I’m not sure what I expected. I’ve never really seen someone “near death.” By the time I arrive, they’re usually already dead.
We arrived at the assisted living facility late in the afternoon. I question the appropriateness of that term. There was quite a bit of assistance going on, but not so much living.
As we walked down the hallway, my mother leaned over. “There she is,” she whispered. “Where?” I asked, seeing only a shriveled old lady inching away from us in her wheelchair. “Right there, in the wheelchair.” Oh.
We walked around to the front of her wheelchair and leaned over, careful not to surprise her. “Grandma! Hi! How are you?”
She appeared startled for only a moment, then a glimmer of recognition crossed her face. “Law! Where you been? I been watchin’ the hi-way for neely an hour. I jus plum gave up and figured you wasn’t comin’.”
This was a good sign. She was still her same old ornery self, complaining, in a syrupy sweet manner, about everything around her.
Mom started to explain how my flight was delayed because of thunderstorms in DC, so I had to be re-routed through Chicago, and had an extra layover, and arrived to Greensboro three hours late, then we still had a four hour drive to see her. And we came straight from the airport, not even stopping for lunch.
All this went unnoticed by Grandmother.
“Yeah. I waited and waited and waited. Don nobody come to visit me anymore. I jus figured you the same. Not comin’. So I’m goin’ back to my room to get ready for supper.”
Never mind that my parents, as well as my sister, as well as her own sisters, come to visit her several times a week. Nobody comes to visit. Her spirit was the same, though her physical appearance was not. Once a tall, solid woman, she now hunches in a wheelchair, her legs reduced to spindly matchsticks. Her snow white hair frames lifeless skin hanging from sharp cheekbones; bruises in all stages, aubergine, violet, greenish-yellow, regularly appear on her paper-thin skin.
We wheeled her into the common area where mom and I pulled up chairs on either side of her wheelchair and chatted. As other residents entered the area, she introduced us, me, as her oldest granddaughter, mom, as “Jerry’s wife.” The other residents smiled, nodded, or merely continued staring blankly into space.
She talked on and on, rambling about who had sent her cards, which nurses she likes, which she doesn’t, who had lived, who had died, and the mental state and ailments of the other residents. I was pleasantly surprised by her mental state, until she began repeating the same stories over and over. And when we would ask questions, she would pause, surprised, then usually continue with her soliloquy, not answering our inquiries. She definitely could hear us, and understand what we said (I think) because several times she talked about the horrible weather everywhere (referencing the thunderstorms that were the cause of my tardiness) and how that’s a definite sign that the second coming of Christ is near and the earth as we know it will cease to exist. Amen.
She (mis-)quoted a lot of the Bible.
On our second day visiting, when mom was off talking to the head nurse about grandmother’s physical therapy regime, grandma leaned over. “You back with that husband of yours yet?”
It was my turn to look at her astounded. I’ve been divorced for almost 4 years and there has never been any reason for anyone to suspect a reconciliation between my ex- and I.
“No, grandma, Steve and I aren’t together. We’ve been divorced for almost four years.”
“That’s a shame. You know, I always did like him. Such a nice boy. Such a nice, nice boy.”
I thought back to when I first announced my engagement to Steve to that side of the family. I was in South Carolina, visiting grandma and all her sisters. One of my cousins, probably a second or third, great or some other adjective preceding it, said to me, “He a Christian boy?” “Why, yes,” I replied. “He Baptist?” “Well, no.” “What is he then?” “Greek Orthodox.” Everyone looked up, eyebrows arched. My great second, third, forty-fifth cousin boomed, “Greek Orthodox? That ain’t like one of them Catholics is it?” Steve’s status among my relatives has increased considerably since not being a part of our immediate family.
“Well, grandma, I’m sure that I’ll meet another nice boy. Or maybe not. And that’s okay, too. I have a really blessed (thinking I’ll appeal to the Bible quoter), really full life.”
“Mmm. Nevah did have any babies either. Shame, real shame. Even yo baby sista had a baby. But not you. Mmm. I tell you. That’s a shame.”
Again, as painful as this was, I took this as a good sign. She still has enough strength to complain about the status of my life.
“When you movin’ back a North Carolina?”
“Well, grandma, I don’t think I am. California is really my home now. I’ve lived there for almost 11 years. I have a good job, and lots of friends.”
“That’s a shame. A real shame. What out there that ain’t out here?”
At that moment another resident came and sat down near us. Hellos were said then I resumed my conversation with grandma, expecting to be berated about the clothes I was wearing or some other trivial matter.
Instead, she started harping on the resident sitting only feet from us. How much she smokes, how she doesn’t speak proper English, how no one can understand her…
I’m glad I made the visit. She’s physically ridiculously weaker than when I saw her merely a year ago. She requires extensive help for so many of the activities she once performed by herself, getting up in the morning, bathing, getting dressed, eating, going anywhere… That part was difficult to see. But her spirit hasn’t weakened. The way I see it, as long as she has something or someone to complain about, she’ll be around. And we’ll be hearing it.