Full Code

My great-grandmother is 100-years-old or thereabouts. We aren’t sure because she was born in Alabama, in her parents’ home, with the help of a midwife. Her birth certificate says she came to this world on September 8, 1915, but she was told she was born on September 3, 1916. She was well into her 90s before my mother–her eldest granddaughter–ordered a copy of her birth certificate for her, in order to help her get her Medicare in order. That’s when the family learned we had been celebrating her birthday on the wrong day. That’s when we were made to appreciate just what a miracle she is. She was even older than we thought. But still living. Still lucid. Still healthy.

Today, she isn’t healthy anymore. Rheumatoid arthritis and a stroke two years back have taken her ability to walk.

She can’t sew or cook anymore. She can’t read with the glaucoma and cataracts.

A staph infection and poor circulation have threatened the survival of her right leg. They’ve also somehow robbed her of certain elements of her mind.

She can only tell us now how badly she hurts and wants to go home, to Alabama.

She used to tell us how much she admired Obama and how frustrated she was that the Cavs couldn’t win a championship, even with Lebron back on the team.

At the nursing home where she was sent a couple weeks back, after spending two weeks in the hospital with the staph infection, she’s listed as “full code.”

This means that if she goes into cardiac arrest, the staff is supposed to call for an ambulance, and the EMTs are supposed to do whatever they can to save or resuscitate her.

She’s “full code” here, too, at the hospital where we–my mother, father, daughter, and I–are waiting right now for the surgeon to give her an arteriogram in her infected leg.

The doctor says her foot is “mummified” because of the poor circulation in her leg. The staph infection aggravated the situation to a dangerous extent.

There is no more pulse in the flesh. If the blood doesn’t start flowing more effectively, the necrotizing effect will spread. Her pain will continue and become more agonizing. The death of the leg will spread upward, to the thigh.

So if the arteriogram doesn’t work, and widen the artery in her leg, the doctor will take the leg. Her health will become even more fragile. She’ll be one step closer–in the most literal sense–to not being here anymore.

I am afraid of the doctor taking her leg. I am afraid of what the shock of the loss may do to the rest of her. I am afraid of losing her.

One of the most disappointing parts of being a person is how limited our understanding of our own lives can be.

It’s only now, as I stare down the possibility of losing her, that I realize how amazing my great-grandmother is.

Even as an infirmed old woman, she had a way of being happy. She knew how to do that in any circumstance. I think it came out of her immense appreciation of God and quiet faith that everything was happening just as it should.

When the family lost my grandmother–her only daughter–I never saw her drop a tear. She saw my grandmother in a dream a few nights after her funeral, looking like she had before the cancer had wasted her, and she was comforted.

She said my grandmother had a new body; she was in a better place; and there was no reason to grieve.

This is what woke me up to how strong and resilient she is.

This is what made me as fully thankful as I am to be her blood.

My great-grandmother once said she would’ve been a writer if it had ever occurred to her she could be.

She loved stories and always believed there was at least one in her worth telling to the world.

In my most heady moments, I imagine that I am the realization of this dream of hers: I am the writer she might’ve been.

In my more humble moments, I am simply thankful to have inherited her love of words, her vivid imagination, and her desire to create.

The nurses just took her to surgery a few minutes ago. I was hiding in the hallway when they came to get her, crying where my daughter and mother wouldn’t see me.

I want her pain to stop, but I don’t want her heart to stop.

I want to make her understand what I understand finally-that she has always been a tremendous source of inspiration for me.

I love my great-grandmother. She helped raise and shape me.

She took care of my baby from the time she was six-weeks-old until she was four. She made me feel safe, leaving my baby in her hands while I went off to work.

She used to tell me, all the time, that she couldn’t believe how bright I am.

She used to tease me about my hair and clothes, but always make sure that I knew how proud of me she was and how deeply she loved me.

I don’t have my great-grandmother’s faith, unfortunately; I have my own rather dark sense of realism, so I can’t write with certainty that she will come out of her surgery whole, or she will recover and be even better than before.

I can say, though, that watching her cope with advanced age and illness has been hard, but it has also helped me.

I will live full code from now on, doing everything I can to be the woman I dream of being.

My great-grandmother is my model. She’s taught me.

I know better than ever now how important it is to treasure people and time.

I know better than ever how important it is to appreciate the life (the family, the story) that’s been gifted to me.




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