January 1, 1918 to October 31, 2005
If you remember, Halloween fell on a Monday last year. I was at work as usual, hefting my new belly around, mostly just trying to distract myself while I waited for a phone call telling me that my beloved Grandma Ruth had passed. I was down a few cubes from my own and heard a phone ring around 3 pm. My next door cube neighbour knew I was waiting for a phone call so I figured she'd tell me if it was my phone. But it was my phone. I didn't get to it on time and whoever it was didn't leave a message. When I got home later, there was a message from my mom with the news. Grandma Ruth hadn't even been sick for a week and already she had died. Somehow, she was dead sounds just too harsh, even after a year.
Grandma Ruth had had surgery on the Friday before to remove a blockage caused by bowel cancer. But we knew by Saturday morning that she wasn't recovering as well as she had in 2004 when she'd had the same surgery a month or two before our wedding. Then, she was determined to be at our wedding, and I know her recovery was partly due to her determination. She made it to our wedding and was right in the centre of our photos.
SD and I had visited her on the Saturday, to say whatever we felt we needed to say, just in case. We had tickets for a musical in Toronto, Umoja, that night, and figured we may as well just take the extra few hours to get up to Peterborough. I'm so glad we did. I wore my favourite maternity shirt, which made me look like I'd swallowed a pumpkin – it seemed particularly apt, somehow. I thought if I showed off my belly and we talked about the baby it would give her the strength to fight back to health.
Unfortunately, a lot had happened since her last surgery. Sadly, her husband, Grandpa Jack, who gave Swee'pea his middle name, died on January 14, 2005, and although it had seemed to me that Grandpa's memory loss had become a burden to her, she had told me that she was lonely without him. They had been married for something like 67 years. Also, right after Grandpa died, a good friend of hers at the retirement home also died, leaving her to sit with a couple of grumpy old biddies at lunch. During the short time between Grandpa's death and hers, she often talked about the negative people she had to eat lunch with but she couldn't be bothered asking to sit elsewhere.
It's such a cliché but when we walked into the hospital room, I was shocked at the pale, shrunken, weak old lady on the bed. She had all kinds of tubes running into and out of various body parts, and she looked so tired, you could see that just raising her eyelids, figuring out where she was and forming her mouth around words took enormous effort. But she was happy to see us. I saw her eyes widen in glee at the sight of my pregnant belly, much larger than the last time I saw her.
I remember feeling like she was already partway to heaven. I had a sense that she was hallucinating, maybe watching spirits fly around, or eating a picnic in the park, like the image in the painting that hung in her dining room and now is in our house. It felt like she consciously had to pull herself back to earth, to this room, to us.
When I started talking about the baby and how I could feel it move every day, I could see in her eyes that she knew she wasn't going to meet this baby. Her eyes held a distance. I still felt hope, but just in case I told her of our plans to make one of the baby's names Jack if it was a boy. We'd been keeping this a secret from our families but I thought she would want to know. When we told her, she looked at SD and said something, nodding her head emphatically. Unfortunately she had an oxygen mask over her mouth, and the pain meds and her exhaustion made her slur, so we couldn't really understand what she was saying. But she continued to repeat herself, so it was obviously important to her, and I think she was saying something along the lines of, “Jack often said he liked you,” to SD. Either that, or she was saying that she'd seen Jack often around the hospital room.
She was even more exhausted now, and pretty much asleep. We decided to go to the show in Toronto, because Grandma wouldn't have wanted us to miss it. She loved music and dancing. I remember when I was a teenager, I played my music for her, songs like Suck my Kiss by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Closer by Nine Inch Nails. And she just said enthusiastically, “I like the beat.”
* * *
When I was a kid, each summer I visited Grandma Ruth and Grandpa Jack. When I was really young, I visited with my older sister but when I was around 8, I started making the visit all by my big girl self. We got to ride the train, my mom accompanying me as far as Union Station, and my grandma would meet us there and take me the rest of the way to London.
