Wednesday, July 27, 2016


I wrote a short essay about my grandmother when I was a senior in high school. It was titled "Grandma's Last Dance" and it described the gradual decline I had witnessed in her during my 17 years of life. The small things. She was quieter, perhaps not as vocal, as active, as sharp. When I wrote that essay, she was only 65 - so old in the eyes of a 17 year old and yet so young to me now. Grandma at 65. Still driving, still walking, still dressing herself. Still cooking and talking and laughing. Still taking care of everyone around her. Still so young.

It is now 20 years later. How could I have written "Grandma's Last Dance" back then and left nothing for now? If her last dance was 20 years ago, what is happening now? What is this? Her last cry? Her last stumble? Her last desperate plea? What is this? Who is this woman?

It all started with her hands. I stood next to her hospital bed, cutting up the turkey sausage and scrambled eggs, getting ready to feed her breakfast. Grandma was fidgeting as always, touching this, grabbing that, nearly tipping over the plate of food into her towel-covered lap. Suddenly, she stopped and looked at her hands. She looked at them in amazement, as if she had never noticed them before, or as if she didn't recognize them. She didn't.

"How ugly!" she cried out, a look of horror and astonishment on her always dramatic face. "These hands. . .so ugly."

I stopped cutting up her food and looked. I looked at her hands. Fingers thin with large, arthritic joints. Skin like paper, so thin, so fragile, barely covering veins and bones. Bruises, dark and angry, overlapped on top of each other, some fading and faint and some new and alive. Brown blotches scattered like sad polka-dots. Bumps and scars and band-aids from multiple blood draws. A plastic IV line snaking up one wrist.

I looked at her hands. I saw hands sprinkled with baby powder from changing diapers on five babies all born within 6 years. Hands spattered with cooking grease from the hundreds of pot roasts cooked for Sunday dinners (with never enough gravy to go around). Hands dry and cracked from cleaning and scrubbing and bathing and caring for everyone around her and rarely for herself. Hands splattered with paint and varnish from refurnishing the antiques she loved and bought and sold. Hands moving across paper as she took notes at Cornell, the only woman in a microbiology lecture hall full of men. Hands sunburned from haying on the farm where she was born and grew up. Hands ink-stained from drawing in high school, back when dreams of being an artist or fashion designer filled her head. Hands that had comforted me a thousand times. Grandma's hands.

"You're hands are beautiful", I told her, grasping her cold fingers in my warm hands. "They are beautiful."

I looked at her, the old woman in the bed. Tiny, withered, white hair falling limp across her forehead. Arms and legs a bit contracted, head and neck always leaning toward the left. Small enough that I could lift her, hold her, as she once held me. I searched for my grandmother, for the woman I once knew. I searched.


"What is something special about her?", the nurse asked, as she perfunctorily filled out the white board hanging on the wall, carefully writing her name and phone extension, the date, the plan for the day ("control pain" and "get x-rays") and then paused, her black dry erase marker hovering over the box where she had to write something special about each patient. I had no voice. I was frozen. I could not think of a thing for her to write in that little square. A summary of a life in a small box. What is special about her? What is the one thing that she would want them to know?

"She yodels", I finally said, surprised as I heard the words come out of my mouth. The nurse turned and looked at me, a funny look on her face. "Yodels?" she asked, wrinkling her nose, "how do you spell that?" turning back to the board.

Grandma yodels. It is family lore, it is something unique, it was a sound heard throughout my childhood. Grandma loved to yodel. When she was younger her voice would rise like a summer sun, warm and bright, breaking to hit those high notes. She couldn't sing, couldn't carry a tune, but oh she could yodel.

She still can. She remembers. She yodeled for the nurse who took it in wide-eyed, not expecting to hear the clear, loud notes come from the tiny, confused woman. She yodeled for a minute, then stopped and closed her eyes. Tired. Enough.

