Grandma, You Are Still Missed
The three of us flew to Florida to pack and move my grandparents on Saturday, August 20th 2005. My grandparents had moved to Florida in the 1960's. There was over 40 years of memories, dust and chaos to sift through. The idea was to go through their stuff and get rid of things before moving them. Of course my mentality was that we were just moving them from point "A" to point "B" so I tried to get the others to pack stuff that later I realized should have been rid of. The "Little Janice" inside of me couldn't let go of their "stuff" because they would want it. She couldn't see, it was too painful to see, that they were moving to Houston to die and they wouldn't need all their "stuff". My Aunt Susie flew back to Houston with the grandparents the following Tuesday. It was easier that way, to have them out of the way so the work could progress. Later we would compare notes as to who had the better deal between staying in Florida to pack, sift and clean or going to Houston dealing with the grandparents with all their ailments, problems and personalities. Grandpa has a tendency to wander and not know who we are. Grandma in her wheelchair has a 40 foot hose for her oxygen. They were both incontinent, one refusing special undergarments. To say the least it was an ordeal transporting them, especially through airport security.
While we were there in Cocoa Beach my sister and I packed them out while my friend took care of the outside which was a disaster area. Grandpa's garden had long since overgrown and a mountain of debris existed from his many walks on the beach. His compulsion to save stuff, useless stuff had caught up with us. My friend pressure washed the outside of the house, painted it and cleaned up the yard. If you weren't there to see it you wouldn't believe the pile of debris brought to the curb for "heavy trash pick up".
They were still alive. The grandparents were still alive, so going through their stuff was relatively painless. Again I say relatively because we still had to clean through the years of dust, roaches, spider webs and previous year's rat infestations. But we got it done. We had a lot of time to pack them out. We spent a lot of time waiting for the moving company, which was maddening. They gave us a 5-day window which got pushed back to a 7-day window. I think they got there the last day. The truck was too small. There had been a major miscommunication. Somehow it was not communicated that we were moving a small 3-bedroom house. They had allowed for a few pieces of furniture and 15 boxes. Well, we had a shit load of furniture mostly antiques and over 100 boxes for which they were going to charge us extra. We decided to cancel, get a U-Haul and do it ourselves. That was a pain in the ass.
Meanwhile, Katrina is out in the Atlantic threatening to strike us in Florida. It missed us, but messed up our path home. On the way back we had trouble getting fuel. We passed gas stations where people were parked waiting for the tanker to get there with gas. They couldn't go anywhere because they were out of gas. We barely found a hotel, one of the last 2 or 3 rooms in the last hotel that had ANY rooms available. Hotels up toward and on Interstate 20 were saturated to overflow with evacuees from the Katrina aftermath. The look of quiet uncertainty in their eyes as they waited in the hotel lobbies for something but they did not know what. There were people there who had probably lost everything. Here we are caught up in it, hauling my grandparent's belongings way out of the way because parts of Interstate 10 had been washed away in Katrina. It was a long, tedious journey but we finally made it.
The next day we unpacked the U-Haul at my Grandparent's new assisted-living apartment. Then the shock hit me like a wrecking ball. I came to the stark realization that we were moving them here because they were on the way out. The smell of stale, oldness; the emptiness in the faces of their neighbors as we walked through the cafeteria contributed to my shock. Then I realized why we were bringing them here. It was unbearable.
In the next week or so I would use most of my spare time to go over and help them get situated in their new place. The adjustment was painful for all involved. I spend a lot of time unpacking them and getting them set up.
I had been back to work for a week or two after taking two weeks' vacation for the move when the Rita evacuation was eminent.
As millions of other people we too evacuated. The deciding factor was that grandma was on oxygen. Without electricity her oxygen machine wouldn't work. We had no choice.
We packed two cars, luggage, 6 people and a cat and headed out that Thursday morning just after 4. The media had been showing the parking lots heading west out of the city to other cities so we thought we were smart by heading east. We figured no one else would head east because of all the devastation from Katrina. We knew however that there was a clear path diagonally through Louisiana from southwest to northeast. We had just traveled it in the move from Florida. The problem is we weren't the only ones with that idea. We met up with my friend and his caravan aggregating 6 cars, 14 people, and five animals.
As many thousands of other people experienced it took tens of hours to travel what would normally take 2 - 3 hours. By around 6 o'clock (I think) we made it to Big Sandy Creek where there as a store named Kountry Konvenience; the first sign of civilization we saw in the whole trip was swarming with people, desperate people. Throughout the day the caravan had butted in front of people mostly because we had grandma who was steadily going downhill. We couldn't see the difference between her downhill trend previous to the evacuation and the downhill tendency on the evacuation so we didn't seek emergency attention. We all were very concerned for her, though. After the stopping at Big Sandy Creek the caravan steadily drove on the left side of what would normally be a two lane country road. One of us did not think it fair that we should butt in front of all of the other people, when the main intent was to get grandma to a comfortable place. We (my family) were in the last two cars and broke off from the caravan. It was a momentary panic, but we lost the rest of them. They didn't realize until later that they had lost us. She said, "I'm sorry I just couldn't do it. Let's go back home. We'll take our chances with the hurricane." So we turned around and in 20 minutes got back to a police barricade it took 5 hours to travel from. We later found they refused to let us go back. Having already sat in this line for 5 hours I convinced her to let us pass on the left to at least get back to the country store. It was scary though. We had our flashers (hazard lights) on and I was waiving grandma's handicap decal outside so people might understand. I was afraid someone might throw rocks or shoot at us. Yes it was just that unnerving.
