I’m learning (or maybe I’ve learned?) that I wait too long to take care of things. Yes, I take care of a lot of important (and not-so-important) things every day, but there are those things that really matter that I put off and put off until they silently slip away and get replaced by other pieces of life. And if they’re really important and I’ve let them wander off, they often come back as regrets.
It’s been three weeks since I returned from Honolulu to visit my dying Nana—a trip I made to take care of one of those important things: saying goodbye.
I broke into tears when I entered her room. The weight of everything washed over me instantly and there was nothing to do but cry and somehow, in the midst of that, try not to show what I was really feeling and thinking. Did she know I was there because I thought she was dying? Did she feel like she was dying? What does it feel like to see people grieving your death when you’re still alive?
I had no illusions that she would be the same woman I had seen in Disneyland four years earlier, but how can you ever be prepared to see someone who’s time is drawing to an end? It was her impossibly thin arms and skin wrapped so closely to her cheek bones and teeth that made clear why I had come. Of course I recognized her, but she really was just a shadow of her old self.
She was alert though and I could easily see in her sweet, soft eyes that she recognized me. Speaking in short phrases to accommodate her diminished air capacity, she commented on my stories and updates on my three young daughters with an, “Oh, how cute,” or a, “Time flies.” There were times when I’d ask her a question and she’d just shrug leaving me to wonder if she understood what I had said or she was just okay with not having an answer.
For a while I just held her hand. At first I felt compelled to fill every space with questions or information to catch her up on time that had passed since we were last together, but I finally settled in to just being there. I was surprised at how firm her grip was. How could those withered muscles contract like that? I almost couldn’t tell if it was me or her squeezing so tightly, so I asked, “Is this okay, Nana?” She replied, “It’s fine.” I couldn’t remember another time we had held hands and the intimacy seemed fitting for everything that moment held.
Between visits with Nana and Granddad, I spent time with my Dad, half-sister Grace, and my Aunt Julie. We shared meals, a sunset, and Dad and Grace and I enjoyed some late-night talks, catching up on time and lives apart. We even got in a 5 mile hike at Ka’ena Point. It was therapeutic to have time outside to enjoy part of the island and process everything. Even though I was there to say goodbye to Nana, I was also there to renew connections with those I’ll hopefully have more time with.
Throughout the trip it was hard for me to determine if I was doing everything I needed to. I didn’t want to intrude but I wanted to make sure I had enough time with her, but had no idea how much “enough” was. In the first visit, right after I landed, after only being by her bed for 5 or 10 minutes, she said, “Well, I don’t want to keep you.” I wondered if that was a subtle cue to leave so she could rest, or if she was being typical Nana, not wanting her needs or wants to interfere with anyone else’s. I was choked up with tears but I was able to say, “I have nowhere else to be, Nana.”
Our last visit with her was the hardest. We arrived to find her up and about in her wheelchair with the nurse. She had just spent some time with Granddad and was asking to go back to her room. The nurse was waiting to get her meds while they were up, and she was gradually becoming more agitated. They took care of her meds though and got her back to her room and settled. She was very tired and appeared to be drifting in and out of sleep as we sat with her one more time. Dad and Grace had to leave for their flight soon, and with my flight being very early the next morning, I knew this was my last time with her. I held her hand and told her it was good to see her, how I was thankful I could come to visit, and that I loved her. She nodded with her eyes closed and I kissed her head, making way for Dad and Grace to do the same.
That night, after dropping Dad and Grace off at the airport, I felt compelled to make one last trip to the beach. It was late enough that hotel bars were closing and the beach was mostly empty, just the occasional homeless guy sleeping on the sand or couples wandering back to their rooms for the night. I stood with my feet in the ocean and breathed deep. I was thankful and tired and sad. I almost couldn’t believe that I had just said a final farewell to my grandma. I had spent my life thousands of miles from my grandparents and there was something strange about Nana just being a few miles away at that moment, still alive, and yet, I probably wouldn’t see her again. Probably. There was that part of me that still didn’t accept it. I would get on a plane and fly home in just a few hours, but at that moment, nothing was final.