Try as I may, and it should be easier than it is, I can’t remember a time when my grandma, Ruby, wasn’t old.
I know she at one time had a shock of red hair. Pictures tell me that in the days of black and white she was a striking woman. I know that she read more books than I’ll ever pick up. I know that while she would read anything, she was known to mark out any dirty words she found in the text.
Still, as I venture back through the years I spent in her cramped little house, sweating through Christmas dinners or endless visits under cover of pipe smoke and grown up conversation, I still can’t remember a time when she seemed vibrant and ready to tackle life.
I know there was such a time. She gave birth to nine children, all of whom would grow up to live such wildly different lives that you’d think they all had different mothers. The dirt of west Texas didn’t dirty her mind, and she lived out most of her years in a tiny house on Thelma street in Springfield, Missouri.
When I was born, Grandma was about my mom’s current age. I can’t imagine my grandma being that young.
This weekend, my wife and I traveled back to my old home for a baby shower. The weekend was designed to be one of celebration, one shed of all the stress and worry the family faced at the end of 2003. Instead, we got off the plane on Friday morning and went straight to the hospital.
The night before, my grandma had stood up from her seat on the couch, the one she had been sitting in for as long as I can remember. She told someone that her walker was in the way as she stood. That perception forced her off balance. She fell backward onto an 80lb marble end table. Her hip shattered. Her shoulder shattered. She was broken. About as broken as an old woman could be.
She had been in poor health for a long time. Despite the family’s somewhat curious longevity, most people in it had some sort of ailment. With her, it was her heart. She’d had more heart attacks than I care to remember. At 82, she was slipping toward deafness and likely senility.
We got to the hospital in just enough time to see her in her room before the took her to surgery. She greeted me the way she’s greeted me for most of the last ten years. What a beautiful boy. Such a beautiful boy. He’s gotten much bigger since I saw him last.
She looked even older than I remembered. Her hair was white, her mouth seemed empty. Her eyes barely open. She was on a heavy drip of morphine to ease what must have been excruciating pain.
I stood next to her bed, talking as loudly as I could to help her hear. I knew she wasn’t hearing much. Half-blind, she wasn’t seeing much either. It was sad, but, in a way, as beautiful as pitiful old age can be.
No one, doctors or family alike, expected her to live through the surgery. Her heart wasn’t strong enough to withstand the hour under anethesia. A smoker for many years (many years ago), her lungs weren’t strong enough to come off the breathing tube. The crowded waiting room, where my aunt performed some sort of baby-sexing witchcraft over my wife’s belly, was little more than a vigil before death.
When the doctors came out and announced they had fixed all that was broken and that Grandma was breathing on her own, the sentiment was similar to the many other times she had cheated death: The woman is tougher than any of us know.
That’s when a diferent sort of talk started up. The talk about how this might be the thing that helps her turn the corner. Instead of easing slowly toward death, perhaps she’ll be able to rebound and live a life with some amount of quality. Perhaps.
We left the hospital that afternoon, everyone relieved, everyone looking forward to the baby shower the next afternoon.
The baby clothes and toys came in as many colors and shapes as you can imagine. The baby belly witchcraft said I’ll have a boy. My uncle Ronnie insisted I would father a girl. Old friends stopped by as I loaded the booty into my dad’s SUV.
A couple miles away, Grandma was still breathing on her own. We went to see her, held her hand, helped her eat. She complained about the bad food, and we couldn’t blame her for it.
Later that night, we went back to the hospital. A crisis erupted and I was called on as an impartial family male to offer advice. I felt very old all of a sudden. Still, there was Grandma with her beautiful boys, pointing them out one by one.
We left Sunday afternoon in a fog. Grandma’s blood count was down and she need a transfusion. As a TV reporter who knows way too much about blood, blood donation, and blood transfusions, I tried to play the expert in absence of my resident expert, Dr. Jeffy. I didn’t do a very good job and did a poorer job of making everybody feel better.
Today was a big day for me. I had an appointment this morning that could alter my future. The appointment went well, despite the recognition that the chances my future would change much were pretty small. I left in the sunshine and the constant buzzing of my cell phone. Friends who knew where I was were calling, impatient, wanting to know how things had gone. During a call, my cell phone’s call-waiting kicked in.
“Mom and Dad,” read the caller-ID.
It was my mom on the other end of the line. Her first words were to ask about my appointment.
“How did it go?” she asked.
“Grandma died, didn’t she, mom?”
A pause. Another pause.
It was midnight when it happened. The old woman–who I know was once young–died at midnight.
All day long people have been coming up to me, patting me on the shoulder, offering their condolences the same way I’ve done to others for years. This is my first grandparent to die. I didn’t really know what it would feel like.
In my heart I know that had she lived, Grandma wouldn’t have lived a very happy life. The doctors wouldn’t let her go back to her spot on the couch. They would put her in a nursing home where she would die slowly and unhappily.
Tonight, I’m working late to make up for the morning of work I missed. My wife is out and about, her growing belly pushing against her cute maternity clothes. I’m tired, sore from a weekend of plane rides and restless sleep. I’m wishing I could give my dad a hug and let him cry for a while.
My regret is that I was too young to recognize when my grandma was young. I wish I could remember something other than her being old.
However, the regret is tempered by a sense of relief that an old woman doesn’t have to suffer anymore. While trite, I suppose it is fair to say she lived a full life. And she gave me my dad, who gave me this life and an opportuity to give life to another. A boy, a girl, whatever the witchcraft or soothsaying uncles offer.
Thanks for that, Grandma. And peace to you tonight as you sleep.