Growing up, I had a great disdain for school. I was fidgety, distractable and couldn’t be bothered to apply myself to trivialities like math or science. I would fake sick constantly for a shot at staying home another day. With my parents newly divorced, and both in the workforce as teachers, this left my grandmother to take care of me on these “mental health” days.
These were some of the best days of my life, if not at least my childhood.
She would burn over and pick me up in her old station wagon , the back bumper wrapped in reflective tape so that no matter where you were parked or from what distance it was driving you could point it out instantly. I always felt a twinge of embarrassment for that tape, but that was all forgotten when she would swing the door open and greet me with her boisterous laugh.
I was then treated to McDonald’s and mid-day cartoons, sprawled out on her old couch, she’d check on me and I’d fake a cough now and then just try to play the part. I don’t think she was ever tricked, nor do I think she ever cared. What was important to her was just making me happy, and I loved her old-timey witticisms (“Amen, Brother Ben, shot a goose but killed a hen” whatever that means) and plentiful supply of popsicles.
One summer, her and my mom surprised us with a trip to Disneyland. I never enjoyed rides, I was mortified of the roller-coaster at Calaway Park, the local amusement/teenager make-out spot, and my excitement for the trip was tempered with my dread of Space Mountain and the Matterhorn.
My siblings were both much older than me and upon our arrival, took to the rides like sadistic fish to water.
Our first day was spent at Universal Studios where they had just opened the Jurassic Park ride. Now, that was (and still is) one of my all time favourite movies, so despite my terror at the ride, I knew I would have to ride it. My brother and sister went to ride it first, to “test it out for me”, and when they returned they were soaked and giddy, describing the monumental plummet that awaited any child foolish enough to brave it.
I was petrified.
They made me go anyway.
I banshee wailed the entire line-up, which at this point was at its mid-day peak. A half hour later and we’re finally on the ride, my brother and sister eagerly awaiting their second go, me worn numb from my tantrum. And of course I loved every goddamn second of it. The drop was nothing, and totally worth it for the sight of seeing a mother fucking T-Rex right in my mother fucking face.
Of course, the next day I completely forgot this lesson to try new things, and staunchly refused to go on any rides. This is where my Grandma came to save the day once more. Instead of mocking me, like my siblings were doing (as any older sibling should), she took me by the hand and lead me to her favourite ride, It’s A Small World.
Now, everyone hates that song, I get it, it’s a repetitive mockery of sanity but it was gentle and easy and safe. We rode it four times in a row while the others rode all the vomit inducing tilt-a-whatevers they wanted.
My Grandma loved to dance. She was always humming a tune and gently swaying to the beat while she walked. Those nights, wandering the park, she would quietly sing Disney tunes and her and I would dance hand in hand. Whenever I think of her, I see her dancing in front of the castle, fireworks just finished, the smoke not yet cleared, the sky aglow with the thousands of park lights, singing “I know you, I danced with you once upon a dream.”
Six years ago, she fell. It was Christmas Eve and she was leaving her weekly perm, the same hairdressers she’d gone to since before I was born. She broke her leg, then during the setting procedure, reacted to the anesthetic and slipped into a coma. A few days later, she woke up.
She was never the same after that. For a few years she’d been slipping. On more than one occasion she would call my mother for help, she’d parked somewhere and couldn’t find the car again (saved almost every time by that garish reflector tape). She was forgetting dates more and more, losing track of the conversation. Little things. But nothing like the woman who woke up.
The doctors’ diagnosed it as dementia. It wasn’t degenerative like Alzheimer’s, the only difference being she could live another ten years in that state. She couldn’t walk, the broken leg never healed properly, which she would often forget then try to stand up out of her wheelchair and re-injure herself. My grandfather was unable (or unwilling) to do the necessary alterations to his home to make it accessible, nor was he physically able to tend to her the way she would need. The decision was made to place her in a home. She was living there still when I moved back home.
In that time she’d all but withered away to an unrecognizable state.
Gone was the perfectly permed hair, in its place an unwashed mat to stringy threads desperately holding on to their roots. Instead of her manicured hands and text book 50’s house wife make up were tired claws and pale, cracking skin. Visits with her ranged from comedic, her mistaking me for my sister’s new husband due to my recently grown out beard, to the racist, a Kenyan orderly came up behind to serve her food and was met with a shriek and a barely contained racial slur.
She had good days where she recognized me instantly, the same smile that I’d seen a thousand times on birthdays, holidays and “sick” days. Other times she would be withdrawn and beg to be taken home, not quite sure who I was but certain enough that I was someone who might be able to break her out of this open air prison.
One afternoon in late November, my mother and I went to visit her. She was looking out a window, the orderly had parked all the wheelchairs facing outside to distract them while she cleaned the area.
An old man, unable to communicate after what looked to be a massive stroke, aimlessly pulled himself along with his foot, the only appendage he had left that had any motor skills. He rolled over to us, unable to speak, his eyes dark, unblinking, just starring with watery defeat. He bumped himself into my foot, so I turned his chair slightly and he continued slowly pulling himself along, disappearing down the corridor.
That afternoon, my grandmother was a shade of grey I didn’t know skin could take. She looked up at us and smiled, several teeth missing having fallen out from malnutrition.
“Hello.” She greeted us quietly, tentatively. Today she wasn’t here.
We sat awhile, trying to make small talk. We chatted about the weather, told her about the trip my mom was about to take the next day, talked about the state of 434 to which she marginally perked up to. After a few minutes she sort of shook her head a little and looked right at me, pensive reluctance passed through her eyes. She asked with utter sincerity.
“Am I your grandma?”
I smiled and said “Yes, you are. My only one.”
She accepted the answer and looked back out the window. We each kissed her cheek and left shortly after.
That night she stopped taking food and rapidly fell into an unresponsive state. She was placed on life support.
The next morning I went to see her for the last time.
It’s amazing what oxygen can do for a person. She lay in her bed, still except for the rhythmic breathing machine which would shake her whole body every time it pushed air into her. Her skin had cleared, it was porcelain, like fine silk, I worried she would tear if I touched her. I sat with her a moment, put my head down and wept. I tried to tell her thank you. What a wonderful woman she had been, how grateful I was that I had been lucky enough to have her not only in my life but to be such a monument in it. I told her about the time in Disneyland when we danced. Her eyes fluttered a little when I kissed her forehead and said goodbye. And, I love you grandma.
Then I walked out the door.
A few hours later she slipped away.
There was no funeral. She had left no provisions in her will. My grandfather and uncle cremated her quickly and now whatever remains of her is in a small cup somewhere within my uncle’s hoarder hovel.
I told myself it was a good thing. That she had been gone years before. That the woman who passed was at peace and no longer in any pain. And I got to say goodbye, how many people can say that? Regardless of whatever comforts I offer myself, however, she’s gone. She’ll never dance again. And I miss her every day.