Last week, my cousin K and I drove to New Hampshire for a quick visit with our 97-year-old grandmother, who recently, at her request, moved into a nursing home. When Nana, my mother’s mother, said it was time for her to get some assistance, her children sprang into action, finding her a place near to where my aunt lives. That Nana suggested she needed to go to a nursing home came as a bit of a shock. It shouldn’t—she is three years shy of being a centenarian. Yet, this is the same cast iron skillet of a woman who, at age 96, decided she wanted to move back into her own apartment, after a short stint with my aunt and uncle. We were surprised.
From time to time, I think about how life is an endless series of book ends—beginnings, endings, plenty of overlap between the two. Sometimes, these perfectly aligned events occur over the course of a day, while others take months or years to find completion. As someone who likes certainty, I occasionally struggle with those long corridors between starts and finishes. Yet, more I live, the more I see the wisdom, the beauty in these in-between spaces. As cliché as it sounds, they encourage one to be present.
A couple weeks ago, I started housesitting for friends. They didn’t actually need a house sitter, but R, knowing how much I love her place, offered it up as a possibility. I had stayed here in 2012, when I was in-between apartments, jobs, everything. It’s an idyllic writer’s retreat, with a spectacular light-filled kitchen, the ceiling of which is glass. When I came to stay recently, my first order of business was to complete the draft of a project (about gemstones) that’s been in the works since I last stayed here. I hadn’t planned it that way, yet it seemed poetic, perfect even, that I’d reach a milestone on this project exactly where the idea had first begun.
I was hoping to finish the draft a week ago, but it didn’t happen before K and I made the trip to see our grandmother. That, obviously, was more important. It had to be a big adjustment for her, after living on her own terms, to cede control in certain areas; we just wanted to see her.
The ride up was long. We narrowly missed a fire on the Merritt, caused by a butter truck that had crashed into a bridge. Then, after our reroute, K’s car started to emit noxious fumes. So we got off the highway and had it checked. Once we made it to New Hampshire, we followed the directions on GPS; the final stretch brought us down a bumpy dirt road in a remote, wooded area. Karen, who was driving, said, “So, um, this is a surprise.”
Five minutes later, we realized, with relief, that GPS was wrong. When we arrived at the nursing home, Nana was waiting in the common area, with other residents. She stood up, as well put together as ever, and introduced us to the people around her. Her weariness showed when she got to the last introduction. She said, “This is Connie," adding flatly, "I guess.”
The three of us then went to the dining room, so Nana could have dinner. When we sat down, an attendant put a card in front of her, listing her dietary needs. Someone had typed up Nana’s dislikes, which were listed as “eggs, cereal, all.”
“Look, Nana. It says here that you dislike everything,” I said.
She chuckled, before adding, “No one asked me.”
The three of us had a lovely visit. She’s as sharp and particular as ever. While moving through the hallways with her walker, she said, “I’m really trying to to work on my posture. You see some people with these things and all they do is look at the floor.” (Translation: those would not be her people.)
Despite having made jokes about dying since I can remember, Nana cares an awful lot about the little things, something that I’ve come to interpret as her seemingly unstoppable life force. Years ago, she taught me how to use tweezers without the benefit of a mirror. (“In case your eyes ever go, you can still take care of stray hairs.”) Another time, she showed me how she did modified push-ups against her desk. (“I do twenty of these every day.”) When she first moved into a retirement community, when she was in her eighties, she brought me to the gym and picked up a barbell. “It’s too late for your mother and her sisters, but not for you. Once this gets loose,” she said, pointing to one of my triceps, "it's all over."
As her granddaughter, I expect (and love) her sass. She’s feisty, and always has been. On the way out of my mother's seventieth birthday party, she said to me, incredulous, "Can YOU imagine having a child who is 70?" Once, K convinced her to sit down in front of a video camera, for an oral history project we were working on. When the tape started rolling, Nana kept it simple: “I’m the Alpha and I'm the Omega. What else do you need to know?”
When a nurse at her new home came over to invite Nana to make cookies, Nana declined, citing the requirement to be in bed at a certain hour. “I can’t,” she cracked. “There’s a strange young man coming to undress me at 7 o’clock.”
The nurse laughed, loudly. She then spontaneously kissed Nana on the forehead.
