As I anticipate a week full of editing, I also want to keep my blog vibrant and worth the visit. So I have decided that, for your enjoyment this Tuesday, I will share a story I wrote soon after my grandmother’s passing. It is not a sad story. In my view, it’s heartfelt and hopeful. I believe I know where she has gone to stay, and I take comfort in that knowledge. And in the knowledge that I got the chance to say a full and true good-bye.
The screen-door slams shut behind me, and I make my slow walk out onto the porch. Grandma is out here in her favorite chair, as always, smoking the cigarette I’ve told her over and over will kill her. She looks up when she hears me coming toward her.
“Hi, sweetheart,” she says. “Sit down. What have you been up to? How’s school going?”
I sit across from her. “Grandma, you’re smoking… AGAIN!”
“Yeah, I’m sorry. It’s a dirty habit,” she says. “Don’t you start it now.”
“I won’t. And I wish you would stop.”
She laughs. “You’re not the only one, believe me.”
My mom and I have come to stay with Grandma for a while because my parents can’t get along. I don’t like to see my family split up like this, but I’m grateful because, without these trips to Grandma’s, I’d never see her. Thanksgiving and Christmas just isn’t often enough.
I’m out here to ask Grandma to put The Muppet Movie on the TV for me, but now that we’ve got this time alone together while Mom’s at the store getting supplies for our sleep-over, we might be able to have a real conversation about what’s going on with my family.
I hesitate before asking, “Do my mom and dad love me?”
“Of course they love you, sweetheart.”
“I’m not so sure about that.”
“Because… because I feel like if they really did love me, they’d stop fighting.”
Grandma sinks back into her seat. If I weren’t here, she’d light another cigarette, but she feels me staring at her, waiting to pounce. So instead she looks out on the small, well-kept lawn that her landlord takes care of for her every week. I silently pat myself on the back: Because of me, Grandma will live eleven minutes longer than she would have.
What will she do with this extra time? I wonder.
Maybe she’ll spend it with me at Disneyland. For a person with cerebral palsy, like me, Disneyland is an even happier place on Earth. Lines don’t exist. Eleven minutes is another ride on your favorite roller coaster, another riverboat ride through the Caribbean.
Grandma’s never really liked roller coasters, has she? She likes the idea of moving fast; it’s leaving her house she struggles with. I guess that means go-karts are out, too. But she does like a good baseball game.
Eleven minutes is an extra inning of Mariner baseball called by Dave Niehaus. Another go-around of that fabled game 5 bottom of the 11th in 1995.
“Swung on and… lined down the left field line for a base hit! Here comes Joey! Here is Junior to third base…. They’re gonna wave him in. The throw to the plate will be… late! It just continues, my oh my!”
Her first love, though, has always been good movies. She was the first in her neighborhood to own a VCR, and she has the biggest collection of videotapes I’ve ever seen. Eleven minutes would just about get her through another watch of the triumphant end to George Bailey’s journey. She’d go away thinking, Yes, it is a wonderful life.
Grandma’s voice—she’s talking to herself–brings me back to now. I’m staring at nothing when I come back, so I almost don’t see her trying to sneak a cigarette. But there she is, out of the corner of my eye….
`“Grandma!” I yell.
It surprises her and she almost drops the lit stick. Catches it just before it falls to the ground. “What, sweetheart? What is it?”
“I want you to live,” I tell her. “I don’t want you to go away. I want you to be here. Forever.”
“Forever’s a long time,” she chuckles. “But I’ll be here as long as I can. How’s that? Would you like a piece of gum?” She reaches into her purse, takes out a pack of Trident.
This whole what could you do in eleven minutes idea has me asking around. When Mom and I go back home, she makes up with Dad, and I ask him when she’s off watching All My Children , “Dad… what could you do in eleven minutes?”
He makes a strange face. Puts the football game we’re watching on MUTE. “I don’t know. That’s a weird question, even for you. Eleven minutes?”
“Well, I could write a few good pages, I suppose.”
