<By Robin Kilmer>
My Grandma never seemed to remember where my mother was. She always won Scrabble games because she memorized every two-letter word in the English language. In her repertoire were currencies, English spellings of the letters of various foreign alphabets, as well as words like “qi”, an alternate spelling of chi and “ut”, a measure of music. But now, several years since her last Scrabble game, she could not remember for the life of her the whereabouts of my mother.
“Where’s Anne?” was the first thing Grandma said to my sister Ellen and me when we walked in the door of her room at the nursing home, a few days before the last day I saw her.
“Oh … she’s been in Kansas City,” Ellen and I said.
“But her daughters are here!” said Uncle Jim, who had accompanied us. Ellen came from Chicago and I traveled from New York to visit her in the Bay Area of California, in this place that we all knew would be the last place she lived. My Aunt Barbara and cousins John and Mary were leaving as we got there. It was a small room, so there was only really room for three visitors at most. Ellen and I started our shift by Grandma’s remote controlled incline bed. Barbara, John and Mary had great swaths of curly, light brown hair. Their ringlets bounced as they exited.
“Bye, Grandma,” John turned around to say.
“Bye, Grandma,” Grandma said back.
Oh God. We had been warned that Grandma was in a bad state, but this worse than I expected.
“But Grandma…I’m John.” John was as surprised and confused as Ellen and me.
“I know that. But your hair’s so long you look just like me! You should really get a haircut.”
It was true. I don’t know how she pulled it off, but Grandma still had massive amounts of hair, and lots of it still retained its light-brown hue. I’m told it was auburn when she was younger.
We laughed, relieved. John left and Grandma focused her attention on Ellen’s hair. “I just love your haircut.” It took a lot of effort for her to reach up and stroke Ellen’s fashionable boy cut. Then she focused her attention on me. I knew my long hair was a mess. It was a mess every time I visited Grandma. When riding in cars in California I always roll the down the window so the au de California can tickle my olfactory senses.
For a long time Grandma just stared at me, her eyes focusing on my hairline. I wondered what was wrong up there. “What about my hair?” I asked, to hurry along the inevitable nitpicking.
“Well,” she said after a while. “You just need to brush it. There’s a brush on the top right-hand drawer.” When we visited my grandparents as children Grandma always took over the grooming of my sisters and me. She could never get over the fact that my mom let us go to bed with wet hair. We never sat still long enough for my mother to blow-dry our hair, and I don’t think brushing and drying three girls’ hair was Mom’s favorite thing to do anyway. But it was different when Grandma did it. We could sense that Grandma always derived pleasure from gently and methodically blow-drying and brushing our hair. But now she could not wield a brush, only point out where it was.
Grandma had suffered strokes before, but the latest ones left her bed-ridden and in questionable states of lucidness. It is hard for woman who made feasts for dozens of people to be unable feed herself. It’s even harder for a Scrabble champion to be at a loss for words. She would always looked up at the ceiling, considering each word she said before slowly and softly saying them. Grandma was always a loud person and it was strange to hear her speak so quietly. She asked about Beanie, our youngest sister, and what she was up to in L.A.
“How was the wedding?” She asked us after staring at the ceiling.
Ever since her last series of strokes Grandma had asked me about weddings. I never knew which wedding she could possibly be talking about, and I had not been to a wedding since my cousin got married at least ten years before. There hadn’t been too many weddings, but for some reason Grandma was always hearing wedding bells.
Though some grandmas might like to drop hints by asking about weddings, my grandmother, Frances Olive Ducey, was never one to be passive aggressive. Just aggressive. If she thought I was wasting my time being single she would have said so. Instead she told Ellen and I how lucky she was to find Don, my Grandpa who had died over ten years ago. When I visited her the year before she told me she still spoke to him, that at night he would stand at the foot of her bed and they would have long conversations. She also told me that old friends and family would visit her, huddling around her bed, discoursing until dawn’s light came slithering in. I didn’t ask about the nature of these conversations, but I don’t doubt they happened.
“I hope you two are as lucky as I was,” she said.
“So what do you like to do here?” I asked after several moments of silence, then regretted it the second it left my mouth. What a dumb question. Grandma couldn’t do anything she liked anymore.
“Oh…you know.” Grandma looked at the ceiling, as if she needed its permission to say what she wanted to say next. “Just trying to figure out the best way to go.”
