Monday, January 17, 2011

I Love You; You Be Good



She was sick for awhile, but I didn't believe that being sick would kill her.


I was living in Virginia when I found out from my aunt that she was in the hospital. It was a Wednesday or a Thursday. It was a work day, and I was stuck at work in Virginia so I couldn't go see her. She was extremely yellow I was told. Her liver was failing and she had jaundice. It was late April 2008. I hated living in Virginia.

I heard that she and my aunt took an ambulance ride from Palisades to some hospital on the east side of Manhattan during rush hour. It sounded exciting. From what I understood she was seeing the best doctors in the NYC-area to diagnose and treat her.

By June 2008, she was well enough again--a ball of love and happiness at my engagement party. I think we knew that she had contracted a rare form of hepatitis at this point. I think she contracted it from unhygienic dental equipment from a dentist visit. From what I understood the hepatitis made her liver behave like she was an alcoholic all her life. She never drank much--and not hard liquor as far as I could tell.

She stayed well right until about a month after my wedding--though she had some days of looking more yellow than others, she wasn't sick. She always said that her knees hurt (from arthritis) or something else bothered her. My dad noted that as long as she was complaining about something (how she wanted things to be hot--she never liked hospital food because it was luke warm; or ice cold--she liked ice in her water), she was fine. It was when she stopped that we had to worry.

From what I understood, her liver failure started making her retain water. The water she retained made her stomach area bloated. She couldn't move around very easily, but that's what she did in life daily up until she got sick: gardening, walking to the park and around the lake, cleaning the floor and windows and curtains and dusting off her porcelain and glass collectibles, bargain hunting (saving two cents on milk from A&P though she already bought a bunch of stuff from Pathmark on the other side of town because something there was fifteen cents cheaper), going to the movie showings for the seniors and watching the strangest films, traveling to visit family and friends near and far, cooking the most delicious monster meatballs, chicken soup, chocolate cake and the like, sewing or knitting something beautiful and sometimes avant garde. She wasn't allowed to drink more than small cup of water a day (she loved seltzer water). She wasn't allowed to eat fruit because of the water in the fruit (she loved oranges and watermelon and figs and tomatoes and cantaloupe and honeydew). Every month or so she would be drained. She lost a lot of weight. She didn't want to do anything because she felt sick. Her stomach hurt. She was taking so many pills a day, and she hated it.

From July 2009 to December 2010 she was in and out of the hospital.

In August 2009, I moved back to New Jersey, and I'd visit her after work in the hospital when I got out of work at a decent time and didn't have too much freelance to work on afterwards.

Christmas 2009 she wasn't feeling well enough to stay for the whole time at my aunt and uncle's Christmas party.

She wasn't well enough to make it to my sister's pharmacy graduation in May 2010, which I thought was nonsense. How's it possible to celebrate things without her there?

When my dad was preparing to go on a hiking trip, he was talking to my aunt, and it was the first time I ever heard him refer to my grandma as "Mommy." I thought it was very sweet.

On my twenty-seventh birthday, I had lunch with her and my sister. We had Chinese take-out. It was good. She ate more than I saw her eat in awhile. She even liked to eat the Singapore chow mai fun.

I don't remember when it was, but she was back in the hospital. The weather by the river was perfect for al fresco dining--I was outside at the bar at the restaurant by the hospital. She was being moved from ICU to the regular part of the hospital and then to the Harborage (assisted living/hospice part of the hospital). My uncle seemed to be telling me that it was time to accept the grim circumstances that if she doesn't get well soon this might be it. She got well soon that time though. And when she got home that time, we all ate together in her house and celebrated her homecoming.

During these meals that we had with her, my dad would make a squished chipmunk face and she would make it back or call him crazy. Since we were limiting her water intake, she would sometimes sneak more fruit or water or soda like a little kid and act as if nothing at all happened. It was funny.

Her last homecoming she was too tired to celebrate with us and stayed in bed. We had gotten her favorite Chinese take-out.

I remember visiting her once after work, and she was sleeping so I didn't want to disturb her so I just sat with her while she slept. She was dreaming and talking in her sleep: "Isabel, Isabel...Get me out of here!...Get me out of here!"

