Saying Good-Bye to Baba (Part I)

I'm not exactly sure where to start this post... to get all fancy with a little 'in media res' or just start from the beginning and GO.  I'll just start from the beginning - this will be complicated enough for me without trying to be a literary pro at the same time.

My grandma, fondly referred to as Baba, passed away at noon on Monday March 19.  It was the Feast of St. Joseph and the sun was shining brightly on a gorgeous 80 degree day in Haverhill, Massachusetts.  I loved Baba very much... correction.  I still love Baba... her essence, her memory, every time it gets quiet and I process my thoughts - I get that warm, fuzzy grandma feeling.  From the time I was little, there was just something about going over to her house... walking up those wooden steps and turning those old door handles.  She always had something cooking or recently prepared, the fridge was full of chilled soda, and within moments of sitting down in front of the plastic covered table cloth - I had a full plate of food and an ice cold can of Canada Dry with a bendy straw placed in front of me.  It didn't matter if I was 6 or 26.  Unfortunately, I was the grandchild that lived in Texas.  And then California.  And making it back to visit family was never in my budget or on my annual agenda.  I wish I could go back and change those priorities.  The last time I saw Baba was 8 years ago, when I flew from Los Angeles to Massachusetts to visit with my very ill grandfather one last time.

I spoke fondly of Baba to Matt.  I insisted he just had to meet her.  She was so wonderful!  We were in the midst of planning a trip to Boston in July... to see the fireworks and The Boston Pops on the Esplanade,  to walk the Freedom Trail, to nosh on North End goodies... and to head up to Lawrence to once again walk up those wooden steps and become overwhelmed by the inviting smell of Baba's home.  On February 29th, I received a text that Baba was rushed to the hospital.  After much back and forth over the coming week - I learned that she was diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, Congestive Heart Failure, had suffered two minor heart attacks, and had a pulmonary embolism.  I called her that Monday and we talked about the hospital food and how she enjoyed the meatloaf and how she was feeling a little better.  I told her I missed her and that I loved her.  I didn't know it at the time, but that would be the last interactive conversation she and I would share.  Baba moved from the hospital to a rehab facility by the end of the week and I began planning a trip to go visit once I returned from Paleo F(x).  End of March would probably be best - so I'd look at flights later... later... later.  Sometimes, we don't get to choose our "later"s.  As I was packing for 80 degree muggy Austin, Texas weather on the morning of Tuesday March 13, I received another phone call.  Baba was in pain.  She couldn't breathe.  She was rushed back to the hospital.  She might not make it to the end of the week.  My heart sank.

In between a doctor's appointment, last minute errands, and packing - Matt and I were able to coordinate a flight from Austin, Texas to Manchester, New Hampshire first thing Saturday morning.  I won't get into the timing - that was a personal choice - but it worked out and that's that.  Paleo F(x) was incredible.  I'll be posting a summary of those two days later.  Spending time with Jess and Olive was great, but short.  And it was all blanketed by the ominous looming cloud that I was about to embark on a journey on Saturday that would not be easily traveled.  And although I wasn't clear on the path, I knew exactly how it was going to end.

Quick sidetrack - after finishing a very successful Whole30 on Monday night, I didn't see any reason to veer off.  Tuesday was the same ol' same ol' and I prepped a giant batch of homemade beef jerky to take with me on my travels.  I also stashed a few bags of macadamia nuts and Trader Joe's dried peaches in my suitcase.  I figured that no matter what, I'd always have my own food to resort to in case options became limited.  I ate great while in Austin.  Meat.  Some veggies.  Nuts.  A little fruit.  I didn't eat often or much... my stomach was a little knotted in anticipation of the upcoming events.  Once I arrived in Manchester, I didn't eat.  Hardly at all.  My aunt and I both agreed that we were forcing food into our stomachs because we knew we had to... but even then, it wasn't much.

