. There were a million reasons to stay home. She lived in Washington D.C., I was in Los Angeles. Our son had just started at a huge public middle school. Each night was filled with science projects, word problems, the Man vs. Nature Packet. Our daughter was trying to memorize her multiplication tables and get ready for Astro Camp. There were piano lessons, art classes, soccer practice. We had a 9-month-old baby bent on life-threatening climbing expeditions.

But when my brother generously offered the ticket, I couldn't say no. I took a red-eye the following week, thinking I'd go for two days. I was still nursing Norah, but she was eating solid food. Two days wouldn't be that long away from her, and without her I could focus my attention on GrandMary.

When I arrived on Friday morning and saw how ill she was, I realized I wouldn't be able to leave. She looked at me and smiled and said, "You haven't changed." I held her hand. She was the one who had taken me to Hawaii, San Francisco and Las Vegas on a Catholic tours trip when I was 17. We saw "Cats," "Evita," "West Side Story" and tons of movies together. We'd go out to lunch in Georgetown or to the "hot shop" for milkshakes. She sent postcards from Egypt, Rome, Ireland, England and Alaska. I spent many, many summers with her growing up. She never missed a birthday or holiday, sending checks and clothes from Talbots, signing everything, "All my love, GrandMary."

She was prone to loving exaggeration, making all her children and grandchildren seem like far better people than we really were. When I eloped at the age of 24 and was married by a stranger named Squire Max Wolfe in a lobby at the courthouse on Gay Street in Knoxville, she told everyone that a dear friend (a squire) from England had flown in especially to perform the ceremony at a charming chapel in South Knoxville.

I was the oldest of her 18 grandchildren. She was my grandmother, and as she looked up at me from her bed, I could see what I did not want to see. She was dying.

One month earlier, she'd fallen down at home (where she'd lived for 62 years), and then gradually grown weaker. Doctors suspected that the breast cancer she'd had in the 1980s had metastasized in her bones, which would explain her pain, confusion and rapid decline. They moved her to my aunt's farm in Maryland and brought in a hospital bed. Hospice started the day I arrived.

When I decided I couldn't leave, I also realized I couldn't leave the baby with my husband for however long it was going to take. We chose to banish all thoughts of credit card debt. This would be money we would never regret spending. My husband flew Norah out late on Saturday night and went back right away on Sunday to be with our other two children. We nicknamed him "the baby courier."

My aunt had told GrandMary that I flew in to meet my publisher and other writers, so she wouldn't think I'd come to join the flock around her deathbed. Of course, it wasn't true. My publisher was in New York anyway. My first book was already out of print, and my second book was with an agent. I was waiting to hear if she was finally going to accept it after two years of revisions.

The only thing I absolutely had to do was complete a shadow episode of a soap opera called "Port Charles." (TV soap producers give writers a chance to write a future episode of a specific show -- a shadow episode -- to see if they have the smarts to make it in daytime soaps.) My episode was due on Oct. 6. It was Sept. 24 already.

So while my grandmother lay dying downstairs, I was upstairs writing lines like: "That bathrobe looks very familiar!" and "You're inviting me over? This is a first." Stage Directions went something like, "ON RACHEL, VERY PLEASED WITH HERSELF."

Watching Aunt Sally take care of her dying mother was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever experienced. She taught me how to change GrandMary, massage her legs with cream, give her morphine, clean the bedsores on her back. The room had a sickly sweet smell. When I arrived it had been an Indian summer, but as the week wore on the temperatures dropped, rain fell, and the leaves changed suddenly to a gorgeous burnt raspberry-gold we never see in Los Angeles. I would open her window wide just to let her breathe fresh air, but someone always closed it after I left, fearing the farm insects.

My father, who'd also flown in by this time to be with his mother, warily agreed to babysit each day for one hour while I wrote the soap. I would also write at night and during Norah's naptime. Being a father of the '60s, this was his first experience as a childcare provider. He loved to cook, so I suggested he cook with Norah on his chest in the baby Snugli. His response: "Goddamn! You want me to cook and wear her in a harness?" My sister said over the phone, "Dad cooking and wearing Norah? That sounds dangerous."

He opted for walks instead, so I'd put Norah in the stroller for him, loading the baby tray with an array of goldfish crackers, chopped apple bits, bananas, Cheerios. He'd push her up and down the driveway with Rush Limbaugh blasting on his radio headphones.

In the mornings, I would give GrandMary some Cream of Wheat. A friend of Aunt Sally's, Sharon, had brought over a box, remembering that it was the only thing her mother ate when she was dying. GrandMary loved it, and the first several mornings, she ate whole bowls of the cereal. One morning, she asked me, "Does your show have a lot of curse words?" I said, "No. None." She smiled. Then she turned and asked my aunt, "Do you have time to work on your scripts while you're here?"

