My grandmother is dying.
As she lays unresponsive in an Iowa hospital, I’m keenly aware of the impending loss. I have many memories of this woman who took the time to pay attention to a child used to being on her own. In an only child’s world of adults, my grandmother let me know it was okay to be a kid. My grandfather was an Iowa crop farmer, and visiting the farm was the first time in my life I remember being allowed to get dirty. For some reason, my grandmother expected it; she called it “playing.” I spent summers at the farm watching my grandmother do the things that made up her world — bird watching in her flower gardens, quilting with her church ladies, and embroidering pillow cases and tea towels for gifts. My grandmother’s bathroom had fake flowers and crocheted toilet paper roll covers. She woke up at the crack of dawn and went to bed early, wore polyester pants that when swish-swish-swish when she walked, and sensible shoes. I learned to eat fried green tomatoes and mayonnaise-and-sugar sandwiches (yes, this is a thing). I learned about the mystery of dentures, the consistency of getting your hair done, even what a breadbox and an ice box really were. I learned that in Iowa you brought food to pass to commemorate any life event, what family gatherings really look like, and just how flat Iowa really is and how high corn really grows in that perfect grid of a state. Once they were retired, my grandparents would spend summers driving their camper all over the contiguous United States, always heading home by way of the Grand Canyon, because that was one of my grandmother’s favorite places. One summer they even took me, and I learned about the Black Hills of South Dakota, Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, Wall Drugs, and prairie dogs.
And I learned about feeling loved, and wanted, and special.
When she lost her husband almost two decades ago, she seemed to falter a little. To fill the gap, she spent more time with her daughter Bonnie, and sometimes they traveled together. I’m happy to say that my Aunt brought her out to Pennsylvania to visit our very young family, and about ten years after that, we drove out to Iowa and brought the not-so-young family to her. Some things never change: she moved slower, but with the same determination. There were bird feeders, and flower gardens, and quilts. Although I never could find any patience for embroidery and no love whatsoever for crochet, I think she’d be tickled to know I’ve been knitting, and that my sister has been quilting.
In the last ten years of her life, dementia has stripped away her dignity, one ruthless day at a time. I feel guilt because I haven’t been better at visiting. I’m crap at writing letters, and inconsistent at best at calling. And now there is no way to correct that. But as she slips away, unresponsive in a sterile hospital bed, I know that somewhere in her mind she is getting ready to go traveling again, restless to get on her way to see my grandfather and her Maker, and going home by way of the Grand Canyon. I miss her so much already.
As it should be.