Rosemarie tapped my shoulder to whisper, It’s time. I leapt to my feet and sat on the edge of the bed taking Grandma’s hand as she took her last few breaths on this planet. I softly sang Blessed Assurance, her favorite hymn, sobbing silently as we approached the inevitability of goodbye. After the nurse pronounced her and recorded the time, I calmly walked into my mother’s room to give her the news that Grandma was gone, so that she could go in and say her farewell. I heard my spouse, Janie, stir as well, seemingly also sensing the gravity. I returned to the space where I had been sleeping on the floor next to Grandma and as if some protective layer of coping armor melted from my frame, I erupted into what I can only describe as an out of body grief attack. I hurled NOs into the air, violently sobbing, rocking back and forth, and banging on the bed gate, in protest to the truth. Janie swooped in to wrap their eagle wings around me and to try to calm me down from the uncontrollable wailing. I was starting to hyperventilate and they were afraid I might pass out, or have an asthma attack. On my right, I could see my mother and the hospice nurse, Rosemarie, crying as well and I wanted to come back to them but I also wanted to follow grandma wherever she was going. I thought we’d have more time. We had so much more time. Didn’t we?
Grandma trusted no one to give her a bath, except me. Whenever I visited I would sit her on the plastic chair in the shower, and use the attachment to pour warm water down her body while she soaped herself up. I knew she was slightly embarrassed to need my help in this way, but I felt honored that she trusted me to care for her so intimately. When I tilted her head back and poured water from her forehead down her scalp I could see her ecstasy. The squint of delight on her nose, and her cheek-to-cheek grin still graze my memories. Though my family has always been working-class, in those moments I liked to think she felt like she was at a high end spa being treated with kid gloves. A luxury she wholeheartedly deserved. Making sure she never got too cold during bath time, I warmed a robe in the dryer to wrap her in for transport back to her room.
I learned to make sweet potato pie on one of my earlier trips. One never realizes how important it is to record stories, memories, recipes, etc. until you are staring at the possibility of their extinction. I have only one video of my grandmother; she is mixing up sweet potato pie batter and talking to me as I film with my iPhone. We are making familiar jokes about me eating all the pie before anyone else can get any. As a kid, I was known to polish off grandma’s baked goods to the dismay of my grandfather and other visitors looking for a piece of cake or a cookie. But grandma secretly loved it and thought it was hilarious, so I never felt the need to practice restraint. I have her recipe for sweet potato pie and macaroni & cheese in my head. Her recipe for Sock-it-to-me cake I make from a combination of memory and instructions from the internet. And for her tea cakes, I found a basic recipe online, which I tweaked intuitively until I found that familiar flavor. I do miss getting tins full of cake and/or cookies in the mail. Always one to stretch a dollar, she refused to purchase those tins, so she’d wait to be gifted something in one that fit the bill for mailing, and then she’d get to baking. We were both livid for months when someone had the audacity to steal a cake she’d sent me in the mail. Every time I talked to her on the phone after it was lost she’d inquire about it: Post office ever find your cake?
When I got to Los Angeles that Saturday in January, Grandma was in her hospital bed. Her dirty glasses sat on the night stand: no longer of much use since she was now mostly blind. I caressed her head and asked if she was hungry, then I swooped off to the kitchen to make her a bowl of grits. When I came back she delighted in eating as the nurse carefully fed them to her. “Don’t waste my grits! I love grits,” she snickered. I watched joyfully as she ate, then I combed her hair with my fingers and put it into a top bun. She ate the whole bowl and finished it off with water, then she laid back to rest. As I prepared to drive my mom to her doctor’s appointment, I knelt down to kiss grandma on the forehead, whistling Be right back Grandma with a goofy smile. She cooed a jolly okey dokee; then we headed out.
When we returned a few hours later, grandma was sleeping. She didn’t wake up for the rest of the night so I slept in a small room next door. The next day I woke to greet her and she was still asleep. This is when the nurses alerted me that she was likely actively dying based on her vitals and other factors, and that we should start considering arrangements. Hearing that was like a sucker punch to my gut; one that I wanted to return full force, though I knew the nurse was just doing her job.
When the entire day went by without grandma waking to eat or drink, I decided to sleep on a mat next to her hospital bed so that I could be near her, in case she stirred and was willing to drink some water. During the day, I helped clean her body and turn her to prevent bed sores. I also misted her face with rose water and massaged rich cream into her skin. I cleaned and trimmed her nails, and helped the nurse clean her hair with a no rinse shampoo. Sometimes I played episodes of the Golden Girls on my tablet; other times gospel or African music; sometimes we just sat in silence or I sang to her, or read passages to her from her Daily Bread magazine. My mother and I sat with her often throughout the day, and occasionally friends came by to visit and say goodbye. I had read that the dying sometimes need time alone so I tried to leave the room and go do something else for a little while too each day, but I spent the majority of the time in that room sitting in a chair next to her bed, or asleep on the floor mat with my hand propped up between the aluminum gates of the bed, holding hers.
