Today marks the 2 year anniversary of my Grandmothers death. She passed away peacefully on a Saturday evening at 7:30pm surrounded by family. I know the exact time and I remember the exact moment because I was there, I saw the last few breaths, and I felt the absence of a pulse when I was told to check.
Now, I studied Biokinetics, I spent many hours learning to take someone’s pulse, I spent many hours actually taking people’s pulses, getting used to feeling that “thump” against my fingers. But what I was never taught or prepared for was the absence of that “thump”, that feeling of absolutely nothing. At 7:30pm on Saturday the 11th August 2012, “absolutely nothing” was exactly what I felt as I checked for a pulse. The strongest woman I may ever know in my lifetime, gently and quietly passed away.
Today I do not just remember that moment, even though it’s a moment I will never forget, no, today I remember her life and the blessing that came of it among the biggest trial I have faced thus far.
My grandmother had Alzheimer’s Disease. By the time she passed away, she had been bed ridden for about 8 years or so, I can’t always remember the exact time frame, she had also been unable to speak for about the same amount of time. So in essence, for 8 years before she passed away, I hadn’t heard her voice, her laugh or heard her stories. In those 8 years, I longed to hear her speak, I longed to hear her infectious laugh and the way she would try to speak the best English to me even though she was Afrikaans speaking. In those 8 years I watched as Alzheimer’s slowly weakened the strongest women I have ever known, I watched as it took away the thing she loved most…talking. My grandmother could talk your ear off, she would talk to anyone, anywhere and for the longest time. My family would call it “Verbal Diarrhea” because it just could not stop. Everyone knew her and everyone loved her, how could anyone not?
In essence, what Alzheimer’s does, is it takes you back to the beginning. It kills your brain cells and doesn’t just take your memory, it slowly takes you back to a child, to not being able to feed or clothe yourself and if you live long enough with it, it even takes your ability to speak. Alzheimer’s pissed me off, I hated it, Alzheimer’s stole precious opportunities from me, it took away all my possible conversations with my grandmother, all the advice she could give me, all the stories and all the lessons.
But what I quickly learnt was that, Alzheimer’s could never take her soul, nor could it really take her mind completely. How did I realize that? Well, because of those moments where I would go and greet her and she’d look me right in the eyes and smile, unable to speak but with her eyes telling me that she knew I was there. There were those rare moments when she would smile at me and then, there was one amazing day where she said my name. That was one of the best days ever. There was also the day I got into bed next to her, crying nonstop because of some or other drama happening in my teenage life, as I was crying, she put her hand on my head and just rubbed it. I balled my eyes out even harder when that happened. It reassured me that not only was my grandmother still there, but that she heard me, she felt my presence and she was still there for me no matter what.
I spent many afternoons in bed next to her watching her soap operas, many nights laying next to her doing my university work while she laid quietly next to me or sometimes she’d not be quiet at all, she’d be trying to talk without being able to make proper words, man she made a noise…..I loved that noise. My amazing Aunt and Uncle looked after her and sometimes they would go out with my little cousins and I would volunteer to look after my Grandmother while they were gone. I got to spend extra alone time with her, I’d make her tea the same way I’d made it when I was much younger and she would come over to our house to visit and I’d feed her, the same way she had fed me a million times when I was a baby and toddler. That was the beginning of me paying back for all she had done for me, it was an honour to be able to help look after the woman who helped make me who I am.
As much as Alzheimer’s took away, it also gave me something irreplaceable. It gave me time and it forced me to appreciate what I had while I still had it. It showed me how to appreciate the beauty of just spending time with someone even if no words are spoken, how love transcends any physical limitations and it showed me God’s Grace among the trials.
For the week leading up to my Grandmother’s passing, all the signs were there that we were running out of time. She slowly stopped eating, she became quieter.etc. In all the times I’d spent with her, there was one thing I always told her and God too…. I always said
“You’re not allowed to leave me without saying goodbye. I won’t accept that whole, passed away in your sleep thing. That’s not good enough for me. You have to say goodbye before you go or else you can’t go anywhere.”
Now in my head, what I wanted, what I imagined was this moment where she would suddenly be able to speak, she’d look at all of us, tell us she loved us, say goodbye and then close her eyes. That however was not what I got, instead God and my Grandmother gave me, gave us something far better. He gave a week to prepare ourselves, a week to say everything and anything we could ever want to say to her. For that week, little by little whenever I got to be alone with her, I told her all my thank you’s, here are some of the thank you’s I got to say:
“1. Thank you for looking after me when I was 7 & couldn’t go to school because I had gastro and threw up all over your bathroom. You let me sleep in your bed & it was the best nap I ever had.
2. Thank you for every time you sent Pa to the shop to buy us ‘something nice’ because you always felt the need to spoil us, you always made me feel so special whenever I was around.
3. Thank you for all the money you would sneak into my hand when Daddy wasn’t looking. I knew you never had much & it meant the world to me.
4. Thank you for ALWAYS getting me a birthday present even when everyone else would always say they didn’t have money because Christmas was the week before. Somehow you always made sure you had a present for me. You’re awesome!
5. Thank you for letting me make doughnuts with you when I was 8 years old. You make the best doughnuts in the world. No one’s comes close to yours.
6. Thank you for listening to all my stories, all my silly teenage problems and then my university stresses as well.
7. Thank you for my Daddy. Thank you for raising a good man. he’s a good man, Ma, you can be really proud of him, you did an amazing job.
8. Thank you for giving your family, Jesus. Thank you for your faithfulness and your endless prayers, it’s why we are ok now and it’s why I know we’ll be ok once you’re gone.
9. Thank you for loving me, accepting me and always thinking I was so amazing. I love you more than life.”
By the time she passed away, I had gotten to say every little and big thing I could ever want to say to her, I got to tell her what plans I had for the future, what hopes & dreams I had, I got to ask/tell her to be at my wedding one day and make sure she’s there for every other milestone I still need to reach. I got to make sure she knew how much I appreciated and loved her. And then, I got to say goodbye.
Elizabeth Claassen, was a stay at home after years of cleaning other people’s houses as their maid in order to help her husband support their family, she raised 7 children and was an amazing grandmother to 20 grandchildren and 9 great- grandchildren.
This has been the hardest post to type thus far, the tears have been rolling nonstop but today I honour and remember the life of an amazing women who I have the privilege of calling my Grandmother. 2 years without her have not been easy but she’s a woman of her word, so I know she’s with me for every milestone and every trial I face in my life.
If you’re reading this, and you still have grandparents who are healthy, who can talk to you…Appreciate them. Love them. And spend time with them. Some of us would give anything to have what you have right now.
R.I.P Ma ❤