When I was little my Grandma refused to tell me how old she was. I'd guess and guess and guess but she'd just smile and laugh as she refused to tell me her age.
Well, Grandma, my dad is fifty-two so you have to be older than sixty, right?
Are you older than seventy?
Are you seventy-five?
Are you seventy-six?
I remember the day I found out how old she was. She had taken my younger sister and me shopping for new Easter dresses and the saleslady talked her into signing up for a store credit card. When asked what year she was born my Grandma looked at me and I knew I needed to walk away, so I yanked my sister toward some display while craning my neck and trying to eavesdrop and find out how old Grandma really was.
"What year were you born in?" The cashier asked.
Grandma leaned forward and whispered, "Nineteen sixteen. One-six."
I remember feeling like I had just uncovered the biggest secret of all time. When we got home I did the math on a piece of paper and figured out how old she was... I think at the time it was around 80. Eighty!! I couldn't believe it. I told my older sister I had found out how old Grandma was and I kept that secret for years and years.
And yesterday, Grandma turned 98. She combed her hair, put on some pearls, slipped into her high heels, and held tight to my dad's arm as he led her into the restaurant where we celebrated her life.
My Grandma and I have always been especially close. My Grandpa died when I was a baby and I don't remember him at all, but Grandma tells me about him all the time and I know I would have had a special relationship with him, too. I used to call Grandma every single day and tell her about what I learned that day or which friend I was going to play with that afternoon, and she was always interested in what I was doing. Growing up we would go to her house every single Sunday for lunch and "family time." Grandma often tells me about how I used to always want to sit on her lap while we ate and how my dad was against that, "because if you let her sit on your lap now, she'll always want to do it!" Jokes on you, Dad, I sit in my own chair now.
When the church service was over I would run up to her and ask if she had any gum for me. Grandma always had Bubbleicious bubble gum (which is the BEST kind) in the outside zippered pocket. Then I would ride to her house with her, asking to hear stories the whole way.
Tell me the story of when my dad had a fly in his mouth!
Tell me the story of when you stood on your clarinet case and broke your clarinet!
Tell me the story of when Aunt Janet got bitten by a horse!
And she would. She would tell me stories during the drive, and I never tired of hearing them. Especially the ones that involved my dad being less than a perfect angel. I used to sit in the passenger seat and tell Grandma, "One day when I'm old enough, I'll be driving you home from church and telling you stories!" When that day came it was completely surreal, and I'll admit I got a little choked up.
I remember one day, sitting in the dining room with her while everybody else was off doing their own thing, and we just talked and talked about everything. I don't remember how old I was, but I don't think I was older than 12 or 13. When we were finished talking I looked at Grandma and said, "We just had a real conversation!" I remember being enamored with what had just happened because instead of one of us telling the other some stories, we shared ideas and opinions and I felt like she really cared about what I was saying.
Sometimes, when my parents would go out of town, my siblings and I would spend the night at Grandma's house. She would always make me an egg salad sandwich (cut into triangles), and let me eat all the popsicles I wanted. Seriously. Like, one time I ate an entire box of 36 popsicles and Grandma didn't even care (my metabolism was incredible back then). Grandma had cable, so I could watch all the shows I couldn't at home, like Scooby-Doo, The Jetsons, Full House, and Murder, She Wrote. She would let me eat cheese and crackers and stay up as late as I wanted, and the next day when I finally crawled out of bed at the crack of noon, she would take me outside with her to refill her bird feeders, water the plants, and clean and refill the bird bath. Grandma loves her birds and her flowers. And elephant figurines, but only if the trunks are up (if they're down it's bad luck THE MORE YOU KNOW).
Grandma used to be a beautician in Beverly Hills, and she used to cut my hair and my younger sister's hair for us. She'd do it in her bathroom, and when I'd ask her to "just make it a liiiiittle shorter ... yeah a little shorter ... nope, shorter please," she'd remind me that it would be shorter once it was dry and I'd regret asking her to cut so much off.
She was right. But she pretended to believe me when I said I was glad it was so short.
As Grandma has gotten older she's become less and less capable of doing things for herself. About ten years ago my aunt decided to move back in with her so Grandma wouldn't have to be alone all day and all night. It had gotten to the point where it was hard for Grandma to take care of the house and make all of the meals herself, and she needed help. It was no longer safe for her to be alone or to drive, so she had to give up her independence. And that has been hard on her.
My office is about 5 minutes away from my Grandma's house, so on twice a week I go see her for lunch. It's always bittersweet, because the Grandma I visit now isn't the same Grandma I remember. Instead of Grandma bustling about the kitchen making the perfect egg salad sandwich, she sits in her chair while her shaking hands slowly lift her coffee cup to her mouth. Instead of her having plate full of food in front of her, I try and convince her to let me boil her an egg or a hot dog. Instead of Grandma telling me the same stories over and over again because I've asked her to, Grandma tells me the same stories over and over again because she doesn't remember that she's already told them. And then Grandma will look at me and say, "Tell me a story, even if it's not true." And I'll try, but I'm usually just thinking about how our interactions are so much the opposite of what they used to be. And instead of Grandma taking me outside to feed the birds and water the plants, I put peanuts on the window railing so Grandma can see the birds from her chair without having to go outside ... because it's too much effort for her to go outside just to see the birds anymore.
Most things are too much effort for Grandma right now, and that's hard to watch. It's hard to watch the Grandma who used to be in charge of Thanksgiving dinner barely be able to stand long enough to mix the corn starch with the turkey drippings to make the gravy. It's hard to watch the Grandma who used to play the piano and clarinet with such nimble fingers barely be able to hold a pen to do the New York Times crossword puzzle. But most of all, it's hard to spend time with Grandma and wonder if this is the last memory I'll have with her.
Ever since Grandma turned 90 it's like we've been preparing for her death. At every holiday there has been an understanding that, this might be Grandma's last Christmas/birthday/Easter/etc so we have to make it extra special! But the only reason we've had that feeling is because Grandma is old. She doesn't have any health problems. She takes a pill to regulate her blood pressure, but she doesn't have any actual health concerns. She's just old, and frail, and forgetful sometimes. And I think that's really hard for her. She can't accept that she can't do the things she used to, and it frustrates her that she can't blame her lack of energy on anything but age. It frustrates her that she can't do the things she used to, and I know every time I refill her water glass for her or offer to fix her a sandwich I'm reminding her of everything she can't do for herself.
My Grandma has taught me a lot in the 25 years I've known her, like how to make the best frosting in the world, how to make the gravy at Thanksgiving, and the difference between a blue jay and a bluebird (Jays are bigger, FYI). But the last few years, she's taught me the importance of attitude and perspective in life. She has taught me that if you look at your life and only see the things you can't do and the things you don't have, you'll be miserable. It's easy to focus on the negatives, but it's also dangerous. Grandma and I talk a lot about dwelling on the negatives, and how much better it is to think about the positives. Imagine if everybody dwelled only on their inabilities rather than their abilities? What kind of world would we live in?
I don't want to spend every day wondering if it's the last day I'll see or talk to Grandma. So instead of dwelling on the what if? I will be thankful that I have had so much time with her. I will be grateful for the things she can do. I will cherish every moment, I will take pictures, I will ask her questions I've never asked before, and most of all, I will never miss an opportunity to tell her how much I love her.