Saturday, February 3, 2007

Eulogy for a tough old broad

This morning as I drove home from Second Work I got ran off the road by a Datsun driven by a (presumably) drunk driver with no insurance. I'm fine, and the car's fine and the drunk Datsun man is fine even though he went nose first into a ravine on the other side of the highway, but I was obviously a little shaken so I called my mother to recount what happened.

At the end of our conversation, she paused and said "Daddy's down at the nursing home with your grandma. You need to be prepared that she's not going to make it through the weekend." This was the first news I had heard about my grandma in a couple weeks, and I certainly wasn't planning on hearing it as I sat shaking on a highway shoulder with prairie wind and Mack trucks whipping by my passenger side window . In September they found a tumor in the intersection between her trachea and her esophagus, and the rounds of brutal chemo and radiation and another metastisizing tumor in her lungs chipped away at her vitality. The past reports had always been the same..."Oh, you know your grandma. She's hanging in there." I expected those reports, because I had seen them firsthand whenever I went to the nursing home to visit her. She had dropped forty pounds from her already diminutive frame, and for the most part she laid in her bed and stared at the ceiling, sometimes with a blue fleece stocking cap on her head and sometimes with nothing at all...looking for all the world like an ancient gnome man as she listened to us talk.

The first visit to the nursing home was a horrible shock for me. I hadn't seen her since she had begun treatment, and I wasn't prepared for the way her translucent skin clung to her cheekbones, nor how her fingers shook as she picked listlessly at her dinner. She turned her head away from me when I talked to her, and when she actually passed out in her plate of food, I panicked and ran yelling for a nurse to come help...come do anything to help her. The nurse rolled her eyes and said that always happened when someone came to visit, because she was embarrassed about her condition. I understood what she meant, because my grandma has never taken help from anyone. She's one of those archetypal Greatest Generation women...she was a Rosie Riveter and a Susy Homemaker and pretty much everything in between. The woman singlehandedly ran our Methodist church, sewing and baking and making soup for sick people as if those acts themselves could save the world. I think if she had taken an interest in world peace, she probably would've had it sorted out and still had time to catch her British sitcoms on PBS. She was a 4'11" dynamo in sensible shoes and when I wrote that she was the woman I most admired on my college applications, I did so without an ounce of pretense. I cannot imagine anyone better than her.

She was also the only living grandparent I had known for the seventeen years of my life. My maternal grandmother passed when I was three, and I wasn't brought to the funeral. My grandfather wasn't a nice man, and when he died my main concern was for whether my bereavement leave would count against perfect attendance at school. My paternal grandfather died when I was nine, and while I know I mourned a lot then, I barely remember him now. I always picture him as Jerry Orbach in my head and I'm surprised when I see pictures and realized my grandpa looked nothing like that. The strange thing I just realized is that if she dies today, she will have died exactly seventeen years after my husband. I wonder if it's just a phenomenal coincidence, or if we truly have such power over our own will to survive.

So my grandma was it for a long, long time, and I was closer to her in many respects than I am to my own parents. While incredibly productive in every other aspect of life, my family's not so big on procreation, so I was one of only three grandkids which meant I spent weekend after weekend at her house which was way better than home because she had cable and an unlimited supply of Chex Mix and chocolate milk. New Year's Eve until I got married was a firm date for us...we'd stay up to watch the ball drop, eat real popcorn from a pan, and flick the front porch light five times before going to bed precisely at 12:02. Those sorts of things are absolutely what my grandma was about...routine, practicality, discipline...but at the same time a keen appreciation for the absurd and ridiculous that I think I inherited in some small part. My brother and I nicknamed her "The G Unit" because she used to like to watch MTV to understand what rap and hip hop culture was all about, and one time while we watched Elton John croon on television, she muted the sound and asked in all seriousness, "You know, I've always wondered how the gay men make love." As every jaw in her living room collectively dropped to her pristine white carpet, my darling grandmother picked up the quilt she had been pieceing and went right back to work.

As I grew into an adult I realized so much of who I am has been influenced by her...the way I cook, the strange colloquial words and phrases I use that I learned from her, even the way my face scrunches up when I'm considering a problem. I drive my grandma's car, a '95 Le Sabre that absolutely defines the concept of "Old Person 'Mobile", and I can't bring myself to get rid of little reminders of her in the front seat...the leather driving gloves so small I can't fit my palm into them, the blue and yellow dash sign that screams ONCOLOGY from her thrice-weekly visits to the chemo center. No matter how much I try to isolate myself today I can't turn around without seeing my grandma everywhere, because she is so indelibly imprinted on my life and who I am.

The thing that hurts most about hearing this news is that for the last year or so my grandma existed with a great ideological chasm between us because of my divorce. Separation is anathema to her, and even when I told her my reasons for what I did she didn't approve. The last thing she was willing to say about the subject was, "I'll still love you even if you do go through with it." So I've sort of felt like the enormous bond that held us together was badly weakened before she became sick and turned into this wraithlike thing in a bed. And because my family doesn't do grief very well, I can't just go into her hospital room and tell her everything that's on my heart and apologize for hurting her and kiss her forehead like I would if I were a bit player in Grey's Anatomy. I can just leave it here, like some sort of pathetic excuse for a proper farewell. The truth is, my grandma would've been embarrassed by it anyway, and I'm not going to take advantage of an octogenarian with organ failure just to indulge my need for closure.

I probably won't be around much during the next few days unless there's a dramatic improvement in her condition. She has a DNR on her advanced directive, so her death is likely inevitable, albeit painless and quick. I hope to catch up with all of your lives as soon as I can. Take very good care of you.


lisa jane said...

oh sweets.

My heart feels heavy for you.I am really sorry that this has happened in your life.I have nothing hallmark to say to you,I just wish you and your family peace.

thinking of you

Shauna said...

oh erin, i'm sorry to hear about this. we'll all be thinking of you... and you take care of you too!!!

BigAssBelle said...

oh erin, how awful. i am so sorry that she is dying and that she could not approve of your divorce and that it is so sad and terrible. please take care of you. i know she would want that for you. thinking of you today ~ big hugs, lynette