In February, I drove home to Ann Arbor for a quick 24 hours to help handle some Intermitten administrative duties. Because I no longer own a vehicle and have my grandma’s elderly dog, Muffin, making these drives is always a bit of an ordeal: rent a car; trek through the city to get it; park in the loading zone in front of my downtown apartment building; schlep up and down the elevator with my overnight bag and Muffin’s carseat, medications, diapers, and food; hit the road before I get a parking ticket; and attempt to drive 4-5 hours without falling asleep (no small feat for those who know me well). Much to my delight, however, this trip started off smoothly. I even made it on the road a bit early, which had me riding high on life.
This was perfect because at my destination waited one of my best friends, Erin. Muffin and I were staying with her for the night, as we often do when I go to Ann Arbor. She and I have been friends since 6th grade and became close in recent years. Our time spent together—even when one or both of us feels a bit salty—always feels restorative. I was so excited to see her and kept imagining what our evening might look like. I wondered what we'd eat, which movie we'd watch, how late we'd stay up talking until we couldn’t possibly stay awake any longer, whether we'd have a dance party before bed. Our usual things.
At some point midway through the trip, though, I looked over at Muffin who was lying so peacefully in her carseat and gazing sweetly at me, and I felt a sudden and overwhelming sense of sadness. As I sat there staring at I-94 traffic, I tried to sift through what was triggering this emotional ambush. I thought maybe it was because it was Valentine’s Day, and a few days prior, the person I’d been seeing abruptly ended it hours before our date when I jokingly warned that if the middle-eastern restaurant we were going to put "french fries inside my chicken shawarma sammy, I'd have to judge the restaurant hard ;)" (Yes, Michiganders, this happens in Chicago.) Well, they didn't find this funny and told me that I’d do better to meet my high standards elsewhere. Mmmkay. Or maybe I was sad because Erin was going through a tough time, and by the time I'd reach Ann Arbor, she would have visited a dear friend who was in the final stages of a losing battle with cancer.
While those things certainly contributed to my tempered enthusiasm, there was more to it. I realized I was sad because the last time I'd rented a car and driven to Michigan with all of my stuff in tow, periodically staring at Muffin in the carseat next to me, was because I knew it might be the last time I saw my grandma, Beverly.
With the exception of her obituary, I haven’t written about my grandma in a long time—more than 2 years, in fact. The last time I wrote about her, I was about to have her over for a weekend visit during which I planned to record our conversations to share here. I never wrote those blog posts, though. In fact, I didn’t even listen to the recordings. Rather, I got wrapped up in work and helping to develop a tech conference. And while I’ve been pretty transparent with friends and relatives when discussing my grandma’s death last spring, I haven’t been ready to sit down and put into writing what the experience of losing her was like or what it taught me. Although some people may think it's silly that I'd feel compelled to do this, writing is how I process and understand my thoughts. And it wasn't until this drive to Ann Arbor, when I had the space and time to reflect on the last 9 months, that I felt ready to write.
On a Sunday evening last April, after having spent 6 weeks working crazy hours in an attempt to help save my company, our customers, and my department in particular from some serious cross-functional communication problems that put the entire business at risk, I sat down on my couch to relax. I wasn't there long when I got a phone call from my grandma. This was unusual for her; she didn’t call me often, because she was always afraid of disrupting me at work (also because she couldn't hear well on the phone). She was in the hospital again, which had become a somewhat-common occurrence in recent years due to her COPD. She told me she was doing well now, but the doctors said she wouldn't survive another bout of pneumonia. I asked her how she felt about that. She said, “I’m not afraid of dying; I’m just afraid of suffering.”
That response rattled me to my core.
It was the first time in my life that I'd ever heard Grandma utter anything remotely close to a willingness to let go. This woman was not simply resilient; she was a force of nature. She grew up in a pretty wild environment. She married her middle school sweetheart at 17, despite his parents’ disapproval. They honeymooned in San Diego, where he shipped off to fight in the Korean War and where she was supposed to set up a homestead. Immediately after he left, though, she grabbed a flight home and sent him a letter so he'd know where to find her. She did what she wanted, even in 1955.
