My granny, my mom's mom, was a heck of a lady. She practically raised me when I was very young. She was my cheering section at ballgames, my enabler at the Entenmann's factory store, and a masterful teller of tales. She had this way of speaking you couldn't quite place, situated somewhere between the put-upon airs of the Mid-Atlantic accent and that of a down-and-out Chicago drunk (though she herself didn't drink much in my lifetime), replete with sprawling vowels and drawling consonants; it depended on the story she was telling. She could also mimic her closest confidante, her cousin, my Aunt Jo Ann, emphasizing the "hick-isms" she'd drop over the phone, or on our semi-annual visits to her rural home in Michigan, delighting in every "crick" or "warsh" my mom, or my kid sister, or I would point out.
To my Grandpa John she was a dutiful and adoring wife, loving him deeply to the end of his life, and in my memory, she was hardly able to bear it watching him go. To my Uncle Jim, her son, and my mom, her daughter, it was probably more complicated, with the ups and downs parents and children have, but on the whole it's been clear to me in my lifetime that they loved one another. My mom began being her caretaker long ago, and as my granny's physical and mental issues devolved, it took its toll on them both.
I've visited my grandmother in more than a handful of assisted living facilities after what I can only describe as a comically high number of complicated brushes with death. I've made my peace with her passing with each incident. There was the time when she fell ill and demanded to leave the hospital, against the doctor's wishes. When she got home, she got worse, and wouldn't eat. My mom didn't tell me until it got really, really bad, and so I went over to the condo they were living in and gently but firmly suggested to my granny that she should eat, and that she should go back to the hospital, and that I would take her. She accepted this, and so I loaded her into my car and drove her the 5 or so miles to the hospital. On the drive over she laughed about how much she hated being in hospitals and politely asked if she could chain-smoke in my car.
The next day I left the office on my lunch break to guide her into surgery. My mom couldn't make it this time, and she was still understandably upset about the fact that after all the trials and tribulations they'd been through together, granny wouldn't listen to her when she said leaving the hospital against the doctor's orders was a bad idea. This was just a few months prior to the photo at the top of this article. My granny's stated rationale for her belligerence was that she wanted to drive up to Michigan for a visit with my Aunt Jo Ann--a visit I'd made the mistake of promising as a birthday gift to my granny.
(This complicates the story, and I'm only mentioning it here as a reminder to myself, but coincidentally: my father, with whom I was estranged, was in the same hospital at the same time as my granny after having survived his first heart attack. Family is weird.)
So granny and I are sitting there waiting for her to be called in for surgery, and I'm thinking, oh, this might be the time she goes. Her eyes kept welling up in tears with every sentimental thing she said and as mine welled up, too, I realized I wasn't ready for her to go. I quickly made my peace, and said everything I needed her to hear. That was over four years ago.
In the time since, my granny developed dementia, and Alzheimer's, and since I've never had to deal with that up close, it was jarring. She lashed out regularly. I did my best to keep her laughing when I visited, playing "yes, and" style improv games with her when she referred to her immediate family by the names of distant relatives or long-deceased friends. My kid sister and I have always made jokes at her expense, repeating her turns of phrase with her tacit, smirking approval, even going so far as to rotate certain of these as the wifi password at granny's house ("ohdearlord", "jesusmaryandjoseph", "peterpaulandmary"). But, folks, it was extremely hard to keep smiling through her worst days.
Last New Year's Eve, my granny called me around 10 o'clock as we were hosting a party. She was looking for her husband who's been dead since I was 16, and cursed him out to me conspiratorially, wondered if he was slumming it with my "Aunt" Louise, the kindly old lady who lived across the street from my grandparents and took me in for sweets some afternoons when I was a kid. My grandparents, as far as I know, were a picture perfect example of Greatest Generation matrimony. I have zero suspicions about my Grandpa John's activities when he was alive. It was the disease. I played along, conveyed my doubts, and asked about my mom's whereabouts. It turned out she was at a party with friends, a well-deserved night out cutting loose from her caretaker duties. I couldn't blame her, and didn't want to bother her, so when my granny called again, and again, I'd duck out of the party and pick up, doing my best to alleviate her anxieties.
If, like me until a few years ago, you've never dealt with someone suffering from dementia, this story likely lies in the abstract. I get that. It's hard for me to imagine, now that she's gone. And I hate to bring this up in light of her death, but it's just so nefarious and unfair, that someone can be taken from you so long before they're really and truly gone. And there are no answers, as far as I know. It's just a fact of aging, that the sudden or gradual loss of your identity can occur, threatening to render meaningless so much of who you are and what you represent to your loved ones. It threatens to steal not only your own memory, but to blot out the memories you've shared with your friends and your family.
And so here are some memories about my granny I'd like not to forget:
The time she drove me to Palatine, Illinois, for a little league baseball tournament that got rained out before we could get slaughter-ruled by a team of obvious teenagers, with a lanky 6'2" pitcher who threw me my first hook, and how I backed away from it and ended up stumbling ass-first into a puddle, drenching my uniform and me. My granny insisted I sit on a blanket she'd stowed in her Buick for exactly this scenario, and halfway home realized she'd left her purse behind. We pulled into a McDonald's parking lot and she sobbed. I cheered her up by making farting noises with my mouth and told her we could drive back and I'd find it. She collected herself and said, "screw it, it's just a purse," and we drove home and ate ice cream.
