Originally written in September 2008, in memory of Grandma Evelyn October 21st, 1922-October 20th, 2010
It’s been at least ten years since the last time my gram baked something fresh from her own oven. Pineapple upside down cake, blueberry kuchen, refrigerator cake, German potato salad, pot roast, random concoction of whatever was left in the fridge of the studio apartment in the retirement hotel on Lawrence Street… And here we are today; exactly one month from her 86th birthday, and I’m sitting by her side at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, alone, holding her hand and waiting for the nurse to come reset the alarm on her IV that keeps going off every time she inches her right hand closer to mine.
“Gram, do you know what day it is?” I ask, in a hopeful attempt to bring her into present day and time. “It’s only a month from your birthday! How old are you going to be?”
Her gaze looks in my direction, but the focus is further than the two feet away where I sit. I can’t quite figure out what she’s looking at, but I am certain she can’t see me, nor can she differentiate the likeliness of me being any one of her three children, nine grandchildren, or five great-grandchildren. It’s pretty obvious; if she knew it was me sitting by her bedside it would only make sense she sing our song:
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine!
You make me haaaapppyyyyyy when skies are gray!
You’ll never know, dear
How much I love you,
Please don’t take,
Time continues to pass, the IV alarm continues to sound, and my gram continues to stare into space.
“I’m so disgusted,” she manages to utter.
“What is it, gram?” I ask.
“It’s been so long and nobody has come to help me,” she somehow gathers the strength to speak. “This is a God-awful place.”
“No, gram,” I say, “The people here are nice; they’re here to help you.”
“I’m all alone,” she replies, “Except for you. Thank you for being here.”
I fight back my tears. Even though I know she can’t see the emotion behind my eyes, I can only hope to stay strong enough for her to not see me cry. I’ve spent years avoiding visits alone with her because I can’t stand the pain it brings, only to realize how selfish I am. If my moment’s sadness creates a moment’s joy to my grandmother’s lonely heart, what difference does a single tear make?
I’ve been waiting for my bananas to over-ripen all week so I can make banana bread. As I sit by my grandmother’s bedside I want to ask her how she gets the bread to stay so moist in her own banana bread recipe, the same recipe that brought so much delight to me as a little girl, but I know she won’t be able to share her secret with me. I take a deep breath and once again hold back my tears.
“Help me!” She cries out. “I want to move! I want to go home!”
I wonder what home she is referring to. Does she want to go back to the Methodist Home, where she has spent the last decade of her life? Or is there something more ominous calling her soul to return? I think about the John Holland book I’ve recently read and wonder which family members will be waiting for her on the other side when her time comes.
She’s survived breast cancer, a double mastectomy, diabetes, blindness, obesity… She turns 86 years old in only one month; years longer than most people could dream to live. I often wonder what drives her will to live. I can vividly recall the countless times the doctors have called our family to say our final words to her; the day of my college graduation when they took her off life support and I felt I’d accomplished so much and lost everything all at the same time. And no matter what, one thing remained the same: my gram pulled through, stubborn as a bull, hard as a rock, fighting for her life beyond any reason.
When I look into my grandmother’s eyes I think of my own mother, and how sad she must be for not being able to be there at this very moment in time. I see my own mother’s eyes, my own mother’s smile, and I understand why I couldn’t let my grandmother sit alone in a hospital room scared and in such God-awful pain.
The nurse comes in to reset the IV machine and asks if I was close with my grandmother before she became ill. I try to think of a time when grams wasn’t ill and I smile to myself.
“Yes,” I say, as I think of the many songs we used to sing together and the happy banana bread times we shared. “We were very close.”
I held my gram’s hand as she drifted off to sleep and prayed to God her pain could subside even for a split second so she could have a moment’s peace. I could feel her grip holding on to mine as much as she could. As I inhaled, fighting back tears, I could smell her banana bread.
I gently kissed her forehead as I took off my scrubs and left her hospital room, “I love you, Gram,” I said. “You are my sunshine.”