Kaitlin Barker Davis
My mom doesn’t say dying when she calls, but she does say “nothing to eat or drink in three days.” She doesn’t say she needs me but maybe she will. And she doesn’t say come quickly but I think I should. Even over the phone, I hear the words beneath her words.
When my grandfather died, he declined so fast I didn’t have time to get there. Gone, without much going. My grandma is different. She’s been going ever since he went—but now the end seems very near, so I buy an expensive next-day plane ticket, pack a toothbrush and a change of clothes in a backpack and leave my daughter overnight for the first time, almost forgetting my breast pump.
At the airport the next morning, with an ocean of time before boarding, I don’t know what to do without a baby to care for or an unrelenting to-do list. I walk through the terminals unable to detach from responsibility, texting my husband to ask what he will feed our daughter for lunch and calling my mom for an update but only getting her voicemail.I buy a coffee I probably don’t need because I’m tired but not the kind of tired that can be fixed with coffee. Tired from months of not sleeping through the night, tired from the weight of impending loss. The tiredness of being lodged solidly in the landscape of adulthood, between my daughter’s needs and my grandmother’s last days. On the matriline that binds us, woman to woman, generation to generation.
By the time my plane lands, my full breasts remind me that, back home, it’s time for my daughter’s nap. Our bodies, our rhythms inseparable. I consider finding a place to pump before my cousin picks me up, but I’m afraid to delay seeing my grandma.
My mom stands to hug me as I step tentatively into the dim room, then slide into the plastic chair next to my grandma’s narrow hospital bed. She is asleep, jaw slightly slack, and I negotiate the IV to place her cool, sun-spotted hand in mine. The initial shock of seeing her—my mother’s mother, my last living grandparent—passes more quickly than I anticipated. Maybe because I sat next to my other grandmother in her last hours. I’ve seen the little blue sponge on a stick deliver minimal relief to a parched mouth. But I think it also has something to do with being a mother this time. Stroking her silky forehead and murmuring soothing words isn’t so different from shushing my daughter to sleep.
Even though her memories have been retreating to wherever memories go, my grandma’s face changes when I first hold her hand and tell her who I am. Her light blue eyes open, paler now than I remember. “My hands are cold,” she says clearly. Then after a pause: “I want water.” I dip the sponge in the plastic water cup, touch it to her lips until she opens and sucks. I rest my hand under hers so she can hold it when she wants to or push it away when she becomes agitated.
Her fingers flutter above the sheets for a moment, as if playing a piano only she can see. “Please, God, let me go,” she moans as she lowers her hands. My mom prepared me for this, the talk of dying, but it’s rattling to hear a soul so ready—desperate—to leave a body. Especially now, as a mother, with a small life that depends fiercely on my own. My body does not exist in isolation. A thing I knew but didn’t feel. I am connected to my daughter’s body, but also my mother’s and my grandmother’s, by a gossamer thread of water breaking, blood flowing, milk leaking.
A wet spot blooms on my shirt, insistent that pumping is not optional. While we wait for the hospice evaluation, I take my mom’s keys and find her rental car in the sunbaked parking lot. The dashboard reads 85 degrees, so I crack the tinted windows. I’m far less modest about breastfeeding than I expected. Motherhood has, in a sense, brought me home to my body.
I’m sweating by the time I remove the full bottle and attach an empty one for the other side. My palm aches from the repetitive squeezing motion. It feels wrong to throw out this life-sustaining liquid, but there’s no way to store it here and my body doesn’t know my baby is hundreds of miles away—it just keeps churning out milk. I think about my grandma’s body, how it birthed and nourished five children. How now, at the end, it is also sustained by liquid.
