On Seeing Death
The nurses called around 10:30 at night to say my grandmother was going downhill rapidly. She was 92-years-old and had been suffering from pneumonia. Her color wasn’t good and the nurses said she wouldn’t make it through the night. I got in a car and raced over to be with her.
When I got to the nursing home, the nurses were standing around my grandmother nervously, pacing the room, trying to make her comfortable. I walked over and kissed her and said, “Hey, Nanny, it’s Steven. I’m here.” I touched her hand and brushed her hair. She opened her eyes and looked at me. I told her I was there and I was going to stay with her. She nodded. I took off my shoes and sweater in the stuffy, hot hospital room. I settled into a chair next to her and began to softly rub her neck.
The nurses left the room. Nanny asked me to switch off the bathroom light. It took a moment for me to understand what she was saying in her faint, whispered voice–that she wanted the light off in the bathroom. I got up and switched off the light. The room became dark–lit only by the light from the hallway. I could still see Nanny’s face. She rolled her head toward me and said faintly, “Not good.”
I kissed her on the cheek and said, “I know.”
I stood up and walked over to the right side of the bed. I stood over her and looked into her eyes. Her right eye was mostly closed–just a little bit of blue eye showing. Her left eye was still open, but was slightly hooded. It vaguely looked up at me. I began rubbing her shoulder with my left hand and stroking her hand with my right hand.
I stood like that for a while, just looking at Nanny’s face, rubbing her shoulder and hand. Occasionally she tried to shift herself slightly. Then she said something. At first I thought she was asking me to shut the small fan that was blowing cool air on her face and pillow. But then I realized it wasn’t “fan” but “leg” that she was saying. She hadn’t been comfortable all day and she was asking me to lift her leg by the ankle, to ease some of the swelling. I pushed aside the bedsheet and lifted her leg. I massaged her knee for a few moments. Then I put the leg down and lifted the other leg.
I put her leg back down and drew the sheet back over her feet. Then I stood over her again and rubbed her shoulder and hand. I asked her if she wanted water. She said no. I kissed her on the forehead and told her I loved her. I said, “You are the best, Nanny. I love you very much.” She tried to move her mouth, the left eye vaguely looking up at me. I told her that I wanted her to drift off. I smiled at her and brushed her hair lightly.
I continued to stand over her, softly rubbing her shoulder and hand, hunching over and studying her face. I could see her blue eyes clearly in the dim room. She seemed to be half-sleeping, with her eyes partly open–the way she’d looked for the past two days. She moved her mouth slightly and looked up at me.
Ten or twenty minutes passed. I stood over her, softly rubbing her shoulder and neck.
A nurse came in to check on her. She turned on a soft light above the bed and took my grandmother’s arm. The nurse began saying my grandmother’s name. “Ruthie…Ruthie…” Gradually, Nanny opened her eyes. She focused vaguely at the nurse, squinting against the bright light. “Whah…?”
The nurse said, “I’m just seeing how you’re doing.” She took Nanny’s wrist and felt her pulse. After a minute she put Nanny’s arm down. “Okay, Ruthie, you get some rest. I’ll see you later.” Nanny nodded almost imperceptibly. The nurse walked out. I switched off the light. The room was dark again, lit only by the light from the hallway.
I stood over Nanny again and softly rubbed her shoulder and hand. I told her that I loved her. Her mouth moved slightly. Her head lay back on the pillow and her eyes returned to a half-closed position. I could still vaguely see the blue of her eyes. Her mouth hung open as she tried to breathe. For the past few days, she had been breathing in quick, shallow pips. Her mouth would hang down and her face would lift up slightly as she inhaled. I watched her mouth mechanically click up and down as she “uh-huh’ed” with each breath.
I continued to stand over her, softly rubbing her shoulder. Her eyes remained half-closed, looking up at me vaguely. Everything was dark. The hallway was quiet.
Ten minutes passed. Twenty minutes passed. Nanny looked up at me, her eyes mostly closed. There was a rhythmical click in her throat each time she inhaled. I stood hunched over her, occasionally straightening my back and neck. Everything was quiet.
I began to feel that Nanny was going away. I couldn’t explain it. But I was aware that something perfectly rhythmic was happening. It had been at least a half hour since the nurse had left. I was simply standing over her as she breathed each click of breath, the eyes vaguely staring, me rubbing her hand and shoulder automatically. I wasn’t even aware that I’d been stroking her hand, her shoulder. But something had snuck up on me. There was a perfect feeling to my finger touching the soft skin on the back of her hand. I was moving my fingers back and forth involuntarily, looking into her eyes, almost forgetting what I was doing. And Nanny had settled into a perfect rhythm, too, looking off, not acknowledging me anymore.
