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I won't forget the night my grandma Lucy died


All my life whenever I've said good-bye to my grandma, Lucy Jaramillo, she has reminded me that one day she would die.

"I'll see you again only if God wills it," she'd intone, at times melancholic, at times downright cheerful -- knowing at least on this matter, truth was on her side.

I cannot believe that last September, at the age of 93, she finally pulled it off.

I don't know if the final verdict was heart or respiratory failure or what have you; we live in an age that compulsively labels, that breaks down processes and mysteries into measured units.

According to Grandma's world-view she simply grew old and died in the way of God and nature itself. She left behind seven children, 32 grandchildren, 51 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.

Educated by the Loretto sisters in New Mexico, my grandmother enjoyed a successful teaching career, held a number of political offices and raised nine stepchildren. Twice she traveled to Europe. A journey to the Holy Land was aborted by the Six Day War. For 50 years she was an active member at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Albuquerque. She rarely missed daily Mass.

Lucy was also my godmother. I stayed with her on weekends when I was a child. At night we'd kneel at the bedside and make our appeals for divine intervention beginning at the top with God the Almighty all the way down to my grandpa, Demetrio, who died in the early 1960s. As for the rosary, Grandma let me off the hook; I drifted into dreams as she recited her decade for the night.

A series of coincidences allowed me to be at her bedside as she was dying.

Grandma had been bedbound most of September in her Albuquerque home. At times she seemed to look right through the swirl of family and hospice caregivers. She had a high tolerance for pain and took relatively little medicine. It was clear to me that her periodic silences marked her first steps into the next world.

When Grandma did speak, my mother, Dolores, (who was with Grandma almost every night along with my aunt, Rosalie,) took pages and pages of notes.

My grandmother increasingly spoke of "going home," adding, for reasons unknown to us, that she would try to go on a Monday. Her imagery was that of a woman on the move: suitcase, ladder, procession, car -- unsurprising given that she was the first woman in Valencia County, N.M., to purchase a Model T Ford.

One time, impatient, she asked my aunt to fill out an application so she could leave.

"Heaven," she said, lest there be any confusion about her destination.

Where else could she want to be, given the moments in which she was catching glimpses of her mother, her brothers and beautiful flowers that she wanted to take to the Virgin.

Once, she offered a long, ancient benediction in Spanish, clearly recalling names. For each person she made the sign of the cross. Another time she began making signs of the cross in her sleep.

Only weeks before, she had often zoomed back to this world to offer last-minute, often humorous advice to visiting grandchildren -- and to place a bet with me that Dole would win the presidency.

But the day came when she hardly opened her eyes and ceased to eat. I did not know what to say.

Instinctively, I called out, "Grandma, I've roasted and frozen the green chilies. We are set for the winter." I wanted her to know that her respect for the rituals of the seasons -- rooted in her rural, Native American-Hispanic upbringing -- would not stop with her.

She gave me a gift I will never forget, opening her eyes and looking straight at me.

But soon the "death rattle" began its terrible song, that gurgling sound of liquid in the lungs, when swallowing becomes impossible.

My mother, aunt and I held vigil through the night, along with my uncle, Celedon, and the caregiver, Matilde.

Not knowing what else to do, I took Grandma's rosary and prayed aloud for what seemed hours. Her breathing eased and she opened her eyes again.

Miraculously, I found her old missal tucked away in a dresser drawer.

There, I encountered the poetry of her youth: the gorgeous litanies of the Sacred Heart, of Mary, of the saints.

"Mystical rose, pray for us. Tower of David, pray for us. Tower of Ivory, pray for us. House of Gold, pray for us ..." I even read some of the Mass, trying my hand at Latin.

Later in the night Aunt Rosalie took over, talking to Grandma, wiping her face. My mom was nearby in a recliner, and I dozed on the floor.

Around 3:30 a.m., Grandma, who had been unable to move her legs, began to pull her knees toward her, as if to turn and get out of bed. She raised her left hand, which was wrapped in her rosary, reaching, it appeared, for someone's outstretched hand. Then she put her hand down and breathed her last.

On a Monday.

It has become popular to celebrate a person's life and not get too caught up in mourning their passing. God knows, there is wisdom in this.

But I want us also to find ways to embrace the narrative of dying, though we may be far from understanding the pain or the physical and spiritual terrain unfolding before our eyes.

Grandma told the priest that she believed her day of death, more than her birth, would be her happiest. And this is a story I want to claim as part of my spiritual inheritance: that death, to paraphrase Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, will be my friend and not my enemy.

Demetria Martinez lives in Tucson, Ariz. She is the author of a novel, Mother Tongue, published by Bilingual Press, Tempe, Ariz.

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 1996