Making Room

By Cleola Payne, 08/01/2021

I have never packed so many “I love you”s into such a short window of time. My grandmother, Carrie Mae, laid on her death bed as she was transitioning from this world to the unknown. She made it clear to our family eons ago that she wanted to die at home. She would say, “Send my body back to Missouri.” It was a place too conservative and racist for her living, but she could be buried there. She was a southerner too big for the place of her origin. She made her way from Mississippi, to Missouri, and eventually settled in Massachusetts.

My grandmother had the unwanted tenant of cancer for the third time, this time it couldn’t be evicted. It made itself at home and spread. Facing this challenge during covid was fraught. But my mother and I made the effort to make her final wishes a reality. A hospital bed replaced her queen-sized bed. Items on her nightstand were put away and narrow syringes, pill crushers and water took their place. Everything had to be shifted, we were making room for death.

I prepared the space with everything my grandmother treasured. The sounds of Aretha Franklin and Teddy Pendergrass echoed softly throughout the day and evening. We diffused the aroma of geranium and frankincense. My mother and I washed my grandmother’s body, replacing her hospital clothes and dressed her with a cozy blue nightdress. We kept her feet warm with fuzzy socks that hid the time she fell and broke her foot in a couple of places. We washed her hair, gently detangled it, and plaited it. And then I nested into bed with her. I confided in her about my future plans waiting for her usual assurance.

For her care, I asked her if she was in any pain, but most of her responses were incomprehensible. The nurse who came out to visit said that she could tell my grandmother was loved and assured me that the tiny pills I was to give my grandmother would eliminate any pain, quell her anxiety and make her comfortable. My faith had to extend to something slightly bigger than a mustard seed, and I kept her dosage times precisely.

My mother and I facetimed with my grandmother’s friends and they would tell her encouraging words. Tell her how strong she was to not be hooked to anything. My grandfather, away getting his own treatment, would spend considerable time on the phone asking my grandmother to tell him that she loved him. My grandmother did manage to muster that phrase up and out to him. My grandmother would look to me, raise her pointer finger to her mouth for water. I’d respond tenderly, swiftly, and immediately. She still maintained a strong grip if she didn’t want the covers on her pushing them aside, she favored her body weight to her left side. For the most part she was resting and taking what looked like an inward journey into herself that no one else had an invitation to.

The day she died, my mother and I were recuperating at home. My aunt had then taken over for the night shift. When my grandmother passed, I rose from bed and embraced my mother who had just lost her mother. There was more work to do, more promises to keep, and more tenderness to be given.

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8 Responses

  1. Maureen Bisognano says:

    Thanks, Cleola, for sharing this wonderful example of love and caring. What a model for family love.

  2. Nana Twum-Danso says:

    Thank you for sharing this deeply moving experience with the world. I am so grateful for your bravery and courage. Please accept my deepest condolences.

    May your grandmother’s soul rest in peace.

    Best wishes,

  3. Jo Ann Endo says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience, Cleola. There is so much heart and soul in your writing. What a beautiful way to honor your grandmother.

  4. Rima Sheehab says:

    Cleola, thank you so much for sharing your experience with your grandmother. I can feel the love & heart in your words – they are a warm embrace for such a beautiful woman.

  5. Erline Achille says:

    This written piece embodied a death that was surrounded by love, thoughtfulness and generations of family that understood how to celebrate and honor a person in their moment of transition. No one is ever ready for death but you inspired me to think about it for whatever may arise in the future. Thank you for Sharing this.

  6. Audrey Lampert says:

    Cleola, what a heartfelt beautiful tribute to your grandmother and to your whole family. The love you feel for each other jumps of the page. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Sharon Sheehab says:

    In her final days, it’s clear your grandma, Carrie Mae, was embraced in love. I could see her, eyes closed, revisiting the places and faces of her life from Mississippi to Massachusetts, rocking to the soulful power of Aretha Franklin and timeless serenades of Teddy Pendergast. With grace and loving kindness only a daughter and granddaughter could give, Carrie Mae left this earth, knowing she was loved and cherished like a queen. Thank you for sharing her with us.

  8. Bezawit Legesse says:

    May her soul rest in peace! Thank you for sharing your experience

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