After Janie calmed me down and everyone else left the room where my grandmother’s body lay lifeless, I went over and kissed her forehead and cheeks. I helped Rosemarie clean her once again and put her into pajamas in preparation for the mortuary to retrieve her. As we waited, I held her hand and placed my head on her hip, staring up at her face almost wishing for a miracle. When they arrived about 40 minutes later, I was still holding her hand as two men entered the room to offer their condolences. I sat up and then lifted myself to stand at the foot of the bed. Janie later remarked to me that they could see tears in those mens’ eyes as I stared at them in disbelief of what they were there to do. As they pulled the sheet up over her face, an action I refused to perform, I sensed my fist curl, but before I could lunge, Janie ushered me out of the room to prevent me from bearing witness to my beloved being wheeled away. Janie, seeing me flinch with every squeak, wrapped their arms around my ears to muffle the sound of the gurney being wheeled down the hallway. Then as soon as the van pulled away, I went to lay in her hospital bed until the men arrived an hour or so later to pick that up too.
I didn’t want to write about any of this. I have barely written about this experience even in my journal since last January. But in the wee morning hours of January 7, I woke up crying and couldn’t go back to sleep. This grief experience is in my bones; so deep in my bones that I know I will never get over it. I wish I could say it has gotten easier, but I believe I may be years away from the getting easier part as well. My mother and I share beautiful memories of this precious time with Grandma, but we also share trauma that we have been unable to adequately process together since we have been apart due to COVID since last January.
While researching this week for ways to honor the memory of my grandmother, Sylvina, for her upcoming yahrzeit, I came across a beautiful article. In it, a husband describes his experience of making his wife comfortable as she is dying from ovarian cancer from the comfort of their home. He also talks about his decision to keep her body at home until she is laid to rest. At first, I was shocked, but then I remembered how hard it was for me to say goodbye in the less than an hour I had between the time she was pronounced dead and the time those blokes came to fetch her. My instinct told me to never leave her side. Throughout the dying process and even into her death, I wanted her to know how much she was loved, adored, cherished and OMG how much she would be missed. I hope she knew. G-d, I hope she knew.
I also think it is fitting that the Torah portion leading up to her yahrzeit is about names and naming. Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, the name G-d gave themself when asked by Moses, translated in my study group to mean “I am what I will be” feels quite astute. I realize that there is so much more to this portion to be examined, but study of the Torah will take a lifetime; and there is more commentary on Jewish texts than in any Reddit channel I’ve ever seen, so allow me to wax poetic about just this itty-bitty bit.
My grandmother was born a sharecropper’s daughter, on a farm in Louisiana. Betrothed to my grandfather (a story I learned during one of our weeks together last Fall), then fell madly in love with him anyway. Lived ninety-two precious years, celebrated a 50th wedding anniversary, raised three beautiful children, nurtured six grandchildren and loved nine great-grandchildren. Made the entire block where she lived feel cared for, along with anyone else she ever encountered, unless you were triflin’ — then watch out! Who she was at 10 years-old, or 20 years-old, or 57 years-old, or 91 years-old is not who she was. She became more than anyone might have ever imagined she would or could be.
To me, she was Grandma. That moniker with its infinite possibilities changed me; nurtured me into a kind and gentle person, a dangerous way to inhabit a soul as a black girl, but a brave one as well. At her funeral service, her pastor, Norman S. Johnson exclaimed, “She knew her name,” this after learning that most members had been calling her by the wrong name (Sylvania) for fifty years. He came over to ask me how to pronounce it and I said SYL-VI-NA, then he looked at me dumbfounded. “Why didn’t she…” and before he could finish I replied, “She’d never bother.” She did know who she was, so much that she transcended the name given to her here on earth. She is living inside the hearts of those who loved her so dearly and were touched by her service and her courage to be open-hearted in a closed-minded place. I don’t necessarily want people mispronouncing my name, or expecting me to be passive or completely selfless all the time. But I would like to believe that the complex legacy I eventually leave here on earth will be rooted in loving kindness and that it will spread and flourish in those whose lives I have touched, whether or not anyone ever remembers my name.
Sylvina Porter transitioned in peace on January 9 at 1:36am. May her memory be a blessing.