This past week I was at home to visit with family and friends. My grandmother is ill. So I did what I do, and wrote something about it, trying to sort it all out.
My grandmother is 99 years old. She is dying. Just a few months ago, she was in robust health, traveling to Thailand in March for a wedding. Taking exercise classes, walking on the treadmill, telling me she was going to start running soon. She also maintained a busy social schedule, often more so than mine.
But her good health has careened downward. Cancer now occupies her vital organs and is spreading elsewhere. Illness has also stolen her mind.
How devastating this is, to witness the departure of someone’s spirit and the degradation of their body. My grandmother went from acute awareness and physical health (we often had to stop her from what I called “going rogue;” she needed help to maintain balance, so we had to stay by her side when she walked, but sometimes she would escape and walk away too fast from us) to a tiny, bony body and vacant, suspicious eyes.
My last visit with her, I sat beside her as she finished lunch of soup and half an egg salad sandwich. We then moved to the couch, where we pondered a Canadian Geographic magazine and talked about going to visit her mother, who has long ago passed away. “I must get dressed,” she said in desperation.
As we sat and talked, I studied her, tried to imprint everything about her on my memory. I attempted to follow her trail of thoughts, often in futility, as I tried to maintain some kind of connection. I tried to be strong, pretend nothing was awry, but tears flooded my eyes the first time she asked me if we could go and visit her mother.
This hit me particularly hard, as it came from a woman who could recount almost a century of memories and stories with little difficulty.
In my attempt to richen the connection and deepen what will likely be one of my last memories of her, I touched her hands to see if they were cold. She had been rubbing them, either they were cold or she was continuing a new nervous habit of fretting them, examining them. Her hands were warm though. Nevertheless, I used this as an excuse to hold them in my own, a premise to touch her, to sear this memory in my mind.
“Your hands are cold,” I told her, “let me warm them.”
Once so long and graceful, they are all bones now, crooked and awkward, more like claws. It takes her forever to do anything and she wields them with robotic movements. These constructions of bones and flesh at the ends of her arms, these limbs that are supposed to do what she signals, now respond so slowly as to be ineffective. We sat side by side, facing forward. I let my hand rest on top of hers for several minutes, engulfing them, feeling warmth and energy pass from me to her.
As we sat, her bent over, eyes pale and watering, I examined her face, trying to memorize the creases and flow of her delicate skin. The tiny triangles of wrinkles where smooth skin once lay. The lines of her neck, the life in her eyes. I searched for an indication that she knew she was with me, in the present moment. Perhaps part of her was, but she remained convinced that she needed to visit her mother in Toronto. Tried to convince me she must go there. She would take the streetcar if she had to. I’m not certain she knew who I was. I told her I love her and she did not respond, when usually she does. She just smiled at me with reticence and looked me in the eye. With this lack of response, I wondered: Is this how she will end her life, circled back to how she originally operated, which was a place of anger and fear?
For many years, she kept us at a distance. She was cold and often critical, imbued with negativity fueled by a life of many heartbreaking challenges. Over the last few years, however, she had mellowed. Old age softened her, rendering her my biggest cheerleader. We grew close, me listening to her memories, taking her on trips to her old home in Toronto. She indicating her pride in my accomplishments. Our relationship became such that I felt less alone in the world, guarded by a grandparent that I had never had, a protective, benevolent and unconditional source of love.
With cancer, however, her mellow mood has hardened, such that she is turning on the professionals who now care for her. Her gentle nature has fled, instead she scolds and fusses.
“You must be kind to Jane, and the other girls who are taking care of you,” I told her in an attempt to convince her to stop lashing out at the ‘personal support workers’ who now surround her. “They are just trying to help you, to take care of you, to stop you from getting hurt worse.”
This is the key with her, emphasizing the potential loss of what little independence she has retained. I’m not sure if she understood me. “Okay,” she said softly.
During another recent visit, she remarked suddenly to me: “I don’t want a big ‘do’ you know.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant. “You mean for your funeral?” I asked.
“No, for my 100th birthday.”
I laughed and then told her she didn’t have much of a choice in the matter, that 100 years is a big deal. She then went on to plan her next trip- a cruise in the Caribbean somewhere. And down to the Bahamas at Christmas.
Again, I was at a loss for words and I felt my eyes warming with tears. Maybe she will make it. We don’t know. What we do know is that she is an amazing, spirited, beautiful woman, whose name Grace is befitting of her stature. We also know we love her as we watch her fade before our eyes. I am not ready to let her go, as if I have a choice in the matter. I said goodbye the other day, unsure if it was forever. How do you do that? Say goodbye to your 99-year-old, terminally ill grandmother?
Nevertheless, I am grateful for our relationship. As we grew closer over the past several years, I told her and asked her everything I needed to. I have peace and gratitude for our relationship. At least, I do intellectually, in my brain. Emotionally, however, I am panicking, screaming, grabbing onto anything solid by my fingernails as hurricane-force winds threaten to blow her away forever.