Last year to celebrate Christmas Day, my husband, my then-8-year-old twin daughters and I made a frigid trek across the border to Luverne, Minnesota, to visit my grandmother in hospice.
Crunchy snow covered the ground, and holiday decorations abounded in her residence. I doubt she knew it was Christmas, though — or that we were there to spend the afternoon with her.
Memories and love mixed with sadness and uncertainty as we, like many families each year, entered the door of a hospice home to spend a final Christmas with a loved one.
A trek to the Cottage
Despite health problems, in early December 2017, my grandmother had celebrated her 95th birthday at her rural southwestern Minnesota home. Soon after, though, she moved to a nursing home and then, a few days before Christmas, to the Cottage in Luverne, Minnesota, one of Sanford Health’s hospice care locations.
That Christmas Day afternoon marked my first encounter with hospice. I didn’t know what to expect, and I didn’t know how to prepare my curious and questioning daughters for it.
My husband and I told them truthfully that their Great-Grandma Gladys had gone there to die, and she wouldn’t be going back to the house where they had visited her for eight years. The house where, when she was expecting family to arrive, she would watch out the window for their car to pull up so that, by the time they made it to the front door, she could have it open waiting for them with a smile and twinkle in her eyes. The house with its artificial Christmas tree in the corner of the dining room topped by a beautiful lighted angel (which, this season, adorns my tree). The house where she had cooked and baked and served robust meals and platters full of treats in Christmases past.
The hospice Cottage was a different house, in a different town. We had to ask Google how to get there, rather than following our familiar route to Grandma’s front door. And even when Google said we’d arrived, it took me a moment to believe it. I had expected something that looked less friendly, less homey — more like a “facility.”
Our first steps inside
A short way in from the front door, we stepped into a “living room” complete with a Christmas tree. Mimicking an open floor plan, a kitchen stood a bit farther back.
A large family gathering with another patient clearly was taking place that day. Stacked, empty boxes revealed that they had enjoyed a holiday meal of pizza from a convenience store. It was likely their only resource for takeout food on Christmas Day.
A hospice worker kindly invited us to take a seat in the living room. Another worker needed to finish doing something in my grandmother’s room, one of four patient rooms in the Cottage. Meanwhile, we could hear the gregarious pizza-eaters in a patient room toward the back of the building.
My girls looked around the living room, remarking about the decorations and curious about everything else. (“Where is Great-Grandma’s room?” “Who else is here?” “Can we go in that room over there?”) It seemed appropriate for me to try to keep us all quiet and unobtrusive, but no one appeared to mind.
In my grandmother’s room
Soon we were led down a short hallway by a woman who actively encouraged my girls’ questions. She seemed ready to explain absolutely anything their uninhibited young minds could think of. Later, she even showed them around the place a bit.
We walked into a fairly spacious patient room, adorned with a tabletop Christmas tree, and saw my grandma sleeping in bed, breathing audibly. It had been a little while since we’d seen her, and the girls didn’t recognize her. Pale and dressed in a hospital-type gown beneath some covers, she had clearly lost a considerable amount of weight, and she wasn’t wearing her glasses.
Understanding it was time
I wasn’t quite prepared either. Before that day, when I’d heard about her declining condition, my thoughts had focused on how sad it would be to lose my last living grandparent. I’ve been fortunate that all of my grandparents lived to be in their 90s, and I knew all of them well into adulthood. But this was the only one my girls had ever met and gotten to know.
After my grandmother’s death, we’d have only memories instead of future visits. But seeing her in that state now and getting no sign of a response — even as we touched her and greeted her with “Merry Christmas!” — made something clear to me. She wasn’t going to get “better.” And this was not a condition a person would want to linger in long — this condition of “in betweenness.”
This short Minnesota native of German ancestry had lived 95 years, having five children, five grandchildren and even more great-grandchildren. During the first third of her life, she had lived in homes without electricity or running water. She had helped farm with horses before tractors were common. During the last third of her life, she cooked, baked and washed with appliances, kept tabs on the world through TV, and traveled to Arizona to see a daughter. She was alive during the terms of more than a third of all U.S. presidents, 17 out of 45.
That’s a full life.
Banter and LOL dolls
So we sat on folding chairs in a loose semicircle around her hospice bed, in the last home my grandmother would live in, four days before she would die.
I periodically would think of something new to say (fairly loudly) about the girls, or describe an event our family had going on, just in case, in the very furthest reaches of her mind, she might still realize we were there. I hoped it would bring a bit of comfort. I hoped the girls’ banter would cheer her rather than bother her.
That banter was inevitable, especially since Santa had dropped LOL Surprise! dolls into the girls’ stockings the night before. In the rush to open gifts that morning, they hadn’t had a chance to try them out. And by “try out,” I mean fill them with water and test from which orifice the water would stream. So my daughter Prairie took advantage of the attached bathroom to fill up her doll. A short time later, I’d question the wisdom of allowing her to bring it at all.
By this time, my uncle had arrived to occupy another chair, as did the fairly new pastor at the church my grandmother had attended for much of her life. The pastor made the kind gesture (mistake?) to ask Prairie about her new treasure. She was more than happy to explain to him all about the mechanisms of an LOL doll (“Some of them pee!”) and then give a demonstration of her doll spitting out water. It was less than dignified, and I hoped God and my grandmother would understand (both having a sense of humor and all). I tried to apologize to the pastor, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He just kept talking kindly to Prairie, and to us.
Kindness on Christmas
Kindness was a theme for that Christmas Day. It came from hospice workers who didn’t get the holiday off but instead helped families find some joy, or peace, or solace. It came from a pastor who decided visitation with members of his congregation knows no holiday. And it even came from a member of the other patient’s family who offered us some leftover puppy chow mix.
Just like every birth story, every death story is a little different. After our visit to the Cottage, I’m grateful my grandmother’s story could end in good hands there.
More stories about hospice
- Hospice journey: Practical information about natural death
- The art of the ending: How poetry heals in hospice
- Advance directive: From pajamas to end-of-life decisions