“I hope that I die tomorrow,” Gammy said to me as she sat on the edge of her new bed and gazed at the hardwood floor.
I ran through the responses that would be appropriate but Gammy didn’t need to hear something appropriate. She would have dismissed an inauthentic reply anyway.
“I understand,” I replied.
In May of 2014, her doctors at the Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital diagnosed a rash, originally thought to be another episode of recurring shingles, as skin cancer. Since Gammy had already been doing chemotherapy treatments for several years to fight off breast cancer, the doctors were not sure she could handle surgery. They did some tests and determined she had a strong heart considering she would be turning 95 at the end of the year. However, there was still a possibility that the anesthesia would be too hard for her and she would die in surgery. Rather than look at this as a risk, Gammy saw her circumstances as a prime opportunity for unintentional euthanasia.
Her doctor scheduled surgery to remove the skin in the affected area. I was at Gammy’s house the day before so we could get her things together for her stay in the hospital. I had gone to the VA hospital in Washington, D.C., that morning to pick up the medications for her post-surgery recovery. A few days earlier, my family had decided that it would be better if Gammy moved out of the second floor bedroom into a ground floor room. She was no longer able to walk up and down the stairs. She had to crawl. Gammy took it as a challenge. If crawling was what she had to do to get back and forth to her bedroom, she did it. Now we were forcing her to take the easy way out and she resented it.
I spent time with Gammy during the day to help her move her things downstairs and clean up. Someone from VA had delivered a proper hospital bed for her new room, so Gammy was surrendering her old bed too. As if leaving her room wasn’t difficult enough, she would have a constant reminder that she was now so infirm that she needed a bed with rails to keep her from falling out of it.
Gammy and I sat upstairs on the edge of her double bed with the faded wooden headboard while she rummaged through little boxes from atop her dresser. I could see she was taking this opportunity with me not only to clean, but also to continue to organize for her eventual death. For years, Gammy had been discarding things because she was always concerned about “not being a burden.” Her goal was to leave as little as possible for her family to deal with after she was gone. Gammy picked up a small dusty blue box of costume jewelry.
“Do you want any of this jewelry?” she asked.
I looked at the old pieces Gammy was flipping through and I politely declined.
“Women don’t dress up enough anymore. We used to always wear all sorts of jewelry,” she lamented.
She twirled a worn down metallic brooch in her hands and I could tell that her mind was wandering. I imagined that Gammy was thinking about the glamorous 1950s captured in a few photos in which she and my grandfather wore tailored suits at dinner and managed to look suave even as Mom and her siblings hung playfully over the dining chairs. I glanced down at my gray sweatpants and running shoes and had to agree that times had changed. I watched as she continued to rummage through small cardboard boxes and then I spotted a small pair of gunmetal gray wings stretching from a diamond-shaped shield.
“What about those?” I asked.
“Oh, you can have those. You should have those.” Gammy handed the pair of wings to me and sighed. I knew they weren’t her original ones, since those were in the museum, but I thought it was a good keepsake anyway. The wings reminded me of all the times I had seen her go out in uniform to share the story of her service in the war – lectures I had never attended.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
“Just tired.” She replaced the dusty lid on the box and set it back on the dresser.
I supervised Gammy as she made her final backwards crawl down the stairs to her new room. On the desk next to her new bed, I arranged personal items like her glasses, medicine, and tissues. Her new bedroom was still her active office whose floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with books and memorabilia about World War II, airplanes, the early days of baseball, and the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or “WASP,” provided comfort in the transition. Her honorable service certificate and service medals were displayed in a frame placed among the books on the shelves. Gammy’s passion for sharing the history of the WASP surrounded her in her final days. It seemed to me that she owned every book written about the WASP, many of which were signed by the authors, including a few of her fellow pilots. Fans and researchers still sent letters requesting information about her service in the WASP. There were 8 x 10 photo prints awaiting her autograph, which Gammy supplied until her hand no longer cooperated.
Gammy sat down to rest on her new bed, let out a sigh, and said, “Well, I’m pooped.”
“Can I get you anything?” I asked.
Lost in thought, she looked around her new room for a minute before responding. “I am just so old. I am too old. People weren’t meant to live this long. I have had a fine life. I don’t know why I am still here. I am bored. I can’t eat. It’s just – I just don’t know. I hope that I don’t live through this surgery tomorrow. I hope that I get anesthesia and don’t wake up,” Gammy replied.
While I was sad to hear her express this morbid desire, I knew she also had a point. The fact that Gammy was complaining was significant. I had never known my grandmother to be a complainer. She had lived through the Great Depression and World War II and still had a positive attitude. Even in the face of adversity, she always took things at face value and assumed that she would come through it all fine. But her quality of life had deteriorated and now she was being taken out of the only bedroom she had known for decades. At least she was still in her white brick house on the hill in the woods in her beloved state of Maryland, which, according to Gammy, was the only place worth living. New Zealand was a close second. I was not certain why New Zealand received high praise from my finicky Gammy, but I recalled upon her return from a vacation to the land of the kiwi that she had many compliments for the green rolling hills dotted with sheep. Or perhaps she had a permanent adrenaline rush associated with that country from the bungee jump she had done while visiting. “They let me jump for free because I am over 75,” she informed me with a smile, always happy to take advantage of a bargain.
The surgery went well. After testing, the doctors determined they had removed enough of the skin cancer to declare the operation a success. I visited Gammy while she was recovering at the Veterans Affairs hospital. She rested, tucked under several thin white blankets, in the adjustable hospital bed. I had always viewed Gammy as upbeat, even managing at times to joke about dying as her body succumbed to old age, but today she was dejected.
“Do you want that?” Gammy asked. “I won’t eat it. They are always trying to get me to eat.” She pointed to the lunch tray hovering over her hospital bed. “They” (the nurses) were “always” trying to get her to eat because she had lost so much weight in the previous year. Gammy and I were about the same height and she had always outweighed me. In fact she used to tell me that I needed to put on weight. But now she was the thinner one and I had to remind her to eat. Gammy didn’t enjoy eating anymore because she had lost her sense of taste.
“No thank you, Gammy. How are you feeling?” I tucked the corner of one of the blankets back under her shoulder.
“Mad,” she answered.
I laughed and asked why.
“Because I am still here,” Gammy replied.