For June 2015’s theme “What I Missed,” returning storyteller Wendy Hibbard shares of her treasured relationship with her grandmother. We could hear sniffles in the crowd.
My dearest Gramma was about to begin the biggest transition of her life, and needed help. Everyone else was busy, but I happened to be off work, in that sweet spot between moving from one job to the next. It was a no brainer. Still, I felt woefully inadequate for the job.
She had always been my saving grace, the one who rose to my defense time and time again all throughout my childhood. “So she touches things.” She’d say. “She never breaks anything, she’s just curious.” I thought of her often as an adult when those same absent-minded habits got me into trouble, like with the touch police at the Milwaukee Art Museum. I always thought they might be amused when I’d tell them, smiling, “my Gramma says I never break anything, I’m just curious.” They never were.
Now here I was, solely entrusted with escorting this precious gem of a woman away from the home she’d single-handedly preserved for many decades. She wasn’t widowed or divorced, just married to a man who never found the way – or the want – to break free from his first love, Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Maybe that was the reason my Gramma always looked like a fighter to me. Not a lace-up-your-boots, knock-down, drag-out kind of fighter. I mean, come on – this is Gramma we’re talking about here. No. It was in her eyes. There was a steely determination in those eyes that had learned how to size up whatever life would put in front of them, and deliver the perfect knockout punch through an uncommon common sense, and sheer force of will.
And then there was her giggle. It was as if she was a schoolgirl again: eyes shining with pure joy and mischief as she coquettishly covered her mouth, while her head and shoulders shook. Ah, she was a cutie. And a force to be reckoned with.
But as we moved down the concrete steps for the last time, her, clinging to the ties of her thin plastic bonnet, and me, doing my best to support her as she stepped, her eyes did not shine. She had recently, suddenly, lost most of her vision. After a nightmarish series of events, it was decided that she needed to move to someplace safer, where she could be receive supervised care. The “Fort Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center” sounded clinical, and lacked the dreamy imaginings of others, like “Golden Meadows”, or “Whispering Pines”, but she liked that it didn’t sound like an old peoples’ home.
She quickly shorthanded the name to simply, “The Care Center”, and I had to admit, I liked the sound of that too. “The Care Center”. This fragile treasure was going to get the special care she so deserved. I consoled myself in that thought as she talked about her soon-to-be new home.
She paused, looking back at what could only have appeared as a dark, hazy outline of her home, for the last time. Not one for self sympathy, she took it all in with a quick, deep breath, turned, and looked up at the dreary grey sky to raindrops that splashed down her face and into her eyes.
There seemed such a sad indignance to it all. This majestic, salt-of-the-earth heroine was crossing the threshold from a full, active life of meaning, into her final chapter. And I was the only one there to witness it. To appreciate it. To pay homage to the unwavering commitment of love and sacrifice she’d sown into us all. She had always been the hub that held our family together. Now, even the weather was adding insult to the occasion.
I sifted through my thoughts, searching for something meaningful to say. Something that would erase the grey from the memory of this day. Nothing. I had nothing. Really? Me, who was never at a loss for words? Nope. Still nothing.
A small wave of anguish began to sweep over me as we continued walking. Surely I could summon up even the smallest bit of inspiration to wash away the sadness with a profound, maybe even poetic statement. Nope. Still nothing.
And then she spoke.
“You know, it was raining the day we moved in to this house. It was raining the day we brought your father home. It’s no surprise that it’s raining today. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that you don’t forget the rain.”
As her words filled my ears, the anguish evaporated. She spoke with a dignified wisdom that had grown accustomed to accepting the things she couldn’t change, knowing she would more than make up for it with the things she could.
In that moment, I was reminded so powerfully of all the reasons I loved that woman, that I had to hold my breath not to cry. She wasn’t leaving without her dignity, and I was not about to allow my tears to suggest otherwise.
I tucked her into the passenger seat, fastened the belt, and climbed behind the wheel. (Exhale) Muttering silently to myself, “You can do this”, I looked over at her, just to make sure she was ok. To my surprise, there was the little schoolgirl, with the bright, shining eyes, bearing a radiance that shone through the dull film of cataracts. Giggling at something silly she’d just said.
I’d heard her talking, now that I thought about it, but I’d been too distracted by the gravity of my heart, to listen. Quickly pasting on my best smile, I joined in, playfully teasing her, and hoping I could pull it off.
I had to take one final look. There was the garage where my grandfather had hung out a shingle to repair neighborhood lawnmowers. The interior walls had been covered with turtle shells, from the unfortunate creatures he’d captured as they slowly made their way from the lake across the street, and into his beloved Turtleneck Soup. There was the outhouse adjacent to the garage, long ago retired from its original purpose. It had been repurposed as the recycling center for Grampa’s empty aluminum PBR cans way back in the 70s. Next were my Gramma’s flower beds, with the gladiolas she would grow and sell every year in the little homemade roadside stand in the front yard, along with all the harvest from the huge garden behind the house, and the pear and apple orchard lining it.
I mentally said goodbye to my favorite climbing trees, and eventually, forced myself to take one more look at the tiny little house. It had held such an important place in my life. Once inside, my body would immediately begin to relax, comforted by the familiar aroma of her gritty, freshly brewed coffee. But it didn’t matter anymore, because she was no longer behind that door. It was time to go.
