Sick with Age
My grandmother laid in her bed, curled up beneath a crocheted blanket, with plastic tubes connected a machine that loudly pumped oxygen. She had become so small I could wrap my hand around her thigh. I called to her a few times quietly, but her eyes were glazed to the TV like they had since I since I entered the room a few moments ago.
She was “the incredible shrinking woman”. Every time I had seen her in the last five years, it seemed as though she had shrunk a few centimetres. Since she had only peaked to 4’9 in her adulthood, her shrinking-ness seemed even more exaggerated. I outgrew her when I was just twelve years old, and towered over by the time I was fourteen.
My Grandma wasn’t sick, but she was sick with age. Her 92nd birthday had just passed not too long ago. She used to go to my house every Sunday evening as a sort of tradition; we’d turn on the TV to a golf game and pour her a glass of wine. She would eat a full plate of dinner, plus a little dollop of desert and end the night with a cup of tea. A few years back that tradition waned as her appetite decreased. Each time, her servings became smaller, her bites a little more conservative. And just over a year ago she had stopped coming altogether.
“Grandma,” I said again, coming closer to her bed.
Finally, she looked up and for a moment I thought she didn’t recognize me. And then a smile spread across her face. I saw a spark of something before she had gotten so small, like she had never started disappearing.
“Well,” she answered. “Look who we have here.”
The Incredible Shrinking Woman
Dorothy Link was born in 1925, just a bit younger than the Queen, just a bit younger than Betty White, and literally older than sliced bread. She orbited the sun 93 times, lived through the second world war, seen the moon landing on television, and to her demise, witnessed the creation of the cell phone.
I was born in 1996, and grew up on Sherry Lane, a few houses down from my Grandmother’s home. The same home my father and his siblings were raised in.
Sometimes I wondered if she would have ever expected to have had a granddaughter like myself. Throughout a good portion of my childhood, I switched between dressing Barbies, to looking at bugs through magnifying glasses in my basketball shorts. I put my elbows on the table, and talked back to my mother. And then, I hit my adolescence and got all of these opinions.
My Grandma didn’t grow up with much. She lived with her parents until she married my grandfather in her mid twenties. She was a mother and a wife, and then our family matriarch; sitting at the head of the table at each family gathering.
Topics of conversation never strayed too far from what was comfortable, but my Grandmother often asked my opinion about what was happening in the world and just the world itself.
We would often disagree but I think we both understood that it was because we had gained two different perspectives on the world – we were, after all, a product of our times.
While I was accepting of most things, she wasn’t accepting of all things; while she had seen so much, I had seen so little.
We were two women from two completely generations. But, almost every week before I moved away I’d go to her house with my Dad on Wednesday nights and share a pot of tea. As I got older she listened to me and my slightly radical opinions, toned down enough as to not give her a heart attack. And in exchange, I became less indifferent to her old, and sometimes repetitive, stories and started listening.
She told me…
She told me about her parents, who at times had barely enough money to feed their family as the result of the war, but did anything they could to give them the best life.
She told me about her father who used to drive down the county road to an apple orchard and load the back of his truck with baskets of its red fruit, and sold it to the families in their neighbourhood.
She told me how the kids at her school would call her a skeleton because sometimes she didn’t have enough to eat.
She told me she would be scolded after playing with the only black boy that attended her school, and never understand why until she got older.
She told me she met my grandfather at a her best friends house, and they danced in the living room until her curfew.
She told me one morning she got frustrated at my teenaged father, and while trying give him a little kick, he caught her foot and fell right on her bottom.
Most things my grandmother told me were stories I heard before. Sometimes she say them out the exact same way she always had, word by word as if it were a script. Sometimes she’d add little details that I hadn’t heard yet, layers upon the layers I would get a little picture that was her life.
“Bill always stayed up so late,” she said out of the blue, speaking of her late husband as she so often did – a grandfather who passed before I was born: “I’d always be asleep by the time he came to bed.”
Her speech faltered and paused, sometimes out of a daze and sometimes out of breath.
“Bill loved music,” my grandmother gushed. “I realized later, he stayed up listening to it… writing about it.”
I had spent the entire afternoon in her small room at the old age home, which had been more time I than in the last two years since I moved away to University.
Like with everything else – telling her to breath a little deeper, eat a little more, have one more sip of that drink – I pressed my grandmother for more; I hadn’t heard this story before.
The stories she told about herself, her husband and her kids now grown, felt like I was unlocking secrets about where I came from. Learning more about them felt like I was also learning more about myself.
I learned that something like the love of music could’ve been passed down from a man I never had the pleasure of meeting.
“Oh, he was such a good man,” my grandmother added. “A good husband.”
I smiled softly. I heard her say that many times.
Life and Death
In the time that I spent in her room, I thought about so many things. But I mostly thought about death.
And there she was still living. Clinging onto life in a body that was breaking down.
I cursed my pretentious adolescent self who thought she knew enough about life to have any idea about what happened after. Now, I felt like I know absolutely nothing.
I wondered if it was some sort of betrayal to have thought of her absence was she was still here. I tormented myself enough sadness for the weeks after I saw her that when she was actually gone I thought I wouldn’t have any left.
But that wasn’t the case. The news hit me a month later when I had reached some sort of plateau; enough time had occurred in between my last visit that my Grandmother was a worry I placed in the back of my mind.
I was at work and talking to a customer. I excused myself, let my heart unravel in bathroom.
Ironically, while experiencing her death, I thought about life. I thought of all the life she had lived in her 92 years and the small fraction of that I got spend with her.
She might’ve not done anything extraordinary, like win a Nobel Peace Prize or climb Mount Everest, but she impacted the lives of her loved ones in profound and subtle ways.
One thing about the “incredible shrinking woman” is that she was no small woman. Her personality, her snarky, hilarious comments and one liners filled the room. As did her laughter. But the biggest thing about her was her gratitude. Towards the life she was given, and the family that surrounded her.
Loss is an unfamiliar feeling to me, so while I figure that out, I’ll continue to save her seat at family dinners. And perhaps I’ll pour an extra inch of wine in my glass… in her name, of course.