After my grandpa returned home from the war, they tried to start a family. Unfortunately, they struggled with infertility. She endured more than 10 miscarriages and a stillborn before adopting 2 children, getting her tubes tied, and then miraculously giving birth to their youngest. Just as their family was getting established, my grandma's mother ("Grams" or "Grandma Lucy," as we called her) nearly died in a car wreck that took her second husband. At that point, Grandma Lucy permanently moved in with my grandparents.
Before long, Grandma's son (my bio-dad) descended into addiction as a 12 year-old. Meanwhile, she nursed her best friend throughout her lost battle with cancer and subsequently helped care for her best friend's children. She did all of this while working full time and managing their ever-expanding household. Oh, and by the way, she survived a brain aneurysm at 62, against all odds, because “it’s hard to die when you know all your kids aren’t settled” (a reference to my bio-dad). Despite all of this trauma and hardship, my grandma gave herself wholeheartedly to everyone she knew and exemplified unconditional love in every imaginable way.
The fact that she, our family rock, was even considering the possibility of giving up was a strong signal to me that I needed to get home as fast as possible. After she was released from the hospital, I told my boss I’d work remotely, rented a car for 2 weeks, packed up Muffin, and prepared to live with my parents again for the first time since high school.
I arrived at my parents' house on a Saturday evening at the end of April. I thought about going to see my grandma that weekend but couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. I wasn’t ready; I wasn't prepared for what our forthcoming time together would mean. I wanted to settle in and knew I'd have the next 2 weeks. My plan was to work from my aunt’s house, where my grandma lived, and talk with Grandma while she was still feeling well. We’d have the days together and really just get to enjoy each other's company with no pressure of my impending departure.
Muffin and I arrived on Monday, and Grandma was surprised to see us. We chatted while we sat in her den. I worked on my laptop while she watched shows like Wheel of Fortune and Judge Judy, with Muffin snuggled up on her lap. It was a great day, and she felt great.
The next day, we sat together and enjoyed each other's company. Work was a little more complicated that day. I took Grandma to her lung appointment at lunch time, which she insisted we bring Muffin to. The doctor said she looked and sounded great, that he’d see her in 4-6 weeks for a chest x-ray. She asked why her chest hurt in the mornings; he told her it was because she wasn’t coughing up mucus in the night and that she needs to do breathing treatments first thing when she wakes up. She became very quiet, drooped her head, looked up at him sheepishly, and asked, “Can I have my cuppa coffee first?”
We left the doctor’s office, and Grandma asked if we could take my bio-dad out to lunch. She said she always did this when she went to the doctor. I looked at the time; we had already been away for a couple of hours. I hadn’t expected this or prepared my team for me to be away for so long, and our entire customer onboarding strategy was running off of a spreadsheet system that I'd hacked together—my last-minute, poor-man’s developer solution to the late-game changes in the company plan.
I asked Grandma if we could take lunch to my bio-dad that day and take him out for lunch the next day. She wasn’t thrilled, but she agreed. We went to the motel where he'd been living to drop off food. I nervously pounded on the door; I hadn’t seen him in years and only knew that he was dying of liver failure. Finally, he came out, and I gave him a hug and his food and told him we'd take him to lunch the next day.
The next day when it was time for me to go to Grandma’s, I wasn’t feeling well. I thought I might be getting sick, and my dad (the one who raised me) came home from work sick. I was worried that I might get my grandma sick, so I stayed home but called her throughout the day to check on her. She said she was fine. The next day, I worked from my company's office in Ann Arbor so that I could help record a promo video for Intermitten afterward.
The next day, Friday, I went back to Grandma’s. This time, Grandma wasn't feeling well. She was still in her pajamas and using her oxygen. She looked tired. She said she didn’t feel well enough to take my bio-dad to lunch. She was also upset at me for not taking him to lunch on Tuesday. She told me that I didn’t care about him, which was very unlike her. I sat on the ottoman in front of her, put my hands on her knees, and assured her that I did love him, that she had protected me from the volatile parts of his life, which allowed me to only have good memories of him. I told her that I only didn’t want to take him to lunch on Tuesday because things were so crazy at work and my team and our customers needed me. I explained that I had an important responsibility at the company, which was in its most critical time of year. She looked at me out of the corner of her eye and said, “Do you like it?”
