When you lose your breath, it can go alarmingly fast.
On Friday, my grandmother fried a fish and made fresh green onion pancakes from scratch for dinner at her house. She kneaded the dough with the same strong strokes she’d always used, a little stronger than usual perhaps, as the pancakes came out tougher than usual. As they fried, she wiped away beads of sweat with a powdery white hand. After dinner she told me not to wash the dishes and slowly cleaned the kitchen in her own methodical way. I had my back to her, eating a Nestle Caramel Sundae and when I turned around to throw the wrapper away saw that the kitchen was sparkling clean. If my grandmother was hampered at all by severe shortness of breath or weak legs, you could not tell by the food she put on the table or by the spotless kitchen she kept. She joined us at the table and shared a Nestle Caramel Sundae with my grandpa. She laughed gleefully when I said her fish was unrivaled.
“As long as I can cook for my grandchildren, I will cook for them. Who else can make their favorite dishes the way I can?”
“They are our favorites because you made them so,” I said.
On Sunday, her steroids stopped working and the oxygen tank, with its efficient little whirring and long clear plastic tubing could not deliver enough air to her lungs, the function of which has deteriorated exponentially, as though racing with her frail legs. Which will fail first? It is a race we hope the lungs will lose.
She breathed deeply, desperately into the oxygen machine, hoping the relief would come, but instead her face grew redder and redder and her mouth gaped and gagged. My grandfather could no longer distinguish between a recent red scar she’d gotten from falling on her face and the rest of her skin. He called my uncles, who drove their suffocating mother to the hospital. They were worried, but the drive, her falling, her troubled breathing, these were all more or less routine for the past two years.
They stayed with her at the hospital through the afternoon and in the evening, bid her goodnight. Not because they wanted to leave, but sometimes, she does want them to leave but won’t say it.
On Monday, my uncles returned to the hospital in the morning and later in the afternoon, my mother joined them. The nurse pulled my uncle and mother aside.
“It doesn’t look good,” she said, “The oxygen we are giving her is not enough, and the steroids don’t seem to be taking effect. You and your family need to discuss the DNR.”
I called my mother shortly after this conversation and she cried into the phone. It was around six in the evening.
“Will you guys sign it?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, I could see her face crumpling, “It’s terrible when they try to resuscitate someone. They cut into the throat…it’s just so violent and terrible and you’re never sure what happens after that. Sometimes they don’t come back and they’re just hooked up to the oxygen machine for years.”
It wasn’t my place or my decision, but a hundred images of other old people hooked onto said machines flashed in my head. I saw a lot of sad, fearful faces looking down at blank staring eyes perched atop freshly fluffed pillows. It’s a touchy subject, I know, but sometimes, sometimes you think about this thing called quality of life and dignity and even though I’m only twenty-six and years away from making a decision like that (knock on wood), I said what I felt: “Sign it.”
“We will wait until we’re all here,” my mom said, “But I think we will sign it.” I heard her face crumple again. We hung up.
At 11PM they reached a consensus. My grandmother was moved to the ICU as her DNR was signed.
It is Monday night and my grandma lies sleeping fitfully in the ICU, unfit to do anything, not even breathe. Last Friday, she was frying a fish and making fresh green onion pancakes.