The Last Good Day

In his novel “The Fault in our Stars” John Greene writes about the concept of the final day of your life that you enjoy before you start to die in earnest- the last good day. Or at least that’s what I think he was talking about. I read the book in French and even though I’m fluent, there’s always a part of me that questions whether I fully comprehend the meaning of a text in my second language. But for the purposes of this post we’ll pretend that what Mr. Greene was talking about.

Something my friend Sula said to me while my grandmother was dying, that brought me a lot of comfort was; “You knew your grandmother as a person, not just from social functions, a lot of people don’t get that.” And it’s true. My grandmother cared for me often when I was a child, and I visited her house on occasion as a young adult. In university, she would vacation with my family. While I could write exclusively about all of the lasts that came with dying, those wouldn’t express the depth of our relationship, or who my Grandma was as a person.

My Grandma was close friends with everyone, but especially her neighbor across the street, whose pool we used to swim in, any time we liked because Grandma was always welcome there. I remember shivering on the Antarctic iceberg that was my grandparents’ foyer while my grandfather was still alive because he insisted the house be kept at 12 degrees Celsius or some equally chilly temperature. Then I would burst out the door onto the sunlit porch with flipflops on my feet. Grandma always called them thongs which caused Diana and I to giggle silently because thongs were underwear not beach apparel. Then the dash across the street, only stopping to squish my toes into the tar that covered the cracks on the road, before pausing at the mulberry bush to grab a sweet snack.

My grandmother loved plants; she gardened right up until she moved out of her house. It used to alarm me the way she’d eat the fruits off of random trees; I was always worried she’s accidentally poison herself. There’s some poetic justice in the fact that I married a man who does the very same thing.

Then I would throw ourselves into the pool; splashing, swimming and jumping to our hearts’ content. Invariably the friendly neighbour would come out at some point to talk to Grandma. We did this from the time I was very small. All of my cousins did in fact. I still remember Grandma carefully catching my second youngest cousin Sophie as she leapt from the side of the pool. The last time was around when I was twelve, the friendly neighbour still welcomed our visits but was too ill to come out to say “hello”.

When I was nineteen, my grandmother paid for me to accompany her on a cruise with herself and three thousand other old people. It was every teenager’s dream; Metamucil with every meal and being in bed before eight pm. I kid. What I remember from that trip was how healthy my grandmother was. During the voyage, old people were falling everywhere, breaking hips and arms but my grandmother was as steady as a rock, scaling the endless staircases at castles and monuments. This is how I remember her- triumphant, standing at the top of three thousand steps while all the other old people were moaning and watching from the bottom.

That wasn’t the last time that I saw my Grandma accomplish a great physical feat. Three years later, my family visited Maui. One afternoon, my Dad dragged his eighty-three year old mother up Mount Haleakala. At the top, the air became thin and even my father had to sit down. I wish I could say that was the last instance of elder abuse in our family, but it continued. A couple years later, we took Grandma along with us to Disney World. She spent a lot of time sitting on benches but only because we insisted on charging at top speed from show to show.

My grandmother kept that can-do attitude into her late eighties. My Dad and I took her out to lunch one day. She had just begun reluctantly using her cane. However she still preferred to move unaided or take the arm of the nearest person instead. It was winter and the walkway of the restaurant was slick. I went to grab her arm but she jerked it away from me saying defiantly “Let me go when I can go!” My grandmother was always independent and her own person.

When she was ninety-two, my Grandma moved out of her house and into an assisted care facility. The woman who moved there was quieter than the Grandma I remembered from my childhood. But she still loved to rejoice in her family’s achievements. And she loved her great grandson so much. Mini-Tex would climb all over her. He was a chubby little baby and at that time, my grandmother was a frail nonagenarian. I winced and would grab for my son, terrified that he would break my Grandma’s arm by accident as he gave her sloppy kisses and hugs. But she loved it.

The summer before she died was the last time that I saw my Grandma being independently mobile. When she first arrived at the care home, she would store her walker outside of her room. The next time I visited, the walker had moved inside her room, but my grandmother would move independently without it.

The last summer, the walker remained at her side. Mini-Tex thought the mobility aid was a fabulous toy and would push it around. Then he’d tire of merely making off with his relative’s walker and go steal a stranger’s. As I was chasing my toddling son across the atrium of the care home, out of the corner of my eye, I saw my Grandma sitting on the couch, trying to use her foot to catch the edge of her walker that Mini-Tex had rolled away from her. Even at ninety-three, she still wouldn’t complain or ask for help. This was the visit when my grandmother took delight in pushing her great grandson around on the seat of her walker.

The last time I saw my grandmother, she was barely able to push her walker. My Grandma spent a large portion of my visit lying down on her bed. Workers came to move her from her chair in the dining room back to her walker. I had spent my whole life taking cues from a stern, opinionated woman. I thought the whole reason that we sat so long at the table after dinner was because Grandma wanted to enjoy the ambiance.

