Granny, Life, and Breaking Open

Let me just lay it out for you: Life is speaking loudly to me and the bedrock is shifting drastically beneath my feet. I can’t see it all, but I feel it and I just want to let you know. It’s going to change me.

We got the text last Tuesday that Granny (my great-grandma) may not make it to her 99th birthday at the end of this month. That my grandparents were flying out, my aunt’s already there, my mom making plans. It’s funny how often we can second-guess our instincts in some times and how easy it is to see and understand in others. This moment I knew quicker than instantly that I was going too.

Within an hour I had a car rented, and plans made to drive north. My heart kept holding an image of her hands in my hands. I didn’t know what to expect, how long I’d be, and I didn’t need to know. I only knew that 8 hour drive suddenly seemed like a trip across town, small and surmountable. Of course, I would be there.

Zeb came with me while Justin stayed behind with his business and the dog. We piled our backpacks into a clown car early Wednesday morning, and I let the magnetism of her spirit pull us along. We danced to Earth, Wind, and Fire, ate junk food, and laughed.

Wild Orange in the vent, Skrillex on Pandora, and this handsome man beside me. #roadtrip #forgranny

I can’t say for one moment I ached that she was dying. The condolences and “I’m so sorry’s” just didn’t seem to fit. After 99 years on this earth and six living generations from her womb, I didn’t – still don’t – feel sad that she’ll be leaving us soon.

I felt honored. Honored to be able to make the trip. Honored to be able to hold her hand. Honored to bear witness to this woman who outlived two of her children. The news felt closer to a celebration of life, than a call to mourn an approaching death.

When I walked in I didn’t recognize her body. Her teeth are all gone. Her body so small and frail. It was a shock to my eyes, but not for long.

Because I recognized her energy. Her eyes lit up when I walked in the room, her smile stretched wide, and she laughed, “Well look at you, ol’ baldy!” 😀 We laughed about my shaved head, I reintroduced her to Zeb (I’m not sure if she forgot him or simply didn’t recognize him after puberty has had its way), and we sat together.

Her hands. So many memories. #forgranny #99years

And there were her hands. Soft, cool, and still strong. She grabbed mine in hers and held on. I massaged them with Frankincense and Rose, and tried to absorb the love they offered as best I could. I remembered when those same hands used to clap together when she laughed, how they taught me to snap beans, and wagged their fingers at me when I whined about those damn beans giving me blisters.

Her shoulders are boney now and can’t be leaned on like before. Her legs betray her, as does her memory. But her hands are still the same. Still holding the family she created. And her love for that family is still apparent.

His great-great grandma. #forgranny #99years

She laughed when she saw me and called me baldy, so I wore my raccoon hat with ears to really make her giggle. Surrounded by family she's full of life. #99years #forgranny

And there’s something about being surrounded by those she loved that breathed new life into her. Where we thought we only had days left with her, I suddenly saw that being enveloped by love, connection, warmth is what makes us truly alive.

And that’s what ended up breaking my heart.

Not that this beautiful woman is nearing the end of her life. But how she’s nearing it.

Her body has betrayed her, her mind tries to everyday. Her needs outweigh her desires, placing her smack in a nursing “home” that despite the warmth and love and care she receives from staff, is no replacement for her desire to be surrounded by family and in her own bed.

Our last day there was yesterday and we went to say goodbye. She was sitting in a wheelchair, the first time I’d seen her out of bed all week, surrounded by other women with stories behind their eyes and a heaviness in their bodies. And it struck me. The unfairness, the frustration, of living so long, of creating so much, of the wisdom gained, and the freedom lost. Trapped in bodies that won’t listen to you, talking to people who can’t understand you, wanting things no one will allow you to have.

What broke my heart was not that my great-grandmother is dying, but that she isn’t dying the way she wants to.

What broke my heart was when she asked if she had brought her purse in, that she didn’t want to leave it when we left.

What broke my heart was when I told her I had to go and she asked if I could drop her off at home on my way, and was it too far, too much of a trouble to do that for her, and we had to tell her we couldn’t.

What broke my heart was that she didn’t know she no longer had a home to go to, that someone else lived there now, that her bed was the cold, metal bed in a shared room.

What broke my heart was her last words of wisdom, telling me to never give up my driver’s license and thus my freedom to come and go as I please.

Seeing her eyes turn toward us, her disappointment and confusion, and my inability to pick her up and take her to where she rightfully belongs. Knowing that after we leave, all that life we saw breathed into her might very well slip back out again.

There’s an anger there too. An anger that she’s surrounded by grandchildren and great-grandchildren in Nashville but it was mostly those of us that live so far away that were there every day to see her. An anger that although we all want to find an alternative, a sense of hopelessness has drained almost everyone of the creativity to find one. An anger that her things were rummaged through and taken away before her last living daughter could arrive.

An anger that this centurion was not being held to the level of honor she deserves. That she’s not being surrounded by the generations she’s responsible for throughout the day. That they aren’t celebrating her life with the homage it deserves. That it took those of us who are hundreds of miles away to even think to fill her damn room with photos of the children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren she still speaks of with devotion.

Me and my mama and grandparents and granny. Circa 1980'something.

Seeing her, seeing all those women, some wandering in and out of the wrong rooms, others sitting quietly by the window, something broke open in me that I don’t have words for. Something that spoke of the work of women in this world, of the veneration and ceremony that is deserved and not being commemorating.

And something about LIFE. About how we live it ourselves, as young women in a generation who didn’t fight hard to earn it like our grandmothers did. About how we dismiss it, or squander it, or spend it absorbed in the minute melodrama that does.not.fucking.matter.

I don’t want to be able to say I drove away from Nashville without absorbing the wisdom my great-grandmother left me – intentionally or not. That some things matter, like love and freedom and wringing the juices out of life, and nothing else will even be remembered.

Edited to add: Someone pointed out that this can easily be taken as a “guilt trip”. Not my intention at all. This is about my Granny, and what stirred in me when I saw her, what hurt for her, and what Life is telling me, and only me. Guilt can go fuck itself. The truth of what is remains the same.