The last time I saw my grandmother, she lay rigid, a thin sheet pulled to her chin, her gray hair swept away from her face, her ninety-three-year-old skin smooth like porcelain. She had been a beautiful woman once—movie star caliber. Now, she was a fraction of her former size—her body skeletal—withered, birdlike. She lay waiting, her mouth and eyes half open as if she was about to say something.
But we were too late.
Her life stopped in the middle of—a breath, a thought, or maybe it was a dream.
I suppose that’s the way it has to end, that something must remain unfinished even for those lucky enough to have lived a long time.
Hers wasn’t a violent death, but she looked a bit surprised as though she couldn’t believe her days were over.
And the living couldn’t believe it either.
You’ll have to bury her someday, my mom used to say. She’ll outlive me.
But the natural order of life held fast.
A call had come in the morning, saying that my grandmother was ailing—but this report had been received many times before. My mother told the nursing home she would stop by after work. It was hard to believe this day would be different.
But it was.
The nurse’s aide said my grandmother didn’t die alone, that she’d stayed with my grandmother in her final moments.
Mama, I’m sorry, my mother said through tears. I’m sorry I wasn’t here.
I studied my grandmother’s body. Her person remained, but her essence had left. And this gave me comfort.
She had found her way out.
The mumblings of the other residents echoed from the hallway. The nurse pulled the curtain. The air, heavy with the scent of medicine and urine, made this momentous event feel so ordinary. A small radio played on her bedside table. The husband of my grandmother’s roommate excused himself as he entered. He just needed to put his wife’s hat in her closet.
The living had to keep living, putting hats away, and finishing their Sunday visits.
My sister and I looked at each other. So this is how it ends. No trumpets blare. No crowds gather.
The nurse gave us bags to pack what remained of my grandmother’s stuff. She hadn’t taken anything with her to wherever she’d gone.
Or had she?
Perhaps she’d carried her memories. Her hopes. Her dreams.
And what had she left behind? Plastic mirrors. Polyester pants. And purple scarves. The few remnants of what had once been a full life. All of which we bundled in trash bags for Goodwill.
She left more.
My grandmother was a complicated woman, but she tried to put her light in the world. Born in 1923, she was ahead of her time. She married young and gave birth to my mother at age nineteen. But unlike many women of her generation, she returned to college, earned her Master’s Degree, and sixty credits toward her PhD. She taught English for many years and toiled at her art in her basement studio. At age eighty-six, she self-published a book of poetry with photographs of her paintings.
At her memorial service, I read a poem from her book (I’ve pasted it below). Though she wrote it in 1958, it reads like the musings of a modern day mommy blogger. In her final years, her mind played tricks on her. I’m not sure she understood that I too had gone back to school and had received my Master’s Degree, that I’d written a novel, and that I’d started my blog.
It’s sad that a person’s mind can be stolen from her. Dementia is not a fair disease. It doesn’t play by any rules. It’s hard on the patient and harder on the family members.
I like to imagine that my grandmother has found my grandfather out there in the ether. They’ve hooked up with my paternal grandmother (they’d become good friends as they’d aged). Maybe they’re painting together. Or playing Gin Rummy. Perhaps they’re enjoying a cold coca cola. The football game is on the TV. And my grandfather is relishing in a Philadelphia Eagles’ victory.
But who really knows what happens?
We can all hope for is a little more of this beautiful life.
To do things over when a mistake has been made. To say I love you. To paint, to draw, to dance, to run. To write. To live in the present. To finish as much as we can. To shine light where it’s dark.
My grandmother has gone.
Oh, but she left something else.
She left us, too.
A Composite In Blue
My Teenage Daughter
My teenage daughter thinks I’m such fun,
That is, until some work must be done,
Then grimacing wildly, she calls me unfair,
“You give me too many burdens to bear.”
How slowly the vacuum moves on its way,
In her struggle to still hear the radio play,
Above the din, she makes a mad dash,
Is there by the phone, quick as a flash.
How long she may talk, fades completely from mind,
A half-hour later she’s still deeply entwined,
We finally rule her to “ten-minute” talks,
Rebelling her plight, out the back door she walks.
Returning transformed, I can tell by her smile,
That the boy down the street made her walk so worthwhile;
The greatest grievance she gives me by far,
Is the time I’m kept waiting while chauffeuring her car,
I drop her off her and pick her up there
As she blithely departs with nary a care.
Still, in counting the joys she brings me each day,
Then tells me she loves me in her sweet, special way,
I think of her faults, how meager they seem,
For in facing the facts, my daughter’s a Dream.
With a glance in the mirror to survey this gray hair,
It reminds me what fun we had putting it there.