I arrived on Saturday afternoon to see Baba in the hospital bed... she was asleep... and in pain.  And clearly uncomfortable.  Her room was full of family - all except my dad, I hadn't seen in over 15 years.  One of my aunts was fervently coordinating Baba's recently approved transport to a nearby hospice house.  Within a few hours, she was loaded into an ambulance with a very protective family watching over her and following close behind.  She was soon set up in her new room, eyes closed tight, deep furrows in her brow, and consistently groaning in pain.  The staff cleaned her and provided her some medication to help make her more comfortable.  Baba settled down... the hours grew late... and my aunts, uncles, and cousins made their way in... and back out for the night.  I chose to stay with her.  The facility encourages family to make themselves at home and I felt that there was no other choice than to stay with my grandmother.  I pulled out the hide-a-bed, settled in as best I could... and then pulled up a chair next to Baba's bed.  And I talked to her.  I told her all about Matt.  I told her about our wedding.  About life in California.  I held my computer in my lap and went through my wedding pictures and described them to her.  I held her hand.  I told her I loved her.  And I went to lay down in my own bed.  She screamed a few times in the night - and I ran in my pajamas to the nurses station to get her some help.  Baba received a few doses of morphine and Ativan that night.  Once she was comfortable and quiet, I was able to settle down in my bed.  Maybe around 3 am or so?  This would be the last time she would respond with a yes or no nod when asked if she wanted a nurse or medication.  This would also be my very last sleepover with my grandma.

Family started to arrive the next morning.  Not much had changed in her condition.  Baba had retreated deep inside somewhere and was no longer responsive to the stimulus around her.  It was a beautiful warm day outside and we had the windows open so that the sun shone brightly and her room was filled with fresh air.  Everyone took turns talking to her, holding her hand, her arm, brushing her hair, caressing her forehead.  We talked.  We prayed.  We told stories.  We reminisced.  We listened to Polka music.  We talked about the family pictures that were now adorning Baba's bedside.  Late in the afternoon, we were informed that Baba's breathing had shifted into one of the final stages... and we should expect one last shift in her breathing.  Once that last change transpired, she would be gone within 24 hours.  I think most of us started to believe that Baba wanted to pass quietly by herself and not in a room full of loud Belavitchs joking about Uncle Ricky or Dominican hot dogs or long lost baseball cards.  I left Baba her peace that night and stayed at my Aunt Leslie's house... all of us entrusting Baba's final hours with the astounding nursing staff at the hospice house.  I barely ate or slept Sunday night.  I couldn't.  I laid in bed, staring at the ceiling until almost 1 am.  I kept waiting for my aunt's phone to ring.  For her to poke her head in with the news of Baba's passing.  The house was silent until I woke up the next morning.  Still no news.  I drank a mug of green tea.  Ate my last Larabar.  And my Aunt Cheryl called my Aunt Leslie to let her know that Baba's breathing pattern had just changed for the last time.  This was it.

There wasn't much time to organize thoughts... we made our way over to the hospice house, arriving around 10 am or so.  The room slowly started to fill up again - aunts, uncles, dad and my step-mom, one of my cousins.  And we watched.  We waited.  We prayed some more.  We encouraged Baba.  We comforted her.  We told her we loved her.  What an amazing life she led.  To relax.  To be at ease.  Her pain would soon be gone.  The next part I remember very clearly...  It is something I hope to never forget...

I was on the side of Baba's bed, sitting just lateral to her left shoulder.  I remember listening to her breathing.  How slow and quiet it was.  I was fixated on her chest.  The slow rise and even slower fall.  Her eyes were now gently closed... not the uncomfortable scrunch as they had been since I first arrived two days earlier.  Her jaw was agape.  She looked so peaceful.  The room had started to fill with discussion again, the volume slightly increasing with time... Dad was talking about his Dominican hot dogs - he was excited to have ventured to the Lawrence Common to give the food trucks a try... and that's when I noticed Baba's chest stopped moving.  I remember thinking to myself about how our hearts have a specific number of beats in a lifetime and how in these last minutes... Baba's heart had beat through them all.  These last few pulses were all her heart had left.  I made a gesture to everyone that she was passing and after notifying the nurse, we all sat in silence and watched as she took her last breaths.  I couldn't help but wonder each time her chest rose - "is this the last one?"  And at just before noon on Monday March 19, The Feast of St. Joseph... it was the last one.  Baba took her final breath.
That's Baba's hair in the lower left corner... She would come to visit us in Texas when I was young and would cook all her awesome goodies while she was in town.  7 year old me is in the process of preparing the dough for Baba's pierogi.

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