Every year my dad and my brother, Louis, go on a camping trip together towards the end of June. They usually leave early on a Thursday morning, head up to the Adirondacks and don’t return until mid-Sunday. A couple of years back a family friend had been staying with me while they were on their trip. Usually, it’s virtually impossible to get cell phone service in the mountains, so I was surprised that Saturday when I received a call from my dad. It was hard to hear him, because the connection was so bad, but I got the message: Gram was in the hospital again, and they were leaving camping early to go see her.
My dad was only twenty-one when his father died, and I could only imagine how hard it was for him and my aunts and uncle to go through that. I couldn’t bear to see him lose his mom too, so Louis and I became a little support system for him. Since Gram was in St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Utica, it wasn’t hard to take the short ride up there to visit her almost every week. Usually, either Louis or I would accompany him, sometimes both of us. We could tell that Gram was in an extraordinary amount of pain, but every time she saw us walk through the door, her face would light up like Christmas.
Between my dad, my two aunts, my uncle and some of my older cousins who also lived in Utica, Gram had people visiting her everyday. Someone started a journal for Gram and we would document things that happened while we visited. Things like if it was raining or if it was sunny, and when she took her meds and how she felt after taking them. Gram was getting so weak that she couldn’t sit up by herself anymore, and I started to go with my dad every time he would go and visit her.
At the beginning of August Louis went to Virginia to visit my mom. I stayed home for two extra weeks before joining him, because I was working at a day camp and wasn’t allowed to take time off. Every Saturday my dad and I would drive the forty-five minutes to Utica to spend a couple of hours with Gram. Even though she was really sick, I looked forward to seeing her and how happy it made her to have people who cared about her.
On one visit Gram wanted an ice cream from her favorite restaurant; McDonalds. She wanted vanilla ice cream with rainbow sprinkles and no nuts. That was the last real food she ate, because the next day she was put on a feeding tube. After that she wasn’t allowed to eat or drink anything. The only thing she was able to handle was these pink sponge swabs dipped in water. We let the sponges soak up some ice water and then let her suck on them like a lollipop. Sometimes her lips got so dry and chapped that my dad would rub the water on them. Gram was now on doses of morphine and was always in pain.
Unfortunately, when Gram was at her worst was when I had to join Louis in Virginia. At that point my dad drove to visit Gram almost every day; and every day when he got home he would call me to give me updates on how she was doing.
After spending the day at the beach on August 26, 2006, I got a call from my dad. “Gram’s gone.” Those were some of the hardest two words I’ve ever had to hear. My dad told me that he had been visiting her and she had fallen asleep. Then that she woke up and asked my dad to go get a nurse for a dose of morphine because she was in a lot of pain. My dad wasn’t comfortable with leaving Gram alone, but went anyways. He said he returned with the nurse, and Gram was gone. To this day he thinks Gram knew she was going, and didn’t want him to be there for it.
I’ve never seen my dad, a grown man of 52 at the time, cry so much and so hard. I didn’t know how to react to it, because I had always felt my dad should take care of me, and now that the tables were turned, I was at a loss. Louis and I and the rest of my family sat at Gram’s wake together. We cried, embraced, told stories, and even laughed a little bit. Gram looked so beautiful and peaceful, and when the song she used to sing to me, My Little Sunshine, was played, I didn’t cry, I sat in that funeral home and could feel Gram’s presence and knew everything was going to be alright.
As my dad cried and held my hand, I told him what I had just realized. He looked at me and said, “Ayla, family is the most important thing in the entire world. I love you.”
This, I believe.