Something had begun. I could sense Nanny beginning to travel off. I couldn’t explain how I knew. But some imperceptibly distant feeling had crept in. I also sensed that if I really wanted to, I could have shaken her arm, and said her name loudly, rousing her back into the room. But it would have been a distraction, a jarring interruption to whatever process had begun. She would vaguely open her eyes at me, but would then have to close her eyes and start all over again in order to return to this traveling that had begun.
Ten minutes passed. I continued to stand there, touching her hand and shoulder softly. Gradually I became aware of the edge of her pillowcase fluttering strangely in the breeze from the fan next to her bed. The pillowcase seemed hazy, blurry. The rest of the room looked strangely yellow at the periphery of my vision. The walls, the pillowcase, the cabinets were flickering strangely, like images from a TV in a dark room. I looked down at Nanny’s face, but where her eyes and mouth should have been, there was a flat, gray, staticky haze. Her forehead and nose were perfectly distinct. I wasn’t really aware of it, but where her eyes and mouth should have been, I had been absentmindedly staring at this haze. As soon as I tried to look carefully at her face, though, the haze drifted away. I could see her blue eyes again, focused in a faint, distant way.
I straightened my neck for a moment and continued to touch her hand and shoulder. Everything was quiet and still except for the soft fan and Nanny’s little breaths.
Ten minutes passed. I was standing over her, looking in her eyes. Again, I noticed the fan ruffling a strange staticky edge to her pillowcase. Ana again I was looking at Nanny’s face and there was a flat haze over the exact area where her eyes and mouth should have been. Her nose was still distinct, and I could see her forehead and hair. I hadn’t been aware that I was looking at this indistinct gray static in her eyes and mouth, but as I noticed it, the features of her face became obscured. The haze disappeared and suddenly I was clearly looking at the face and head of an elderly woman. It wasn’t Nanny. This was a much squatter face, different, with rubbery lips. Eye makeup. Some lipstick. The hair was thicker and curlier, more gray. I studied the face for a moment, then looked away. Then I was looking at Nanny’s head again. Her face seemed slightly more drawn than I had noticed earlier.
I continued to stand over her, softly touching her shoulder and the smooth, cool skin of her hand. Her breathing was a little slower but I could still hear the definite click of her throat as she exhaled each breath.
I was aware that something had progressed far along by now. Nanny’s eyes were still partly open. But she wasn’t looking at me anymore. There was a cloudiness in her eyes. Something was traveling off. I felt it intuitively. For some reason I found myself beaming an intense, happy smile at her. I was emphatic. I heard myself saying, “Yes…yes…”
I continued to stand over her, occasionally adjusting my back and neck. I touched her hand and shoulder. Time passed. Then, the edges of the room seemed to be flickering again a dim yellow hue at the corner of my vision. I was looking at small flat ponds of gray static where her eyes and mouth were. And suddenly I was looking at a pretty, thin-faced woman in her sixties. He hair was tied up in the center of her head with some sort of jewelry. She was wearing earrings and makeup. Her eyes looked up, alert and open. Though she wasn’t looking at me, she was aware that I was looking at her. As I studied her face, it began to change. Something became amorphous, mixing into a staticky haze. And then suddenly it was the long, narrow head of another old woman. Her jawbones angled down to a strong V-shaped chin. She was aware of me looking at her. Then her face became a man’s head. It was a pleasant, little old man. He was bald. There were sun splotches on the top of his head, thin grey hair along the side of his head. His eyes were closed. He was sleeping. But he had a smile on his face. Then the head was growing staticky, hazy. I straightened my neck and tried to focus on Nanny’s face again. I inhaled. I was able to get her face back. Her head was resting on her pillow, her eyes closed.
I realized that I was still rubbing and stroking her hand and shoulder. I had been doing it in a steady rhythm, even as I saw these different people where her head should have been. My movement was softer, slower, though. I straightened up for a moment and rested my back. I held Nanny’s right hand and squeezed it lightly.
Then I leaned over her again, looking into her faint blue eyes, softly petting her hand and shoulder. The eyes were two-thirds closed. I somehow knew that she was deep and far into traveling. There was a clear rhythm. More than an hour had passed since I’d arrived. The breathing continued in little pips of breath, her mouth still lifting up with each inhalation, her throat making a dry click as she switched from inhaling to exhaling.
I continued leaning over her, touching her hand and shoulder. A few quiet minutes passed. And again, I realized I was looking at a strange yellow flickering static in the room. Nanny’s face was obscured by a staticky cloud. Where her mouth was, everything was purple and cloudy. Nanny’s right eye was obscured by this haze. It covered the right side of her face. Then, suddenly I was looking at the squat apple head of the first woman I’d seen earlier. She was in her sixties or seventies. A chubby, apple face. I was aware of her cheeks, her thick lips. She was looking at me–not into my eyes, but studying me as I looked at her. Then the little round head began to twist and spiral. It was swirling and compressing, surrounded by purple static. Her right eye was rotating around the side of the apple head. The eye became teeth, a nose, a skull. I felt disoriented, dizzy, as if I were being swept up in this fluid, spiraling face.