I was dumbfounded by the question and had no idea know how to respond. I had always felt that this job was the most important job I’d ever had. We were literally trying to ensure that there was enough food for the world, and my incredibly talented team was on the front lines of that mission. It was my job to protect them and clear their paths so they could do their best work. But the truth of the matter was that I'd spent the last 3 years building last-minute technical infrastructures because we weren't operating well as a company. In an attempt to protect the business and keep our employees happy, I spent most of my time cleaning up messes that I didn't make and that shouldn't have been made in the first place, let alone repeatedly.
I realized then that no, I no longer liked it. I wasn't happy. But how could I tell my grandma, one of the most important people in my life, that I'd chosen a job I no longer liked over her? I lied to her for the first time in my adult life; I told her that I did. She nodded and turned her attention back to Judge Judy. I look at this moment now and recognize how strategic my grandma was. She didn't tell me I was wrong to choose work; she knew that I'd initially dig my heels in, stubborn as I am. Instead, she asked me a question and knew I'd reach the realization on my own.
That afternoon, I made Grandma tomato soup just how she liked it—with half water, half milk, in her “Happy 39th Birthday Again!” mug, with a straw. We laughed at jokes. We watched Wheel of Fortune reruns. She asked about a relative who'd recently come out, and when I said that some folks weren’t handling the news so well, she said, “That’s a shame. We're supposed to love unconditionally.”
Within a couple of hours, Grandma’s visiting nurse came by and noted that Grandma had a fever. She had my grandma walk a bit and monitored her oxygen level. When Grandma sat back down, the nurse told us that the pneumonia was coming back and that Grandma needed to go to the hospital. Grandma said that she didn’t want to go back to the hospital. She didn’t want to fight anymore. So in a moment pregnant with trepidation, we called Hospice instead. The nurse assured Grandma that she had lots of time, that some people even go to work while on Hospice. They asked if we wanted to have our new Hospice nurse come out that night to set up Grandma's paperwork or if we wanted to wait until tomorrow. We decided on the next day, since Grandma was doing fine and had already endured a lot of poking and prodding.
That evening, I packed up Muffin. I told my grandma that I was going home to help my sisters prepare for Prom the next day, but I assured her that I’d be back afterward and we’d take my bio-dad to lunch over the weekend when she was feeling better. That night, my sisters and I did a practice run of their makeup, got our nails done, went to dinner together, and then I went home to watch a movie with my parents who raised me. I texted my aunt a picture of Grandma and Muffin from earlier in the day. She said Grandma enjoyed it and that they were all going to bed early because everyone was tired.
20 minutes later, my phone rang. It was my aunt again. Suddenly, my grandma couldn’t breathe. My aunt didn’t know what to do. Grandma had decided she didn’t want to go back to the hospital, but Hospice wasn’t supposed to come until the next morning. My aunt asked if she should call the on-call Hospice nurse and find out what to do. I said I thought that was a good idea and to call me back right away. Within 10 minutes, she called back. The nurse hadn’t answered, and my grandma was crying in the background to make her suffering stop. I told my aunt I was on my way. I grabbed my toothbrush, left Muffin with my parents, and got in the car. I drove the 30 minutes to my aunt’s house, with the sound of Grandma's cries from our phone call echoing in my mind. This wasn’t good.
When I got to my aunt's, I ran inside the house and found my grandma on her hospital bed, gasping for air. I will never forget the look on her face as her mouth opened and closed, taking in air but not getting enough oxygen. She reminded me of a fish out of water. She was too worked up to speak. She flailed her arms as though she were trying to swim to the surface where she could take a deep breath, but there was nowhere to swim. There was no surface. She had me hold her arms in the air like she was a small child who swallowed something down the "wrong pipe.” I held a cold washcloth to her forehead and couldn’t believe how warm it was every time I tried to refold it for her. She was dripping with sweat from all of the exertion it took her to breathe. I hadn’t seen my perpetually-cold grandma break a sweat in years. I stood there trying to assure her that she would be okay soon, that the nurse was coming. She just shook her head at me, her way of saying, “This is what I was afraid of.”
