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Tuesday, September 23, 2008


There's a story I need to tell, maybe more, but one for now. I left Uncle Ed's story unfinished, maybe because I couldn't bring myself to see it come to an end. Maybe because I wasn't ready. I don't know. Suicide is hard to cope with.

My grandma knew that all too well. Her brother killed himself and then she found her youngest son dead, hanging in his garage. February 20, 2006. Buried on the 22nd. Soon after, grandma slipped into some chronic health issues that forced us as a family to take her to a nursing home, one of which was dementia. She didn't know Uncle Ed was dead. In fact, in her mind, no one was dead. We'd visit her and she'd tell us she just came back from ice skating (even though she was in a wheelchair) and she'd relive all kinds of memories where everyone was alive and happy. She was well enough to know that she was in a nursing home though. But she didn't know it was the Alzheimer's/dementia ward. She'd say, "I'm not crazy now, but I will be by the time this is over..." and then she'd complain about another patient's antics, like the one who stole her stuff (but she forgot to tell us she was out stealing stuff too from the other patients.) I do laugh about a lot of the stuff she told us while she was there. I mean, it was funny.

My mom and sister once found three pair of dentures in her drawer! And my Uncle Mark found her eating a chocolate rose out of her roommate's dresser drawer. She told Zane she hated McDonald's because they locked her in there.

Grandma has suffered numerous "mini-strokes" in the past two years and within the last eight weeks, she had a major stroke, a minor stroke, more mini-strokes, a heart attack (or maybe it was congestive heart failure?), pneumonia, and was there more? I can't remember. It's been a long couple of months.

The story I want to tell starts the evening of September 13th. Phil and I went to bed rather early, it was around 10:30/11:00. Normally, I'm out the minute my head hits the pillow, but for some reason, I tossed and turned that night. Not only tossed and turned, but remembered.

I thought about playing Rummy with my grandma, my Baba. Listening to polkas on her radio in the kitchen on Saturday morning. Eating Cocoa Puffs and chicken patties (with lots of salt smooshed between two pieces of white Wonder bread.) Playing dress up in her clothes, staying the night with her. Going to the bowling alley with her, cheese sticks and Coke. Stealing her jar of Kennedy half dollars to run away from home. Getting $20 to clean her house every Saturday afternoon. Listening to her music box clink Nadia's Theme to put me to sleep.

This went on and on until I was fighting back tears, then struggling to keep my crying quiet so I wouldn't wake Phil. I said to myself, "You're just emotional because you started. Go take a Midol and be done with it." But I didn't get up just then because memories of my great-grandpa started in. Rye toast at his house, vodka in the freezer. Him moving in with grandma. Him forcing me to stop calling grandma Baba. (I didn't like him much for that) The two-dollar bills he'd always give me.

Then Jill came into my mind and I remember thinking, "What are all these dead people doing in my head tonight?"

Oh no. Grandma's not dead! And I got out of bed to get my cell phone, which was on the charger in in my office. I looked at the time.


I grabbed some tissue, then went back to bed. It wasn't ten minutes and my phone was ringing. I said out loud, "There it is." I think Phil said, "There what is?" It was my mom telling me grandma was being taken to the ER. My brother called me minutes later saying he heard on his police scanner she was unresponsive. He was working overtime because of the flooding in Hobart, IN, the worst the area's ever seen.

I didn't know what 12:26 meant, but I had a feeling because in 1987, the same thing happened when my great-grandpa died, I couldn't sleep at 11pm and the next morning at 11am, I got the call that he was dead.

So I packed an emergency bag and drove an hour to the hospital to sit with my mom, brother, and sister that early Sunday morning. Monday came and she was still hanging on, though barely. My Uncle Mark was on a plane home from a business trip in Belgium and wasn't expected in until late evening, possibly longer because as I said, the flooding was disaterous in The Region. (Yes, I will always be a Region Rat.)

The wonderful and loving staff at St. Mary's ICU did their best to keep grandma comfortable until Uncle Mark got home. At around 11pm Monday night, the family, respecting grandma's wishes, turned off all machines and medications save for a little oxygen tube and morphine for comfort. All of us who could be there gathered and said our goodbyes. And waited. I honestly believed she'd go at 12:26.

But she didn't. So at 12:30 I said goodbye one more time and went to the ICU waiting room and after 43.5 hours with no sleep, I passed out on a recliner.

I woke at 5am from my cell alarm buzzing in my pocket, not knowing who put a blanket on me or what day it was or why I could hear my brother snoring.

Later that day (it was Tuesday) grandma was moved back to the nursing home now with Hospice care. (What a blessing that is.) I drove home that day and slept in my own bed and woke Wednesday morning to No News is Good News.

Thursday morning, though, mom called to tell me grandma's vitals had dropped and Hospice said to gather the family. I got to the nursing home around 10am and fully expected grandma to go by 12:26.

We're a strange breed, my family. Mom, Johnny, Susie, Missy, Uncle Mark, Aunt Mary Ann, Michael, Mary, Ryan, and I sat around grandma's bed all day. We told funny memories and we cried. We counted her respirations and told more funny stories. We'd hear her breathing catch and we'd all be still and silent thinking it was her last breath and we were scared. I'd kiss her forehead and breathe in her scent. I wanted to touch her while she was still alive, I wanted to smell her hair while she still lived. Then she'd breathe and we'd cry more and soon tell more funny stories.

We ordered three extra large John's Pizzas (Do not cofuse this with Papa John's--NOT even close.) John's Pizza orignally in Calument City, IL closed, but the former Roma's Pizza in Hobart on Rt. 30 is now John's. The recipe is anyway, the name is Roma Pizza. This was grandma (and Uncle Ed's) favorite pizza. I think everyone in the family loves it.

