Grandma was dying. She had been for years but this time it was definite. I slipped into the ICU and the familiar whirr and buzz of monitors beeping and lungs inflating and deflating. Grandma was still breathing on her own – slow painful rasps - but others were on ventilators, sophisticated pumps that moved air in and out, in and out, carrying life and hope.
“Hello, Grandma.” I picked up her hand, thin and papery like a dried out chrysalis. She hadn’t recognised me for weeks, hadn’t opened her eyes or communicated. The cancer had devoured her from inside out, eating its way through stomach, liver, lungs and finally, brain. I had done my mourning, but loyalty kept bringing me back. “It’s a lovely day outside.” I told her. “Warm and sunny.”
My words were drowned out by a clattering and the sound of crying. Double doors whooshed open and I glimpsed a child surrounded by white-coated men. She was just a tot with deep caramel skin and soft curls of damp hair. My heart constricted. What happened to her? ICU is no place for children. A woman followed with the same smooth skin, and glossy black hair caught in a clasp at the back of her neck. Her ample frame was wrapped in a pure white sarong, splashed with brilliant red hibiscus flowers.
I listened through the curtain.
“She’s stable for now, Mrs Mara. The ventilator will breathe for her and we’ll reassess the situation in the morning.” I could hear the machine, hissing and sighing as it breathed in and out, in and out. Next to me, Grandma rasped and wheezed at a slower pace, in and out, in and out.
I heard the story on television that night. “Tragedy struck a family on the East Coast this afternoon.” The talking head gave way to amateur video footage. “The Mara family were enjoying an outing to Silver Sands Beach, when two year old Celeste got caught in an undertow. By the time the lifeguards pulled her out, she was clinically dead.” A figure in pure white, splashed with brilliant red hibiscus flowers, wailed as medics performed CPR.
Curiosity drew me back to the hospital the next morning. Grandma was still struggling for breath, sucking in laboured sips and blowing out painful whistles. After kissing her lightly on the cheek, I turned my attention to the bed next door. The curtains were open and Celeste lay in the centre of the bed. She looked like a tiny mermaid with dark curls rippling across the pillow and her lower half obscured by a sheet. Tubes and wires connected her to bags of fluid and I watched her heartbeat bounce across a screen. The ventilator was still connected, pumping air in and out, in and out.
Her mother found me there, holding her little girl’s hand. The hibiscus sarong was gone and in its place was a floral dress. “I’m very sorry.” I told her, moving away from the bed. “I saw the news last night.”
“It was so quick.” she whispered. “She was right by me. Then this wave knocked us both off our feet and she was dragged out by the current.” She squeezed red-rimmed eyes shut. “So quick.”
She sat down next to the bed and together we watched the rise and fall of Celeste’s tiny chest. In and out, in and out. I had always taken breathing for granted, but now I realised its value; understood the power of God breathing life into Adam.
The hospital called me the next day. “Your Grandma’s condition has deteriorated, Tammy.” I abandoned the housework and rushed to be with her. In and out, in and out; air rasped slowly from withered lungs.
As I held her hand, I heard a cough and voices behind the curtain. “She’s breathing on her own, Mrs Mara.” My heart lifted as Celeste coughed again and dragged in hacking breaths.
The sound filled me with joy, even as I watched Grandma slipping away. Her breaths slowed and seemed to stop. Then her chest heaved as she sucked another one in, crackling and rattling, moaning and sighing. Then she was still.
I sat there for a long time, thinking of Grandma rejoicing with Jesus, her body renewed and filled with everlasting life. Then I listened to my breathing, in and out, in and out. What a magnificent gift. I kissed Grandma one last time and stood to go and rejoice with Celeste and her mother.
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