By Lee Klinger Lesser
Mama Bea was my daddy's mother and my grandma. When she got sick, the doctors said they thought she was going to die. So she left her home in Florida, and came to live in our house in California. My mommy and daddy said we were going to take care of her, and either help her get well or be with her as she died. I was scared. I didn't want Mama Bea to die.
I helped my mommy clean the room and get it ready for Mama Bea. We picked some fresh flowers and put them in the room. We also brought in pictures of my grandpa. I never knew him because he died before I was born.
Mama Bea came on the airplane by herself and my daddy met her at the airport with a wheelchair. She couldn't walk very far. I was glad to see her when she came home, but I felt a little shy. I didn't know how she would be. We gave each other a big hug. Daddy helped her walk up the stairs.
Mama Bea was tired. She rested in her room. As the days went by, I could see that Mama Bea was not getting better. It was harder and harder for her to walk. She was weak, and she limped, and held onto things as she went by. Her breathing sounded funny. I kept watching Mama Bea. And I kept watching daddy and mommy helping her. I tried to help her sometimes, too, but I wasn't strong enough for her to lean on.
One day my ankle started hurting me. It was hard for me to walk and I had to limp. When I went to school, I told my teachers that I couldn't do music or P.E. because my ankle hurt. Mommy and daddy thought it would go away, but it didn't. It kept hurting me for lots of days. Mommy and daddy thought I was making it up. My teachers got angry with me.
One night just as it was getting dark outside, mommy said she wanted to talk with me. I sat in her lap on my bed. It was quiet and cozy. Mommy said that she thought I had feelings that were stuck in my ankle, and that they were making it hurt. She said that when someone we love is hurt, or sick, or dying, it is natural to be really, really angry, and scared, and sad. Mommy hugged me close and said, "Dying is part of living. All we can do is love Mama Bea, take care of her, and take very good care of ourselves, too. We can try to see our own feelings and not let them get stuck anywhere." Then mommy said she bet I could help my ankle be all better, and that she didn't think the feelings were stuck down there anymore. She bet I could stand up and my ankle wouldn't hurt anymore. She even bet I could do a little dance and my ankle wouldn't hurt me. I tried it, and I could!
But Mama Bea wasn't getting better. Each day she seemed to be feeling worse. Sometimes I'd read a book to her on the couch. Mama Bea liked that. So did I. Sometimes we'd snuggle and watch television. I'd bring her a drink with a straw when she was thirsty. Her breathing sounded loud and funny.
One day daddy took Mama Bea to a special doctor to look at her lungs. When daddy came back from the doctor, daddy and mommy, and Mama Bea were all very sad. Daddy told me the doctor said that there was a big sickness in Mama Bea's lungs, and that the doctor couldn't help Mama Bea get well. He said Mama Bea was probably going to die very soon, maybe even in a few days.
I felt very sad. Mama Bea was lying down in her bed. I went and lay down with her. We snuggled and didn't say anything. In a little while, daddy came in and he lay down with us, too. Later, mommy and my brother came in, and sat down on the bed. I was glad we were all together.
When Mama Bea woke up the next morning, she was much more tired. She didn't want to eat any more food. All she wanted sometimes was a popsicle. I liked to bring her popsicles. Daddy pushed Mama Bea in the wheelchair to the living room and she lay down on the couch. I stood behind the couch and looked down at Mama Bea. Mama Bea looked up at me and smiled. She reached up with her hand and said, "I love you, Carol." I reached out my hand and held hers and said, "I love you, too, Mama Bea."
Daddy asked Mama Bea if she was hungry. She said, "No!" Then she said, "All I want to do is die!" She said it over and over again, and she said she wanted to die as fast as she could. I didn't understand, and I didn't like it. I said, "But, Mama Bea, I don't want you to die at all!" Mommy was there and she said, "Carol, nobody wants Mama Bea to die, but when it is time to die, there is no other choice, it is time to die. Mama Bea knows she can't get well and she feels ready to die." I still didn't understand and I still didn't like it.
Later in the day, a hospice nurse named Jenny came to talk with us. We all liked talking with her, even Mama Bea. She said we were lucky to be with Mama Bea and to help her while she was dying. She said it's a very special time. Jenny gave me some special sticks with a sponge on the end of them, and she showed me how to wet it and rub it gently in Mama Bea's mouth when she was thirsty. It was getting hard for Mama Bea to drink. The sticks smelled like mint and Mama Bea liked them. I liked to help Mama Bea.
Then Jenny told me about one of the most special ways I could be with Mama Bea. She said that as Mama Bea got closer to dying, she wouldn't be able to talk to me anymore. She said that Mama Bea would still be able to hear me, though, and I could talk to Mama Bea, and sit and breathe with her. Jenny told me first I should sit down next to Mama Bea and imagine one-hundred golden suns moving right through the middle of me—up and down, from the top of my head all the way into my belly, and back up again. Then she said I should listen to Mama Bea's breathing, and be real quiet, and try to breathe the same way Mama Bea was breathing. Jenny said this was a way to be really close to Mama Bea, and to let her feel how I loved her.
That night, Mama Bea didn't want to go back to her bed anymore. She wanted to stay on the couch. We gave her a pillow and soft, warm blankets and kissed her good night.
