This week doctors told us my Grandma is having difficulty breathing. There is an estimate of her having only “a week longer”. When first getting the news my stomach clenched, my heart raced. She is a large part of my heart. Selfishly, I want her to outlive me. I want her to be around forever.
Five years ago, we received similar news. GM had suffered multiple strokes, her speech was slurred, she mostly slept. Hospice was arranged. All medications were stopped.
As a result she woke up, began jumbled, slurred and constant conversations with another stroke patient, started eating more and improved. She’s too much of a lady for this but I like to imagine her flipping off those silly doctors. Daily. For a least a few years. Maybe that’s what she spoke about with her friend.
GM lives in another state. I drive 10 hours to see her. Last time I visited I knew it would be the final time. She rarely spoke. She had no idea who I was but she lit up as she recognized my familiar face. She was happy to see me or whomever she thought I was. She called me the name of a high school friend for most of the visit. We spent some time outside her (assisted living) home. We went inside when she felt chilled. I placed a piece of her favorite candy on the table and severely underestimated how quick and agile she still was as she chewed on a piece of still-wrapped candy before my hand left the table. I wised up. We ate more (unwrapped candy) as we talked. She asked some questions and I felt hopeful. She answered questions. I updated her on gossip since we last spoke. I talked until I saw her slowing down; she started to look more disoriented and she became quiet. She became more interested in the people in the next room listening to music. I wheeled her into the room, tucked a blanket around her lap and told her I loved her very much and that I would see her around next time. She looked straight ahead and very gently patted my arm. I went to the bathroom, locked the door and cried for a while.
That has been the pattern this week. Tears start on the way home. They come again a few times at night as I go through photographs. I ice my eyelids in the morning to make the swelling lessen and then I go to work. Rinse and repeat. I miss her terribly just like I have missed her for many years.
Nine years ago we took our last family trip with GM. We knew her ability to travel was coming to an end. (Travel was part of her identity and we all were greatly saddened that she would be taking no more trips.) My sister came home from her first job, I drove south to my Mom’s house and we all met GM at the airport. We left early morning and drove to the beach. Four women, three generations and 1 room overlooking the ocean. (It was part 2 of our trip to Arizona 15 years earlier—minus the ocean view.) In addition to her memory loss, grandma had lost her inhibitions and she no longer cared about being incredibly proper. She was hilarious, tons of fun and for the first time, in our presence at least,—she really let loose. The ocean seemed to have a calming effect and she kept saying how she never thought she would see the ocean again, “but here I am!”.
I realize I am part of a privileged group. This group is called grandchildren. Our grandparents know they won’t break us, that mistakes make us stronger and that our parents have to ultimately take us home so grandparents are frequently more relaxed and forgiving. As a grandchild there is an entire generation of hurt or disappointment that I get to skip. I know my vision of my grandparents is a rosy one but it’s my impression, my memory, my reality.
Some of my favorite memories of my Grandma:
-Being in your house where Mom and my uncles grew up. It always smelled amazing. There were plenty of places to play and hide and lots of cool stuff like a pool table, a laundry chute, artwork you painted, bathrooms with interesting stuff, tons of pristine National Geographics, a collection of stylish yet practical tiny shoes (I could fit into until 2nd grade), lots of books, art supplies and your refrigerator had a freezer on the bottom so one could always check out the ice cream selection without asking for adult help.
-You signed everything “GM”. I cannot see anything created by General Motors without thinking of you.
-You always asked me,”Well, what do you think about that?” I can’t think of anyone else who did.
-You taught my cousin and me what you learned in your bellydance class as our horrified parents watched. You were more flexible than we ever were.
-If we had to pair up to sleep, you always picked me. I am very still when I sleep and don’t move or kick or snore—at least that is what we told everyone so they wouldn’t feel bad.
-Because of the songs you were always singing around the house, I cannot hear 1940’s big band without thinking of only you.
-You had an Indiana Jones-style whip that you cracked to scare the squirrels away. You hated squirrels. I think they are cute but now they eat stuff out of my garden and I wish I had your whip.
-You took me to the watercolor class you taught and I met some of the ladies there. They talked about how much they loved coming there because it is a relaxing escape from the rest of the world. Every once in a great while my students tell me that too.
-You shared your travels with me. I loved looking through your pictures while you told me of the people you met and the history you saw. Because of you I saw the mountains of New Zealand, the Buddhas of Thailand, the Great Wall of China, children in Peru and heard the voices of people in Kenya before I ever left the country. You always emphasized the people. People are most important and attention should be paid to all of them even when we don’t believe the same things to be true. After our talks you would frequently go upstairs to type up details that were fresh in your mind. I would pretend to read as I watched you type.
-You taught me the importance of writing letters. Your notes of travel or the garden or family always came when I needed them most. I responded for selfish reasons; I always wanted you to write me back.
-You valued family above all. When I was 14 and my Mom and I were about to tear each other apart you grabbed me and my favorite aunt and took us to Manhattan. You showed us all your favorite things about the city and every time I go back I think of you and that trip. You treated me like the adult you expected me to be. I didn’t realize what you were doing at the time but that break was the beginning of a positive change between your daughter and granddaughter.
There are hundreds of lessons I have learned from you. Your direct influence helped make me a teacher, showed me how to value my family and inspired me to travel whenever I can. I have no regrets except I wish I had asked you a few years earlier where you wanted to go that you did not have the chance. With an earlier start we could have totally pulled off that tour of Egypt and India. Next time around we will.