Sunday, November 20, 2011

Ardievu, Vecmamma

My Vecmamma died last Friday. I was by her side, singing a folk song with my sister. If we had known we would be accompanying her last breaths, maybe we would not have chosen Āvu, āvu baltas kājas. But it was a fine-enough song to sing her then, an old story of a girl dressing her feet in white and weaving herself a wreath of roses that would be taken by the wind into the sea. It is the song my mother sang to me when I was a babe and cried.

My Vecmamma had been in the hospital just over a week, asleep most of the time and unable to really talk even when she was awake. I did what I have often done in recent months, as her memory faded and conversations grew shorter. I sang the songs she knew from childhood, the words she would remember even after she said she'd forgotten. I sang the lullaby prayer I grew up singing, but the version that mentioned Jesus' blood... I had learned those words from her. I sang her favorite folk songs, the sad ones and the silly. I sang every song I thought she knew, because I had time enough to sing them again and again.

After Marija was born, the nurses eventually took her from me to weigh her, and I told Joe to follow and comfort her, and he sang her Lovesong by The Cure. By my grandmother's bed, I often wonder what songs met her as she came into this world... whether her mother and father sang her the same ones on the way in as I was singing her on the way out.

We had thought Vecmamma might recover, and she was awake and nodding her head at happy news we had been longing to share with her. But her body started to fail in the night, and by the time I was back at the hospital, her medicine was the only thing keeping her alive, and there was almost no hope of healing. The nurses stopped the medicine around lunch time, told us there was no way of knowing when the end would come but it would be a couple days at most, and I thought I would stay with her and sing when she was awake and rest as she slept. But she did not sleep that afternoon. I think, now, that her heart began to race, as the nurses said it would. But then, I was surprised to find myself with hours to fill with nothing but prayer and song. I stroked her forehead, and from the way she moved her face, I could tell she knew I was there.

I got cramped from bending over her bedside, so I lay back in a chair. I wondered if it really would be days I would fill with her. I ate snacks and longed for my sister to join me so I could leave and get some dinner. I read the newspaper a little, even though I might regret it later. I sang a little less often so I would still have voice in the night, but I was still singing. When it got dark, I turned on a few lamps.

When Anita came, Vecmamma looked at her, but I thought it was too bad she wasn't responding as much as she had earlier in the afternoon. We showed her pictures of Marija on Anita's phone, though it was hard to tell if she liked them. Anita and I talked to the side a little while, and then Anita suggested we start to sing together.

It was almost eight thirty. Our first song was one of her favorites, about a rooster, Kur Tu teci, gailīti mans? Anita and I messed up a verse, said Vecmamma would no doubt know the right words. And as we started Āvu, Āvu, Vecmamma's breathing began to slow, then stop. I looked at her face to see if she looked distressed, and was suddenly aware of the skull beneath her fragile skin. Her body looked like a machine that was winding down... there was a pause, and then a last few breaths.

Vecmamma had lived with my family since I was a year old. When I was little, her bedroom was a fun place to hide away, a place I could eat Skittles out of her little candy dish and try to get her to rub my legs while she watched Wheel of Fortune. When I was in college, she'd invite me to lie on that big bed with her when I was tired, and I often fell asleep there on visits home. But though she always appreciated us there, it was only in the last months of her life that she protested when we said goodnight and went our own way. On nights my parents were away and I was bringing her to her bedroom, she'd ask me "Can't I sleep with you instead?"

Oh, Vecmamma. How I longed to climb into your bed with you and hold you in those last days. How aware I was of so many times I could have loved you better. Thanks to God for your 99 years, your two years knowing my daughter, for our precious hours together at the end. My prayer to be with you at the last was answered indeed.

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