Aunt Sally, said, "I'm not Kerry, Mom. I'm Sally."

Oh, of course," said GrandMary. Then she asked, "What are you all doing here anyway? Don't you have jobs?"

Each day with my grandmother was like a year, she slipped that much. It was difficult to understand her, so I'd often ask her to repeat herself. She told me to have another child. At that moment, Norah was scaling the hospital bed, pushing buttons, grabbing the ice chips. She'd just knocked over an entire vase of flowers. I replied, "Another one?" There was no way I could make such a promise. Later in the day, GrandMary told me to return to the Catholic faith. Then she looked at me and said, "I don't know why you're here, but you're a godsend."

One night, she whispered, "They couldn't understand me." She was referring to her neighbors who'd been in to visit her. She added, "I couldn't understand myself." She also kept asking about the children. "Where are the children? Who has the children? Are the children safe?" Then one morning, she glared at us and cried, "If any harm comes to the children, I will personally blame all of you."

When a hospice social worker came to counsel us, she told us not to be afraid to talk about death; that now it was like a dance, and GrandMary was waiting for us to make a move. She also told us that a sign of death is when the ear lobes begin to retract, though no one knows why this happens. During this meeting, my father was in the kitchen. He uses profanity the way most people breathe. I don't even hear it anymore, but there soon came a loud, "You sorry son-of-a-bitch!"

My aunt stiffened and blushed. She said apologetically, "I think he's listening to the radio." The hospice worker didn't bat an eye.

The days passed. I studied GrandMary's ear lobes, which did seem to be retracting. My Uncle Lefty's mother-in-law, Liz, came and sat with GrandMary one afternoon and made Aunt Sally go out for a break. She had come two days earlier, leaving us a chocolate cake with maple walnut icing. It was a superb cake that no one ever actually cut, but each time one of us went into the kitchen, we'd slice off slivers. The cake shrank into a strange, twisted shape with everyone lobbing off bites.

The afternoon Liz came to be with GrandMary, I went in to thank her for the cake, but she was praying hard, eyes closed, lips trembling, her hands clasping GrandMary's. I backed out immediately, knowing I'd just intruded on something intimate and stunningly beautiful. These women had known each other at least 40 years, and one was helping the other to die.

One night, my cousin Mary Margaret visited GrandMary. She held her and said, "My parents never came to any of my basketball games, but you never missed any. I learned so much from you." Mary Margaret told me how GrandMary was always coaching her on her game in the car on the way home, telling her to be more aggressive when stealing the ball.

The next day, as I fed GrandMary ice chips, she said, "Mary Margaret told me such beautiful things. You never know what you mean to people when all you're doing is just going along and living. Before you came, Monsignor was here. He remembered my spaghetti suppers at St. Ann's when I was president of the Mothers' Club all those years. I didn't think anybody remembered them." Then she said, "He told me was going to put a picture of me sitting on the camel in Egypt on top of my coffin. I said, 'You wouldn't.' He said, 'Try and stop me.'" She glowed, describing how he gave her the Last good she felt...How he had called her "The Queen Mary."

Another night, my aunt tried to get her to brush her teeth, but GrandMary refused. Sally said, "Mom, what would Dad say if you didn't brush your teeth?" referring to my grandfather, a dentist, who died in 1975. GrandMary looked at her daughter and said,

"He doesn't give a shit."

By Act II of the soap, Rachel had tried to seduce Scott and GrandMary tried to get out of bed. She had no strength left, so it took four of us to lift her out of the bed and into her wheelchair. Each movement caused agony, but she rarely cried out. Still, the wince of pain flashing across her face told us everything. We helped into her wheelchair, but her back was so buckled by osteoporosis that she could only look at the floor. We put her in a chair in the living room, and she said, "I don't how know how to tell you this, but I want to go back to bed."

By Act III, GrandMary was slipping in and out of consciousness. I didn't know who would finish first, me or her. I wanted it to be done, so I could sit with her. I wrote more furiously just to finish. I was also anxious for her to die, because I couldn't bear to see her suffer. I took Norah for long walks on the farm, imploring my uncle, my grandmother's son who died 20 years ago, to come and get her, that she was ready.

The day before she died, an argument erupted over the use of an IV. GrandMary couldn't eat anymore and she didn't have the strength to suck through a straw. Uncle Lefty appeared on the scene and said, "Even the good Lord was offered a drink of water on Mount Calvary. We can give Mama an IV."

My mother, calling long distance, said, "The Good Lord was offered vinegar if I recall correctly."

My dad said, "Let her go, Lefty. If an IV is going to prolong her suffering, let her go." My aunt and the hospice people agreed.

Uncle Lefty came over that afternoon and said, "Mom? Mom? Do you want some Guinness? Blink if you want Guinness." GrandMary blinked, and he sponged some Guinness onto her tongue. He was satisfied and let the matter of the IV drop. Then he held her and kissed her over and over, whispering, "You're the best mom. I love you so much. You're the best mom in the whole world."