Once in her walker, it became obvious that my grandmother lacked the strength to push herself back to her room. So I enlisted the help of my two year old to push her. I took one handle and Mini-Tex took the other. It worked pretty well until Mini-Tex got over excited and ran too fast, tripping on his winter boots.

That was the last time. For everything. She was really quiet that visit. But she watched my two year old, and she listened to my stories, as she had my entire life. It’s been a year since she died. Even though it was heartbreaking to witness so many lasts, I’d still love one more day with her.

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All of the Good Bits

Some of the last words that my grandmother uttered before she wasn’t able to talk anymore were “I’m not going”. The statement was in response to her family’s attempts to put her in the hospital where she would receive an increased standard of medical care. I love this so much. This anecdote is pure Grandma- a woman who knows her mind, has made up her decision and by God you are going to respect it. That’s the woman I lived with my entire life, the one who inspired me to show that same determination. And the one who strong armed me into celebrating my marriage with Tex.

Our wedding took place on Tex’s family’s farm two provinces away from my family. There were fifteen people there, including Tex and myself. A month later, a party was planned for Tex’s entire family. I’ve been married before. Tex hasn’t. So I wanted his family to be able to celebrate our nuptials, whereas my family had already done that. Admittedly with another man, but a party is a party right? My Grandmother, who wasn’t able to attend the ceremony because it was on top of a steep hill in the middle of nowhere, was having none of this. She hijacked her own 91st birthday party and ordered a three tiered wedding cake. I was not included in any of this. I was merely told after Grandma had picked out the cake and everyone had RVSPed. Classic Grandma.

The same trip to trip Hawaii when Grandma became a boozehound, she also was a mountain climber. Just for a point of reference, my grandmother was 81 at the time and Haleakalā is 3,055 m high or 10,023 ft. for my American readers. “Dad!” my sister, mother and I cried when he brought Grandma back from their hike up the mountain together, “I can’t believe you made Grandma do that!” Looking back, I realize, there was no making Grandma do anything. Ever. Somehow, she funneled all of her octogenarian determination and hiked for hours and hours to summit Haleakalā and take the triumphant, laughing photo of herself and my Dad that’s in our family’s scrapbook. I hope I’ve got half her fitness when I’m that age.

My grandmother has always been a wildcard. Once, she drove across country with four children and her husband, a chemical engineer. My late grandfather drove most of the way and he did so in the same manner that my own chemical engineering husband completes tasks- thoughtfully, at his own pace, so that it will be right the first time. At some point in the trip, my grandfather got tired which was fortunate because my grandmother was tired too- of watching the scenery plod past her. My Grandpa laid down in the backseat and Grandma took the wheel. When my grandfather awoke a couple hours later, he was astounded at how far Grandma had driven. With four children, there are four more sets of eyes to watch for cops and four more people to silently cheer as you set land speed records with an Oldsmobile.

Despite the fact that my grandfather made an excellent wage as an engineer, he gave Grandma very little to run their household, which meant that she frequently got creative. This was how my grandmother ended up being the only woman in a refinishing and reupholstering class. She would dumpster dive to get her materials and then spend her nights sanding the wood down and pulling the fabric taut to cover surfaces. My grandma was full of ingenuity and chutzpah. Many of the pieces she refinished and recovered live in our house. When the movers transferred her furniture from my Grandma’s house to mine, they commented about the nice quality of it, some forty years later.

My sister commented today that something she misses most now is the fact that when my sister asks Grandma how she is, she doesn’t hear the words “Oh, I’m fine” in response. In my whole entire life, I have never once heard my grandmother complain. I’m fairly certain that even after she bumped her head and needed stitches, when she awoke to the firefighters peering over her, she undoubtedly answered “I’m fine” when they inquired how she was feeling. I have this suspicion no matter her state, even if Grandma was dizzy, in a huge amount of pain, with blood from the cut dripping into her eye and she would always answer “I’m fine” with that same cheer and intonation. It wasn’t until I heard Diana say this that I remembered how much I loved this aspect of my grandmother. I’m sure in the coming days, weeks and months I’ll add to the list of everything I will miss about this wonderful woman.

Fileting Open My Brain To Extract Everything That I Can

Sorry, that was a little graphic. But I felt it necessary to warn you of what was coming.

My grandmother is dying. At thirty-two, I’ve never lost a truly dear loved one; someone who loved me and raised me and cheered for me the whole way along, as loud as they could. I’ve never experienced that. And now it’s happening. There’s a part of me that wants to write something for my grandmother to say good bye, to say thank you, to tell her how much she means to me. But according to my husband, people don’t really do that, not through a letter that one of their uncles would have to read because I live a province away. It’s more of a bedside confessional sort of thing.

