My grandmother is dying. I’m waiting for the phone to ring to tell me that she has passed. Grandma is 76 years old – exactly twice my age. I was her first grandchild. She was 38 – the same age that I am now – when I was born. I remember when her hair was still brown and she was still strong.
She was always at the sink or stove – peeling potatoes, washing dishes, mixing up Kool-Aid for the grandkids. She served Kool-Aid the way I think it should always be served (if one is so inclined to serve Kool-Aid); icy cold and in vintage aluminum cups. They weren’t vintage yet when she used to pour a cup for me. I remember the cold shock of the metal against my lips and the sweetness of the drink. Grandma and Grandpa didn’t have air conditioning back then. Those hot and humid Oklahoma summers were sweltering, so the coldness of the cup was that much colder – maybe that is why it stands out in my memory. A big box fan sat in the back door of the kitchen and kept the air circulating, even though it was warm air. Grandma’s refrigerator was covered in magnets of every shape and size imaginable. The magnets that looked like real candy and food items were my favorites and I would endlessly rearrange them as a child. I think all 11 of us grandkids spent hours playing with them.
As a child, she grew up in a home without indoor plumbing. She married my grandfather, a career Marine, at 16 years old and went on to raise six children. She moved countless times early in her marriage. Looking back at pictures of her when she was young, I favor her a lot. My hands look just like my mother’s – and her hands look just like my grandmother’s did, before age took over. Grandma used to love to read. She introduced me to the Left Behind series when I was a teenager. She worked to clean the church during the week and in her late 50’s/early 60’s, she and my grandpa were able to travel some. She came to visit when Alyssa was a baby and we had a four generation photo taken at a studio.
While all of the other grandchildren grew up nearby, Grandma would send me letters to California and I would write her back. I appreciate that as an adult, I was able to get to know the woman that she was. She would tell me stories of the family and she gave me a wooden paddle that she said her grandmother used in cooking. She sent me a charm bracelet a few years ago and when I called to thank her and ask her why she had sent it, she said “Just because.” I asked if she had sent one to each of the granddaughters. She said no, just me.
Grandma always fussed over Grandpa. With all of his various health issues stemming from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam, it seemed he required constant care. The two of them were both so hard-headed that they went round and round, but they had been together since they were so young. Grandpa’s death in 2009 was the beginning of her slide.
I last visited in summer of 2012. I was shocked at how much Grandma had aged in less than three years. The lines around her face and neck had deepened dramatically and she seemed to have lost her joy. Then she began to have falls and repeated infections and was in and out of hospitals and rehab facilities. All of the children gathered and cleared out her little home and moved Grandma and a few of her things in with my aunt. Then she fell again and had a spinal cord injury, which caused some paralysis. Her memory had been slipping and now, she had full-on dementia.
Dementia is an ugly thing. It steals people from you while they are still living. My great-grandmother (on the other side of the family) had Alzheimers in her last years and her daughter, my great-aunt is facing it now. I found myself doing the same thing that I did with my Nana. Withdrawing. I sent cards but I didn’t call the last year or so. It is the same with my great-aunt. I have given up calling because it hurts too much.
I wonder what will happen to the family. Will it fall apart once she is gone? Will the siblings go their separate ways? Will we ever all be together for a holiday again?
So now Grandma lies in a facility. She has been turned over to hospice care. They have discontinued the antibiotics that were helping fight the pneumonia and infection that are wracking her body and are giving morphine to try to keep her pain under control. She is surrounded by all six of her children and most of her grandchildren (myself, my brother, and I believe one other cousin who moved out of state are not able to be there.)
So, as I sit here with tears streaming down my face, knowing I will not get to say goodbye to her, I rejoice that I know for certain that i will see her again and she will know me and remember me. She will be strong again. We will be in the presence of our Savior. And we will not be alone. Grandpa will be there. And so will Nana and Aunt Pat. And there will be no more sickness, nor pain; not even dementia or Alzheimer’s.