Me And My RC (Saying Goodbye To Grandma)
Today, 2.22.22, marks the 17th anniversary of the death of my paternal grandmother, Ruth Cifaldi Colucci. She was originally from New Rochelle, NY, but moved to Wilmington at 19 when she got married, and quickly became what I consider to be one of the "grande dames" of Wilmington. After her second child, my father, was born, she was warned that another pregnancy could kill her, so she didn't tell her father (who was a doctor) that she was pregnant until my aunt was born. At least, that's the story I grew up hearing.
She had four grandchildren and was close with all of us. She also had 4 great grandchildren before she passed in 2005, but by the time her third great grandchild arrived, we were starting to notice some changes. I won't go into details as to what I think brought it on, but she was eventually diagnosed with vascular dementia. The moment I knew what we were really dealing with was when she called my then 8-year-old son just to ask him how to cook a hot dog in the microwave. Eventually, I had to go over every morning and check her blood sugar, then give her insulin. On one of those mornings, she was being particularly polite and agreeable, and at one point said, "So, do you live around here?" In that moment I realized that she did not know who I was. It was DEVASTATING.
Eventually, she had to be placed in a facility, something she had made me promise never to let happen to her. Come to find out, she had made everyone else make that promise as well. Sadly, dementia progresses to a point where decisions need to be made for someone's safety and for the emotional survival of the family.
One weekday morning in early February, I got a call from the facility administrator, who told me that Grandma had taken a turn for the worse and all of the family was being called in. I was so undone I had to have someone drive me, even though the facility was just a block or two away. We all gathered, we cried (something we NEVER do together), we said our goodbyes. All I have to say about that is......How dare we underestimate her like that?! We spent the next two weeks taking turns being with her as she would rally then decline, rally then decline. Somehow, I even managed to open a show during this time, running through tech rehearsals with my cell phone clipped to my costume in case the phone rang.
Eventually, though, the rallies were over, and the big decline had begun. From that point I could not physically bring myself to leave her presence. I was the one who was with her when she finally passed, and I consider it the best, worst, and most spiritual moments of my life. In the last 17 years, I have only told a handful of people what actually transpired that cold, cold Tuesday that was February 22, 2005. But I have so many friends dealing with loved ones declining with dementia, one in particular, I think it's time to tell my story. Sad? Yes. Grab your tissues. But also, the most amazing moment of my life aside from the birth of my children.
After holding vigil by her side for two weeks, everyone decided to go home and get a little rest. Grandma was unresponsive but stable, and the staff was making sure she was dry and comfortable. Around four, as the winter sun was starting to dip below the trees, I was on the phone with my mother talking very quietly while Grandma slept. I don't even remember what we were talking about, but I remember saying to her, "Let me go. She's doing something funny with her breathing."
I went over and noticed that her eyes were open. I sat down and leaned over her so she wouldn't have to turn her head to see me. I whispered, "Hey, Grandma! You doin' okay?" For the first time in several years, she looked up at me and I knew that she knew who I was. She smiled, lifted that beautiful and delicate hand, and placed it on my cheek in the same way she had a million times before. IT WAS HER. But in the next moment, her lips began to draw back as her breathing changed, her hand fell back down on the bed, and I knew.
I ran out of the room to the first staff member I could find, unable to even speak. All I could do was motion for them to come, but they knew what was happening, and before long, the room was completely full of all of the wonderful caregivers, the nurse, and the administrator who had taken such good care of her over the last 8 months or so. They surrounded her, and they surrounded me as the sobs finally pushed their way out of my mouth. Despite being a nurse myself, in that moment I could not remember anything I had learned and found myself just asking "Is she suffering? Is she in pain?". They assured me that she was not, and that brought me comfort.
As the days, weeks, and years have passed, I've come to learn what an incredible honor it was to be with someone as they left this world and entered the next. And to know in those few moments that the grandmother I had grown up with was still inside her mind SOMEWHERE is an experience that I will never take for granted.
Since that day, I have spent years working in Critical Care, Hospice and Palliative Care, Home Health and Home Care, and there is just nothing more meaningful than to be with patients and their families at the end of life and try to make it just a little bit easier to bear. Some say it's a skill to be able to help families through this time, but I prefer to think of it as a gift.
So that's my story.....of me and my RC.....on the last day of her beautiful life.
And just so no one thinks that she was this angelic, perfect creature, I will leave you with the one dirty joke she ever told me. We were on the way back from mass on a Sunday, and this is what she tells me: Two friends were sitting and talking, and one said to the other, "The strangest thing has started happening to me! Every time I sneeze I have an orgasm!" The other woman was shocked and said, "Oh no! What are you doing about it?!", and the first woman said, "I'm sniffing ragweed."