We regrouped at the country store where I happened to catch the manager and explain the situation with my grandma. He graciously offered a back room which was actually an arcade he had temporarily closed. We were so very grateful to have somewhere at least to lay grandma on a couch. The rest of us made due sleeping on a blow up mattress, chairs or the car. We woke up early around 3:30am with a sense of extreme urgency to get on the road before the rest of the people there do. So hurried and in a panic we loaded the cars carting our stuff through the swarm of people which had only intensified during our stay in the back room. In the chaos I noticed a man standing next to a pile on the patio covered by a blanked. I looked at him and asked him mouthing the words, "Is that a dead body?" He hesitantly shook his head yes. I lost it. I mean I lost it. I had a melt-down right then and there. Later I heard that an elderly lady had stopped breathing. They tried to resuscitate her but were unsuccessful. My worst fear and nightmare culminated in that pile on the ground covered by a blanket. The pain I felt thinking that could be my grandmother was unimaginable and piercing.
We continued on the evacuation path, passing most of the stopped cars because the continued and steady decline of my grandmother's breathing. We ended up in Livingston where we met up with the rest of the caravan. At this point fuel was a severe issue for at least a couple of the cars on the caravan. We all weren't sure what to do. The two cars we were driving had enough gas to get us to Lufkin where my aunt knew a co-worker friend that was willing to put us up. We decided to once again leave the caravan and head to Lufkin. We got stuck in more of the same parking lot on the road we took. We were in serious jeopardy at that point (hours later) of running out of gas. Some of us thought we should stop and get in line for gas. Some of us didn't. We were afraid that if we ran out of gas which was a serious, critical threat as it was for many others; we wouldn't know what to do with the grandparents, especially grandma. The decision was to continue on and risk running out of gas. The plan was that whichever car ran out of gas would stay behind while someone took the grandparents on to the final destination in Lufkin.
I thought it fitting when I heard that eastward evacuation routes were compared to a war zone. That is a very good comparison. We were herded through an evacuation route by law enforcement that had no food, no water, no facilities, no gas and very meager cell phone communication. Many of us had to use the woods to relieve ourselves and/or depended on the hospitality of strangers in houses along the way.
A sigh of relief was felt by all of us when we saw the house of my Aunt's friend in Lufkin. That relief was short-lived when we were met by a frigid greeting. See in the 36 hours it took us to get there the path of the storm had mad a sharp turn to the east. The storm was now headed directly for Lufkin. They were concerned for the well-being of their house, belongings and family. Here the 6 of us show up, war torn, exhausted and filthy with road grime and they're worried about themselves. It was the most awkward situation I've ever been in. I could hardly blame them, but we had no place to go.
My first notion was "get gas". We can't get anywhere without gas. My friend had drilled this thing about fuel into my brain. That was the first thing we did resisting the craving to take a shower and go to sleep for 10 days. We unloaded some items including the food and took the two cars to get gas. It took 3 hours, but I was grateful we got the gas. The stations that actually had gas were running out and people were stuck sitting there waiting for more gas to come in the tankers. I was starving. The only thing in the car was a small handful of cracker-jacks. I was shaking from low blood sugar so I ate them. Despite the extreme situation, in my mind my sugar abstinence was broken. Even though I was steadily gaining weight (over 80 pounds of the 215 I had lost) I had not gone back to sugar. I hadn't eaten sugar in over 2 ½ years. That to me and still is "skull and cross bones".?
Our hosts were absolutely gracious enough to let us get showered and to feed ourselves. They let us sleep there but woke us up at 3am the morning of the storm. He said if you go now you can avoid the flooding. If it floods you don't know how long you will be stuck here. It could be days. They were also concerned about their house getting flooded and the electricity going out. So we hurriedly and in a panic loaded the car. I couldn't believe it. I really thought we were fleeing for our lives. I was terrified on the road. We were already driving through the outer rim of the storm. Leafy debris covered the road as rain and wind consumed the air. We passed a truck that had been smashed by a large fallen tree. That first 45 minutes I thought we were all going to die. It was the first time in the whole ordeal I had actually prayed, quietly and internally prayed the serenity prayer.
Later I asked myself in disbelief, "Were we actually thrown out during a serious, deadly hurricane?" If I didn't live it, I wouldn't have believed it. We were thrown out, the six of us including two late-eighties elderly people, were thrown out during a major hurricane.
