After almost two years of being away, I finally made it home to see my cheerful 96 year old Grandma Sally (actually christened Nora), now delicately established in the “looney bin” as she calls it. She is not crazy but her short term memory is completely shot and it would be dangerous to have her anywhere but a locked down, nurse patrolled, seniors home, complete with calm pastoral wall murals and wooden hallway banisters. Though my family has established a daily visit schedule, the rush of confused phone calls still flood in and Grandma is still a bit confused.
I took one of her calls:
“ They let me have my things in this hotel.”
“Grandma, it isn’t a hotel, it is your new home.”
“…no its not, this isn’t my home. Where am I? Am I in Edmonton?”
“No Grandma, you’re in Calgary, you moved from the Colonel Belcher to the place you are now.”
“Calgary? Whats going on?”
“ Grandma, do you feel confused?”
“Yes, yes I am very confused.”
“That’s alright, let me explain it to you..”
And so the conversation goes. Sometimes she gets angry that her husband—dead seventeen years—hasn’t visited her, or that she hasn’t seen any of her children in weeks. When I reminded her that confusion was understandable, given the fact that she was 96, a look of profound relief flashed across her face and a jubilant “Holy Christmas!!” escaped her lips, “that explains everything—96, well isn’t that something..”
Grandma Sally. 96 years of life and I was lucky enough to experience just a few of them.
Everything about my little Puerto Rican born, New York raised Grandmother is cheerfully elegant. Her house smelled of Estee Lauder perfume and, when the time was right, Pillsbury Dough Boy Crescents. From the plush cream carpet to the floor to ceiling mirror that allowed us to model her old fur coats and cocktails dresses, Grandma’s golden lit bedroom was a magical kingdom of endless fun. It was there I learned about lipstick and perfume, and pearls, and diamonds, and everything beautiful. All Grannies are divine.
Because of Grandma Sally, I used to think that the human beings followed an upward arch of positive development. I was shocked to discover the strange anomaly of the cranky old person for I knew that human development progressed in the following manner:
Stage One: The Childhood
– Sample Population: My siblings
– Conclusion: Children are horrible human beings.
Stage Two: The Middle Life
– Sample Populations: My parents.
– Conclusion: Those of the middle life are less horrible but in need of some major renovation.
Stage Three: The Old Age
– Sample Population: Grandma Sally
– Conclusion: Kindness and generosity is embodied in all old people.
I even remember thinking that when I finally reached maturity, I would always look and smell beautiful, be kind and good, and love all children equally. I yearned to be old…
After my Grandpa died my sisters and I slept at her house every weekend. On Friday night we would watch Lawrence Welk re-runs on PBS and stuff our little faces with Pizza Pockets and Cheesies. On Saturday we would meander to Market Mall for our Moxies luncheon and people watching session. Hours of people watching would turn into hours of hysterical laughter. These weekly laugh attacks were exacerbated by the fact that none of us ever knew what we were laughing at. One time it got so bad that between gasps she cried: “I am peeing!” We laughed harder, and subsequently found ourselves in the women’s restroom. My sisters and I seriously advised our grandmother on how to best deal with her issue and were rewarded with Root Beer floats and an afternoon of Family Channel.
Grandma had no tragedies for she had the amazing capacity to flip any situation on its head, literally. There’s the story of the deep freezer. Basically, Grandma fell in— head first— at the supermarket. The chicken was just beyond her reach, and there she went! Both she and the store clerk were so overcome with fits of laughter that neither of them could fix the dilemma. She peed her pants, laughed harder, and had to wait (upside down) for my Tennessean grandfather to come and save the day. He managed to maintain his gravitas as he lifted his slightly damp five foot nothing wife out of the freezer. He was probably used to it— and at least it wasn’t like the breadline…
While living in Ecuador, Grandpa had banned her from leaving the apartment. It was dangerous and for some reason there were snipers outside. Unfazed by the executive order, she and her sister Alice escaped. The two sisters were enamoured by the idea of standing in a breadline, so they did it. Again, the day ended in fits of laughter as sniper fire broke out and the line scattered as bodies dropped. Grandma and Alice fled back to the apartment in fits of uncontrolled laughter. Comparatively speaking, the deep freezer was a walk in the park. Every time she tried to recount these adventures, she was overtaken with those famous laugh attacks and near bladder malfunctions.
So there I was, back at home after two years, sitting in front of a bewildered and grumpy Granny. It’s so hard to see my perpetually cheerful Grandma forget to be cheerful. Yes, she forgets to be cheerful. Years after the weekly sleepovers, I discovered that we had been sent there to keep her from giving up. Grandpa’s death crippled her spirit and it was easier for her to stay alive when my sisters and I were there. She would lay in bed and fight the urge to die: “God, not while the little ones are here…help me get through the night… I don’t want them to find me…” I just didn’t know how hard it was for her and I am so grateful that she chose to be truly present to us. Maybe those hours of laughter in the mall were her hours of crying. I don’t know, I can’t ask her, but I am grateful. The source of my happiest memories is now grumpy, sad and confused.
I originally ended this article with an image of Granny clutching her rosary and determinately finishing it before allowing the nurse to put her to bed. That is a morally victorious article which preaches the importance of a higher perspective but inadvertently over-shadows the felt reality. My faith may assure me that there is a plan, and that everything will be okey, but— really— it kind of sucks. It hurts to see her confused, sad, and angry. I guess knowing there is a plan, and knowing that it will be okey gives my mom and dad and siblings the daring ability to really love her. Maybe their faith helps them draw even closer to her, in spite of knowing that the act of loving her fully cannot be reciprocated and will make the final goodbye all the more painful. I don’t know, but she deserves it. I think of all those old ladies abandoned in old-folks home or quietly eliminated because their families are too afraid to love them until it hurts.
I live across the country and think of her once a week, feel sad, say a prayer, write an article about it, and move on. But I don’t want to move on. I want to embrace every moment of that beautiful awful and walk with her step by step. I want to love the way Grandma loved us after Grandpa’s death— I want that Market Mall love, complete with Root-beer floats and laugh attacks that make us pee. I want to fully live and enjoy every moment– especially those that have me upside down and slightly damp in a deep freezer. I don’t want to have tragedies, I want adventures that keep me nimble and ready to embrace the surprising changes that life will inevitably bring. Grandma clearly wasn’t capable of controlling anything… but she did have the right attitude when life (and biology) surprised her.
So here it is– the next plan of attack
Game Plan for making it to State Three: The Old Age
Step One: Stop controlling, start living.
By: Ceci Woodard
Ceci Woodard is fourth year student graduating (hopefully) from the University of Toronto. She studies Political Theory, History and English Literature, and enjoys reading week.