Suddenly, I felt incredibly cold. I was standing there in my t-shirt and jeans, unprotected from an icy chill. For the first time in my life, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck actually stand up. A fraction of a moment later, Nanny’s eyes flamed open. It was a look I’d never seen on her face before. Her eyes widened brilliantly, perfectly round and blue. But more pronounced even than her round eyes was a perfect, crescent black line above each eye. It looked like a caricature of cosmetics, or of the facepaint of a comic book character. I was aware that her eyes were wide open, staring up and to the right of me at something clear and distinct. It seemed completely obvious to me that she, too, was reacting to whatever icy rush was passing through. There was no need for her to even acknowledge me. We were both aware of each other feeling this rush. But rather than look in her eyes, I found myself instantly preoccupied with the strange ceremonial, curved lack lines above her eyes. It was as if someone had drawn a black ink line above each eyelid, where the eyes joined the eye sockets. The black line perfectly traced the furrow of the eyes underneath each eyebrow.
And then the feeling passed and Nanny’s eyes softened. The black lines eased away and the blue eyes slowly closed. The left eye faded and stared vaguely, cloudily under a hooded eyelid. A clammy sweat had broken out on my forehead. I noticed that I was still rubbing Nanny’s hand and shoulder.
I whispered to Nanny, “I love you.” I kept standing over her, stroking her hand and shoulder. Her breathing continued, incredibly light, with slow, tiny pips of breath.
I straightened my neck and back for a moment, then hunched over her again, touching her hand and shoulder ever so lightly. I could feel the process was almost complete. I was perfectly attuned to whatever the mechanism was. The breathing was fading. Nanny’s eyes were almost completely closed.
I stood over her and vaguely sensed the blurry static in her face that I’d seen earlier. But it was faint and diluted now, incomplete. I couldn’t explain why, but I somehow knew that it was pointless or inappropriate now to look for any more faces in the gray static, or to stare and concentrate into it. The moment had passed.
My hand was now barely touching Nanny’s hand. Without trying, I was barely maintaining contact with her skin. It was just the tip of the index finger of my right hand that was following the soft contours of skin along the knuckles of her hand. My fingers grazed softly, back and forth along her shoulder. I looked at her eyes. They were hooded and almost completely closed. Her breaths were scarcely audible, almost exactly as shallow as my faint touching of her hand. There was a breath and a tiny click, and then a pause. Then a tiny breath, and a longer pause. I knew that she was about to stop breathing. Her eyes were almost completely closed. The mouth hung open. A second or two passed and there was a faint breath. A few seconds passed and I could feel that there would be one more breath. Another moment passed and there was a faint inhalation. And then an exhalation. I sensed that there would not be another breath. And then, suddenly, I was aware that the body had become fixed. It was rigid and heavy. She had passed. Without know why, I said to her, “You did it, Nanny.”
I looked at her face and mouth and told her I loved her. I put my ear near her mouth to confirm that she had stopped breathing. But I intuitively knew that she was gone. I stroked her hair, kissed her on the cheek, and told her that I loved her. I sat for a moment, looking at her. Then I walked out to tell the nurse.
Ninety minutes later, the doctor came to certify the death. He felt for a pulse, then put a stethoscope to her chest, listened for a heart, for breathing. He clipped his stethoscope and nodded. “Yes, she’s passed.” He walked out to the nurse’s station to fill out the necessary paperwork.
Then the nurses came in to change and prepare the body. They put the body in a clean hospital gown and began wrapping it in plastic sheets.
I came into the room and helped them lift the body from the bed onto a hospital gurney. The body was completely wrapped in plastic and tied with a string across the middle. Four of us lifted the body onto the gurney. Then we rolled the gurney down the hall to the elevator.
In the basement, we rolled the gurney into a cold room. There were two refrigerated vaults. A nurse opened the bottom door and pulled out a large metal tray. We counted 1-2-3 and lifted the body off the gurney and onto the metal tray. As I stumbled to place the body carefully onto the tray, I could feel the cold, frigid air drifting out of the vault. We finished arranging the body on the tray. The nurses stepped back. I pushed the tray in and said, “Goodbye, Nanny.” I pulled up the heavy metal door and shut it. A nurse placed a tag on the door. It said ‘Ruth Ginsburg.’ I thanked the nurses and went out to the elevator. I walked outside and drove home.