"Precious Cargo"

In a small country town, in an old-folks home on one of the few "major" highways, there are two small conjoining rooms that are of significance to me. Walking through the door numbered 108 with a name tag that reads “Opal Mitchell”, past the bathroom, one would see a couch, a recliner, a big window, boxes of photographs, a few folding chairs, a table with snacks and sudoku puzzle books on it, a kitchenette with a counter, a small coffee pot, fridge, some cabinets and microwave. But most importantly, one would see people. These people would be my cousins, my aunts, my uncles, my siblings, my father, my mother... essentially a revolving door of a very large and incredibly close family.

If one continued and walked through the door at the back far right corner of the room, one would find the second room to be a mirrored layout of the first –same kitchenette and floorplan. In this second room, one would see bouquets of flowers, an electric recliner, five more chairs (a healthy mix of wicker, wood, and those metal folding ones), a walker, a wheelchair, books, photo albums, a slideshow photo frame featuring images of a very large family, a photo of my brother’s wedding on the cabinet, a photo of a couple from the past, a hand painted sign that proclaims “Jesus is the only way”, and most notably, one would see a bed where my grandmother, the matriarch of my giant family, is dying.

I am fortunate enough to have been able to fly home and say “Goodbye”. It was heart wrenching, hilarious, sad, beautiful, stressful, peaceful, and incredible. I was taking notes all week, trying to remember everything so that I could breakdown anything that was happening later. I’ve never been one for verbally communicating feelings and I am notoriously bad at processing emotions in the moment.

Ask anyone who knows me.

I am now writing this from the Seattle airport where I am leaving the state, heading back home to LA. It was hard trying to find a time to leave, but I need to get back.

Most of the time I spent with my grandma was passed by watching her sleep. She was lying down, and her heart was beating fast and her chest showed every beat. She was growing weaker and weaker, and more and more uncomfortable... that’s the way it goes towards the end. By the time I left, she wasn’t responding anymore, and it appeared she was getting very close to the end. I need to get back, but it could be days of her sleeping.

When I first arrived, she was definitely responding. One of the first things she did was praise Jesus for healing her Parkinson’s for the end stretch. She really hated Parkinson’s, and had been suffering from the nastier aspects of the disease for some time. To my family’s relief, she found extraordinary comfort in the fact that the shaking was muted. She told me that my cousin, Bailey, had read her a passage from the bible that gave her immense peace. She often wanted it read out loud to her. I almost did, but started to choke up and just said I’m bad at reading out loud. This is true.

The passage read:
“Thank Me for the conditions that are requiring you to be still. Do not spoil these 
quiet hours by wishing them away, waiting impatiently to be active again. Some of the greatest works in My kingdom have been done from sickbeds and prison cells. Instead of resenting the limitations of a weakened body, search for My way in the midst of these very circumstances. Limitations can be liberating when your strongest desire is living close to Me.

Quietness and trust enhance your awareness of My Presence with you. Do not despise these simple ways of serving Me. Although you feel cut off from the activity of the world, your quiet trust makes a powerful statement in spiritual realms. My Strength and Power show themselves most effective in weakness. “

She often said that message humbled her. She said she was at first upset and not fully accepting the reality of the situation, but this passage gave her immense strength and acceptance. These words brought her so so much peace. It was beautiful beyond words.

Now, my personal beliefs contradict every single thing that is helping my Grandmother. She even made me a liar. She made me promise that I would “come to Jesus”, which is conflicting and kind of funny. On one hand, I blatantly lied to a dying and beloved figure in my life when I said “I promise.” On the other hand, I’m not going to let a dying and beloved figure in my life down on her literal death bed just because I’m a stubborn ass. Even in that moment, where it is so painfully obvious that the right thing to do is to just agree, I still hated lying. But I loved my Grandmother more. And it was kind of hilarious. I mean, that is a comically massive guilt trip for the situation. I laughed later.

I have to admit, though, I am so relieved (and almost jealous) that she found this intense comfort within her faith. What gave her so much courage to face death, was that she fully believed she is moving towards heaven. For she will soon be reunited with her husband, parents, family, friends, and anyone else she knows who is waiting for her in paradise. She even got her hair done “to look good for Vern” (her husband who died in the early '80s before I was born). The strength and grace this faith has afforded her has completely blown me away. I cannot stress that enough.

God bless religion in moments like these.

Pandora was constantly playing what sounded like a playlist curated for her death, but apparently wasn’t. It was a very religious compilation, where most of the songs were referencing "going home", which she found incredibly comforting. I kept thinking it’s eerie that someone assembled it, but I guess it makes sense. Or maybe it was a station?

“There’s power in the blood of the lamb...”

No one paid for the premium service, which annoyed the hell out of me at first. I kept asking, but for some reason it wasn’t a priority. What was she going to buy? Why interrupt the peace the music is giving for some asshat trying to sell a Dodge pick-up? Any time this harrowing playlist was broken with an ad, it became so "every day" feeling. After a while, it became humorous and my aunt’s took turns turning down the volume every time an ad played. We all cracked a smile every time it happened.

“Please upgrade to Pandora Plus, no ads, unlimited...”

<update: someone paid for the premium service> 

The amount of family and love around her has been incredibly beautiful and inspiring. I’ve been trying to find the words for the overwhelming sense of love, and I can’t. Her kids (and kid-in-laws) have done an amazing job making sure she knows she is loved. Her grandkids and great grandkids have come in droves to let her know how much they loved her. Her kids make her as comfortable as possible and stay by her side 24/7. Before she stopped communicating, they prayed with her, prayed for her, read her stories, told her tales, reminisced, and made it completely beautiful and warm. She, in turn, let everyone know exactly how much she loved them; immensely. She was sharp and quick witted, too. She often traded quips with my father and uncles.

The imagery of my mother, aunts and uncles caring for my grandmother will be burned into my memory forever. It is the most powerful example of love I have ever seen.

“Grace and Peace to you from God our Father...” Grace and Peace. Fitting.

When she entered hospice, they took away all medication other than pain management. She wasn’t able to stomach any food or water, so they had to stop any intake of that as well. Technically, she could have anything she wanted but didn’t want to prolong the inevitable or spend that time in any more discomfort. She was allowed ice chips and liked them when her mouth became dry. She even slyly convinced someone to give her frozen Pepsi chips, which was amusing. Huckleberry flavored chap stick was also regularly applied, to her content. She found joy in the little things on her death bed, cracked jokes constantly, let her family know they were loved, and faced the next stage with courage and confidence. As things got more and more painful, she admitted she would like to go before the First of the new month. That ignited some tears.

I feel horrible for leaving before the end, but I am.
“She is no longer responding.” I told myself.
But I’m honestly already regretting leaving.
I want to be surrounded by my family and that amazing love when it happens.
I wish I could offer any comfort I could to my mother and siblings when the time comes. I just hope everyone knows the decision to leave was hard.

I have a lot more to write about “Grandma Opie”, but I can’t bear to reminisce in this airport. I’m already fighting back tears as it is.

After she passes and I have time to process, I will share a fond memory... or a thousand.

She is a wonderful human who created an amazing family that I am infinitely thankful for. I will miss her very much.


-Matthew Leaves