The sweet expression on my grandmother’s face was priceless. I was reminded of how, when I used to visit my other grandmother in a nursing home, she drank in physical affection similarly. Though I was only six years old when my paternal grandmother had a stroke and needed subsequent round-the-clock care, I still remember those visits. Every Sunday, my father would visit, and, usually, I went with him. I don’t remember how it began—perhaps at the suggestion of my mother or aunt—but my father’s mother, who had dry skin, liked to have us apply hand crème to her elegant hands. I was too young to understand what my father and his siblings were going through, but I could see that this ritual made her feel good. I squeezed her hand, and, usually, she’d squeeze back. On occasion, she even whispered, “Maybe you can get a register and stay overnight with me.”
I did not stay overnight at the nursing home, as much as I hated leaving her there. The bond between grandparents and grandchildren is a special one, and I feel so lucky to have experienced that purity with both my grandmothers. My father recently told me that, when he used to call her to check-in and mention that he was going to a camera club meeting, the first thing she would say was, “Are you going to show any pictures of Suzie?” My siblings and cousins recall similar affection. She loved us, so much.
With my maternal grandmother, I have tried the hand crème ritual, but it doesn’t take. When I asked this last visit, she said, “I’m fine. But if you want some hand lotion, help yourself.” She did, however, let me hold her hand and also rub her shoulders. I expected her to bristle or say, “What are you doing?” (I’m used to her contrarian ways. Once, after I ran a marathon, I told her that she was my athletic inspiration, to which she responded, “That doesn’t make sense. I don’t even know why you work out. You’re thin.”) This time, though, she sighed and said, “Ah…that feels good.”
The truth is, I’d been dying to hold her hand for a while. Earlier this year, I had a dream that she became a baby. In the dream, I was taking care of her. The essence of the dream was so sweet and nurturing. Later, when I shared this with a friend, she told me that her three-year-old daughter had recently started a sentence with, “Mommy, when you become a baby again…” (Considering that her daughter, when she’s not giggling, is something of a prophet, we probably should have paid attention to the rest of that sentence.) Following the dream about my grandmother, I woke up with certainty I hadn’t felt in while; the cycle of life, whether beginning or ending, is inherently peaceful.
Maybe better than defining “bookends” would be acknowledging that existence is endlessly changeable—and changing, held steady by some constant Alpha and Omega. Before I came to stay at my friend’s house, I was going through stacks of papers. I found my paternal grandmother’s valedictory speech, on the merits of music, along with a photocopied page from her high school yearbook. There’s a beautiful picture of her, next to a quote she chose: “The price of wisdom is worth more than rubies.” This struck me as an odd coincidence—the proverb reflects the essence of the gem project I was slated to complete. And I’d recently changed the name of the protagonist to Ruby.
There’s comfort in these connections, both in finding them and then just letting them be. Two days after I got back from New Hampshire, I had a bad reaction to the flu shot. I’ve never been so sick, and, yet I was hesitant to let anyone come take care of me (though I wasn’t above making a few self-pitying phone calls). I needed a hand-holding, a shoulder rub and a chicken soup delivery, but I was afraid of getting anyone else sick. Instead, I passed on generous offers and holed up with my project and a vat of electrolytes. Even though I had a hard time focusing, I pored over the piece for a few hours, proofreading, making small edits here and there. Then I sent it off, feeling like the circle—or at least part of it—was complete.
Last night, finally feeling better, I made it out to see friends. As we were walking to dinner, one of them looped her arm in mine. It was a small gesture, but one I appreciated, more deeply than my friend could know.
I spend plenty of time in active-mode—working on projects, being social and handling the business of life. Yet, time and time again, I come back to realizing that there’s no greater pleasure than the exchange of genuine affection with our nearest and dearest. Sometimes, I think that my spirit animal might be the golden retriever. Dogs do tend to like me.
When our visit with Nana was wrapping up, she said to K, “I love you, I’m serious.” K met her with mock sobriety, “No, I love you. I’m serious.” And then Nana, who is skilled at having the last word, leaned in to K, and, in a Godfather-worthy move, thumped her palm against the middle of her chest. I half-expected her to bust out in Italian. Instead, eye-to-eye with K, she said, “I’m serious.”
The moment was adorable, funny and heartening at once. The gesture came as quite a surprise, leading me to think that the line between life and death, at least on one level, isn't so well defined, not when it comes to sweet memories, priceless one-liner gems and a very strong spirit. I'm not worried; whether in reminiscing or the flesh, there's plenty of life in Nana yet.