Yesterday, my grandmother was advised she had around six months of life to live. Could be more, could be less, but that was the timeline provided by her doctors.
She was diagnosed with cancer awhile back. When I heard about the diagnosis, I was sad but not surprised. She is nearly ninety years old, and she has battled cancer before. I had the cavalier attitude of youth. She’s old. She’s had a good, long life. She can’t live forever.
Now, I hear stories of her disorientation and combative attitude brought on by temporary fits of dementia, followed by periods of embarrassment and regret. I realize it makes no difference if she is eighteen or eighty eight. She is a human being. No one wants to wonder if the final moments of life will be spent confused about the people standing around you, claiming that they are your family.
Of course the real load is on the shoulders of those caring for her. Watching your mother, confidante, and friend disintegrate to a person you can’t even recognize. Questioning how to keep her safe, what you can do to prolong any remaining health, how to balance caring for a parent while still maintaining the responsibilities of your own life. If it is a good day, and she understands who she is talking to you, will it be the last “normal” conversation you ever engage in with your her?
I am hundreds of miles away. I hear about all of this over the phone and computer. I am anxious for information, but also understand how frustrating it must be to repeat the same dismal dialogue over and over to questioning, far off relatives.
My grandmother would not want us to see her like this. I try to focus on the joy of her life, the real legacy she will be leaving.
Grandma Pat’s house is like a moment frozen in time. In a world that is constantly changing, it is comforting to drive down Belmont, and to see the brick house on the right, looking almost identical to the first memory I have of it. As I walk to the door, the first thing I notice is the mail slot built in to the wall. When we were kids, we would use the mail slot as a secret lookout. We could easily look out a window to see outside, but there was some kind of magic to putting your arm through the slot, pushing the metal flap on the other side, and viewing the space on the front porch. We were spies, submarine captains, superheroes equipped with invisibility.
My grandma opens the door and says “Hi Kathy.” I will never be Kat to her- I’m Kathy. I hear her voice in my head and see her smile just thinking about it. The scene has played out so many times in life, it is burned in my memory. It is strange to think the first time I remember her opening the door like that I was about the same age my youngest son is now. The last time I saw her, “Hi Kathy” was followed with “How are you guys doing? How is your trip?” I am no longer a little girl- I am a mom with two boys of my own in tow. Reminiscing about it now, the first time I shared the news with my family that I was going to be a mom, I was standing in Grandma Pat’s dining room.
If the weather is nice, we head to the backyard. The best time of year is when her crab apple tree is in bloom, a gorgeous cloud of pink blossoms- my favorite color, and a hue I always associate with my grandmother. We sit in her porch swing and make small talk- how was the drive or flight, what the weather is like, or her favorite topic- the Denver Broncos. No visit would be complete without discussing how the Broncos’ season is going, or what they can do to make the upcoming one even better.
It doesn’t take long before Grandma starts plying me with food. “Are you hungry? I made….” and she starts rattling off the contents of her entire refrigerator. Upon becoming a member of my family, my husband quickly noted it does not matter if you are hungry or not- you are going to eat. And eat. And eat some more. Grandma Pat is going to keep asking and keep offering until you relent. Feeding you is one of the ways she shows love.
When she was in better health, the meal consisted of ham or pork chops, escalloped potatoes, and green beans. There was also jello- one of those 1950s style salads with treats suspended in the gelatin. Sometimes lemon jello with walnuts, others orange with mandarin slices. Always bread, butter, and jelly on the table. Everything served on her beautiful Fostoria dishes. As she grew older, she couldn’t spend as much time preparing food, but she also couldn’t stand to not feed me. The meal became spaghetti and frozen meatballs, one of her favorite meals of all time. She would remark how the meatballs were even better the second day after they soaked over night in the sauce. A few minutes later, she’d forget that she’d said that, and tell me once again.
The kids go and play on her organ, while the grownups clean up and visit. If it was late in the day, and we plan on staying over night, she breaks out the photo albums. As we peruse the black and white pictures, she regales us with tales of growing up in Indiana. Swimming in the creek with her brothers and sisters. Learning to tap dance from one of her neighbors. Then my favorite story- the one where she met my grandfather. Decades later, her eyes still sparkle when she talks about falling in love with him when she was fourteen years old.
In the morning, as soon as I am out of bed, the pushing of food resumes. She makes bacon and eggs while I drink coffee and juice. We talk about whatever is in the newspaper that day. After awhile, I excuse myself to brush my teeth in her bathroom. In my reflection, I see a painting of pink flowers that has hung on that wall for at least forty years.
I get dressed and pack up my suitcase. As I hug her goodbye, she tells me how much she enjoyed the visit. She always finishes by saying “Come back and see me.” When I drive away, she waves from her front lawn.
That’s Grandma Pat. A constant. A safe haven. That’s how I see her today, and I hope it never changes.