The Hospice nurse finally arrived and after getting a glimpse of my grandma's state, the nurse was in shock. She wasn’t expecting this. She started giving my grandma Ativan and morphine, anything and everything to relax her. But dose after dose, it had no impact on Grandma whatsoever, and Grandma looked at the nurse with desperate eyes that I’d never seen on an adult.
Finally, the nurse said, “I legally can’t give her any more medication without approval from a doctor." The nurse called the ER at the nearest hospital and started talking to the doctor on call. She mentioned my grandma’s name, repeated it, and then held her phone out to look at it. She turned to me and said, “The doctor asked your grandma’s name again and said, ‘You give that woman whatever you need to make her feel comfortable' and hung up on me.” Turns out that the on-call ER doctor was my grandpa’s doctor, whom Grandma had raved about for more than 10 years. She loved him, and he loved her.
The nurse put a port in my grandma’s belly to give her the medications subcutaneously instead of orally. This finally did the trick. Grandma went into a sleep, relaxed, but with her chest gurgling sounds I'd previously only ever heard come from a fish tank. (Lots of fish metaphors here, folks.) The nurse said Grandma wouldn’t make it through the night and gave me instructions for her medications so that she’d stay unconscious: inject two different medications into her stomach, swab her mouth with a sponge, and give her a medication orally. We were to monitor her breathing, which would become increasingly shallow with longer pauses. My aunts and I crawled onto the bed with Grandma. We lay there, holding her hands, kissing her, letting her know we loved her and that it was okay to go. I set my phone alarm to wake me up every 2 hours to give Grandma those sedatives and ensure she didn’t wake up to the horror that she had experienced just before she slipped away from us.
But night came and went, and Grandma was still with us. The Hospice nurse came the next day and seemed surprised to see her. She told me it wouldn’t be much longer and helped us change Grandma’s clothes so she would be in fresh pajamas. All of the family was coming in to say their goodbyes. My bio-dad showed up and sat with her, assuring her that he’d be okay, that he always is. He used what few resources he has to buy food for the whole family and made us some amazing meals, inspired by his time playing music in New Orleans. My grandma always loved his cooking, and I knew that if she could hear us, she was happy that we were all enjoying each other's company. After a bit, I went home to my parents' house to pack some clothes and get Muffin. When I returned, I put Muffin on the bed with Grandma. She curled up on Grandma’s feet and didn't take her eyes off her first mommy, the irreplaceable OG.
Another night came and went, and Grandma was still with us. My cousins, aunts, uncle, and I sat in her room the next day sharing stories, laughing at how she had a lead foot, teasing about how naive she always was, and reminiscing about all of the amazing things she did for everyone she knew. I sat there thinking about the whirlwind that had happened. I knew she had COPD for so long. I knew I was coming home for the end, but it all still happened so fast. It was like watching sand fall inside an hourglass. At first, it fell slowly and steadily, but all of a sudden it was almost the end, and I was certain the sand was falling much faster now than it had before. How did I plan for this moment and yet feel so unprepared?
Another night came, and I again sat there with my phone, timing Grandma’s breath spaces, giving her medications, and listening for any changes. By the next morning, the nurse said Grandma must be holding on for something. But everyone was there. We’d all said our goodbyes and told her she could go be with Grandpa.
The nurse asked if she could see pictures of Grandma. I sat down with her and showed her a scrapbook album that Grandma had made. She commented on how beautiful and vibrant Grandma was and said she wished she could have talked with her. I was so grateful that she could see a glimpse of the woman I had grown up with, who was so much more than the fragile and scared person the nurse had seen nights before. Grandma had once been so full of life—more exuberant when recounting memories than some people express while making them. It was hard to even get her to stay still for pictures.