They put her on the IV this morning to give my aunt who lives here time to fly back from her European vacation. “That’s what’s keeping her alive,” the hospice evaluator tells us when he arrives. “She’d already be gone without it.” He’s talking about the IV, but also my grandma waiting for her daughter, their bodies still connected across continents. Sitting next to my mom in the stuffy conference room as she recounts the timeline of my grandma’s decline—the confusion, the fall, the broken ribs, the last time she ate—my mind drifts forward in time, decades hopefully. I see my daughter sitting beside me in a meeting like this about my own mom, my baby’s grown-up hand resting on mine. This is not what I want to think about, but my mind tumbles tactlessly down the matriline, next to my daughter talking to another unnaturally calm hospice nurse about me. Will she have a daughter of her own when that day comes, touching her shoulder reassuringly, reminding her to ask about morphine?
All the questions and all the answers don’t change the decision at hand. A liquid to soothe or a liquid to sustain. To start morphine, granting my grandma’s wish to depart, or continue the IV, granting my aunt’s wish to see her before she does. While my mom goes out to the courtyard to call her siblings and discuss the options, I sit with my grandma. This is our first time alone and I am instantly terrified that she will die while my mom is gone.
Most of her words are incoherent, but then, with absolute clarity, she asks, “Is there anything to drink?” I touch the sponge to her lips again. Every word seems sacred, as if it has traveled a great distance. Everything hurts. Please help me. Not yet. Hello. Mother. And then all at once with urgency: “It’s too heavy. Get me out from under this. Please, take it off.”
I jump up and pull one of her blankets back, even though I doubt she’s talking about her blankets. She starts moaning and thrashing and I run down the hall to find my mom, afraid this is it. “I asked for something to drink and nobody gave me anything,” my grandma reports when we rush back in. We hold the sponge to her mouth and she grows quiet again.
My mom settles into a recliner in the corner for the night, and I head for a bed at my aunt’s house. Milk tingles in my chest as my cousin speeds down the dark freeway. We make small talk, about most everything but our grandma. I pump before bed and fall into heavy uninterrupted sleep until a damp circle on the sheet wakes me in the morning. On the way back to the nursing facility, I drive through a Starbucks for my mom. The task feels essential, the only thing I can really do. Deliver milk, coffee, water. Mother, daughter, granddaughter.
How do you choose your last words? I hand my mom her coffee and pull the chair up close to my grandma’s bed and say, “I’m proud of you,” but not goodbye. I say, “I love you,” but not goodbye. And then, “You’re almost there. We will miss you but we will be okay.” Maybe it is all goodbye. The word beneath all the words.
When I lean over to kiss her forehead, my hair falls across my face and brushes hers. Her eyes fly open. “Why are you doing that?” she asks sharply. I apologize and stay seated, even though my flight leaves soon. Those can’t be my last words from her.
“Water,” she says a few minutes later. I dip the sponge in the plastic cup. The last thing I can do to love her, to thank her for being our matriarch. Holding this water to her lips feels more like goodbye than any word. I kiss her forehead once more before I go, holding my hair back this time. Her pale blue eyes remain closed as I leave.
My chest aches as I walk outside into the glaring sunlight. I slip the pump under my shirt while my mom drives to the airport. Before I go through security, I pour the bottle down the bathroom sink, the strange pale blue liquid swirling down the drain. A few hours later, my aunt makes it home and they take my grandma off the IV.
The next morning I’m in my driveway, my daughter strapped into her car seat jabbering to her rubber elephant, the car in reverse. When I see my mom calling, I know what she will say before I answer. Our matriline has shortened; she now holds the living end. I will start crying after a block and accidentally run a blurry red light. I will remember what my grandma said—It’s too heavy, take it off—and when I park at the grocery store and lift my daughter out of the car, I will hug her tight to my chest, now empty, relieved of pressure.
Kaitlin Barker Davis is a writer from Portland, Oregon. Her essays on travel, motherhood and place have appeared in Nowhere Magazine, Narratively, The Rumpus, Motherwell Magazine and elsewhere. She has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Seattle Pacific University, and you can find her at www.kaitlinbarkerdavis.com.