At some point this fall, she got a tube inserted so that my dad can drain the water collecting in her at home. In December, the tube somehow gave her an intense infection and she was brought to the hospital to remove it and cure the infection. My mom texted us that we should go visit her because she's really sick. (I really hated these texts or finding out that she was in the hospital from someone else mentioning it in passing conversation a few days after she was admitted.)

Morphine made her really itchy. When we got to her floor, we could hear someone yelping in pain. It was the person in her room--it was her. I've never seen anyone so miserable and in so much pain. My dad held her hand and gave her water and all. When she passed out, he tiptoed around like Yogi Bear stealing a picnic basket.

My grandma called him Buddy--as do a lot of my Solazzo family members cause there's another cousin named Bart. (We also have a cousin that we call Big Isabel; I guess because my aunt is considered little Isabel, but they just call her Isabel.)

She seemed better the next time I visited. My brother said that she wanted a fresh tomato and some bread. Since I worked in midtown, I couldn't readily access a good market without going too far out of the way, so I told him that I'll bring a mozzarella sandwich from Schnipper's since she seemed to appreciate the mozzarella in addition to the bread and tomatoes last time. It tasted fresh.

My grandma loved fresh things. (Once on my way to the hospital during the summer months I bought a small fruit salad from 'witchcraft for $3.99--it had one cantaloupe piece and one honeydew piece and maybe half a strawberry, but she's worth it.)

I also brought some sweet potato french fries and some chili fries since she also loved potatoes and one other time that she got out of ICU she love the mac 'n joe (macaroni and cheese and sloppy joe) that I brought her. Jon came later with some pizza. She had a bite of everything and seemed to really enjoy it.

We showed her Christmas cards and get-well-soon cards that she received. She thought they were pretty.

During times that I visited her in the hospital there were two incidents of Code Reds and one baby song played over the monitor when I was there. It was interesting to spend so much time in a hospital after hearing my friends spending so much time there becoming doctors and all. I also became very good at sneaking into the hospital because that part only allowed two visitors at a time. I was like a ninja.

She was moved from the hospital to the Harborage again. Her view was spectacular--midtown and downtown Manhattan. I'm not sure if she ever had a chance to enjoy it.

One of the last times that I visited with her, it was quite late, and it was way past the time the Harborage closed for visitors. My mom and my sister were still there though. The nurse was nice enough not to kick us out. (My mom learned the next time she was there really late though that she wasn't supposed to be there so late. Oddly, hospital visiting hours were later than Harborage visiting hours.) I remember watching Money Drop and thinking of how dumb the show was. As we were getting up to leave, she thought she was in her bedroom at home and that we were going upstairs to our part of the house. It was hard to explain that we were going home, and not just upstairs.

The last time I saw her and she was conscious and lucid was Christmas day. She looked so little and she just laid there in her bed not looking at anything particular. (Grandma used to be the type of grandma that would squeeze just a little too hard when she hugged you, but it would be all right since she was so soft.) She seemed happy to see me and Jon. I brought her a card that I made just for her that was shaped like a Christmas tree and colored in with crayons and topped with a silver star, and I gave her a few of the chocolate chip cookies that I made. She didn't particularly care for the bitterness of the chocolate. The orange that I peeled for her wasn't particularly sweet or juicy either. We sat with her for a little while. Too short of a while now that I think about it. Like usual she talked about things she had to do: get her hair cut, pick up some fish because my father wouldn't go out to buy it though she saw that it was cheap in the circular (I don't think she's seen a circular in months), fix her iron (this entailed bringing her steam iron into the city and trying to find a place along Ninth Avenue in the garment area to fix it, etc.). Things that we knew she probably knew that she couldn't do, but it was good to talk about. It's always good to have goals in life no matter how simple or lofty.In particular that day, she asked me what was open--and I told her Mitsuwa the Japanese market was open. She didn't say that she was hungry, but then she asked me to run down the block and get her an egg roll--that she just wanted one egg roll. She still confirmed that she wasn't hungry though so I told her that I'd see her tomorrow and we'll bring her an egg roll--knowing full well that she'd probably forget about the egg roll and that my aunt had delicious food that would be leftover from Christmas and brought to her instead. She told us that we should be getting to my aunt's house.

Whenever we said good-bye since as long as I could remember it would go something like this:

Me: Good-bye, Grandma. I love you.

Grandma: Good-bye. I love you. Be good!

