A Life and Death Visit

A Life and Death Visit

Image by Kevin Carden on Adobe Stock

I’m not allowed to go to Grandma’s hospital room because I’m only twelve years old, and the hospital regulations say I need to be at least thirteen or accompanied by an adult. Mom and Dad are at work now, so they can’t take me, and there are no other adults I can ask. I know I won’t pass for thirteen. Nearly all the thirteen-year-old girls in my school are already wearing bras or have breast buds, but I’m still flat-chested. However, I’m not worried about the hospital rules because I have a sure-fire plan to see Grandma, the one person I love more than anyone else in my life.

Grandma was admitted to the cardiac care unit last night because she’d been complaining of chest pains. Because of her age and medical history, her doctor said he didn’t want to take any chances.

Three years ago, when she was eighty, Grandma had a cardiac arrest. Thankfully, they revived her, and since then, she never eats red meat and consumes lots of fruits and vegetables. She takes medicine for high blood pressure, another to lower her cholesterol, and a third to prevent a stroke. With all these medicines and her good diet, she’d better be okay.

From the time I was a young child, Grandma and I were close. I’ve always felt unconditional love from her that I never felt from my parents. Mom and Dad had little time for me since I was in kindergarten because they both worked full-time and preferred to spend their free time with each other, but Grandma always had time for me.

It was Grandma who took me to the park and who never said no when I asked her to buy me ice cream, and Grandma who picked me up from elementary school and gave me a quarter on Friday afternoons to spend at Bertha’s Gyp Joint, the candy store around the corner from my school. It was also Grandma who asked me “to stand still” so she could pin the hems on the hand-me-down dresses I got every summer from my older cousin. During the last week of August, Grandma would spend afternoons sitting by the window in my bedroom, her sewing box open on the bed, hemming the dresses so I’d have “new clothes” when school started in September. In third grade, when my class performed a play about America in our school auditorium, Grandma was the only member from my family who came to see me in my role as Nathan Hale’s wife.

After school, I went to the hospital and walked directly into the lobby bathroom. I wrapped an elastic bandage around my chest, stuffed it with two small avocados to create my breasts, and wrapped a second bandage over the avocados to keep them in place, just as I had done at home, the night before. I put on a wig that I borrowed from my school’s drama department. The long, curly brown hair resembled that of Beyonce’s, the famous singer and performer. Then, as carefully as I could, I applied my mother’s midnight black mascara and cherry red lipstick that I took from our medicine cabinet this morning before I left for school. When I was done, I looked at myself in the mirror. This ribbed dark-green turtleneck, plaid mini-skirt, Mary Jane pumps, makeup, and “new” body, definitely make me look older than twelve. Bet I could even pass for fifteen or sixteen.

When I left the bathroom, people stared at me, and some even chuckled. I have no idea why they were laughing, but I didn’t care. I was going to see Grandma.

I took the elevator to the cardiac floor. Phones rang, lights flashed, and machines beeped.

I walked to the nurses’ station at the end of the hall and told the first nurse I saw that I came to see Mary Ponger, my grandma.

When I got to her room, Grandma was lying on her back in a bed by the window, the white, cotton hospital blanket pulled up to her chin. A bag hung from an IV pole, and she had an IV in the vein of her left arm and a hospital ID band on her right wrist. On a monitor near her bed, I saw lots of wavy lines in assorted colors with numbers and abbreviations next to them, but I didn’t know what any of it meant. I was just happy that I didn’t see a flatline. From the medical shows I watch, I know that a flatline means no heartbeat, you’re dead. The machine beeped constantly, and I wondered how Grandma could sleep with all the noise.

As I rushed over to her bed, I accidentally bumped into the lunch tray on the nearby table, and the metal dish and cover fell to the floor, crashing loudly. Grandma sat up, startled, stared wide-eyed at me for a few seconds, then looked me up and down and burst out laughing.

“I wanted to come see you,” I said. “I had to make myself look older.”

“Dear child, you are certainly creative,” she said. “You’ll be a teenager soon enough, so no need to rush.”

