Note from Jen Pastiloff, founder of The Manifest-Station. This is part of our Young Voices Series for Girl Power: You Are Enough. We are always looking for more writing from YOU! Make sure you follow us on instagram at @GirlPowerYouAreEnough and on Facebook here.
By Haley Jakobson
On the day your grandmother is dying you will eat a bagel with cream cheese and salmon and the guy behind the counter will misunderstand your impatience for rudeness. He doesn’t know you have to go home and kiss her cheek. You cry in the bodega and you take an Uber all the way to Westchester because your Dad says you should.
You get there and you climb into bed with her and all the fear you had before is gone because you need to take care of the woman that is the reason you exist. You hold her and press your face into her back and you put a cold wash cloth on her forehead and you don’t hide from her dying anymore. You cry into her pajamas and you feel how warm her body is, like a child, and you just keep pressing your hands into her. Every time she opens her eyes, wide and blue and scared, you tell her that you are there and when you listen to your own voice it sounds so strong and resilient and there is no fear.
You love her and she loves you and this will not go away even when she is not there. Her eyes are so blue, like this cleansing force of beauty, a color of simple beginnings and quiet endings and still water in between. Every time she realizes it’s you she says hi and you say “I love you” and she says it back. It’s all love. And when she cries out in pain you don’t deny it, you affirm it, you affirm her and everything she is going through. This is real, and it has been so elusive, this cancer, for so long.
She asks to put her head on your leg and you let her, and you help her sit up and stand up even though you know she’ll want to lay down straight away. Put the blankets on, take them off. The nurse says the pain is internal, it won’t go away from switching from her left to her right. You know she’s speaking your language now. The sickness has turned to violence inside her, like demons and monsters and bad, bad energy. The medicine is poison and life is leaving her.
You know all of this but you let her shift and sit her up and down and move all the pillows when she asks. You remember what it is like to be so thirsty that you dream of water so you ask all the time if she wants some and feed her spoonfuls.
When she asks for anything and the adults are talking you ask them to stop and listen. Listen to her. Listen to this life that is still living. You step out every once and a while and eat potato chips from the kitchen. Your aunt tells you you’re amazing for approaching death this way. You shrug and eat another chip. In your head you think this is the simplest thing we can do. We are just animals, you think. You think about how scared you have been, and angry too, but now something else has taken over. Purpose, duty. Something. You eat more chips.
She is very uncomfortable now, inconsolable for hours and you stay in bed with her. The cancer has become wretched inside her. It is taking over now. The men arrive with the hospital bed and you watch them put together metal pieces and it’s all very strange, this contraption mass-produced to help people die. The men who assemble it smell like smoke and this makes you angry. But then you think you might want to a smoke a cigarette if you went into people’s homes in the midst of death approaching and saw glimpses of a granddaughter in bed with her grandmother etching goodbye into their hands clasped together. You wonder if they think you are pretty on the verge of mourning. If they notice you have been crying and are wearing fuzzy socks. One of the guys is kind of cute.
You read a book you found on your grandmother’s bedside table about a neurosurgeon who went to heaven for a week and then kept on living. You think it is the exact kind of book you want to be reading in this moment. Your grandmother is sleeping in the hospital bed and you are in her bed and you go in and out of a nap. It is disorienting but you are tired. You eat more chips and join your family in the kitchen. You help write her obituary even though she is not dead yet. You wonder why it’s so hard for them to write what is so clear to you. They keep writing the wrong things but you fix it. You’ve eaten so many chips that you are thirsty and your Dad pours you a glass of cranberry and club soda with ice like you and your mother have always loved.
Your Mom finally comes and she didn’t come earlier because she had a hair appointment. This is frustrating and understandable at the same time. You have been fighting but you both forget that for today. She hugs you and you bury your head in her neck and ink the moment under your tongue because one day she’ll die too. You text your ex-boyfriend because you want to put your shoulder on his head but he’s far away and that isn’t allowed anymore so you decide his voice might be okay too. You plan to talk later. You listen to a voicemail from your therapist and your best friend. You don’t call back but you love them both.
Your grandmother is coughing now. Another nurse is here. Her name is Agnes. You to go back in the room. She’s coughing too much and your Dad and Mom and Uncle are there. You hold her hand and pet her head.
You realize she is dying in this moment. Your other aunt is in the living room. The nurse calls her firmly. She comes in and it happens simultaneously. It is not pretty. It is raw and real and there is no pretending any longer. Your Aunt doesn’t understand until you tell her. It’s happened. It happened. Your other Aunt went out to get dinner but never made it to the restaurant. She comes back and sees her mother and approaches a semblance of goodbye and asks my dad to make her a sandwich. He does.
You sit by her for hours. So does Agnes. Agnes says she reminds her of her own grandmother. Agnes cries and pets her head so you stroke her ear lobes instead. You feel her in the room for a long time. And then you look up at the wall, and you’re not sure why, and the room feels different and you know she is gone. When they take her body you cry in your mother’s lap. You won’t see her face again and that is what breaks you. On the day your grandmother dies you will cement the way you curved into her small body in your skin forever. You don’t ask big questions. You sit in the backseat of your grandfather’s car with your Dad driving and your Mom in the passenger seat, and you gulp down every moment and it is raining. Your grandmother’s watch weighs heavy on your wrist. Mom says to Dad “you made everyone sandwiches tonight.” Dad nods and says “I knew that people didn’t want to eat but they needed to.”
I love you, my Grammy. I will always love you.
Haley Jakobson is 22, a writer and an actress. She has a BFA in theatre arts from Boston University’s School of Theatre. She also has a BFA in loving dogs and kissing boys. Haley is a Gemini and it matters.
So beautiful and poignant.. It is such a precious gift to have that time to say goodbye to a beloved one. I just went through a similar situation when my mom passed on Saturday. In those last days, just spending time with her, even though she could not respond, was a treasure. I hope more people realize that death is just another passage and learn to get comfortable with it, rather than fear it and speak of it in hushed tones.
You’re a lovely writer, Haley. Reading this made me smile and cringe one right after the other, because I know that someday I will have to go through this with my own grandmother and mother, and that scares the shit out of me. I hope that I’m able to find the strength you had and be there for them when the time comes. Thank you for sharing.