The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway. ISBN: 978307268860.
There is a moment in this book, which brought back such strong memories that I can't avoid writing about it. It is a terribly delicate and difficult thing for me to talk about. That moment is when a soldier is shot and our POV-person is comforting him. The words he uses are, "I know, I know it hurts, and you are dying. I know, I am here." Although my grandmother has never been shot, to my knowledge, I have watched her on the brink of death, and these are more or less the words that ran through my head as I watched.
It was in 2005, I was in Germany working on my last co-op and staying with my mother. I didn't want to go back to the States because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to complete enough hours for my co-op or be able to finish my coursework for the correspondence course I was taking. I also didn't want to be the only grandchild to see my grandmother like that. I wanted to keep my fond memories of her puttering around the kitchen or walking the nature trails at Oxley Nature Reserve* in oversized sunglasses and a big floppy fisherman's hat. I am sad that I didn't get to keep those memories untarnished by seeing her weak, and frail, and out of her mind in pain. But I am also glad that I was there for her when she needed me, and for my mother too.
My grandmother was going through renal failure, which means her kidneys had stopped working. Between the pain and the drugs she was very seldom lucid. When she was, we tried to get her to eat, which she didn't want to do. At one point I asked her if I could get her anything to eat; she asked for butter pecan ice cream. I came back with vanilla because it was all they had in the cafeteria. In the time it took me to go three floors down and a few wards over and come back, she had lost her appetite. Luckily my grandfather was in the room and lunged for the ice cream, eating it straight out of my hand, after I asked him if he wanted it. It was like being not-quite-attacked by a really stringy dog.
Another time I was there when she started to wake up because her painkillers were wearing off. She was obviously in pain, and I kept asking her if she wanted me to call a nurse, but she kept refusing. I was stuck with the horrible decision of whether I should listen to my grandmother's wishes, or take matters into my own hands and have her drugged against her will. I don't know if it was right by her, but I had her drugged. And when I held her in my arms so the nurse could give her a suppository, I did my best not to bruise her onion-paper-thin skin or to look at the puckered scar where her breast used to be when her gown slipped. I tried not to see my grandmother as a fragile, suffering woman saying, "no, no, no, no," over and over again until the morphine started to kick in. She was too weak to even struggle, but as we laid her back down and smoothed her hospital gown and tucked her back in, she said to me, "Jane,** you have such a wonderful daughter." Jane is my aunt, married to my grandmother's son. I'm not sure if her brain was too confused and she meant me, or if she thought I was my mother, or if she actually thought I was Jane. It doesn't really matter, I thanked her all the same, told her I was sorry, and kissed her forehead as she went back into drug-induced sleep.
My mother assured me I did the right thing. I know I did the right thing for myself. It was too much to watch her writhe and convulse when she already had so little energy, but I did order a violation of her rights and her body, no matter how well meaning. I don't know that I will ever be okay with that, or with the fact that this is the strongest memory I have left of my grandmother. I know that it is the treatment I would have given an animal in pain, and I know that her body needed the rest only drugs could give her in order to heal, and I know it's the treatment I would want, even if I was refusing it at the time, but sometimes I worry that her humanity demanded more. And that I denied it.
My grandmother did recover from her renal failure. She lived another four months or so, I don't recall exactly. She just slipped away, painlessly, and that was what I wanted for her.
*If you're feeling generous, please make a donation in my name.
**Name changed, because I'm not sure how much my relatives want to be involved in this blog.