The biggest horrification of the evacuation turned out to be our biggest blessing. Within an hour the rain and wind was clearing. We were slowly outrunning the hurricane. What could have turned out deadly became the biggest sign of hope we had seen in what seemed to be weeks. It was only days we had been on the road. In our North West bound route we came upon Interstate 45. We had originally been heading farther west, but when we met Interstate 45 we thought, "What the hell, we have nothing to lose, let's head home". We feared blockades and being turned away from home. It turned out to be all clear. Once we hit Interstate 45 we were home within 1 ½ hours. Yes, we arrived back in Houston by 10am Saturday morning. The relief was indescribable. The terror had lifted and we could see sparse sunshine.
Again this relief was short-lived when in the excitement of getting back home we had not realized that grandma had run out of oxygen and needed her oxygen tank changed. I had mistakenly followed the wrong car onto the Hardy Toll Road which runs parallel to I-45. And of course, the oxygen tanks were in the other car. Initially I didn't think the separation would be a big deal until grandma's breathing got labored. I called my aunt and apprised her of the situation. We converged upon her house and very hurriedly changed out her oxygen tank. That was scary as hell. She couldn't get her breath. She had chronic lung disease including Emphysema and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
After the events of the previous month or so I just wasn't surprised the next day when my aunt called to inform me they were taking grandma to the emergency room. She was having difficulty breathing and had become incoherent. By midnight that day she had been intubated and sent to ICU. Within a couple of days she perked up and looked better than she had in a couple of months. She was more alert and perky except for having the tube in her throat. She was feisty. She kept pulling at the tubes so the nurses had to restrain and heavily sedate her. One nurse, empathetic to grandma's not wanting to be restrained, said that she would remove the restraints if grandma promised not to pull at her tubes. Grandma looked at her and shook her head "no" as if to say, "I'm promising no such thing". We all laughed because we knew how grandma was and that if given the chance she would yank the tubes out. After being successful pulling out the feeding tube from her nose, the nurse reported a look of pure satisfaction on grandma's face. We laughed imagining that look. During the first week in ICU grandma gradually began breathing more and more on her own. They turned off the machine and let her breath through the tube for around 24 hours. They kept it in just in case she stopped breathing. It would be easier to hook her back up to the respirator. After the 24 hours off the respirator, they tried to extubate her. Within an hour the nurse came in and found her blue. They quickly had to re-intubate her. She responded quickly and favorably. In a week and a half they attempted the same "weaning" her off of the ventilator. With the same results except this time her heart actually stopped. They had to resuscitate her again.
What had turned out so hopeful the first week was soon becoming very grim. When I heard the news of the second extubation, I had a melt-down. That was last Thursday. My manager sent me home that afternoon. I didn't make it in the next day. Friday I spent all day in my house doing nothing. I didn't even call to check on grandma. I was numb and did trivial things around the house. I was in that catatonic state where I didn't do anything.
Later that night, my boyfriend thought it would be good to get me out of the house. He took be dancing. I had just learned how to dance a few months ago and love it. I've gained 100 of the 215 pounds back that I lost but I still love to dance. I didn't want to leave the place. It was such an escape for me, a much needed escape.
It was 10pm Friday night and I finally called to see how grandma was. I was crying and asked the nurse if I could come up and see her for a bit even though it was after visiting hours. She allowed me to come up there. This was my night to mourn. I sat by her bed. I knew she was leaving us. I mourned not hearing her voice again. Not feeling her soft caress of my cheek or pat on my head. I would never hear from her lips again "you are my pride and joy". I heard those words hundreds of times before. It's cliché but I took them for granted. I sat there watching the quickly deteriorating body of what was left of my grandma. It wasn't her. Knowing I would never see her smile or experience her shaking her crooked chubby finger at me. I would never hear her sharp, piercing words "sit up straight, damn it!" She could hurt me like no one else in the world, not even my mother. I only wanted her unconditional love. She was caught up in the "if onlys". "You have such a pretty face. If only you lost the weight". "If only you had an education". When I got my education it was on to the next on her list. "If only you had a boyfriend." "If only you got married." "You don't want to be alone for the rest of your life." And her unceasing pestering for a great grandchild. I'm sorry grandma I never gave you that. I'm sorry.
Clouded by the pain, it's only in retrospect I see how much she truly did love me. I was always caught up in the "why is she hurting me?" I never understood. But pain begets pain. That was the way she learned to express love. That was her way of showing affection and love. I never acknowledged to her the pain I caused her as she watched me climb to over 400 pounds. She was scared for my health and concerned about my happiness. All I saw is the pain. All I experience is the pain.
I feel I've lost both my grandparents in the last few weeks. My grandfather is still alive but only knows I'm a grand-daughter by virtue of the fact that I call him grandpa. The day after my grandma died he asked if we were going to the hospital. At the funeral he asked if it was Bea (his wife) in the casket. Yet strangely he remembered the street address where they lived in Chicago 60 years ago when telling the story of when they were married.