I remember one time Grandma Ruth bought me one of those big bags of licorice for the train ride. And I ate the whole bag. It wasn't long before I was learning the licorice lesson the hard way, with my bowels cramping in the train's cramped bathroom, Grandma Ruth wondering outside if I would be able to escape the toilet long enough to get off at our stop. My brother learned the licorice lesson the hard way too, but without Grandma Ruth's help. He and his friend saved up their allowances and bought a huge amount of licorice. They tied each piece together until they had a licorice rope across the front yard, each boy on one end, and they ate until they reached the middle.
Another time, our train into Union Station was late and our connection to London was about to leave. She took my hand and pulled me at top speed through the station, and we made the train. She always had her lipstick with her, always a vibrant red, and it was on one of these train rides that she once made me believe she had a magic mirror in her wallet that I couldn't see. Later she confessed that she was just one of those special people who can put their lipstick on without a mirror. I felt special to discover that I was one of those people too. She was good at making me feel special.
Their apartment was on Wonderland Road, down the way from the Seven Dwarfs' Restaurant, which we always went to once each summer, because their friend owned it, and not far from Storybook Gardens, which we also went to every summer. Those 3 or 4 days I spent with them each summer were magic, and it really did seem like I was visiting some kind of Wonderland. The first thing we did when I arrived was go to to the grocery store to get all my favourite foods. I got Eggo waffles for breakfast, which my mom either didn't approve of or couldn't be bothered to buy. I could have had ice cream for breakfast every day if I'd wanted. And I have to say, this total indulgence really taught me to set my own limits after suffering more than one upset tummy while I was there.
My Grandma Ruth loved clothes and loved to shop. Every year, we always spent a day shopping at the Westmount Shopping Centre, which was within walking distance of their apartment. Writing that, I have just realized that that may have been my only experience of walking to a mall in my childhood (we lived in the country). Maybe that's where I formed my love of walking to shops. Anyways, my grandma had amazing stamina for shopping and I was always asking for mercy long before she was ready to stop. She bought me pretty much anything I wanted, much to my mom's horror. I remember when I was 12, I wanted a one-piece, leopard-print bathing suit, which had thigh holes cut up to the ribcage and a neckline that plunged to the belly button. And my grandma bought it for me. I think I only ended up wearing it once, as I soon realized that it wasn't very comfortable or practical. I think it rode up uncomfortably when I dove into the water. Later she bought me shirts that bared my midriff and skirts that went above my knees. Fairweathers was my favourite store then, and Sears was hers.
There was a pool at their apartment building, so we swam every day. My grandma loved to swim until she had her second stroke, and even did synchronized swimming, and she taught me some of the moves they did. She also belly danced for a while when she was younger. Though she confessed to me that she didn't like the music that much so she didn't stick with it.
I went through a time in my late teens and early twenties when I didn't want to visit Grandma and Grandpa anymore. Mostly because I'd started smoking, and I didn't want them to know about it; I knew they'd be disappointed in me. I also didn't want to deal with the nic fits. So my visits stopped and I only went with my parents for the occasional afternoon or an overnight.
In 2002, Grandma Ruth was in a car accident that left her in Intensive Care with a broken pelvis and other complications caused by her old body trying to cope with the trauma. We weren't sure if she was going to make it but she pulled through. Shortly after that, they moved to a retirement home in Peterborough so that my mom wouldn't have to drive three hours each way to care for them. I started visiting them more often then; we could combine visits to my parents, brother and grandparents. By this time, though, they were tired. They loved to see SD and I, but they didn't get out much anymore. Grandpa Jack's memory was failing and I don't think he ever really felt comfortable in the home; I don't think he could remember how to get around the building, so he was very dependent on Grandma Ruth. Knowing this, she didn't like to leave him; but she also didn't want to go out as much for herself. I think she suffered anxiety in cars after her accident (she was a passenger in the accident); she'd had two strokes before the broken pelvis, and I think she got tired a lot faster than she used to. Then in 2003 she started having intestinal complaints and because she had an incompetent doctor, it was summer 2004 before she was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Her doctor had just kept saying, “You're old. Of course you're not going to feel very well.”
