Coming-up-Short Story

Remembering my grandmother on the anniversary of her death.

By Liz Spikol
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 28, 2007

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Key of three: The author's grandmother (center) shares a laugh with two of her sisters.

It was this time three years ago, and my grandmother had been living in a nursing home for a year. I rarely visited, not because I didn't want to see her, but because the home--despite its pretentious name and grand hotel lobby--was little more than a way station.

People sat in their wheelchairs, lined up in hallways like train cars, and stared into space. The staff made excuses. The old people preferred the hallways to their rooms. They liked being lined up. They didn't know the difference.

I didn't believe anything they said, and I was so upset to see my beloved grandmother in that environment, I had to take an Ativan before I went. Once there, I weighed myself on the vast scale meant for wheelchairs. I called out to the cat that threaded its way through the hallway. I waggled my happy fingers at vacant faces, or made chitchat with my grandmother's roommate.

The one thing I didn't do was spend meaningful time with my grandmother, who previously had been my friend and protector.

I couldn't bear to see her there, so I didn't.

Some people aren't close with their grandparents, or see them only as vaguely benevolent old people who kiss them a lot and bring them candy. I respected my grandmother and looked up to her. She was an independent working woman in the years after her husband's death, which left her a widow at 40.

She never remarried and never took money from anyone else, except at the end, to pay for that nursing home. She worked and drove well into her 80s, and was lucid and conversational and good fun until about 92. I loved her. I liked her.

I rarely worried about her welfare. Other people seemed fragile, sad, able to be defeated and disappointed. I believed my grandmother was invincible. Even a few months before she went into the nursing home, I was unable to envision her there. It just seemed implausible.

But she was there, and I wasn't. Until I wanted her to meet my new boyfriend--then I was there in a hurry. I had hardly ever seen her without her teeth in--she was quite vain--but this time she greeted me without them. I shooed my boyfriend out of the room.

"Oh my God," I gasped. "You don't have your teeth in!"

I waited for her hand to fly up to her mouth, for her to thank me for getting him out of the room, but she just shrugged. So I pushed it. I wanted her to be the old her. I hurried to her bedside and grabbed her dentures. She saw the look on my face and opened her mouth like a small child. I put the teeth in, and to my relief and delight, she smiled at me--sort of. Then I realized I'd put the teeth in upside down.

She wasn't smiling. It was just the odd effect of the teeth, and the grimace on her face from the pain of the dentures cutting into her gums.

I pulled them out, telling myself I'd been vain on her behalf, because if she weren't depressed, she'd want them in. But I'd been vain for me, and she knew it.

A week or so later we got the call. We went to be by her bedside, and I climbed in next to her. A man visiting her roommate saw me there and thought I had decided to be with her until she died. I hadn't thought to do that; I just wanted to be close to her and tell her some things.

The man looked at me with great admiration and said, "It's tremendously brave, what you're doing." I didn't say anything because I knew I was a fake.

I didn't want her to die alone, but she did because even though they told me it was only a matter of hours, I was embarrassed in front of my new boyfriend to be seen as the kind of person who believes almost-dead people can hear you talking to them or know you're there. So I left, a coward till the end.

This is a hard time of year for me now. It marks the season when my grandmother died, the season when I failed her, the season when I failed myself by not standing up for her.

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