Me: You too, Grandma! or You be good too, Grandma! (Which was kind of fresh, but whatever, I wanted her to be good too.)

And that's what we said the last time I saw her and she was able to talk.

On Tuesday I got a text message that said that Grandma was in ICU because she was coughing up blood. I didn't visit her after work because they were going to do surgery to figure out the blood situation. My brother visited the next day and said that she was doing as well as she could be considering. I'm not sure what that meant, but considering that she's always more or less recovered from these scares, I didn't think about it too much. I had a freelance copyediting job that was due on Thursday so I didn't go visit on Wednesday either.

On Thursday, I left work kind of late because I was waiting for proofs to be produced for a book that was running extremely late. Like, if this book didn't publish on time, it would be my fault, and it would be the first time I would be responsible for missing a deadline, so I was trying to do what I could to save the deadline. We were told that we could leave at 2pm but officially it was 3pm but because I was waiting. I left at 4pm--still proofless.

Because of the congestion due to the snow storm that made most of my route one lane in each direction, I didn't get to the hospital for another hour and by that point, I thought that I'd just visit her tomorrow. I got home fifteen minutes later (it's really supposed to be a five minute drive) and grabbed my baked goods and presents for Jon's cousins that we were seeing for a belated Christmas (it was rescheduled due to the snow storm). I got changed into a more holiday-ish outfit, and then I set to shovel out the car from the snow that hadn't melted--which seemed like none had.

When I thought I got enough of it cleared, I started the car, but I still couldn't reverse out carefully. So I stopped the engine, and continued shoveling. Another half hour later, I tried again, but this time I got: KEY ERROR. TRY AGAIN. (This is the same error we got when we went to Inn at Little Washington for our first wedding anniversary and were trapped in Virginia for an extra day and had to rent a car and then do a round trip drive up and down the weekend of July 4th. The dealership in Virginia had to replace the entire car's computer via overnight airmail from Sweden.) Our car was dead. Again. Jon tried his key, but that didn't work. We called Jon's parents and told them that we were stuck at home. The next morning Volvo towed the car to the dealership, which being New Year's Eve wasn't open and wouldn't be open until Monday.

Carless, I called my sister on Friday morning to see if she could pick me up before visiting Grandma so we can visit her together. My mom mentioned something about my aunt sending her my grandma's obituary to edit and proofread. I thought that was a little weird since I thought, Obviously, she's going to recover. OBVIOUSLY.

My dad took my sister's car, and since she can only drive her car, we had to wait for him to get home. He came home at around 4:30, which is odd because he usually came home around 3:30. We assumed that he was waiting for my aunt to arrive before leaving Grandma.

Since it was New Year's Eve, we invited Jon's family and my family to come over and watch the Central Park fireworks from our apartment. Jon's family was coming over at 8pm so we could open our Christmas presents from them and Jon's aunts/uncles/cousins. Jon stayed home to finish cleaning, and we planned on picking him up and going to Mitsuwa after Wee and I visited Grandma.

On our way to visit Grandma, making the left turn into the hospital, some jerk ran the light though we had a turning light. No one was hurt, but it was kind of scary.

We parked and went in, and she was on the second floor. I didn't know she was on a different floor. I didn't know there were different floors for levels of sickness either. I thought the Harborage was the Harborage--where Grandma was usually awake and well and comfortable. The second floor looked much different than the fifth floor where her rooms were before. It felt like death was closer here.

My sister pointed out that the old folks were watching the same Cary Grant marathon that she was watching all day.

My aunt was there. Her nail polish match the purple colors of the walls. The drop-ceiling tiles directly overhead were painted--one was a landscape and the other was something else. The landscape was vertical though, which didn't make sense.

Grandma didn't greet us. Her eyes were open, as was her mouth. She seemed to be staring to the right at something. She didn't blink. She didn't move the entire time that we were there. It was possible that she could hear us. I've never seen her look so bad. Watching House whenever the patient bleeds from any orifice, it always means imminent death until they discover that it was something obvious like the flu or something. But still, she had to recover, right?

My aunt talked about how there was a guitarist playing Margaritaville or something in the common area outside the room before as a New Year's Eve thing. She mentioned the obituary, which I put off. We talked about the concert that she was going to go see that night, about the fireworks I was going to see from my apartment, about how Wee was going to sleep at 10 because she had to work at 11 the next day. They told Grandma that I stole her crystal figurines--the ones that Grandma assumed someone stole at some point.