She wore loads of leopard print. She also purchased loads of leopard print for her home. It was a peculiar quirk for someone who considered herself so refined, but I loved her for it and indulged her weird propensity for leopard print with most birthday gifts.
Every Christmas card I ever wrote her made her cry, even when I wasn't trying.
She indulged my love of music at a very early age. I remember there was a huge wall display of classical music tapes and CD's at the grocery store she'd take me to when I was a kid, and after the aforementioned Aunt Louise gave me a Walkman I wanted to get tapes to play on it. I asked her for a tape once, and a tape was on the shopping list every time we went to the grocery store until I'd collected them all. I remember liking the Mozart tape the best, and listening to it often, riding around the neighborhood on my granny's bicycle, a green Schwinn.
We went to the grocery store a lot when I was a kid. Granny was one of those daily habitual shoppers, who probably didn't need to go every day but liked the routine. Before I started Kindergarten and the summers of my first couple years of grade school she'd take me every day, and I'd proudly tell the cashiers my full name, address, and phone number, half hoping they'd actually visit or call. For years this was one of the details about our relationship my granny liked to refer to the most, holding out her hand at her hip to indicate how short I was at the time, right after telling me she thought I must have grown since the last time she saw me, even in my 30's.
My granny's other favorite story to tell people, especially women I'd brought home, was how particular I was as a kid. How instead of McDonald's all I ever really wanted was for her to take me to lunch at Marshall Fields, or Nordstrom's, and how often she obliged, because she loved me.
The day I moved out on my own to live in an apartment in the city she screamed at me and wept openly from the driver's seat of her car as she caught site of me piling boxes into a moving van. She claimed to not have known I was moving that day, or at all, and was just passing by on her way out to do (what else?) some grocery shopping. I reminded her that I'd already paid my first month's rent, and that I had to coordinate the move with the building, and that she had to have known for weeks, but I didn't argue or raise my voice. Even then I understood where she was coming from. She just didn't want to see me go.
Over the years my granny had an uncanny knack for calling me at times where I wasn't at my best. What made this difficult is that I knew that, for her to call me, she was at best lonely, and at worst feeling either anxious or depressed. I didn't figure this out until at least my mid-20's. Before then, her calls were a mild annoyance, given how often we saw each other despite my living in the city. But when it clicked for me that she had a sense for where I was at, or that our moods were just lining up, I welcomed her calls and did my best to do the grown-up version of making farting noises with my mouth and promises I couldn't keep in order to cheer her up.
March 20, 2003. Stronger kids than I had taken to the streets to protest the invasion of Iraq. I skipped class and drove out to sit with my granny and watch it all unfold on TV.
The day I decided to leave my ex I had a full-blown panic attack in my car on the way home from work. It was the worst day in my life to that point. Instead of going home to my ex and her family, where I lived at the time, I went to my granny's. I didn't know who would be home, if anyone, but my granny was there, as was my kid sister, and together they calmed me down, heard me out, let me cry, and expressed, unequivocally, the unconditional love of family. In just about every way I was wrong to do what I did and go about it the way that I would, but for a few hours before my mom returned home, granny was the center of my very limited support system.
When granny got out of the hospital and was doing as well as she would for the remainder of her life, we scheduled the trip up to Aunt Jo Ann's. On the drive up my granny did a lot of laughing and made a lot of polite requests to chain-smoke out the window of the car. At the time I was trying to quit, or at least cut back, and I couldn't stand the smell of her Virginia Slim 100's. I obliged but made faces, really exaggerated faces, and talked to my granny in the sober, somber voice of a doctor about the hazards of smoking, and she said "oh, blow it out your ass," and we all laughed.
At Aunt Jo Ann's that summer it was the first time, being there, that I felt like the man that I was. Lee and I grilled burgers, steaks, and kebabs for the family. I drank whiskeys and shot pool with Uncle Arnie. Rather than screw around bored on their acreage, searching for wildlife or playing weird imaginary games like I did as a child and even as an adolescent, I sat and listened to the stories, savored my granny's reminiscence. With Jo Ann she spoke freely about her hardscrabble upbringing, her love of her husband, the trials and tribulations the Michigan branches of the family tree had fallen on, and the screwball antics of their older relatives. It was a delight to make it happen, the situation my granny had escaped the hospital for months ago.
Last one, I promise. A long time ago I developed a packet to submit for an internship at This American Life. The story I usually tell about this is how I thought it was a lock until I ran into a friend at a party who was dating someone who was a current administrative intern at This American Life, who told him that they'd been receiving something like 500 packets per day for the last 5 weeks. My angle on the demo I produced was about storytellers and how they were on the cusp of something totally unknown to them in their youth. The storytellers I highlighted in my demo were Stuart Dybek, Edwidge Danticat, Clarice Lispector, and my granny, in her bizarre accent, with her stories of growing up in the neighborhoods she'd run away from, neighborhoods I'd run to without even knowing the places and spaces we'd share, separated only by time.