Goodbye to a treasure: Jewel Bohanan, 1916-2014

My grandmother said she didn’t see the point of all the fuss and medical procedures for a woman of 98 years. “It’s time to leave it to the kids,” she said. And so she did.

Jewel Bohanan

Jewel Bohanan

Fifteen months ago I interviewed my grandmother, Roxana Jewel (Grice) Bohanan, for about an hour and a half by phone. It was her 97th birthday, and we talked until my phone battery died and forced us to hang up.

For three or four years before that, I had been writing down the dates and names, places and stories that Grandma told me, and I took the opportunity of her birthday to flesh them out and write an account of her early life on the family’s homestead near Goodwell, Okla.

The last time I saw my grandmother was at noon Tuesday, June 17, 2014, as she lay in a hospital bed on the seventh floor of Baptist-St. Anthony’s hospital in Amarillo. She asked me about graduate school and how much time remained in my pursuit of a master’s degree, and I held her hand before I left. It was the same hospital where she had worked for 41 years as a volunteer. She started in 1968, on the day the hospital opened, and in 2009 she decided to give up her weekly shifts in the gift shop, at age 93.

My cousin Linda and I had traveled from Fort Worth to Amarillo to see Grandma after she was hospitalized, and I’m thankful we did because she died Thursday, June 19, 2014, at age 98 — two days after we returned to Fort Worth. As I drove home, Linda and I reluctantly confessed that we didn’t think we’d see her again.

A year ago, I felt sure that Grandma would live to be 100 and beyond. In fact, I predicted it in the story I wrote for her 97th birthday. She was right, as always, when she happily pointed out, “Who knows, I may be dead by then.”

Clarence and Jewel Bohanan

My grandparents Clarence and Jewel Bohanan in an undated photo.

She was spry and whip-smart right up until the day — or night, actually — of her accident. She lived in the house in the Western Plateau addition that she and my grandfather, Lester Clarence Bohanan, bought in 1974 when they left San Jacinto, about the same time my parents, sisters and I did. Grandma drove her car, attended church and family gatherings, and remembered every birthday, from the oldest to the youngest, with a card bearing a small sum of cash inside. She had been to a family funeral in Guymon, Okla., and climbed the stairs into the church just a couple of days before she fell.

I presume Grandma’s cause of death is listed as pneumonia, but in truth her demise was the result of falling in her darkened bathroom 10 days earlier, on June 9, when she got out of bed in the night. She broke her left femur near the hip joint and her left humerus near the shoulder. The next day she had surgery to repair the broken bones. Her surgeon, Dr. Risko, inserted a rod in her femur and screwed a metal plate to her humerus, exceedingly delicate operations because her bones, after decades of osteoporosis, were as brittle as eggshells, he said.

Grandma didn’t wake up the first day I visited the hospital — she was exhausted after her surgery and was having to get out of bed and stand up every day if she was to get better. The next day Grandma was awake and lucid when I visited, and she said she didn’t see the point in such fuss and medical procedures for a woman of 98. “It’s time to leave it to the kids,” she said matter-of-factly.

Grandma was tough to the end, stoically enduring it when a young technician put a blood pressure cuff on the wrong arm and pumped it full of air, squeezing the left arm where she’d just had surgery. The young lady finally understood what she had done and removed the cuff, but Grandma was still suffering when I arrived a few minutes later. When she told me what had happened, I was slightly outraged and told her I would be sure the charge nurse knew what had happened. Grandma said, “I think she felt really bad about it.” Ha! Yes, I’m sure she did.

While in the hospital, Grandma contracted pneumonia caused by aspirating food, and her body was unable to fight off the infection. The day before she died, Grandma told her respiratory therapist that she was too weak to submit to the forced-oxygen treatment, which Dad likened to holding your head outside the window of a car that’s running 80 mph. It was the only treatment with a chance to save her, and she said, No, enough.

On the day she died, my parents, Ron and Marty Bohanan, and Dad’s younger brother Jerry moved her to a hospice facility, where she received doses of morphine and Ativan to relieve the pain and agitation of her final hours of life. She was resting comfortably a little before 10 p.m. June 19 when her breathing became erratic. She died a few minutes later. During the few hours she spent in hospice, Dad said, she seemed to have returned to childhood, speaking to her siblings, calling out to her oldest brother Roaten, who lived to be 93 but had died 11 years earlier. Grandma outlived all of her siblings, which made her feel lonely, so perhaps she was dreaming of early life on the family’s Oklahoma homestead as past traumas were erased forever.

I’m grateful that I had the chance to visit Grandma and talk to her during her last week. And I’m happy that she was in possession of her mind right up until the end, because she made the decision to stop the machines that were doing the work of breathing and other critical functions her body was no longer able to perform.

I wasn’t surprised by her decision. She was fiercely independent yet gentle, smart, sweet, and funny, the only person I’ve ever known who never spoke ill of another, never acted with vengeance or anger, at least when I was around, which was a lot during our 50 years together. Instead, she practiced the ideals of her Christian faith without being a prude or a scold or a hypocrite — that truly rare thing. If I’m defining Grandma by what she didn’t do, that’s because describing what she did takes so little time: As far as I could tell, she always did the right thing. My grandmother Jewel Bohanan wasn’t a saint. She just seemed like one.

— For my grandmother, Roxana Jewel Grice Bohanan, may she rest in peace.
April 18, 1916 – June 19, 2014
Born outside Goodwell, Oklahoma
Died in Amarillo, Texas

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