The nurse came in and tried getting a pulse from her wrist and then her arm. She then use the fingertip one and her pulse was 70 or something reasonable. But her oxygen was 48. The nurse explained sadly that 100 is normal and 90 was normal for older patients. She said to talk to Grandma to let her know that we're here and all that stuff...as if she were dying. When the nurse left we looked to Wee and asked her to explain. Wee said that 48 might just be normal for Grandma since she's really sick.

It's odd that we didn't think to call my dad with this data. When she was first going to the hospital to visit her, we'd call him with whatever the doctor or nurse had to say. This time, for whatever reason, we didn't think to call him.

My aunt left shortly after the nurse gave us the readings and cryptic message that we should've interpreted better as--your mom/grandma is dying and she might not live through the next few hours.

Wee and I held Grandma's hands as we talked about our future year to come. We talked about Wee's Christmas party with friends and her search with Chris for an apartment. Wee asked about Grandma's materials so she can make a sleeve for her Nook color thing.

I checked the time and it was about 7, and I got an e-mail from Jon asking about when we were coming, so we said good-bye to Grandma and told her that we loved her and to be good.

The entire time that we were there, she was completely still. But as we were talking about leaving, she raised her right hand. It kind of creepy since she was so still the entire time we were there otherwise. I felt that she raised her hand to tell us not to go and ask us why we're running off. I told her that we'd be back tomorrow to see her in 2011. A new year! A year that had got to be better than 2010.

We picked Jon up and got $200 worth of food for New Year's Eve at Mitsuwa: all kinds of sushi, packs of soba, and other fun stuff. As we were pulling out of the Mitsuwa parking lot, my sister got a call from our dad. It was around 7:30. She announced that Grandma passed away.

I started crying uncontrollably. Wee asked me to pull over, but I just continued driving to my apartment. I had no idea what to do. Were we supposed to go back to the hospital? Were we supposed to go home? What we supposed to do?

Wee said that we should go back to our house. Jon called his parents and told them not to come (well, to turn around since they were already on their way), and he drove to my parents' house. It felt like the longest ride ever--like we would never make it.

Once we got in, we wondered if our brother knew. So Wee called him. He answered the phone like normal, so we knew he didn't know. Wee told him. He said he was coming over. (He was watching Tin Cup and getting ready to go to NYC for New Year's Eve.)

We automatically assumed that our mom knew, but around 8:15, she was home and she sounded so excited that Jon and I were over. She definitely didn't know. So I walked down the stairs and at the bottom of the steps I told her. We thought she got out of work at 7 not 8.

When my dad came home, he told me and Wee that if his pulse ox is ever 40 to call Mommy immediately. Then I remembered Grandma's hand being raised. Wee thought she was saying good-bye. I felt so, so guilty for leaving her to die alone especially if the hand gesture meant to not leave her alone.

Our dad was mostly business and tried to keep things light--I've never seen him sad. It would probably break my heart if I did though. He seemed okay. And if he could be okay, I could be okay too. He said he needed a picture of her hair done up and an outfit by noon tomorrow. I asked if we could put that off. My mom asked me to look at the obituary. I asked if we could put that off, but I eventually did look at it and corrected and added some stuff.

Watching the ball drop that evening was bittersweet. We heard the fireworks we were supposed to watch. Jon and I went home.

The text messages I got said, "Happy New Year!!!!!" So I responded with equal excitement for the new year because what else could I do? Say "Happy New Year, btw, my grandma just died"? I asked Jon to send out a quick e-mail to some friends so that they knew what happened.

We notified family and friends the next day. We looked for and found some pictures. We dug through all the nooks and crannies in her house to find pictures, but we didn't find a lot of the really old ones. The ones with her while my grandpa was alive mostly. (He died before I was born. He died when he was relatively young. It was all quite tragic, which is why a lot of the older photos were hidden--she thought it was too hard to look at. But that my grandma was able to raise such good kids and grandkids on her own is all a good testament to how awesome she was.)

The obituary was posted in the Bergen Record for some extreme price and the funeral arrangements were set. Tuesday morning she would be laid to rest.

