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Saying Goodbye to the Woman with the Porcelain Skin

The last time I saw my grandmother alive, a couple of years ago, she was dressed to the nines like she always was. Nice slacks, a silk blouse, her fine jewelry, socks and shoes. She looked beautiful, as always, her skin even at 95-years-old, the same unblemished creamy white color of porcelain that I had always remembered.

The same skin my mother used to tsk tsk about, muttering under her breath what a shame it was that I hadn’t inherited it, as if this was a personal choice I had made, my first failure.

The hospice room was warm, and I was nervous to be there, saying goodbye. We knew she was dying by then – everyone did, including, I’m sure, my grandmother. This was a time of respite care, not a time of miracles. This was a time of comfort, not of formality, I told myself as I agonized that morning over little silly things, like what does one wear to say goodbye to someone they love?

I settled on casual, comfortable, going for the familiar and not wanting to shock my grandmother in her fragile state by having to see me in something unrecognizable, like pants with a real waist.

But I took one look at her there, asleep, busy dying, and yet still – still – dressed up and lovely, and I knew I had chosen poorly. I was new to this business, just starting the part of life that is losing people, but I should have known, I told myself. One simply does not wear comfy pants to these types of things.

Just then, my grandmother started to stir, waking slowly and then fitfully, pulling at the waistline of her dress slacks, pointing to something on the chair next to me that I realized was a flannel nightgown, folded. It took a while for recognition to wash over me.

“Would you like me to help you change?” I asked.

She nodded.

What followed was the most intimate and beautiful exchange that I have ever shared with another adult woman. I won’t share the details. I wouldn’t be able to do them justice anyway, and it would feel like a betrayal of my grandmother somehow, a woman who never let me see her in anything other than her finest, until then. Until the end.

Suffice it to say I dressed her carefully because she was thin and looked so delicate, as if the porcelain look of her skin had become actual porcelain, and she was now the doll that she always resembled.

Once in her flannel nightie, the covers pulled back around her, her eyes closed again in what I hoped was peace, I folded the dress clothes and stacked them up in the chair, kissed her on the forehead, and said goodbye.

I will tell you this: It’s not what you are wearing on the last day that you will be remembered for, because that’s not what matters in the end. Not at all. But I will also say that at least a hundred times a day, when I feel burdened or suffocated under the thousand daily trivialities that make up a life in this stage of motherhood, I remember that through my veins runs the blood of a woman with porcelain skin who got dressed up to die, and I keep going.

On the other side, when it’s all been too much and the call for rest is too loud to keep stuffing under the rug, I will remember that even my grandmother needed to be wrapped in something cozy when it was all said and done.

And who better to do it than me.

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