I poured Grandma some water, and she asked about school, putting the focus on me. I told her I had gotten 100% on my spelling test and explained about my social studies project—that I had used tea to make a piece of paper look old and then burned the edges to recreate the paper on which the Declaration of Independence was written, and I told her about using the calligraphy pen she had given me to copy passages from the famous document.

Grandma beamed. I could see she was so happy I had come to visit.

“I have a surprise!” I said, reaching for my bookbag and removing a wad of tissues. I unrolled them and gave her two chocolate chip cookies. “I made them last night,” I said. “Followed your recipe.”

Grandma inspected the cookies, looking first at the tops and then the undersides. “Lots of chips,” she said, always finding something positive to say about anything I made or did.

“I left them in the oven too long, that’s why they’re a little burnt.”

“I’m sure they’re delicious,” she said, wrapping them back in the tissues and reaching over to put them on her nightstand. “I’ll have them tonight, after my dinner.”

At that moment, Grandma suddenly became unconscious. Her head and arms hung off the side of the bed, limp, like a rag doll, and she stopped breathing. The sounds from her heart monitor instantly changed to a loud, piercing set of beeps. “Grandma!” I yelled. When she didn’t respond, I ran to get a nurse. Halfway to the nurses’ station, I heard a code blue alert telling staff to go to Grandma’s room. As hospital staff rushed quickly past me, wheeling a crash cart, I turned around and followed them. I stood in the doorway of Grandma’s room, watching. Instantly, her room became frenetic, and the medical people intently worked together to help Grandma. Two nurses lifted her back onto the bed and one of them checked for a pulse. The other put an oxygen mask over her nose and mouth, and a third ripped open her gown and began chest compressions, glancing up every few seconds to look at the monitor.

She has a shockable rhythm,” the nurse finally said.

“Two hundred joules,” the doctor ordered. “Deliver shock.”

I gasped. Don’t hurt her.

A nurse quickly removed two paddles from the crash cart. “Shock delivered,” she said.

I stared blankly as Grandma’s whole body jolted.

“Resume chest compressions,” the doctor said.

The nurse placed the palms of her hands in the center of Grandma’s chest and pressed down, waiting for Grandma’s chest to rise before pressing down again. She kept doing it over and over. I don’t know how many times she did it because I stopped counting at eighty.

“You’re getting tired,” another nurse said. “Let me take over.”

She looked up at the monitor every few seconds. After a while, she said, “There’s a shockable rhythm,” and looked to the doctor.

“Two hundred joules,” he said. “Deliver shock.”

“Shock delivered.”

“Push 1 mg EPI, every three minutes,” the doctor said.

A nurse continued with the compressions, and another administered the medicine. Everyone looked at the monitor.

Then I heard a nurse call, “We’ve got a heartbeat.”  I pushed my way into the room past two staff members.

“Miss, you can’t be in here,” one of them said and tried to hold me back.

“She’s the granddaughter,” I heard another person say.

I ran to Grandma’s bed and looked at the monitor. Wavy lines! Great. “I love you, Grandma. Don’t die,” I said, loudly. Her chest was moving up and down, but she didn’t say anything. Seconds later, she pulled down her mask. I saw her mouth move and I knew she was trying to say something to me, but I couldn’t understand her.

I wanted to be near Grandma, but I knew I had to stay out of the way. I stood against the windowsill, a few feet from Grandma’s bed. The nurses and doctor continued to watch the monitor, and a nurse stroked Grandma’s gray hair. I watched her chest continue to rise and fall faintly, and twice, she opened her eyes for a few seconds. God, please keep her alive!

Suddenly, the nurse at Grandma’s bedside yelled, “She’s coding” and quickly began compressions. The monitor beeped loudly. The nurse watched the screen. Then I heard, “We’ve got a shockable rhythm.”

“Three hundred joules,” the doctor said. “Deliver shock.”

“Shock delivered,” the nurse said. Another resumed compressions.

“EPI, 2mg,” the doctor said, and everyone looked at the monitor.