So really, it was a party. A celebration. A few other family members came and went, but there were 9-10 of us there at all times. At 11:30 Thursday night, everyone (except me) decided they would go home in case grandma wanted to be alone. I couldn't leave and I told them all I was staying until 12:30. If she hadn't passed by then, I'd go to my mom's to sleep.

So for a half hour, I cleaned the room, threw away the pizza boxes, plates, the empty pop cans, the nurse came in and took away the drink tray and chips and sandwiches they'd provided us. At midnight, I sat on a rocking chair next to grandma. A few minutes later, I felt I needed to stand with her and I leaned down to kiss her forehead and her hair smelt like she just finished smoking a cigarette. She had quit (she told my sister, "Want to know how I quit smoking? I got put in here!") And she'd been there for around 9 months.

This is where I have to tell those of you who don't know that many family members have smelt cigarette smoke in their houses--it's my Uncle Ed.

One of her eyes opened, and her eyes had been shut (except twice) since she was taken to the ER. I talked to her and said some private last things to her and as I said before, my grandma didn't know Uncle Ed was gone so I thought I should tell her, "Grandma, Uncle Ed is waiting for you, don't be afraid. If you see him, it's okay to go to him."

Skeptic that I am (even though I've been through enough that I shouldn't be skeptical at this point) I waited and smelled her hair again after about 5 minutes and the smell was getting stronger instead of weaker.

I figured it was getting close.

Then, for some reason, and I can't really say why, I started singing softly to her. First, I sang what I could remember of "He Stopped Loving Her Today" by George Jones. (That's another story for another day)

Then I sang what I could remember of "Amazing Grace" because Aunt Mary Ann had reminded me earlier that grandma would have my cousins Jen, Christa, and I sing that to her and she'd say she wanted the three of us to sing it at her funeral. (Grandma talked about dying and her funeral for as long as I can remember.) So I sang it to her.

I noticed a tear in the eye that was closed. I stroked her forehead and hair, kissed her again, said (in all my rebellion) "I love you Baba" and then sang the song she told me she wanted at her funeral every time we sang it in church when I was growing up. "Let There Be Peace"

I didn't realize when I was a child that the song reminded grandma of her brother.

I understand now. Finally.

Her mouth had been open for days, her breathing labored and harsh, and as I was singing, she moved her jaw up and down and I think she was singing with me.

I sang, "Let me walk with my brother, in perfect harmony." And she never breathed again. I kept singing, waiting, crying. Finally. Peace for my Baba, the strongest woman I know.

When I looked at the clock it was 12:15. The nurse came in then, and started her job and I moved out of the room because I knew she was gone, I didn't need to take her pulse to know she was gone. She came out and I asked did I need to stay. She said I could go.

I called mom in the hallway on the way out to my car and only said, "She's gone." She told my sister who was there with her and I said, "I'll call Johnny." I called my brother and he said, "Do you see what time it is?"



Heather said...

Michelle, I cried all the way through this. Your singing to her as she passed was the sweetest thing I've heard. Hugs to you.


Lisa said...

Your grandmother could not have asked for a more loving, comforting way to be escorted into the arms of Jesus.

I'm not a crier, but you got me.

One Mom said...

What a blessing your Baba was to you...and what a blessing you were to your Baba.

Anonymous said...

I have no words, Michelle. I'm so sorry for your loss.

Anonymous said...

just a hug :(

~michelle pendergrass said...

I am just amazed at the way things happened. Thank you all for your support, hugs, and prayers. It means a lot more than you know.

Gary said...


Like everyone else, I was very moved by your account. I envy you being there to sing to her when she passed. My father died alone, and I *knew* he was gone before I got the phone call. You know the story of my mother's death, so I'll not repeat it here.

"Let There be Peace on Earth" was played at both my parents' funerals, and I cannot hear that song -- or even think of it -- without losing it and surrender to tears. It is quite possibly the most beautiful hymn ever written. Both my parents loved it.

You're not alone in the "gift" you have. I think all of us, in one form or another, possess this ability to know when something has happened to someone whom we love deeply. I am one of those people who fervently believe that *everything* is connected, and some of those connections -- especially those of the heart and spirit -- are stronger--or at least more stubborn--than others.

You're not alone. And your grandmother--God bless her courage and her battered but never beaten soul--knows now as much as ever how deeply you loved her.

You're not alone.

Unknown said...

Oh, Michelle. I was so moved as you told us about this on the phone the other night. We prayed for you. We missed you, but it's obvious why you had to be home, isn't it?
That is such a sweet memory to keep with you every day until you see her again.

Unknown said...

Other day, not night. Ya know what I mean.

Shelly Wildman said...

Oh Michelle, what a sweet, sad story. I hope you felt blessed to be the one with your grandma as she walked into eternity. What a special moment.

Daniel G. Keohane said...

Read this back when you'd posted, only now able to reply. Amazing story. Life is weird like that, numbers weaving through everything. Not a big numerology fan, but sometimes you have to wonder. More so, it seems you were given, among many, a blessing, to know the time (if at least close to it), and in a way gave you something else to think about, something to make the moment.. don't know. Which I guess is the point. Anf again, sorry for the loss of your grandma, which in the end is what it's all about - or more properly, her life.

Carrington said...

Wow, I would love for my last moments to have have my grandaughter sing to me, and kiss my forehead. So peaceful. God prepared your heart, and let you know it by giving you this vision- and this time. Such a great story.