On a crisp spring day, March 18, I drove three hours to Tulsa where my border collie would stay for a week with my niece and her husband. It was my partner's birthday and we were having a party with friends in Port Townsend.
As I'd done before most trips the last few years, I stopped by to see Grandma, spend a little time laughing, holding her hand and thoughtfully say goodbye with a hug and a kiss. Pretty demonstrative for a country gal who'd grown up Mennonite, but she'd become more expressive in the last few years.
After a coffee and security scan on the 19th, I boarded the flight. American Airlines was on-time, bound for Seattle @8:30. But @8:25, the flight attendants paused as the Captain announced, apologetically, there was an issue with the hydraulic system. Estimated delay, 20 minutes.
I had an hour for my connection in Dallas, so no worries.
Ten minutes later, the pilot announced it was fixed and we should be leaving shortly.
But no deal. Next, the Maintenance Supervisor stepped onboard and announced that everyone must deplane.
Bummer! Looking around, I could see who else was missing their connection in Dallas.
Disappointed but stuck, I texted my partner about the delay. Most of my fellow passengers were phoning or texting too.
Slowly, we deplaned. I shook my head, knowing that I usually sit near the front of the plane, but today I was near the back. I would likely end up near the back of the line for rebooking my flight.
Outside in the terminal, my phone buzzed. It was 8:47
My sister texted... "You on the plane?"
I text... "No. Delayed. In line for resched."
She writes back immediately... "Grandma close to heaven."
I caught my breath. Time stood still. My imagination flew to Grandma's room, my mom, my last visit. The last three times I visited my 96 year old Grandma at Golden Oaks Nursing Home in Enid, she didn't want me to leave. Rather, she told me she wanted to "go". She wanted me to "take" her with me. A traveler and independent woman for all but the last three years of her life, she was bored, trapped, longed for freedom.
She'd been shrinking in strength and independence in a slow decrescendo. In the last two months, she slept often, spoke softly and was as weak as a baby. Free of disease and with no pain, her body and spirit were slowly, naturally receding. We all knew her time on earth was nearing the end and even, with pangs of guilt, prayed she wouldn't wake up one day.
Of course, we only talked about that in groups of 2. Me and mom. My sister and mom. Me and my sister. Mom and her sister. Now, me and you.
At 8:59 my sister called to say "Grandma's gone. Mom made it. She was there."
Immediately, I called her. Here's what happened...
A little before 8:00am, Grandma was dressed and set in her wheelchair and wheeled to the table for breakfast. The functionally brilliant horsehoe table designed for a nurse to be accessible to as many as 8 patients from her chair in the center. Alzheimer, dementia, blind and the oldest, weakest patients sat there. It was awful.
In shock, my mind drifted off to memories of the table. We'd all loved to go join Grandma for meals at the previous place, The Arbors (assisted living). Sadly, none of us could stand to go to meals at the new table, the new place. I tried it once and knelt beside Grandma so her tiny body blocked out everyone else. Thank God her macular degeneration probably saved her from seeing it, mostly. Not once did I see a family member with anyone else at that table. I could understand, but it made me sick to think we could all abandon them. God bless the nurses and aides who took our places.
At 8:01 the head nurse called mom at home. "Your mother has had a severe stroke or heart attack. We've moved her to her bed and are giving her oxygen. The file says we are supposed to call you. What would you like us to do?" Grandma's living will and mom's living mother-bear protection of her mom had clearly made the point with ALL staff.
"Is she in pain?" If not, make her comfortable and I'll be there in 15 minutes."
Mom then called her siblings. All four of them said, "Whatever you decide I'll support you 100%."
With the weight of the responsibility on her shoulders and the sadness and love only a daughter can know on her heart... she went to her mother's side and asked the nurse to remove the oxygen, as Grandma had asked.
Taking her mother's hand, touching her cheek, getting as close to her side as possible, mom said her final words to my Grandma, to her "mommy".
"I'm here, mom. It's okay for you to go. I talked to all your kids. We all love you. You've raised four good kids. We are all going to be okay. You are free to go. Go see daddy and say hi to Mama & Pappa. Go see Jesus. We're all going to be okay. I love you."
Grandma nodded and took a big breath, then another. I imagine it was like I do when getting ready for a deep dive. Then she stopped breathing. Mom kept her hand on her cheek, kept her face next to Grandma's and kept repeating.
"It's okay, mom. It's okay to go. We're all going to be okay."
Tears streamed down my cheeks as I stood in line in the terminal. I knew the woman just ahead of me and just behind me likely heard a little of the conversations. More than a dozen texts had gone between me, my sister, my partner in Port Townsend. I looked out at the sky, wanting to see Grandma fly by. I flashed back to her laughter, to her last words to me, to her soft hand and soft hair and bright eyes.
The sunlight streamed through a skylight. I was nearing the ticket counter, weighing my options. Go ahead and fly now? Fly later in the day? Cancel? Negotiate for future?
People ahead and behind me grew angry and restless and impatient. I didn't want to call mom. I didn't want to interrupt her in this hugely significant moment.
I thought. What would Grandma do? Smiling, I knew. She'd stay to honor the dead, but like me, she'd also secretly want to go, to fly on to Port Townsend and celebrate the living. She wanted it all.
My partner called. "You should stay with your family. We can celebrate my birthday anytime. The funeral will probably happen in a few days and we're due to fly back next week." Pragmatic and unselfish, putting elders before ourselves... those were also values Grandma shared. Full of love for my family, all my family, I made my decision.
As I walked out of the airport smiling, I imagined Grandma laughing. Due to the mechanical problem with the hydraulics, American Airlines had to refund my ticket. The Grandma who'd said to me three years ago... "Are you gonna finish this house renovation before I die?" had seen me through the renovation and then some.
In those three years, I took her place hosting Thanksgiving Dinner for 40-plus family, spent a hundred hours laughing with her, holding her hand and I got to help her climb 18 steps to the second story of my house when she was 93. She was pretty proud of herself and said so!
When a hydraulic problem wouldn't go away and made me get off the plane, I was annoyed. Fifteen minutes later, I was grateful. Grandma's parting lesson serves as a reminder that we never know why things happen, not completely. With faith in God, a higher power, Great Spirit and the brilliantly competent planet, my Grandma trusted it would all work together for good, eventually. When I think about the day she died, I will imagine her laughing and hurling a wrench in the hydraulics. Sure, it impacted everyone onboard. I don't know how their lives changed because of it, but I trust like Grandma did, that good will come, eventually. For me, it already did.