That night, I stood over Grandma. I put “Unchained Melody,” my grandparents’ wedding song, on loop on my phone, and I placed my phone on her pillow with hopes that she could hear it. I stood there and told her how much I loved her. That's when my guilt broke me. I had let my job, which I’d been killing myself over for years, prevent me from taking Grandma to lunch with her son. I had let my job interfere with my own time spent with my grandma, the woman who took me home from the hospital, helped raise me, let me live with her when I was going through rough times, held me when my mother died, taught me to cook, and sat on the phone with me for hours when I was a freshman away at college and completely confused by the events of 9/11.
I stood in the darkness of Grandma's room, watching her struggle to breathe, and started weeping. I told her that I was sorry, that I would change, that I would get my priorities in order. I assured her that I’d make sure her son (my bio-dad) was okay. I hugged her and kissed her and touched her silky soft hair, knowing I wouldn’t have much longer to take in how perfect and precious she was. I sat back down in the rocking chair that had become my makeshift bed those last few nights, set all of my phone alarms, and started timing her breath spaces again.
I woke up a few hours later when I didn’t hear Grandma take her next breath. I walked over to her and kissed her warm cheek. My aunt came in, and I told her Grandma was gone. I sat with Grandma until the funeral directors came to take her. Then I sat at the kitchen table with my aunts and wrote Grandma’s obituary. When that was done, I packed up Muffin and my toiletries, grabbed Grandma’s “Happy 39th Birthday Again!” coffee mug (with permission), and drove home to my parents' house to shower. I was alone when I got home and stood in the shower, heaving the loudest, heaviest sobs I've bellowed as an adult.
It wasn’t until that moment that I moved from “crisis management" mode into “I just experienced some of the worst horror of my life” awareness mode. I had been medicating Grandma and caring for her so that my aunts didn’t have to remember their mom that way but also because I felt so guilty for being so far away and not spending more time with her. Why didn't I just take the time off work, which I had certainly earned? Why didn't I go to her the second I got home to Michigan? How had I not called her every damn day? I'm still processing the answers to these questions, but I think the gist of it is that we can only handle so much at once, and I knew that the loss of my grandma was one that I'd never be prepared for.
I came out of the shower to find my sister and sweet stepmom, who held me and then took me to dinner. I tried to explain what had just happened, but I also knew that few people would ever fully understand. I had learned that lesson when I was 9 and my mom died unexpectedly in a car accident—there are some things that people will never comprehend until they experience the pain themselves, a pain you’d never wish on them. This was another one of those moments woven into the tapestry of my life, one that would shape who I am as a human being.
The next day, my aunts and I went to the funeral home, picked out our flowers for her, and then I set my car toward the nearest mall to go find some funeral clothes. On the way, I plugged my phone in and finally listened to those recorded conversations from our sleepover the year before. I could hear her voice, healthy and bright. My grandpa was still alive that weekend, and I could hear a carefree spirit that I realized I hadn't heard in her since he'd passed. Hearing it made me feel so close to her at a time when she'd never felt farther away.
The next few weeks were a blur. I could barely cope. I woke up with terror in the night when I couldn’t hear Muffin breathing. I couldn’t bring myself to leave my apartment for anything other than work, and even that was a chore. I felt physically incapable of doing work, and when I got home from the office, I had to force myself to work on Intermitten, which was just a few weeks away.
Then my trusty Ann Arbor friend, Erin, told me she was coming to visit me in Chicago for Memorial Day weekend. On day 2 of her trip, we went out for brunch. We sat outside on the restaurant patio, and she said, "So are you going to tell me what happened?" I finally confessed to someone just how broken I was, told her what I'd experienced and how much I hated that I let my job interfere with my time with one of the most important people in my life. We wept together, into our mimosas, next to the busy city sidewalk. A group of people came by, paused to look at the restaurant menu, saw us mopping our wet faces with our napkins, and then kept walking. That restaurant is no longer in business.