In thinking about this, I also realized that now is not the time for that sort of material. At the end of life, people tend to be in discomfort, or only partially conscious or unconscious even. The time to tell them you love them happened every single week, month, year and decade before that.

I did that. Not as often as I should have, but I did that. I wrote thank you cards for every birthday and Christmas gift. And once, in September 2016, I wrote a post about and dedicated to my grandmother. I was able to read it to her in person. She listened quietly, then afterwards, she cleared her throat and said “Thank you, Honey.” My grandmother rarely used terms of endearment. She was a woman of actions not words. In that moment, I felt her warmth and approval. I wish that I had written more posts like that, because those couple hundred words didn’t come close of capturing what a force my Grandma was in my life.

If I can’t give what I would deem a “proper” good bye, in lieu of that I’m going to write down every solitary memory or scrap of a story that I have, so I can hold my grandmother close to me again.

Whenever either I or my Dad would visit Grandma, she would always send a rose, from her garden, home for my mom. She did this for all of the aunts. It was like she couldn’t allow us to leave without a show of her love for the family members who hadn’t visited her that day.

After my parents divorced, understandably my mom didn’t feel welcome at my grandmother’s house, so it became protocol that my sister and I would be picked up at a house down the street. I’m fairly sure that Grandma didn’t know about this arrangement otherwise she would have put the kibosh on it earlier. Two years later after my parents separated, my soon to be husband and I were visiting Grandma. When Grandma found out that my mother was coming to pick us up, she insisted that my Mom come in for a visit.

I dutifully texted my Mom Grandma’s instructions, then met my mother in the driveway while Grandma continued to drink tea with Tex in the backyard. “You have to come in” I told my mother. “I can’t” my Mom replied. My parent’s divorce was an acrimonious one and at that time was still going on. “Well you’re going to have to take that up with Grandma, because she sent me to come get you so I can’t return alone” I stated. This was a fact- if Grandma asked you to do something- you did it. There was no questioning my grandmother.

So my mother followed me into Grandma’s house, probably cowering a little in her orthotic sandals because Grandma had a cutting and blunt way with words when she wanted to. My grandmother greeted my mother with kindness and forgiveness. My Mom walked away, once again with a rose from Grandma’s garden. And once again I was struck by the power of my grandmother’s character.

It’s unclear when the obsession with the firemen started, whether it was before or after her fall, I can’t remember, for the sake of a good story, we’ll say after. On one of the trips my Grandma took with my Grandpa, she fell and hit her head. When she came to, she was staring up at a couple of gorgeous firemen. My mother remarked that after every other one of my grandmother’s trips with Grandpa all she talked about was the food, but that trip, every story included the “handsome firemen”. And so became the running gag that my grandmother loved firemen. Each year, for Christmas, my aunts would buy her a firemen calendar. Grandma fell once more, I believe, during a trip, and once again was rewarded with attention from firemen.

More than a decade after this, my grandma was sitting in the car with our family, preparing to take our annual drive to see the Christmas lights in her neighbourhood. I commented that the two simple red and green floodlights that she used to decorate her house were quite old. “Oh yes” my grandma responded- “the wiring was showing on one of them so I taped it up.”

“Ruth!” My mother exclaimed. “You can’t do that- it’s a fire hazard!”

Quick as a whip, Grandma turned around to face my mother who was sitting in the backseat with me and quipped “Did you ever consider that I might want the firemen to come back?”

We all laughed. But the thing with my grandmother was – we had no idea if she was serious or not. Even to this day.

My grandmother was always game for anything. When I was twenty-one, my Dad took everyone to Hawaii: myself, my sister Diana, my mother and my Grandma. One of the nights, we went out to a luau that was all you can drink. My sister, mother and I took that descriptor extremely seriously and ordered every single cocktail on the menu and seconds of the ones we liked. My Grandma didn’t drink ever but unlike my late grandfather, she wasn’t a teetotaler. We’re not sure what happened, whether it was some of the energy of the night or maybe it was the tastiness of the drinks, but something got to Grandma and she started sipping away.

For the record, Grandma wasn’t drunk, she left that level of debauchery to my sister, mother and me, much to my father’s dismay. But oh boy did the pictures we took ever make it seem that way. There’s a section of the scrapbook I made from the Hawaii trip entitled “The Night Grandma Became a Booze Hound”. Grandma good naturedly posed next to Diana and myself, all three of us sipping hurricanes and margaritas and the like. Then my grandmother posed next to my mom and finally, we took of a picture of Diana and me each holding a drink up to her mouth while she drank from both of them. It was like the photographic, elderly version of a keg stand.

She laughed a lot that night. I wish I had a video of her laugh. I have these stories instead. Do me a favor and go tell a loved one a little bit about how much they truly mean to you. Bonus points if you haven’t spoken with them in a while.

 

 

 

**I did not change the name of my grandmother because she’s kind of like my Aunty Betty- she’s so wonderful that the whole world should know who she is.