As I drove she chattered away, marveling at all the new sights she was discovering. She had seldom left the house in recent years, so most everywhere she looked she found something new. There was so much to talk about. But I found myself too mesmerized by the words she had spoken earlier to fully pay attention. They echoed in the space all around me, like the ripples of a skipping stone upon a lake. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that you don’t forget the rain.”
She deserved my full attention. But this was weighing heavily on my spirit. As I did my best to camouflage my distraction, I determined that she would have that attention, once we arrived at her new home. And for a while, she did. I would visit her regularly. I got to see that little schoolgirl more, and more, and more. I began recording the story of her life, asking question after question that would summon up glorious accounts of the days before we met, sending her back to a time when she was young, and wild, and free.
She spoke with giddy excitement as we dared to track down the unrequited love of her youth. Her eyes took on a new “saucy” sparkle when the “stud” of the whole Care Center, a handsome, younger German man everyone called “Shatzi”, took a shine to her over all the other ladies competing for his attention. When a new medication caused uncontrollable, explosive gas as we walked through the corridors, she shocked me, proclaiming, “there I go, shooting rabbits again!” covering her mouth and giggling like a naughty, gleeful child. And when I accidentally rammed her wheelchair into a pothole on the sidewalk, sending her hurtling into the street, and me into a panic (trying to figure out how I was going to tell my family that I broke Gramma), she exploded into squeals of delight, saying it was the most fun she’d had in years.
But then, something happened. I got “busy”. I allowed myself to get distracted, and then chose distraction, adopting the inarguable explanation, at least according to my family’s values, that I was “working a lot”. And then she started making that excuse for me, apologizing in advance if she wanted to see me, and explaining to other residents and staff there. It was really something to be proud of. “She works so hard….” But then her voice would trail off, and the sadness would give her away. We both knew it was a lie.
It’s not that I wasn’t working, at least not some or even most of the time that I used that excuse. It was that I now used an excuse. I’d allowed my priorities to shift. Tragically. And now, my sweet, spunky, precious Gramma, who had meant so much to me all of my life, was no longer a priority. She was an obligation I made excuses to avoid.
You see, Gramma had a roommate who was all alone, and suffering from severe depression. We tried to be kind and inclusive with her, but she just wanted her suffering to end. She wanted to die. The facility fought her, but ultimately, she chose to starve herself to death.
It was a very dark time. The period during which she refused food and meds lasted for several months. It compounded with other health problems to cause a deep stench to set in as her body literally began to rot away. It smelled like death, and hung heavily in my Grandmother’s room for well over a month. We tried to have my Grandmother moved, but to no avail. We were told the facility was short on beds, and they believed she was the only one there strong enough to be able to handle the situation.
But I wasn’t. Eventually, I came to visit Gramma, and her roommate’s bed was empty. I didn’t realize it at the time, but subconsciously, I’d shifted into a paralysis over the realization that now seemed impossible to ignore: eventually, I would lose Gramma too. Looking back at what I missed in those priceless last months of her life is hard. Most of all, I hate that by choice, I missed being there for her, the way she needed me to be. The way she’d always been there for me.
In the very end, the doctors gave her only a few hours to live. She was no longer responsive, but I was able to kneel beside her, and whisper the confessions weighing so heavily on my heart into her ear. My parents and I had been distant, not speaking for nearly 9 months after a deep disagreement. As I spoke to her, I could see she was troubled, she was wrestling with something. The night passed, and so did the next day. And the next day. And, really? Gramma was still holding on. Still troubled. It was clearly written on her face. I decided to try to understand, to talk with her about it.
By sheer force of will, she pressed her lips together and began to form words. She was trying to tell me that she wasn’t going anywhere until our family was back together again. I talked with my brother and her doctors. Was it possible, in her weakened state, that she was refusing to let go until the family was restored? It was clearly her body’s time to go. Watching her hang on was agonizing for us. Still, the question: was it possible?
The doctor said physically, there was no reason to explain how she’d held on this long. However, he had seen it before. There is something about an indomitable spirit. Realistically thinking, it made more sense than anything. After all, she’d spent her entire life committed to sacrificing for her family. Why on earth would now be any different?
I knew what I had to do. I grabbed my brother, and drove to meet my parents. I couldn’t do it for me. I wouldn’t do it for them. But I could do anything for Gramma. So we talked. My brother helped me explain what I thought was happening. And we reconciled.
One full week after the doctor told us she would be leaving us within a couple hours, I crouched down again next to Gramma’s side. I told her what had just occurred. I told her that she didn’t have to hang on for us anymore, that we’d be ok. Leaning over the bed, I kissed her forehead as I took her hands and told her I loved her, but I wanted her to go. I needed her to be free.
One final time, through sheer force of will, she pressed her lips together. Audibly, she whispered twice through their quivering that she loved me too. My brother and parents joined us, everyone sharing their I-love-yous and encouragement as Gramma’s face began to soften and glow. Her joy at the knowledge of her family’s restoration faded into a sweet beautiful peace as she released her grip on this world to step into the next. I so look forward to seeing her there one day, when I’ll no longer be saddened by the grief and regret of the time that I missed.