When I went in to see her in the morning, Mama Bea didn't answer me when I talked to her. Her breathing was very loud. It seemed hard for her to take every breath. I called her name again, "Mama Bea! Mama Bea!" I felt hurt and scared, and I told mommy that Mama Bea wouldn't talk to me. Mommy held my hand and said, "Mama Bea is moving out of her body and she is too far away to talk to us now. She still loves us and she can hear you, if you talk to her." I was very sad. I sat down next to Mama Bea and I picked up her hand and held it. She didn't hold mine back. I said, "I love you, Mama Bea." Then I put her hand down and went to school.
When I came back from school, I rushed over to the couch to give Mama Bea a present I made for her at school. It was a clay box with a lid and a big round handle. I called her name and I told her I made her a present. She didn't say anything. She didn't even look at me. I tried to put her hand around the present, but she wouldn't hold it.
Mommy asked me if I wanted to breathe with Mama Bea. She said this was a very special way to be close to her. I remembered what Jenny had told me and I sat down next to Mama Bea. I pictured one-hundred golden suns moving inside of me. It made me smile and feel warm inside. Then I listened to Mama Bea. It was hard to breathe like her. Each breath was different, and kind of jumpy, and loud. I wanted to be close to her, so I got real still inside and I kept sitting there.
Later, we ate dinner and mommy and daddy told me and my brother that they thought Mama Bea was going to die during the night. From my bed, I could hear Mama Bea breathing. Mommy snuggled with me in bed and held me close.
In the morning, daddy and mommy came into my room, sat on my bed, and told me that Mama Bea had died. They were both crying. Mommy held my hand and daddy said, "Mama Bea died quietly and peacefully. Her breathing all of a sudden stopped being loud and it became very, very quiet. I was sitting next to her, holding her hand, and mommy was sitting next to me, holding my hand. We were both breathing with Mama Bea. Each breath was gentle and deeply peaceful. And then there was no next breath."
Daddy was crying when he said, "I think it was a happy way for Mama Bea to die." Daddy said that he and Mommy sat quietly with Mama Bea for a while. Then they called the hospice nurse. She came over to the house and helped mommy and daddy wash Mama Bea, and change her clothes. Daddy and mommy stayed with Mama Bea all night. I listened to them, and then I wanted to go see Mama Bea and say good-bye. I never saw anyone dead before. Mama Bea was lying on the couch. It was Mama Bea, but she looked different. I held her hand. It was very cold, and I went to get a blanket to cover her.
Later some people came to take Mama Bea's body away, and get it ready to fly to New Jersey. Mama Bea wanted to be buried next to my grandpa. We flew on the same plane with Mama Bea so we could go to her funeral.
When we got to New Jersey, I kept getting upset all the time. Mommy asked me if I wanted to make a picture for Mama Bea and write her a letter. She said even though Mama Bea was dead, I could still make her pictures and write to her. I wanted to talk to Mama Bea. I made a picture of a tree and a squirrel for Mama Bea, and I told her I loved her and I missed her.
We went to the cemetery for Mama Bea's funeral, and mommy brought my picture. Daddy talked about Mama Bea, and then mommy read my letter and showed everyone my picture. There were lots of people there. I didn't know most of them. When everyone was finished talking and we said some prayers, whoever wanted to put some dirt on a shovel into Mama Bea's grave. It made a loud sound when the dirt and rocks landed on Mama Bea's coffin. After everyone had their turns, my brother and I both picked up a shovel and kept on digging. All the grownups were talking. I felt like I was still taking care of Mama Bea and helping to bury her next to my grandpa. Then it was time to go. I left a little stone on my grandpa's grave to let him know I was there. We went back to my uncle and aunt's house with lots of people. We lit a big glass candle for Mama Bea. It was going to burn for seven days. We had one to take back to California with us too. We flew back on the airplane the next day.
It was strange to come home. I kept feeling like Mama Bea was in the house somewhere, but she wasn't. We had a big picture of Mama Bea when she was in the swimming pool. She loved the water. So do I. We put the picture next to the big glass candle and we lit the candle. In the picture, Mama Bea was wearing a necklace with a little boy and a little girl holding hands. It was me and my brother, her only grandchildren. Daddy and mommy gave me that necklace. I wear it all the time now. I feel like it brings me close to Mama Bea.
When I sit on the couch where Mama Bea died, I think of her. I remember how I read to her, and snuggled with her, and gave her popsicles. I think of how I held her hand, and breathed with her, and how daddy says she died happy. I think of how I helped Mama Bea die happy.
I wonder where Mama Bea is now. Mommy says it's a mystery. I miss Mama Bea. Mommy says I can still write to Mama Bea whenever I want to. I wrote Mama Bea a letter. I wrote "I love you! I love you!I love y ou! I love y ou! I love you! I love you! I love you!" I didn't know where to send it. So mommy and I burned the letter into a bucket, and then we took the ashes and scattered them into the wind. I think the wind is taking my letter to Mama Bea.
Lee Klinger Lesser is the head teacher of the College of Marin Children's Center. She has organized Family Days of Mindfulness and retreats, and lives in Mill Valley, California. This story is adapted from a children's picture book Lee hopes to have published based on her seven-year-old daughter, Carol's, real experiences with her dying grandmother.