After brunch, Erin and I went kayaking on the Chicago River, during which we met a sudden and unexpected downpour. We sloppily paddled our way toward a bridge to stop underneath it for cover. We looked at each other, completely drenched, and then laughed until we couldn't laugh anymore. When the kayak tour was done, we dried off as best as we could and then started sloshing our way through the city. We stopped for hot chai tea lattés, grabbed some takeout, and cozied back up in dry clothes at home. I felt cleansed and a sense of renewal. For the first time in a while, I was looking forward to something again—my first summer as a Chicagoan. I resolved to enjoy the parks, the beach, the water, all of which were among the reasons I'd decided to move here 6 months prior. I was excited for Intermitten.
A week or so later, Intermitten happened, and it was invigorating. People came up to me and told me that the previous Intermitten had changed their lives, that they found their passion or next job, felt inspired to do work that matters, or that they couldn't wait for the 2018 event. Standing in the event venue before the after party, it hit me: The 2018 event was a year away and the only thing I had in my near future was my job. My body filled with dread.
I discovered then that all of the professional things that had been fueling and nurturing me were behind me. It was also in that moment when I realized I didn’t have to save the world from starvation to contribute value and help make the world a better place. I was adding value in other ways: by nurturing the Midwest tech ecosystem and the people affected by it. I got in the car to drive back to Chicago, and I told my friend who rode with me that I was done.
When I got home to Chicago, I told my boss I was resigning, that I couldn’t pay the price for our company’s broken processes anymore. I promised that I’d stay as long as he needed and transition the team but said I needed a break to get perspective and figure out what was next for me. He was kind and understanding. He agreed that things were broken and the company had failed me and my department. He asked me to take time off instead of leaving so that he could fix things and create something healthy to return to. He even asked me to consider an expanded Operations role when I came back—one that would empower me to help fix some of the cross-functional issues that were plaguing us.
I tried to make my time "off" time on. I set my alarm everyday so I could get up, work out, read leadership and self-help books, meditate, re-learn French, organize my home. Basically, I did anything I could think of to help restore clarity and order to my life. A couple months later, when it was time for my boss and me to consider whether I’d come back, the company was in a very different place and had some tough decisions to make. Not only was it decided that we didn't need an Operations leader, he wasn't sure how long my existing role would be necessary, given that I had set up my team to function well without me. Knowing that I could be included in a future downsizing—in which case my team would be disrupted by my departure again—I decided it was best for them and for me to finally and officially move on. It was a long and slow break, one that few people in the company understood, one that I've oversimplified here for brevity, and one that I'm still processing.
I still dream about that job. In fact, I dreamed recently that after being belittled by a coworker whose mistakes I kept fixing, I finally lost it and whacked him in the chest with a hairbrush. That's some seriously messed up stuff and not even remotely close to any real interactions or feelings I had toward him in real life. But it’s a perfect metaphor for what did happen: I kept letting work chip away at me until I finally shattered. I'd let my life get completely out of balance. And while I love and miss that company dearly and still communicate with the folks there often, my relationship with it was no longer healthy for me. Too much damage had been done to try to make things work again.
And so 9 months later, I found myself driving to Ann Arbor, still processing it all, not always understanding these occasional turbulent waves of emotion. They’re so complex and intertwined. Is it work? Is it regret? Is it because there are times when I miss my Grandma so much that I can hardly breathe? Is it because every once in a while, some monster in a middle eastern restaurant kitchen puts french fries in a chicken shawarma sammy and it’s the last GD straw? Still kidding to be clear.
And then I remember that I need to write in order to process my thoughts and feelings, and I think about those audio recordings from Grandma's visit in 2016. I play them and revel in the sound of her voice, her stories, her wisdom. In retrospect, I feel so grateful that I didn't listen to them until she passed away. She kept me company for hours while I walked around a suburban mall looking for clothes to wear to her funeral, remembering all the times we'd shopped together. Hearing her voice retell some of my favorite stories was so comforting to me in those moments. And then I think about how I'll write her stories here, as I promised I would. I haven't forgotten, friends of our dear Beverly. Bear with me.