How do you go on a trip to see a person you love for the possibly last time? Once you are there, how on Earth do you say all that needs to be said and hear all that needs to be heard?
A few weeks ago I learned that my last living grandparent has cancer. Now the c word is not one I wanted to hear again so soon. My mom battled that demon and I swear it feels like just yesterday even though it was years ago now. And this grandparent is her mom, known to us grand kids as 'Gramman.'
When mom called her mom to talk about the diagnosis of breast cancer back in 2009 Gramman said she was going to move mom to the top of her list, and bump some people off if need be. It wasn't hard when I learned a few weeks ago to move Gramman to number one on my list, and I bumped some people off mine as well.
After some rearranging of plans which included six kind souls agreeing to watch my children, and the generosity of my dear sister to let me tag along with her and her boys to come see our Gramman, here we were in this profound moment. It may well be that she has years left, and this will have been a great visit nonetheless. But if its not, if it truly is the last visit, then at least it was a good one.
My sister's oldest son is learning to drive, which terrifies me even more than knife-wielding maniacs, but also meant we had three drivers. Plus, I drove it like I stole it and made some good time. Naively I had visions of us making it early enough to visit her in the evening. Then we hit construction and at about the same time my bladder started to sound the alarm. As the minutes ticked by and we moved ten feet, it soon became apparent there would be no evening visit.
So we settled in to the hotel with pizza and a riveting documentary on Seaworld (no really, it was riveting, and yes I realize that makes me sound old.) We got up bright and early to meet my aunt's new boyfriend, and were pleasantly surprised by him. (I would really love to say more on that topic, but it would be better shared over some tea and not the World Wide Web.) Then we set out for the farm.
For me the experience starts as soon as we pull into their long winding driveway. It used to have blackberry bushes that we would pillage on a walk to get the mail, carrying our goodies in little baskets or the bottom of our shirts. The smell is always the same, too. We noticed the changes though too, the old rundown house had crumpled more in piles outside its edges. This monstrous house was the one my Gramman had lived in as a child and was always called the 'Granny Taylor's house.'
Gramman's house sits right beside it, a small little ranch house that hasn't changed in the thirty years of memories I have of it. Pictures get added, and that's about the only change. Though this time there is a great emptiness for me as the last time we were here it was for my granddaddy's funeral. I can't help but peak in his workroom at the end of the house, likely hoping to somehow catch a glimpse of him.
The a word, Alzheimer's, might just be even crueler than the c word, for it takes a person away from this world while still leaving a shell of them here for some ungodly reason. Gramman leans into me with a conspiratorial whisper and confides that she hates TV these days because everything is about the 'undead' like zombies and vampires. I nod, and think that of course she would hate shows that are about people robbed of their humanity, for what greater demon is there than losing your own stories?
This is also when she mentions a project she has been working on which has involved writing down her own stories. I exude enthusiasm on this topic for my hope was to capture some stories from her to have an electronic memory of this visit.
Then, as we sit there on a bench waiting to be seated because the dear woman has insisted on taking us out to lunch, she confides another troubling thing she is dealing with. "I just have so much to finish," she said quietly, her lower lip trembling. Eighty nine years has apparently not been enough. Not that I blame her, for I plan on living until I reach 112, and even then I may very well conclude that I have more to finish.
Now, my grandmother is a very practical woman, and I have no doubt when she mentioned having more to finish she was not talking in poetic or philosophical terms, but I couldn't help but spin it that way in my mind. That yes, ever the planner, she has her estate to settle and her hospice nursing to arrange and she will likely plan her own blasted funeral down to a 't,' but perhaps deep down she meant more than just the logistics of dying. Perhaps she meant the deeper parts of it as well. How, on this bloody zombied Earth, can a person die well?
It seems, most immediately, her answer is to get her story out to her grandchildren. After our lunch and a trip to the graveyard to peruse her waiting tombstone we pile around her dining room table and she plops down with a stack of weathered and yellowing papers. Then she starts weaving the story of her life.
It was exquisite. Like bites of the finest chocolate while being given a much-needed back rub and smelling only the finest flowers in the world. Every now and then she would look up from what she had scribbled down or typed and added a bit of 'color' to the moment. My grandmother is known for her little quips that keep us all in stitches, and these little flashes of her feisty little soul were magical and healing.
One gem was something she had learned from a frog. It had fallen into a jar of cream and kept kicking like mad to try and get out. The fool thing kicked so much that it churned butter and was able to hop out on the ledge of butter. Gramman smiled wide: "just keep kicking and you'll get out."
Another gem was when she explained having a temporary job while the office waited for the person with the permanent spot came to claim it. "I was eager to meet this person too but I knew that when she came I would be out of a job, so I just kept on typing." She went on to explain that when the worker finally got there she had worked so hard the boss decided to keep her instead of the one that had been sent for the job. I thought to myself, on those harder days at work, I just need to keep on typing. Or as she would have put it, sometimes you just have to keep on kicking.
After she was done she announced that we needed to leave so she could have her nap but she had some pie to send us away with. Walking together down the road, my young arm wrapped around her frail body, we talked some more.
"I realize that I get my independent spirit from you," I say to this dwarf of a woman who is a giant inside. She laughs easily. "I've always admired how you march to your own drummer," she says and it is like poetry on a country road. Keep on kicking, I murmur, and glance at a barn stacked full of squares of hay. I feel stacked full of moments in this packed, meaning-filled day, and we get filled up to do that we can be poured out.
Now I sit in the hotel room eating the chocolate pie she gave us, which is perfection, and I think about how if anyone on this zombied Earth manages to excel at dying it will be her. For she will keep on kicking until her last breath. And this dying world will be filled with the gold she makes from her kicking.