Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Grandma and the Prince - Part 7
<--Grandma El and me, at the beginning of my life
Grandma El was dying. For three years she'd been in a decline but
it's only in retrospect that I can recognize the beginning of the end.
But somewhere in the early spring of 1989, Grandma crossed stopped
living and started dying.
I don't think any of us ever believed she would die. Why would we? El
wasn't a woman, she was a force of nature. Brash, opinionated,
sentimental, harsh, occasionally cruel, always astonishing. I think we
all expected El to be around as long as we were--and maybe even longer.
But not even Grandma was able to keep time at bay forever.
God knows, she tried. In her own way, Grandma was a pioneer. We don't
think twice today about popping vitamins and minerals, about exercising
for good health, but in the 1940s and 1950s this was fairly radical
stuff. Grandma was into nutrition before it was fashionable. I can
remember her laying out her vitamins each morning, row after
multicolored row of tablets and capsules lined up neatly on the kitchen
counter with two full glasses of water and her dolomite powder. I'd
watch in awe as she popped four or five at a time, taking huge sips of
water to wash them down, never once losing a beat of conversation along
the way. "Now, Barbara," she'd say, "the B vitamins are good for
stress...always get the Vitamin C made from rose hips...calcium tablets
and Vitamin D will keep you from shrinking one day like all those old
ladies in the park...and lecithin...Old Thing, let me tell you about
And she loved Jack LaLanne. Long before Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda,
there was Jack LaLanne of the pumped-up torso that Grandma adored. "He
could park his shoes under my bed any time," she liked to say. She
watched him faithfully every morning, doing jumping jacks and squat
thrusts in the privacy of her bedroom then finishing off with a
half-hour on the exercise bike. Her children were aghast at her
behavior but El didn't much give a damn. Let them sit around on their
fat bums watching Steve Allen and Dinah Shore. She'd have the last
laugh one day.
No amount of physical activity ever managed to turn her small, round
body into a sleek machine but, my God, was she strong. Up until a few
months before she died at 89 years of age, she was able to walk up four
flights of stairs without getting winded. She did her own shopping, her
own wash, her own cleaning, until very close to the end when my dad took
over for her. She rode an exercise bicycle until the year before she
died. (If I sneeze twice in a row, I lie down for a day or two to
recover. I am a tall American wimp. Grandma, however, was a short
And she did grow more English with every passing year. She took to
leaping to her feet whenever she saw the Queen on TV, to placing her
hand over her heart whenever she saw the Union Jack or heard the first
notes of God Save the Queen. She and the Queen Mother were the same age
and Grandma El identified totally with the woman. They even looked
alike. Being English defined El in a way that being American has never
defined me. It was her very essence. I always figured Grandma and the
Queen Mother would keep pace with each other until the end. I certainly
never figured Grandma would be the first to leave.
Grandma's birthday was April 18. My dad's was April 17. My mother and I
irreverently referred to those dates as the High Holy Days. Only a major illness
exempted you from attendance at their birthday dinner. That year a bad
case of flu kept my husband and me from joining the celebration. I hate to admit it, but I was kind of relieved. The trek to
Queens was easier when we lived on Long Island, a straight run on the
Long Island Expressway. Now that we lived in central New Jersey it was
a real pain in the neck and I'd grown to resent the command performance.
My birthday came and went without fanfare from Grandma. So did my
husband's and my mom's and my Aunt Mona's. Grandma and my father,
however, were feted with the Fuller version of Trooping the Colors.
I had no idea this birthday would be her last.
On April 19th she was rushed to the hospital. She was in congestive
heart failure, her kidneys were beginning to shut down, there was
evidence of a silent heart attack. Within two days, she was no longer
communicating with anyone. Her eyes were closed. She was
non-responsive. The doctors held out little hope for a recovery. Still,
they wouldn't let us come see her until the last vestiges of our flu
were long gone. They wanted to give her the best possible chance, even
if they were just tilting at windmills.
The days passed and she remained non-responsive. "She's in a very weakened
condition. To be honest, we don't know what's keeping her alive," the
doctors said. Day after day they repeated the same thought. "What is
she waiting for? We don't know why she's still alive." But alive she
was and the doctors wouldn't let me see her.
My dad called early Sunday morning, May 7th. "You'd better come to the hospital,"
he told me. "They say it could be any time." Two hours later we met
him in the corridor outside Grandma's room. She was still alive. Her
heartbeat barely registered. Her respiration was shallow. More than
two weeks had passed since she'd opened her eyes or said a single word.
My dad prepared me for what I was going to see.
"You won't recognize her," my father said. "She doesn't look like your
grandma any more."
How ridiculous, I thought. How could she look like anyone else? The
sparkling blue eyes. The strawberry blond curls. That incredible
English skin. She was one of a kind. I'd know her anywhere.
I stepped into the semi-private room and my knees went weak. Two beds.
Two elderly women. I didn't know which one of them was my grandmother.
I turned toward my dad who was standing in the doorway. He pointed
toward the bed by the window. A loud "No" rose up in my throat but I
swallowed it down again. That wasn't my grandmother. That couldn't
possibly be the vibrant, outrageously juicy woman I'd known all my life.
This was an old lady. An emaciated, grey-haired old lady at that.
Didn't they know my grandmother's hair was red?
Yes, I actually believed my 89 year old
grandmother's conceit that her strawberry blond hair was still natural
and not the result of three decades of temporary rinses. And you know what?
I'm glad I did. We all need those cushions against reality's hard
edges. I hope my naivete gave her a good laugh somewhere along the way.
I approached her bed as a nurse finished adjusting the IV drip. "Won't
be getting much talk from this one," the nurse said. "Haven't heard a
word from her since she got here." It was easy to see that my grandmother was a body in the bed and nothing more to her. El, in all her Technicolor imperfect
glory, no longer existed. I waited for the nurse to finish then I
leaned down close to Grandma. I often disliked her, was frequently exasperated
by her, would only begin to understand her twelve years after her death.
I took her hand and told her I was
there. I told her that she didn't have to stay any longer, that it was
okay to let go of life, that if it was time to go we would understand. I
told her that I loved her. That had always been so hard for me to say,
so damn hard. And, although I don't expect you to believe this, Grandma
squeezed my hand then opened her eyes. She looked up at me and smiled,
and I know that in that instant she knew who I was and how I felt. How
I'd always felt despite it all.
A few hours later, as my husband and I drove across the Verrazano
Bridge on our way home, Grandma El died. "I don't know how she lasted
so long," her doctor said to my father as he marked down her time of
death. "It's a mystery to me."
But it was really no mystery at all. She'd been waiting for me.
PS: Yes, I'll go back to the story of her life next month. I couldn't let the twentieth anniversary of her death slip by unnoticed.
Posted by Barbara Bretton at 1:11 AM