Sunday was the first day of the wake. Since my brother was moving to Rhode Island that week, about a month before I found a reservation for a Momofuku chicken lunch for January 2nd to celebrate his new job and send him off properly. I guess I could have canceled the reservation under these circumstances, but we decided to have lunch with him and his friends and then head directly to the first viewing that Sunday afternoon.

My brother was the most dressed up person at Momofuku because he wore his suit for the wake. The chicken was good, but I kept getting that awful feeling that I would start crying and not be able to stop again. Also, I ate too much.

I was terrified and told Wee I was too. She kind of assured me that things would be fine. And it was.

My mom and sister and aunt picked out a sparkly outfit that Grandma's not worn before and some pearls. They brought her glasses and a pair of shoes for my grandpa because he was buried without shoes because my aunt was young and didn't know that people had to be buried with shoes when she brought his clothing for his funeral. They hung the wooden rosary in the casket that hung around my grandma's bed ever since I was little. My aunt set a little sewing machine figurine beside her.

There were so many flowers. So many gorgeous flowers that my grandma would have loved. And there were so many people. Why do more family members turn out for funerals than weddings? People who couldn't make it to my wedding with a year's notice (and with Grandma alive and well) still turned up within a day's notice for the wake. Isn't it more fun to see people in a happy setting with everyone present?

All of my brother's friends came, and a couple of my sister's friends. Some of my friends sent flowers to the house--which were slightly difficult to deliver but Jon handled it. My mom's boss and wife came. When my grandma's surviving brother came, he asked, "Who's going to make me broccoli rabe now and lentils?" When he saw me, he asked, "Where's the baby?" Oh, Uncle Fillippo.

The slideshow we made of pictures from Grandma's life turned out really nice. It was over five minutes long and everyone enjoyed looking at the pictures and remembering. The scrapbook that we made for her 80th birthday party was also circulating and was a hit.

I think she would have been really pleased that so many people came. They all said the nicest things and were respectfully sad.

On Monday our car was fixed, but we couldn't pick it up. During the early-afternoon viewing the mayor of North Bergen came. My dad's coworkers and bosses from the hospital came. They were nice. One of my dad's cousins had a slideshow with some old film clips of my grandma playing kick ball with my grandpa, dad, and aunt, and their cousins. It was really fun to watch. She was always so lively.

On Monday evening, Dani, Sarm, and Hetal came to the wake and so did some of my sister's friends. My aunt's bosses came. It was nice. It felt like we were in my grandma's living room and she was present. My friends said it was like she was everyone's grandma. She definitely was.

P.Diddy came and asked for some of my best memories of her. It's so hard to do that because there were just too many: I told him about her walking across the street from church on my wedding day without shoes on cause Sarm just mentioned it; about her chicken soup, which would be so delicious right now in this cold weather; her meatballs; her washing the windows and the neighbors' across the street begin terrified of seeing her fall so they went inside. He kept calling me Christine, but some people have a tendency to do that, so it was fine with me.

Tuesday morning was really hard. We got to the funeral home. A lot of people were there, but they were quiet. Everyone was quiet. Then it was time to say good-bye. Friends and family said good-bye, and then immediate family. It was so hard. So hard. I can't express how hard it was to justify how unprepared I was to say good-bye. The other viewings I was able to not cry, but I cried so much that morning in front of everyone. (My dad's cousin Frank said that my grandma said to him when his father passed away to "be strong." It's so hard to be strong on such a sad day.) My cousin Samantha hugged me and gave me a tissue while Jon held my hand.

We rode in the funeral home's limo, which isn't at all like the limo you'd take to the prom, so it is nice that they have different types. We rode to the church across the street. It was the second longest ride to my house ever.

We walked behind her down the aisle of the church. The last time I walked up and down the aisle of this church was my wedding day--when she was alive and so, so happy. It was really hard. It was too hard to walk and say good-bye and do this. But we survived.

P.Diddy gave a great mass. At one point, I stopped realizing how sad and lost I felt and realized I should probably shut off my phone in case the doctor's office called to confirm my appointment the following day.

The mass at the cemetery was short and sweet. The repass was long and relaxing and nice and delicious.

Grandma had a great funeral--if one could have a great funeral. She deserved all things great.

Grandma, you be good. I love you.
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