Christie Chapman reflects on the passing of her grandmother.
It’s a Saturday, and your granny is dying.
You just got word on Thursday that the gallbladder problems that sent her to the hospital were caused by cancer. The doctors worry that she’s too old to operate on; there would be too many risks. She has less than two weeks to live. This is shocking, and yet it’s not, because she’s 91 years old. And more than that, your popaw just died at the end of 2011, and the two of them were soul mates — you never saw a couple more in love. She’s Christian, deeply spiritual, and has been saying this whole time that she wants to join him in heaven.
It’s a shock, and yet it’s not, and it’s sad, but your relatives keep saying to be happy. “This is what she wants.” “She’s lived a good, long life.”
So on Saturday you opt out of the hard-core, Viking-warrior-themed, obstacle-strewn race through the mud you’d signed up for (and paid to sign up for) with your boyfriend and your housemate. They can go on without you; you can’t be sure how long she’ll have. Doctors can be wrong. Not saying good-bye to her is unthinkable.
And yet — you have been saying good-bye all along. You’ve been doing this for years, even before your popaw died. Little by little, she had become more stooped and forgetful, and hard of hearing, so that you had to say things twice or holler them. So that if people were talking in a room at a normal volume, she just got a faraway look and you know that she felt alone. Your popaw had gone through the same thing.
But still, the thought of putting off seeing her for even one extra day because of a race isn’t something that even you can live with.
Not that you think she wants you all to cease living while she’s slipping away. And so just the night before driving to see her, you had joined your boyfriend and your housemate and some friends at the roller-skating rink. At one point the rink went romantically dark, and beams of colored light swarmed all around. You had skated into it, off the velvety haven of the star-spangled carpet and out onto the slick wooden floor. You had looked all around you at the elementary and junior-high kids and the pretty glowy swirls, and you had gotten teary-eyed, thinking how sad it would be to leave this world behind.
My granny would like seeing this, especially the kids having fun.
But humans are self-regarding bastards sometimes, and you realize there’s a part of you patting yourself on the back for having this correct emotion, this situationally appropriate reaction. I must not be a monster after all.
You put too much stock in snooty literary things (unlike your Granny and Popaw, who lived hard lives in large families in Depression-era Appalachia and had to leave school in eighth and fourth grades respectively), so you can’t help thinking of what Milan Kundera wrote about sentimentality: “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.” You sort of hate yourself for thinking of things like this, but feel that you can’t help it.
Before driving the two hours to see her on Saturday morning, you stop at a Starbucks. You are the sort of person who can’t not do that. You go there every day. But today you feel like a jerk — here you are with a dying granny, and you’re going to defer driving to see her so you can wait in the line and then for the barista to make your frou-frou drink and call out your shamefully multi-syllabic order.
You buy her a plant — not some piddly bunch of flowers that’s only going to last a couple of days; a plant, something that has roots in the soil in its pot and is going to stick around for a while. You scoot the passenger seat way forward to make room for the pot on the floor of the back seat. You try not to think about how this plant will probably outlive her.
On the trip there, you feel the things you’re supposed to. You cry a little. You listen to rock songs, especially the ones about love, with a different perspective now — they all seem to be about your granny and popaw, either in love or tragically split between worlds.
And you feel the things you’re not supposed to — it’s a long time on the road, traffic on I-95 causing the ETA on the GPS to creep later minute by minute like virtual grains in an hourglass, and you have to do something to entertain yourself. So there you go, hamming it up to Madonna’s “Justify My Love” as you’re zooming along at sixty-five miles per hour. It’s incongruous, yes, it feels something like blasphemy, yes, but it’s what you do.
At her house — this house that you know as intimately as your own body, one story and small and wood-paneled and the definition of “home,” decorated only with Jesus and pictures of grandbabies — you show her the plant. Someone says they’re impatiens (not that your suburban self knows that much about nature, not even the kind that sprouts up in the parking lot at Whole Foods with a tent and a cash register, unless it’s clearly labeled).
She loves the purple color, says it was her mother’s favorite color, and you say oh yeah, you remember a lilac cardigan that Granny Holmes used to wear. She is pleased that you remember. You mention this to one of your relatives later, and they say that purple is the color of “the dress that Granny picked out,” and you know what this means.
They’ve got her set up in a new twin-sized hospital bed in the living room, facing the dining room (scene of countless country-style Thanksgiving smorgasbords and birthday parties). It’s a relief to see that she looks OK, her fair skin soft and unlined even after a youth spent working on a farm in Appalachia, her mind lucid, even her hearing seems to have improved, just when it’s most important to hear what people have to say. She seems at peace. As abominably cliché and euphemistic and Panglossian as it is to say, so help you, that’s how she seems.
There are a couple of chairs set up by her bedside (you try not to think of how people always talk about “when I’m lying on my deathbed…”), and your relatives take turns drifting over to them while everyone else stuffs their faces with the copious amounts of food, or talks in the living room or the den. You sit with her alone for a long time, both of you gazing in at the dining-room scene as if watching a play. It occurs to you that many people would think “this is the way to go” — at home, surrounded by your children, your grandchildren, your great-grandchildren.
She even got to meet a new great-grandchild — your cousin and his wife brought over their new baby boy, even though there is a family feud going on between your cousin and his parents (who are in the next room). Your cousin practically foists the baby on your granny, eager to make sure that she meets him. He and his wife tell your granny that the baby’s middle name is the same as your popaw’s, and she says, “Claude would have been honored by that.”
It’s strange the way your granny and your Christian relatives are portraying all of this, as if your granny is going on a trip. As if the for-now-morphine-mitigated pain from the cancer are something like travel-related frustrations you’d encounter at the airport or the train station — part of the drill, part of what makes the ultimate, paradisaical destination seem so worth it once you get there. As if she’s going on the ultimate honeymoon — people keep saying things like, “Are you ready to go see Popaw?”
You sit with her there by the bed, your hand on the velvet snowflake quilt that isn’t keeping her warm enough because nothing seems able to keep her warm enough. You both look in on your relatives eating chicken and dumplings, cold cuts and cheese, pimento-stuffed olives, and drinking sweet tea (what other kind is there in a place this proud to be south of the Mason-Dixon line?). You strain to hear and memorize every adorably Dolly-Parton-sounding word she says. What she says are scraps, fragments: “We sure do have a perty family.” “I’ll be sad to leave my children, but I reckon it’s time.” What she says is simple, uncomplicated: she loves her family, she misses your popaw.
You feel like garbage for not visiting more until now.
You watch the play of her life, the sequels, the coda. The atmosphere is almost festive. Her bed is surrounded with photos of your popaw looking handsome in his World War II uniform. It’s how she remembers him — she tells you, “When Claude died, I just didn’t realize that we’d gotten so old.” She hadn’t known she was old until he was gone. Now she’s ready to join him. Your dad sent you an e-mail asking if you had photos for the DVD they’ll play at the funeral; your aunt has asked you to go ahead and write her obituary. You don’t write it yet. You are absolutely incapable of writing about her in past tense.
You don’t want her to go.