Tag Archives: dying

Grace

24 Jan

grace1

Others’ lives are parables.

–Oswald Chambers

 

 
I lived in a mobile home park in Spring Valley, near San Diego. After my house was sold, the divorce settled and the lawyers paid off, I wanted a place to call my own and the large manufactured home fit my reduced budget. My older sister worried about the stigma: “You’re going to raise your daughters in a trailer park?” At the time I believed semi-home ownership to be a step up from apartment living.
We lived at the top of the park, on the perimeter road, so I only had neighbors on two sides. The backyard of my little lot nestled against a rocky hillside which extended to a larger wild area populated by pepper trees, native shrubs and grasses; home to skunks, possums, rodents and more. Over the years we lived there I added a small flock of chickens. An enterprising coyote occasionally busted through the fences I built to reinforce his wildlife diet with some domestic chicken dinners.
On my west side lived a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses who were wonderful neighbors: no loud parties, no drunken brawls, no late night noise, and the cops were never called. To the east lived a sickly older widowed woman who lived alone with her surgeries and digestive problems to keep her company. She wore hearing aids and sometimes played hymns loud enough for the squirrels to notice. Fortunately, I enjoyed the music.
When I moved there with my daughters, we met Grace, who had lived across the road since the park opened in 1960, in an old single-wide aluminum-sided trailer. From my nomadic point of view, Grace had resided there my entire lifetime while my former address list was longer than my credit history.
Grace was 86 when we moved there. We met outside and took an instant liking to each other. She always had a ready smile and it became our custom to greet each other with a warm hug. An avid wearer of hats, Grace had been widowed from her third husband more than a decade by then. She never bore any children of her own but had a stepdaughter who lived in the backcountry.
During one of our first encounters, Grace proudly showed me the tattoo she had recently acquired.
“Do you want to see my tattoo?” She giggled. She pulled aside the neckline of her shirt to reveal a small palm oasis inked on her chest. She relayed the story that her nieces from Iowa came to town and declared they were all going to get tattooed. I thought of my 20-something niece who is covered with tats, and my brain suddenly realized the flaw in my thinking.
“Wait a minute, how old are your nieces?”
“Sixty-five and 68.”
I could just picture the scene: three white-haired old biddies strolling into the tattoo parlor and choosing their artwork.
I loved Grace. At 86, she was lively and busy. She played bingo, she went bowling and she had a small social circle of former co-workers and neighbors with whom she met for meals out on a regular basis. Her memory was much sharper than mine; she remembered my friends’ names and situations even if she only met them once.
By the time Grace turned 91, she started having symptoms of kidney cancer. I’ll spare the gory details here but it took Kaiser months to identify the symptoms as serious enough to warrant further investigation, a lapse that I believed culminated in Grace’s surgical loss of one kidney and the migration of the cancer into her bones. After that, Kaiser in its wisdom sentenced Grace to less than a year to live.
Woven into Grace’s end-of-life medical history is the story of Harold. He was a member of her social circle, a recent widower who lived alone in a large home in nearby Lemon Grove. A former engineer, he was meticulous in his mannerisms and lifestyle. They began seeing each other and soon enough became intimate. Like I said, Grace was 91 then and Harold was in his early eighties, so we called Grace the neighborhood cougar, much to her delight.
After a whirlwind courtship during which time Grace was rarely seen there in the park, she decided to move in with Harold. After all, he had a large empty home with a big bed and Grace only had a twin bed in her mobile home. Over the course of a few weeks, with her stepdaughter’s help she emptied out her trailer and took up residence with “The Man Who Stole Grace from Us,” as we came to call him. Many of her possessions and some of her furniture have been assimilated in to my home, so I see Grace everywhere. As a bullfight aficionado, she instilled a love for the sport in my 12-year-old daughter; now there are toreador posters and other memorabilia around my house.
Grace sold her home to a single young man, another Jehovah’s Witness, and at times I could see through his window that he was entertaining a gathering of similarly-dressed clean-cut young men, all staring intently at a wide screen. That seemed to be as wild as it got.
I visited Grace at Harold’s and learned that she fell and bruised her tailbone. She was unhappy living there at Harold’s. In the mobile home park Grace used to sit on her front porch and chat with the people who walked by. A great many residents there walked their dogs and the perimeter road was also used for walking or jogging by fitness-minded inhabitants. Grace learned everyone’s name; even the kids on skateboards and the little ones from the child factory at the end of our road. She also knew the dog’s names.
But Harold lived at the end of a cul-de-sac; he didn’t have a front porch. It was lonely there, and Harold was set in his ways. He didn’t cook meals at home and had a weekly schedule of restaurants like IHOP and Denny’s where he took advantage of senior specials. He was a tightwad and even though he was sleeping with Grace, he was demanding that she pay rent, which she was happy to do, but also for half the food, which she disagreed with. She reasoned that since he ate more than she did, why not each pay for their own? When she couldn’t go out because of her injured tailbone, Harold would spend his days at the casino without her and remain there for 12 hours at a stretch, leaving Grace home alone in a house with no food.
One day I was out front and I saw Grace driving past. I hollered out and she parked and came in for a visit. She was crying. I hugged her and brewed her some tea and learned the story: Harold was mistreating her verbally and neglecting her, while becoming more demanding in bed. She had just come from a doctor’s appointment to which Harold failed to accompany her. The doctor advised her to move out and gave her a list of resources for the elderly. I invited her to remain in my home as long as she wished. After a few days her stepdaughter came and they moved Grace out of Harold’s. They said he asked why she wanted to leave.
Grace spent some months at her stepdaughter’s, but her health deteriorated to where she required more care. She found a lovely assisted living home near Sycuan. I visited with her weekly. I was honored to be her friend. I asked her if I could write her obituary and she obliged with a brief biography. To the question, “What advice do you have for younger people?” she responded, “Save your money and never give up your house for a man.”
Even at the assisted living home, Grace knew everyone and their story. She quickly learned the names of any relatives or friends who came to visit. During our visits, we studied the other residents. Mary spent her days strapped to a wheelchair. The aides spoon-fed her meals, most of which ended up on her shirt or the tray in front of her. Mary did not communicate nor make eye contact. It was as if Mary had left her body which forgot she was gone.
Susan sat on the sofa, snoring in front of a loud television show. If someone turned down the volume, Susan would awaken and complain that she was watching that, dammit, turn it back up!
William wandered around the building, asking if anyone has seen his cat. Grace told me that William’s cat died twenty years ago. Peter lay in his bed all day, the aides alternatively feeding him and changing his diapers.
In this environment, I watched Grace withdraw. Without saying so, I knew she did not want to live like the others. She told me she signed an advance directive and Do Not Resuscitate orders. She took to her bed, and refused to eat or drink. I came to visit more often, every other day then. Grace shrunk before my eyes. I wondered if they had snuck Grace out and placed a smaller, frailer resident in her bed. Most of the time, Grace slept. The aides told me since she wasn’t eating or drinking, death would come soon. It took two weeks. One afternoon, Grace opened her eyes, looked at me and said, “You’re so good to me.” I knew she didn’t want to die alone, and I wanted her to know how much I loved her.
The morning of June 21st that year was a sweet sunny one, the air unusually crisp. I woke up to the music of birds chirping, and my very first thought was What a lovely day to die. The call came minutes later, the aides telling me that even though I wasn’t related, they thought I might come visit and they wanted to save me the trip.

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