I saw the doctor put his fingers at the side of Grandma’s neck, then shake his head. He felt her groin area. “No pulse. That’s it. We’re done,” he said.

Then, a nurse who had been giving the compressions put her fingers on Grandma’s wrist.

“Doctor, I feel a faint pulse.”

“Resume compressions,” the doctor ordered.

The nurse placed her hands on Grandma’s chest and pressed down.

I stared at Grandma. “Hang in there. You’re strong. I love you!” I shouted.

Shortly, the steady beep, beep, beep suddenly changed... to one long drawn-out beep,... and the monitor showed a flat line.

Now, Grandma’s room was quiet.

“She’s been down twenty minutes, doctor,” a nurse said.

I heard the doctor say, “Stop CPR.”

The nurse removed her hands from Grandma’s chest and glanced at the clock on the wall. “Time of death—6:31 p.m.”

I stared at the monitor and started to cry.

The doctor walked over to me. “I’m so terribly sorry,” he said, and handed me a box of tissues.

I climbed into Grandma’s bed, lay down next to her, wrapped my arms around her, and put my head on her chest the way I did in the afternoons when I was younger, and we napped together after returning from the park. A few minutes later, a hand gently touched the top of my head.

I rolled over on my back. It was the same nurse whom I had spoken to at the nurses’ station earlier that afternoon when I arrived. She had a kind face.

“Nurse, I want to tell you something,” I said. I took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. “When my grandma pulled down her mask, I couldn’t understand what she said. Her voice was so soft. I tried to hear her, but I couldn’t understand anything she said. I can’t take it that I’ll never know.”

The nurse’s face lit up, and she smiled. “I was standing at her bedside, and I heard everything,” she announced, enthusiastically. “‘I love you, darling child. Take care of yourself.’ That’s what your grandma said.”

I sat up and hugged the nurse. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure, sweetheart. I’m going to go so you can have some private time. Stay as long as you want. I’ll be at the nurse’s station if you need anything.”

After a while, Mom and Dad arrived. The doctor showed up a few minutes later and took them aside to explain what had happened. I heard him tell them that Grandma had had a cardiac arrest. After that, I tuned them all out and hugged Grandma tightly. Then I sat up and looked at her face. Beautiful high Hungarian cheekbones. So many lines. On her cheeks and forehead, around her eyes and mouth. On her neck. I had never noticed them before. I looked at her hands. Her veins were not flat like mine, but full and raised. I felt numb. I didn’t want to believe that I would never see Grandma again, and I couldn’t imagine what my life would be like without her.

When Mom and Dad finished speaking with the doctor, they walked into the room and hugged me. Mom sat on Grandma’s bed, kissed Grandma on her lips, and stroked her hair. She told her what a wonderful mother she was, and that she’d miss her. Dad squeezed Grandma’s hand. “Goodbye, Mary,” I heard him say.

Mom and Dad stayed with Grandma for a half hour, then got up and walked to the door. I followed. When I was outside Grandma’s room, I ran back in to give her another kiss. I remembered when Grandma was in the hospital for a stomach operation, a few years ago, and Mom and I had gone to see her. When we were leaving, I kissed Grandma goodbye in her room. Grandma decided to walk with us to the elevator and to wait for it to arrive. When the doors opened, I kissed Grandma again, and after Mom and I had gotten on, I ran out to kiss Grandma a third time.

When I went back to Grandma’s room, I saw the cookies on her nightstand and took them. I had been at the hospital for several hours and now I was hungry. Mom and Dad were in the hall, just outside Grandma’s room, waiting for me. I went out to join them, and as we walked to the elevator, Mom and Dad held hands. I saw tears in Mom’s eyes, and she was leaning against Dad for support. I walked behind them.


About the Author

Carol Pierce

Carol Pierce holds a B.A. in English, an M.S.Ed.in Special Education, and a Professional Certificate in Supervision and Administration from Hunter College. She was a teacher and Assistant Principal with the NYC Department of Education for more than 20 years. An emerging writer, Carol's stories have appeared in The Write Launch, Drunk Monkeys, Griffel, and Twist & Twain.