When Grandpa Jack died, I thought she would get out more. I thought he had been holding her back. I thought this even when I was a kid. I remember once asking my mom if Grandma could come live with us when Grandpa died. As they aged, it got harder to see the indulgent loving vivacious socializers in the bent couple who seemed to live for Blue Jays' games and Lawrence Welk. Now anytime I happen to flip by Lawrence Welk, I start to cry, from all the times we drank tea and watched the show with my grandparents.
* * *
So that day in the hospital, we kissed her goodbye and we told her we loved her, and then we left. I cried all the way to Toronto, because I had a feeling that would be the last time I would see her. I was devastated at the thought that she wouldn't get to meet our little one. During the car ride though, I also realized that it would never be a good time for her to die. There would always be something I would want her to see; I would always want her in my life. And I got the sense in the hospital that she was ready to go, and who was I to want to keep her here in a failing body, missing the loved ones who'd gone before her? My brother told me after that he had asked her if she was scared, and she'd replied, “Scared of what?”
That night, with the thunderous drums and ecstatic songs of the musical, our little one kicked and prodded throughout, tattooing his own rhythm, which echoed our heartbeats, and spoke to me of the beauty of life and of the necessity of its end.
The next day Grandma Ruth started to lose her lucidity and didn't seem to have much awareness of where her physical body was. I was really glad we'd gone to visit her on Saturday because we'd talked about waiting to the next day. By Monday, my mom, her only child, felt that maybe Grandma needed some help to move on. Like she was a hot air balloon struggling to float but with one stubborn tether anchored to the ground. So she and my dad went out and bought a mini cd player and two cds of the big band music Grandma loved, to release that final tether and let her float away. She died within half an hour of them putting the music on in her hospital room.
For the rest of my pregnancy, I often had crying spells, missing Grandma Ruth, aching that she wouldn't meet this little one. But I took time to explain to the baby nestled in my womb, that my sadness had to nothing to do with him, that it was nothing to worry about, that I was just sad that he wouldn't meet his Great Grandmother. But, I said, “You still have lots of people waiting to meet you out here, who already love you, so you won't be lacking for love.”
The tears intensified in that not so delicious postpartum cocktail of one part crazy hormones, two parts severe sleep deprivation, one part miracle of life high, topped with a bit of near death labour and delivery (even if you didn't actually come near death) for colour. At times I even felt like I imagine Grandma Ruth did in the hospital room, dreamy, feeling her presence, and with a piece of me somewhere on its way to another dimension.
One of the many ladies' heads Grandma Ruth collected, which we divided among the family (this is one of ours), and the curve of a turquoise depression glass bowl she gave me years before she died. Somehow, I feel her spirit inhabits the dignity and elegance of these ladies' heads.
Grandma Ruth almost never had anything bad to say about anyone (well until she started having to eat lunch with grumpy gusses). She was an elegant woman who loved people, loved music, loved dancing, swimming, walking – anything her body could do – loved taking the train, loved nice clothes and shoes... she loved. She is remembered fondly by everyone who knew her.
It seems that autumn, especially late autumn, is a time for nostalgia, melancholy, and remembrance. It seems no accident that this is the season of the Mexican dia de los muertos, the more recent, Remembrance Day, and the more optimistic Thanksgiving. I think Her Bad Mother is onto something in her beautiful description of feeling low earlier this month:
The low of rainy days and slow melodies on trombone and falling leaves and gray sky and the earthy, musty smell of summer in decay. The low of fall, when the dark and the chill come too fast, when even the brightness of the crispest and brightest of days has a sort of stark, mournful edge. I've been feeling low, in that way. Morose.
It seems so appropriate that Grandma Ruth chose October 31 to die, on the eve of the dia de los muertos, a time of ghosts and spirits that is also a time when her loved ones can take advantage of the greying landscape and sky to be sad, but still feel warmth and cosiness against the bleakness of oncoming November.