She was my grandmother, and I miss her

Story by Emily Hoover, Co-Editor in Chief

One of my first memories comes from a nursing home.
I must have been four or so, and every time I bring it up, whatever family member I’m talking to asserts that I can’t possibly remember.
But I do.
My grandmother, my dad’s mother, was my caretaker from the time I was born until I was three; she stopped only because pancreatic cancer forced her into a hospital, and later, a long succession of nursing homes.One of the later homes was an “assisted-living.” This meant she had her own apartment, and could walk down to the cafeteria for her meals. One of my strongest memories of her came from the first and only time I ever visited the cafeteria.
The room is dark; there is a main light, but my grandmother prefers lamps.
I sit in her lap, in a recliner on the “living room” side.
Judge Judy is muted on the TV in front of us.
Mamaw leans down and whispers that I am her sweetie-pie.
The way he has a million times before, my father, sitting a little further away, goes, “WHAT did you just say?”

I begin giggling; I know this game. It signals that everything is still normal.

“I was just telling Emmy”–she pulls me tighter to her chest– “that I’d made a chocolate pie the other day.”

“Really? So you weren’t calling her some AWFUL nickname? Where did this chocolate pie go, exactly?”
“It’s in the freezer.” Straight face, no intonation, and then she looks down at me and winks. I nod solemnly, before erupting into giggles again.
“Oh. Well…I guess that’s all right then.” He sniffs as though he’s conceded something.
I lean against my grandmother and ignore her “serious” conversation with my father.
I fit well against her, we both are skin and bones–me young and lean and she old and fragile. Her skin is papery and thin, but I ignore it; it is a part of her the way my dark eyes are a part of me. There has never been anything else.
She nudges me up and we head to the cafeteria.
I’m excited to see the cafeteria; it’s down a long, wide hallway, that I’ve created wonderful fantasies about. Anything can be at the end of that hallway. Anything.
It’s disappointing, to say the least.
We have plastic trays and honest-to-goodness cafeteria food, which I’m not used to.
The room smells like old spaghetti, hot plastic trays, and cough syrup.
But, worst of all, there are these strange-looking old people everywhere.
Most of them sit at tables and stare off into the distance; those that are walking step with slow, uncertain movements, as though their legs are no longer a part of their body, and they have to wait for the response.
They stare at me, unabashed, with tired, knowing eyes, and all of my excitement drains away.
Those sitting with us try to speak to me, but I can’t concentrate on their words. Instead, I watch their hands, clenched tight against their trays, with discolored age spots raised in sharp definition, and try to ignore their eyes, which have a filmy, inhuman look.
I feel invaded; the staring, the deliberation, and the smell I don’t think I’ll ever escape. It is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
Because I don’t know what to do, because I’m uncomfortable (which is rare), I stare at my tray and ignore everything, even as my grandmother speaks kindly to everyone around her, friend or not, and tries to introduce me.
After a short lunch, we walk Mamaw back to her room, and leave.
Walking through the parking lot, my father tells me that she’s moving again. This upsets me; every time Mamaw moves, the nursing home itself seems more depressing, and she seems weaker, smaller.
I argue with him.
She shouldn’t be moved; she’s fine; she likes it here, I’ve heard her say it!
I’m 4. He’s 37.
I lose.

A year later, she’s in a nursing home that looks like a well-kept hospital.
I hate it.
I avoid it at all costs, and in the last year, I’ve probably only seen her four or five times.
But today, Dad says we have to go. So I have no choice.
Walking down the hallway, I want to run away.
There is so much pain here, so much heaviness, that I think it is going to knock me over.
I can’t breathe this air, somehow, without wanting to cry.
On top of the atmosphere, everything is sterile. Everything is gleaming; so clean that it hurts your brain to look at.
Sterile pain, as though the two should ever be combined.
It more than depresses me, it smothers me.
We make it to my grandmother’s room, which should be a double.
The curtain has been pushed back, because her roommate—who used to talk and laugh with me—has been gone since the last time I visited.
The one before that was only there a few months.
The bed is made up, the flimsy blanket covering the mattress, and I refuse to go onto that side of the room.
Instead, I stand behind my father and pray that we can leave soon.
Today, Mamaw is in a mood that I haven’t seen in months and months.
All of a sudden, she has all of her strength back; all the weakness that has consistently gotten worse for the last two years is gone.
She eats all of her lunch—lately she hasn’t been eating at all.
And she’s in a wonderful mood.
She wants to sing with me; she’s taught me gospels, and one of her favorite things is to sing about the Lord.
She hasn’t sung in forever, and I’m surprised. She really expects me to sing in this place?
But my dad nods to me that I should, and so I do.
We even get my brother Robert to sing a few, even though he’s only two.
After a few songs, I look imploringly at my father.
Haven’t we been here long enough? Shouldn’t we be leaving?
I’m having my normal reaction to this place—only about a hundred times worse. I’m completely freaked out, and I need to leave, immediately.

Anyway, can’t he see that Mamaw’s getting better? Maybe she’s getting over whatever has her so sick. So we can just come back SOME OTHER TIME…

Finally, he announces that it’s time to go.

One more song. We still need to sing “I’ll Fly Away.” It’s her favorite; it’s a song I’ve known since I could speak.

It seems to go on forever. Finally, it’s over. We all give her a quick hug, and then we’re out of there.

As soon as we get outside and I get a few gulps of fresh air, I’m ashamed of myself. Not enough that I turn around and go back inside, but enough that I feel bad.

Oh, well. We’ll just stay longer next time.

My father picks me up from school the next day. He doesn’t sound right. He says he “has something really sad to tell me”.

I’m still looking out the window, half-listening.

“Mamaw died early this morning…”

I try to look at him, but of course I can only see a little of his face.

That’s not possible…

She was just getting better….

I burst into tears.

A few days later, I’m sitting at her funeral.

I haven’t cried yet, and I really, really don’t want to.

But then my aunt gets up to sing.

And she starts “I’ll Fly Away”

“Some glad morning, when this life is o’er

I’ll fly away

To a land on God’s celestial shore

I’ll fly away

I’ll fly away, oh glory,

I’ll fly away,

In the morning,

When I die, Hallelujah, bye and bye

I’ll fly away”

I cry the whole way through.

My grandmother died when I was five.

People ask me if I remember her, and I say sort of, and they assume that I really don’t.

But I do.

And not just because there’s a picture of her, set against a picture of me, on a bookshelf in my room, because “Emily, you just look so much like her when she was your age!”

And not just because she gave me her name; Mary Kathryn to Emily Kathryn.

And not just because I’ve heard stories about how good she was, and how sweet and how smart.

No, I remember her because she’s not someone you forget.

Because every time “I’ll Fly Away” comes on, I know the first verse.

Because every time I have to go to a nursing home, I want to turn around and run away, but I won’t let myself.

Because every time I remember, I cry.

Because she was my grandmother. And I miss her.