My youngest cousin, Aunt Sally's daughter and a senior in high school, was heartbroken about losing GrandMary. One night, she stood over her bed sobbing, saying, "GrandMary please! Call me 'sugarpig' one more time! You've never been at a loss for words! Please, call me 'sugarpig' one more time!"

I finished the soap. Scott had not succumbed to Rachel's charms. Eve was still being blackmailed by Bordiso over a set of letters that held the key to thwarting mind control. I went outside into the brilliantly sunny afternoon and sat with Norah under the apple trees. My sister, who'd just taken the bus in from New York, joined me. We said nothing, just let autumn sun soak into our skin. I thought of how much GrandMary loved the ocean and the sun. She would walk for miles along the beach in Bethany and Rehobeth.

There were things I was never going to be able to ask her now. I'd always wanted to know how she was able to bear it when she lost her youngest son, the uncle who was only five years older than me. How did she stand being married to a domineering Irishman? She loved him, but I think of the stories and wonder how she managed with never a cruel word to anyone.

My grandfather used to come home on Christmas Eve with a tree and go to bed, leaving GrandMary to trim the tree, wrap the presents, and handle the holiday. Once he shot 120 quail which she had to pluck, stuff, and cook for a party. One hundred and twenty quail. Is that an urban family myth? Everyone swears it's true, and I've seen pictures of her holding up endless strings of quail. He would call to her from the bedroom, "Mary, I need another beer!" He reminded me of Jackie Gleason.

The night before she died, we took shifts sitting by her bed. I read Alice McDermott's "Charming Billy" to her. I'd been reading the novel to her all week because she said, "I sure could use it." I read her all the parts about the ocean and the beach and the lovely Irish Eva and the young Billy. My cousin, Ray, who'd spent the week entertaining everyone with awful jokes about Jesus and Satan and computers (second only to Uncle Lefty, who told even worse ones about drunk Irishmen), took the next shift.

Ray's sister-in-law, who'd also spent the week caring for my grandmother with great tenderness, told Ray to tell GrandMary what all the grandchildren were doing. So Ray went through all 18 grandchildren and all eight great-grandchildren and what they were doing with their lives, assuring her that everyone was all right.

The next morning, I woke to the sound of Norah downstairs screaming and my sister trying to feed her. I had a choice to make. I could go see GrandMary or I could check on my daughter who was in a rage. I knew GrandMary would have checked on Norah, so I went into the kitchen to feed her breakfast.

A few minutes later, Aunt Sally came into the room and said, "Come on! It's time. She's either passing now or she's just passed." We flew into the room. She was curled up in the same position but no longer breathing. Her ear lobes had retracted completely. Her body was still warm. My aunt tried to find a pulse. She called, "Mom! Mom! Mom!" We all started crying. Norah reached for her. It was the first day of October.

The wake lasted for three days. My husband flew in with our two older children for the funeral. Our 10-year-old son, Flannery, insisted on joining the older cousins as a pallbearer. Our 8-year-old daughter, Lucy, wept in my arms for her great-grandmother. Then she asked, "Why haven't I made my First Communion yet?" I could hear GrandMary saying to me, "Go back to church."

GrandMary had requested to be wheeled down the side aisle in her casket and up to the center aisle to the altar with all her family following her through the church. We followed the casket singing, "Let There Be Peace on Earth," only in the program there was a typo, "Let There Be Pearce on Earth." Flannery noticed it and pointed it out during the service. My mother told him to never mind about it.

A few hours later, at the country cemetery by the graveside, the weather turned chilly. The sun disappeared as Monsignor quickly blessed the grave with holy water. My father bent over and kissed his mother's coffin and said, "Bye Mama. I love you." Aunt Sally and Uncle Lefty did the same, followed by all the grandchildren and great grandchildren. There was a meal in the church refectory -- plenty of Jell-O molds, macaroni salads, casseroles, tea and coffee. The limousine drivers ate together at one table, Monsignor and some of the priests at another.

Norah had caught a fever, which was gone now but had left her covered with a roseola rash. I walked with her back out to the graveside. Wind had already knocked over some of the vases of flowers. I wondered when I would come back here again. They said her headstone might be inscribed with, "All my love, GrandMary" because that's how she always signed everything.

It was a searingly hot August when I was 13 and knelt in the same place for my grandfather, whose death had been sudden. It was a bitter January when I was 17 and stood in the snow in the same place for my uncle, who had committed suicide. Now I was 37 and grateful for the peaceful autumn afternoon. I was grateful that this gentle woman got to have a gentle death surrounded by people who adored her. I wrapped Norah tightly in her blanket, knelt down and touched the grave. Then I left GrandMary to rest between her husband and her son.

Kerry Madden

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