That makes sense. Dad’s a writer. Sometimes it seems like all he does is write.
I ask Mom the same question. She doesn’t make a face like Dad, and she answers right away.
“Any extra time I get I’d spend out in the sun, tanning.”
Over the next couple years, the question never quite leaves my mind. It’s always at the back, lurking, and as I enter my teens, I ask it of my younger brother.
“Video games,” he says. “If you pick the right game, eleven minutes can get you through a level or two.” I know he’s thinking specifically of the new James Bond Goldeneye game he just got for Christmas, but he doesn’t want to come right out and say that.
Many years pass. Years when I find out I’ll never drive, which devastates me. That not all girls are nice like my mom, or think it’s cool that I’m able to shrug off my cerebral palsy most of the time, or turn words into stories. Years when I learn bullies are no fun, unless you are one, and probably not even then. Years when not being able to walk like the other kids goes from a unique oddity in fourth grade to something that ends up leaving me sad and alone most middle-school days. Through all of these years and more, through my graduations from high school and college and beyond, I talk to Grandma on the phone each week. I prefer Wednesdays. Whenever she answers the phone, it’s always with: “Hello, sweetheart!” like there’s no place she’d rather be than sitting in her kitchen, stretching the phone cord as far as it will go, talking to me.
She has quit smoking, finally, a function of the open-heart surgery she underwent, the pacemaker that was installed, the coughing fits she’d get into if she lit up. She has left the house with the manicured lawn and the screen-door to the porch where she smoked away so many years. Now the husband she re-married five summers ago, my grandfather, is gone, and she has relocated to a senior community, where everyone calls her “The cookie lady”. She has to be careful not to singe her wig when taking the fresh cookies from the oven.
Today’s a Wednesday, and her phone rings. She picks it up.
“What are you up to today, Grandma?”
“I’m making cookies.” When is she not making cookies? “Everybody here just loves them.” So do I. “Then I’m gonna watch Idol tonight. You’ll be watching it, too, won’t you?”
“Yeah.” Sometimes I call her the day after American Idol, to talk about what’s happened. More often than not, though, she’s out with one of her friends, or downstairs putting out a fresh cookie batch, not there to answer. I can count on Wednesdays.
She never travels far. It’s as if her entire life is lived within a five-mile radius of where she lays her head, and she is not technologically inclined. That revolution is lost on her. She’s sent me a total of one e-mail, to tell me how much she loved the Johnny Cash movie, Walk The Line. This means our phone calls are our only contact.
“I need to tell you something, sweetheart,” she says, when I’m finished relating my latest gossipy anecdote. Both of us love gossip.
“Can you believe my dad caught our crazy neighbor burning plastic?” I asked her, breathless. “This just happened yesterday. Dad was so mad.”
“No, I really can’t,” she’d replied, sounding appropriately incredulous, before launching into her news.
I figure it’ll be another nugget of gossip. The comings and goings, arrivals and departures of Fountain Court Senior Apartments.
“A few weeks ago… when I was baking cookies… I fell. I passed out.”
“Grandma, why are you just telling me this now?”
“I didn’t want to worry you. I made your mom promise she wouldn’t say anything.”
“Mom knew? Knows?”
“So what’s going on? Did you go to the doctor?”
“Yes. She says I have cancer.”
Lung cancer’s a bitch. I’ve already lost one revered grandparent to it, and I am preparing myself to lose another. When Mom calls me from work on a Friday—something she rarely does; I’ll call her at the office, but her call me… I think not—she says, “Let’s go and visit Grandma tomorrow. She fell again yesterday.”
“She did? Is she okay?”
“She’s fine. But she’s in the hospital.”
Immediately, tension takes my body hostage. I forget to breathe for a second or two.
“Honey…. honey, are you still there?” Mom asks.
“I’m here. You’re gonna pick me up tomorrow, and we’re going to the hospital?”
“What time should I be ready?”
“Let’s say noon. How’s that?”
“Fine with me.”
Mom ends the call with, “I love you, honey. I’m sorry I had to call with this, but I love you so, so much.”
