Granddaughter: How are you feeling?
Grandma: Oh, I’ve been better…I’m so glad you made it. I wanted to see you before…this weekend. Come, sit here next to me on the bed.
The old woman reaches out her hand, and I take it between my hands and sit on the edge of the hospital bed, grasping Grandma’s crinkly, chilled hand. It is all I can do to stifle the tears.
How is school?
Busy, mid-terms coming up. I’m spending most of my time studying and writing papers.
Its still cold outside but signs of spring beginning to appear. Most of the snow has finally melted. The sun shines a little longer each day when it’s not raining, it rains most days…
So tell me, Grandma, you looking forward to going back to the bungalow this summer?
The old woman smiles.
You know, cut the crap honey. I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to die right here in this hospital bed, and sooner rather than later. You know it, I know it, everyone knows it. I don’t want to go, but obviously my time is up. I bet I seem old to you. I’m wrinkled, wear clothes you probably consider dowdy or old-fashioned or just ugly, but they’re comfortable. I like them. They’re me…You know honey, when you reach a certain age you don’t care what others think. Or you shouldn’t care.
I want you to be a brave and strong woman.
I love you, Grandma.
I know, and you and your sister are my pride and joy. You girls can do anything. Sometimes you – not so much your sister – are wimpy, I hate to say it but it’s true. You have to assert yourself more, be loud if necessary, stamp your foot.
That’s not very ladylike, Grandma. I thought I’m supposed to be a lady.
Not all the time, not you, be a spunky kid. Your Aunt Nan is a lady, with the right silverware on her holiday table and China dishes and knickknacks all around. And look how much she has accomplished? Nursing head of something-or-other in a big city hospital… But you’re not like her. You’re more like me. Work hard, stay in the background. But things are changing. Sweetheart, do me a favor and don’t stay in the background.
Again, Grandma pauses. The conversation seems to have exhausted her. She closes her eyes and breathes lightly, fighting for each breath. I am still holding her hand. A couple of tears slide down her cheeks. After a few minutes she opens her eyes again looks at me and smiles.
I like that boyfriend of yours, what’s his name. I don’t know if he’s the one, but he’s a good one. If not him, I hope – no, I know – you’ll make a good choice. You’re not rash or out to defy your parents or anyone else and make some kind of stupid statement. You’ll do the right thing. But most important of all, honey, be yourself. Don’t let others lead you around or talk you into doing something you don’t want to do. And of course finish school. No matter what, finish school. You never know…
She pauses again. Her eyes close and this time she falls asleep.
What really happened:
Mom called to tell me the end was near. A four-hour bus ride ended in Manhattan. My boyfriend picked me up and we drove to Long Island, another hour-long trip.
I entered the hospital room grasping Bob’s hand. In the middle of the bed a tiny figure lay, curled into a fetal position, unrecognizable. Tubes connected her nose and body to monitors beeping beside the bed. An emaciated, wrinkled figure, her skin almost transparent and snow-white hair in disarray – quite unlike Grandma – the woman’s shallow breaths, barely audible, coincided with her chest as it pulsed up and down.
Did Grandma know I was there? Could she hear me? Understand me? There was no way of knowing. I talked to her for a few minutes. No change, no sign of recognition. I walked out of the room, tears running down my face, and went home.
The hospital called at eight o’clock the next morning. Grandma had died during the night. I like to think she waited for me before leaving.
Meryl Baer @SixDec worked in finance, and after years as a financial geek quit her job and moved to the Jersey shore. Friends and family visit during the summer but no one drops by in winter, so she writes. Her work has appeared in anthologies (most recently ‘Angel Bumps’), websites (eg. – Every Day Fiction, GRAND Magazine, Midlife Blvd.), and she is a 2014 National Society of Newspaper Columnists award winner. Check out her blog Six Decades and Counting: http://sixdecadesandcounting.blogspot.com.