Sooner rather than later my grandma said she was tired and that talking had become a chore, but also that she liked us being in her room. I guess it was nice for her to have someone to sit in communion with. I used Ellen’s lavender face cream that she kept in her purse to massage Grandma’s arms. Her flesh was as malleable as pizza dough and her skin dry as rice paper. Grandma’s gaze focused on a distant memory as I worked the cream into her arm and then her hands, which I held. They were as delicate as baby birds as they nested in mine. Ellen and I left when we finally heard her snoring.
The last day I saw my grandmother was spent mostly in the sun. One of the staff placed her in her wheelchair and Ellen and I wheeled her into the courtyard, where a deteriorating gazebo stood sentinel in the center. Around the gazebo was a sidewalk promenade. There was no shade. We parked Grandma by some benches. I went to the front desk and sifted through their lost and found for a pair of sunglasses. Grandma looked content staring at the sun with her shades on, its rays licking her skin.
We brought with us a peach. It was a particularly radiant peach, the sunset captured in a sphere. We had been told by the staff at the nursing home that Grandma didn’t eat much and that she substituted meals for cans of Ensure. The meals were engineered to be mushy enough for disintegrating teeth. Though well intentioned, they were a travesty for a woman who had spent all her life cooking real food from scratch.
Hence the peach, a soft fruit with an attitude. It was the last thing I ever ate with my Grandma, and still the best peach I’ve ever had. Its flamboyant exterior gave way to toothsome flesh that oozed the very flavor of happiness. We cut the peach into wedges and served them to Grandma. Happiness dribbled down our fingers and chins. We all proclaimed it to be the best peach we had ever eaten.
Not wanting to exhaust Grandma with conversation, we decided to sing. We sang songs that Grandma had taught us many years ago. Houses on the Hillside, Singing in the Rain and Blue Skies. “Blue skies smiling at me, nothing but blue skies do I see.” We sang softly in unison. I commented that there was enough blue in the sky to make a Dutchman’s pants—something Grandpa used to say. It made Grandma smile to hear one of her husband’s antiquated sayings.
We wheeled Grandma inside in time to meet Karrene, Grandma’s caregiver. My aunt and uncle lived a couple hours away from the nursing home and saw Grandma once a week, but it was Karrene who had washed, bathed and cared for Grandma more than anyone else in the past five years. The fact that she wasn’t family made Karrene better equipped to deal with Grandma, as everyone else in the Ducey clan was just as impatient, quick-tempered and stubborn as their matriarch.
Karrene is also stronger than either Ellen or me. Along with certain aspects of our disposition, we had inherited my Grandmother’s frame; in her youth she had been thin verging on scrawny. Karrene, on the other hand, single-handedly lifted grandma from her wheelchair and placed her in her inclining bed.
Grandma held court as she gazed down at us from her inclined bed. Karrene, Ellen and I looked at each other wondering how we could all interact with Grandma. Then she spoke. “You know, we don’t have too much,” she said looking at Ellen and me. Ellen and I subtly glanced at each other, each hoping that the other would have an idea of what she was talking about.
“What do you mean Grandma?” We tried to inquire as politely as possible, trying not to make Grandma feel like the crazy old lady that she was. “We don’t have much of what?”
Grandma laughed. I know my mom got her laughter from my Grandma. It is a wheezy laugh that is always accompanied by jumping shoulders. “Neither of us ever had much of a chest!” She exclaimed, and wheezed while her shoulders jumped. Karrene, Ellen and I laughed too. But our laughter was premature as Grandma was not yet done.
“But Karrene–” Grandma continued. Karrene’s breasts were much larger than ours, so there was only one direction Grandma could go. Ellen, Karrene and I looked at each other, wondering if she would actually go there. “–Karrene is really well endowed!” Karrene simultaneously laughed and blushed. I did not know what to do. My grandmother had never acted like a teenage boy before. But it was great to hear my Grandma laugh with such abandon. So I laughed too.
And that was the last time I saw my grandmother.
In late October—the same month my grandfather was born–Grandma came down with a mild form of pneumonia. Anticipating her death several Duceys swooped into California from various parts of the country. She died on the 24th, missing her 90th birthday on November 19th by less than a month. A couple days before her death, she told my Aunt Barbara that Grandpa had come to visit. It had shaken her up a bit.
“Fran, what are you waiting for? Just get on with it!” he had scolded her.
The attendant who was there the morning she died said that Grandma was very much alive when she left her room to go get her cocktail of medications, but was very much dead upon returning. We suspect that Grandpa had something to do with it, that he had come to her room to steal her away. His birthday was in two days, and after ten years he wanted his wife to be at his side again to help him celebrate.
Robin Kilmer studied Latin American and Iberian history at Bard College. Robin is from Kansas City, Missouri, but lives in New York City. Read her blog, The Newbie Yorker.
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