“Use the elevator just past the fish tank,” the lady at the hospital’s front desk tells us.
It’s odd: The things you find funny when faced with impending tragedy. To us—Mom and me–the idea of the elevator we have to take up to Grandma’s room being referred to as “the elevator just past the fish tank” is hilarious, and we’re giggling as we walk the corridor. Grandma would be laughing, too.
The room is a two-bedder. As we enter, a stranger we don’t know—a woman fond of screaming for a family who isn’t here–stares Death in the face, and Death stares back, his vacant eyes saying, You can’t cheat me this time, lady. This time I’m gonna win.
My Grandma isn’t having the stare-down yet, thank God. She is still Grandma.
“Have you guys been watching the football playoffs?”
“I sure have, Grandma. I was watching the game before we came to see you.”
She smiles at me, standing at the side of her bed. “I was watching it, too. But that one over there-“ She head-gestures toward the unfortunate woman- “she couldn’t take the sound. I coulda watched it on mute, but since I was listening to it while trying to grab a nap, that didn’t work very well. Finally I just turned it off. They say I should be outa here in a couple days. That means I’ll be home in time for the Super Bowl!”
Standing in one spot for any length of time—not moving a muscle but just standing there, trying to keep myself from tipping over—is one of the most painful experiences anyone with cerebral palsy can have. Anyone with cerebral palsy who still maintains the use of their legs, that is.
There is an overwhelming smell of urine, and if it were up to me Mom and I would step into the hall, take a moment, find a bench and some fresher air. But it isn’t up to me. So I ask, “Grandma, do you think I could sit down?”
“Sure, sweetheart.” She then goes into the best and most authoritative yell she can issue from a hospital bed: “Can someone please get my grandson a chair?”
I’ve got my chair; uncomfortable though it is, it’s a place to sit, and now Grandma’s talking about the old days. She gets my mom reminiscing about her childhood. All I can latch onto are the names of relatives I vaguely know. I can not share in communal remembrances.
After about twenty minutes, Grandma needs to go to the bathroom. A nurse is called in to help, and Mom and I leave. There’s a Godfather’s Pizza across the street. That’s an interesting location-choice, I think. You won’t ever be lacking for business, but still it’s kind of strange, isn’t it?
Grandma is indeed sent home in a couple days, as she had suspected would happen. I call her the following Wednesday.
This conversation, unlike all our others, does not feel upbeat or light-hearted. Not at first. Something is weighing my heart down.
She can tell I’m fighting to hold onto my composure. “What is it, sweetheart?”
Say it now. You might never get the chance again, I hear in my head.
“I just wanted to tell you…. I wanted you to know… that whatever happens… I know I can’t drive out there to see you like my other cousins can, but I’ve always loved you, and I always will, and I hope you know that.”
“Of course I do, sweetheart.”
“Good.” My heart is unburdened. “So, are you happy to be home?”
“Oh, I’m so happy. I was having soap-opera withdrawal, and everyone here was missing their cookies.”
` The conversation goes on like this for a few more minutes. Then Grandma says, “Well, honey, I better get going. I gotta go downstairs and put out this batch.”
“Okay, Grandma.” I circle back to our first topic. I have a sixth sense the end could be close, but I won’t admit it aloud. “Whatever happens, I love you.”
“Whatever happens, I love you, too. Always. We’ve always had a special bond.”
Why did she have to say that? Now I’m crying.
“Good-bye, sweetheart.” It’s the way in which she says it—with a finality she might not have intended, but it sneaks into her tone, anyway—that confirms my hunch. This will be the last time we talk.
Three days later, Mom calls to say Grandma’s back in the hospital. “She’s in a coma, but they say she can still hear us, and I think we should go see her. To say good-bye.” I go, more to be there for my mom than for anything I left unsaid, and Grandma passes away two days after our last trip up in the elevator just past the fish tank.
When my phone-bill arrives, I scroll down until I find the last call I ever made to my grandmother’s phone number. Duration: 11 Mins.