Tuesday, October 21, 2008

In Memory...


Do doctors congratulate themselves when they correctly guess how long a person has to live? You and your family are in a funeral home mourning, while in a fancy house on the other side of town a doctor pops a bottle of champagne. "Nailed it!"

*****

I wasn't there when the doctor gave my grandmother six months to live. But I'm told that her reaction was, "Well that's not so bad. I thought he'd give me 'til the end of the week." She was sharp-witted like that, and remained so 'til the end. That's what distinguished this death from most of the others I've experienced in my life...

Her husband, my grandfather, developed alzheimer's in his old age. That was the beginning of his decline - a slow deterioration that would be drawn out over several years. This was while I was still very young, and it left me with an impression about how death was supposed to happen: first your mind begins to go, then your body catches up with it, and eventually you're left a vacant shell. By the time grandpa actually died, I had already accepted his departure. His heart may have kept beating through 1992, but the person he had been was long gone.

*****

After grandpa was moved to a rest home, grandma took up his former routine of picking me up after school several times a week. This wasn't something my parents requested of her (or him); I lived close enough to school to walk home. This was something she enjoyed doing. She'd drive clear across town, just so she could spend an extra ten minutes with her grandchild as she drove him home from school. After dropping me off, she'd usually sit in her car in the driveway for another half hour or so, keeping watch over the house, making sure everything was going to be okay.

During the summer school breaks, grandma would spend extra time with me. She enjoyed going on drives out in the country, and she liked having me along as company. We'd visit old friends of hers, or relatives. Some of her favorite memories of me were from these times -- like when I saw a sharpee for the first time and I asked her why it was so sad; or when I noticed an infestation of silk worms dangling down from a tree and couldn't believe that worms could spin webs.


I know that these are her favorite memories of me because these are the ones she would bring up nearly every time I called her in recent years. Having moved so far away from home, I wasn't around to create such new memories. The best I could do for her was listen patiently and respond enthusiastically as she recounted these memories, guilty for not being able to spend more time with her.

In her final two months, grandma was no longer able to hold the phone to her ear. I could send her letters or cards, but she was unable to respond.

*****

The last time we spoke on the phone, grandma asked if I would be home for Christmas this year. I was confused. Was her condition improving? Was she going to outlast the doctor's prediction, throw it in his face? Was she expecting to make it to another Christmas?

Was she in denial?

I've had plenty of time to think about it now. I think the answer is that she was just genuinely curious about my upcoming plans. I think she'd removed her ego from the situation, and accepted that life would be going on without her. She wasn't asking if I was going to be in town to visit her; she was asking if I was going to be in town for me. To be with my family and friends during the holidays.

Just keeping watch over the house. Making sure everything was going to be okay.