Passing On by Will McMillan


My grandmother lay unconscious in her bed. She was surrounded by her children, along with their children, who ranged in relation from grand up to great. This woman we knew as our grandmother was dying. With loud, clumsy gasps she struggled for air, driven down into lungs that were slow to disperse the oxygen she needed to sustain her frail body. Her death was as imminent as shadows at sundown, and was being encouraged by her loved ones to embrace the inevitable.

“You can let go now, grandmother. It’s okay. Just let go.”

Her drifting away was, at first, very subtle. So slow was its onset that at first I ignored it, thinking sooner or later she’d set things to right. Then suddenly it seemed she began to eat less. Immediately after, she began to talk less, began to become less, and before I knew it “less” had become almost nothing at all. I kept waiting for her to correct this mistake, to steer herself back onto the wide, friendly roads that would lead her back to the land of the living. But as certain as I was that she’d turn it around, it simply wasn’t the way it would be. One evening she got up to go to her bed, her hospice nurse leading the way, and never found a way to get out of bed once again.

“You can let go now, grandmother,” her children chimed beside her. “It’s okay. Just let go.”

Her house, once filled with bright, vital signs of her life, filled slowly with signs that she was being evicted out of life all together. Gifted casseroles delivered from old, family friends, filled up the fridge and invaded her counters. Letters of sympathy, of kindness, support, were littered around my grandmother’s home. Her once cheery dwelling had been changed into a strange sort of shrine, where we knelt in obeisance to her imminent demise. On her coffee table, which once boasted coffee, snack foods, and a well-worn remote, lay a blue colored book that at first glance resembled a thin driver’s manual. The hospice nurse had dropped it off a few weeks before. “Passing On,” it was called, and it detailed all of the stages of death, starting at the first signs of trouble until the last day of life. Like a menu of grim it detailed “the end,” complete with pictures, illustrated throughout in flashy, bright, neon.

“Remember last week when she was up and wanted cinnamon toast, remember that?” my uncle Eddie said, pointing to a chapter in the book entitled “The Last Rally.” “That’s what she was doing. She was rallying.” We all pretended to read through the book in sequence, but it was too tempting not to skip to the back, to read the morbid details of what the books index called “The Last 24.” “It’s not like we’re going to spoil the ending,” whispered my sister, thumbing toward the last several pages. “No shocking twists to this story.” In this instance it was the story of our grandmother, who seemed to be bucking at those gentle voices that spoke from her bedside. Those kind, gentle voices, of cousins and uncles, of nieces and daughters, voices my grandmother had literally brought into being, calmly insisting that she “just let go…it’s okay, grandmother…just let yourself go…”

“We’re all here,” my aunt said one evening, addressing the lot of her nieces and nephews. “The whole families here, everyone’s come to see her and say goodbye. I don’t know who mom’s holding on for, but she won’t pass on.” Chewing on gifted sandwiches and store bought desserts, my relatives nodded their heads in tacit agreement, the question circling in the orbits of their minds. Who exactly was she holding on for?

Assholes, I thought. She’s not holding on for any of us. She’s holding on for herself. Isn’t that enough? She doesn’t want to die. Don’t any of you know this woman at all?

I spent the night in her house on what turned out to be her last night forever, and, standing alone with her in her bedroom, I told her things I’d want to hear if our roles were reversed, if I were the one being told to stop dragging my feet and get on with the croaking.

“You’re okay,” I lied, leaning down to her bed. “You’ve had a rough patch, that’s for sure, but that’s finally over. You’re getting better, I promise. Just take it easy for now, and whatever you do, don’t worry a bit.” Leaning in close, I noticed that she smelled, not like an old lady sinking deep into death, but instead, like a newborn. An anomaly of gentle shampoos and soaps perhaps, but as she faded out of this world I caught an impression of what it might have been like when she was first brought into it. The next day, as we congregated around the slight depression that she’d left in her now empty bed, I mentioned aloud what it was I’d noticed on our last night together. “The way she smelled,” I said. “It made her seem like she was brand new.”

“It was the Lord welcoming her spirit,” my Uncle Albert, a Protestant minister, said with a familiar and practiced assurance. “She was born again in Christ last night.”

Again, to myself, I was forced into wonder. Didn’t they know this woman at all? “Have I ever felt the Holy Spirit in me?” my grandmother once said after being questioned on what appeared to be her relative ambivalence toward any one sort of God. “The only spirit I want to feel in my body is the kind that I can drink.” And yet, she preferred to set insects free rather than carelessly smash them, placed the lint from her dryer on the back of her porch so that birds could use it to make April fresh nests, and fed every stray cat or dog that wandered across her manicured lawn. “I don’t want a reckoning,” she’d say, pointing up to the sky. “He watches, I tell you. He pays attention.” Years gone now, and I’m still plucking worms off of hot asphalt, just in case she was onto something.

Stair PhotoWill McMillan was born and raised just outside of Portland, Oregon. He’s wanted to be an author since he was 12 years old when he sold his first story, a detailed, fabricated account of what became of “The Brady Bunch” kids (murder, and lots of it) to a boy in his class, earning $20.00 for about 30 minutes of writing, which is still a decent salary. His work has been featured in Sun, Nailed, and Sweet literary journals, among others.


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