Five years ago today, my grandmother passed. That day–and the week leading up to her death–was a turning point in my life. She and I had a special bond that is difficult to describe. And her passing in peace, with family keeping vigil for two days, was a fitting end to a life well lived.
I recall leaving Washington, DC against the advice of my parents and one aunt. “It doesn’t seem like anything is going to happen soon,” they said. I left anyway, after being given permission to stay in Ohio as long as I needed. That was on Friday, April 1. I had the radio on during my drive, the reception fading in and out through the mountains of West Virginia. Reports came regularly about John Paul II as he lay dying in the apostolic palace. He was one of my heroes, passing away as I drove to the place where another hero was also dying.
When I arrived on Friday evening, I was greeted by my parents and an aunt. Grandma was in a wheelchair and still somewhat able to respond. I fully intended to return to D.C. the following day. I was staying with a priest friend in town and told him I’d go after Mass the next morning.
Overnight Grandma’s condition worsened quickly. I called my aunt from Hawaii (who was in New Orleans at the time) and told her to get there as soon as she could. The six children were all coming to join the gathering around her bed. Some of us grandchildren were there as well. The first day she was fairly stable and we were still able to speak to her and it seemed that she understood.
On Sunday, she started to decline. I arrived shortly after an early Mass to stay at her bedside. Sunday morning marked the beginning of our 48-hour vigil beside her bed. Her eyes closed early that morning. I relayed to her a message from one of my cousins serving overseas in the Army. Her eyes opened as I whispered the message in her ear. It was the last time she opened her eyes.
What took place in the next 48 hours was a beautiful testament to my Grandmother’s life. The children were all gathered. Everyone was talking about various things in Grandma’s room. At some point, I began praying the rosary. I was sitting next to her bed near her head. I whispered the prayers to her as she lay there, her breathing labored more and more. Grandma had made rosaries for years. She prayed them as well and instilled in me a devotion to the Rosary. It seemed only fitting that this would be the prayer to bring everyone together.
As I prayed, one of my cousins joined in. I don’t know the last time she had prayed a rosary, but she joined in as if was a daily practice. Slowly, others in the room caught on to what our whispering was all about. One by one, each person joined in the prayer. By the end of the night, we had all prayed the fifteen mysteries around Grandma’s bed, calling on the Lord and our Blessed Mother to watch over her at the hour of her death. The priest friend I was staying with came to anoint her and everyone joined in the celebration of the sacrament.
We remained in vigil through Tuesday morning. I had never pulled an all-nighter before, much less two in a row. I decided to leave so I could shower at the rectory and get some new clothes. I was gone just a few hours. In the car on the way back to the nursing home, my Dad called with the news that Grandma had passed. It turns out that she was waiting for everyone to be there, and to have a moment alone. Just before she died, the nursing staff came by to give her a bath. Everyone in the family left the room. And sometime between the nurses leaving the room and my family walking the 120 feet down the hall to see her, Grandma died.
The days between Grandma’s death and burial were also days spent watching the vigil for John Paul II who had died three days before. I spent those days with family and friends, celebrating the beauty of a life well lived. Her wake was a joyous event, with the grandkids making animal balloons just as Grandma had done herself. People find it funny when I say that my Grandma was a clown, but she was. And she often went to the Children’s hospital and made balloon animals for the children there. Some of us grandkids learned how to make the balloons (though my skills are now practically non-existent) and we made them that night.
It was also that night that I exchanged my rosary for Grandma’s. She had her rosary around her hands in the coffin. I asked my aunts whether I could exchange the rosaries and they thought it would be a perfect gesture. I placed mine around her hands and took hers for myself. That night I finished a eulogy I was asked to give at the funeral Mass the next day.
We celebrated her life that day as family and friends gathered to celebrate. Friends provided the music for the funeral. The priest I was staying with said the funeral Mass and gave an amazing and touching homily. We had only tears of joy that day and the sorrow was behind us. That day marked a new beginning for our family. I was without a Grandfather and Grandmother, the anchors of the family had passed on, but we were left to be the family. And that week of vigil, that day of her burial, showed me what my future held.
I don’t know how she got the nickname Charlie, but that’s how her friends knew her. Eileen, Mom, Grandma, Charlie–she went by many titles. But no matter what you called her, you loved her. And for her we pray that she may see the face of God and embrace Him Whom she loved so much.