She wanted me to sit where she could see me, she wanted to know I was there. She would lightly doze, occasionally opening her eyes to make sure I was still there before absently smiling and returning to sleep. Sometimes, however, this made her angry, seeing me sitting there. She would suddenly rise up in bed, with the strength of  a wild animal, and scream at me to "get out! get out! you stupid fool, get out of here!" and she would throw off her blankets, shake the bed rails and shriek maniacally. Sometimes she would grab my hand and tell me they were coming to get us and I had to run, run, run! And sometimes she would grab my arm and squeeze it hard, digging her nails into my skin, trying to hurt me, her lips pressed tightly together with the effort, her hand shaking with rage before dropping limply to her side. She would look at me with pure hatred on her face, and then the expression would be gone and only confusion would remain. Then, sometimes, she would lay back on the pillow and allow streams of words to spill from her mouth. . .beautiful nonsensical poetry:

"The flies, the flies they come today. . .why do they come and fly away. . ."

"The dreams they dance on the plate like flowers. . ."

And, once in a while, she would turn to me and say:

"I love you so much" or "Why don't you love me anymore?" or "Will you love me for all time?"

When she got too angry, too distressed, too scared of the people who were coming to get her, we listened to music on my phone, we listened to the old tunes she loved with the the words that she still knew:

Make the world go away
And get it off my shoulders
Say the things you used to say
And make the world go away
Do you remember when you loved me
Before the world took me astray?
If you do, then forgive me
And make the world go away
Make the world go away
And get it off my shoulders
Say the things you used to say
And make the world go away
I'm sorry if I hurt you
I'll make it up day by day
Just say you love me like you used to
And make the world go away.

Make the world go away
And get it off my shoulders
Say the things you used to say
And make the world go away

And then other times nothing would calm her, nothing would distract her, and the rage would build and build until a nurse would come in with a little paper cup. Sometimes.

She couldn't understand her pain, her inability to move that left leg. She would stare at her leg, muttering "come on! come on!" under her breathe as strained to move it. She would fling back her blankets and start to swing her good leg over the bed side before being restrained by that leg, that dead weight, that just wouldn't move. She didn't understand.

She didn't understand all the people, all wanting to touch and poke and prod and hurt her. The constant needles, always more blood to draw, more IVs to start. "Such small veins!" they would all sigh as they poked at her thin forearms, before attempting and failing to place the needle. Moving her in bed was an ordeal. She hurt, she didn't want to move, she didn't want to turn, she didn't want us to clean her, change her, help her. The screams. The desperate panic. The moaning and begging to stop hurting her. How many times I have heard this as a nurse, how many times it has caused me pain. This time it breaks my heart.

"Why do you keep hurting me?" she asked through tears, looking straight into my eyes. I would leave the room for a minute and when I had come back in she had forgotten about the pain. The pain I had caused as I had lifted her broken leg onto a pillow or adjusted her body so she wouldn't get a pressure sore. I would stroke her hair, pull her blankets close around her shoulders. Touch her with love. No pain. Please don't associate my touch with pain.

I found myself calling her "baby" without meaning to, calling her "baby" like I call my son when he is crying or hurt. "Don't call me 'baby', I'm a big boy!" he always says defiantly, but Grandma would just nod her head and smile.

I never noticed before that her nose is crooked. I never noticed until I spent hours watching her sleep, watching her face slowly sink further and further into the mountain of pillows surrounding her. Her nose is crooked, bending slightly toward the right. Her cheeks are still smooth, smooth and soft at 85. She has a small patch of stiff, white hairs poking out of her chin - not a lot, just a few, maybe eight. I count them. I watch her chest rise and fall, so slowly, as she sleeps. The loose skin of her neck moves gently with each breathe. I watched her sleep.

Grandma's last dance. It wasn't her last dance, all those years ago, it wasn't even close. She still dances, even with a broken hip and a broken mind, she still dances. I searched for my grandmother in the tiny old woman laying in that hospital bed and I found parts of her, pieces all mixed together. Still the passion, the voice, the smile. The strong hands. The flaws. The absolute beauty. Her music is still playing. She is still dancing. . .even though she doesn't always realize it.