Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. –Rabindrana Tagore
I drove north on Interstate 95, under Cat Mousam Road overpass and over Nonesuch River, took the exit to Topsham and then Route 9 on to Lisbon Falls. I drove 164 miles from New Bedford, Massachusetts, to visit my maternal grandmother before she died. I traveled alone. My sister Susan had called late Wednesday night to tell me that Nana wasn’t doing well; the doctor didn’t expect her to make it through the week. I cancelled plans and rearranged schedules to free up the weekend for my visit to Maine. Along with a change of clothes, I also packed what I called my ‘adult clothes’, serious, respectfully sedate clothes, clothes that would please my mother’s sense of protocol for the occasion. I didn’t know if this visit would be extended into a funeral and I was trying to be practical. I-wonder-ifs and how-do-I-act-when’s sat heavy in the empty passenger seat; scary questions with uneasy answers. Trying to anticipate what to expect I envisioned my grandmother in bed, coherent but deathly ill, surrounded by great-grandchildren, grandchildren, and distraught grown distraught children. I imagined the hushed greetings, the hugs and tears, the smiles and nervous chatter. Who said that TV reality-series don’t prepare you for what life throws at you?
Recalling the gathering of family eight years ago for Nana’s 80th birthday celebration, I found myself getting nostalgic. Everyone at the party realized that Nana wouldn’t live forever and any opportunity that brought relatives together without mourning was welcomed. Cousins joined together to share cherished memories of Nana’s holubky (stuffed cabbage leaves), wild mushroom soup with lechcky (homemade egg noodles cut in quarter inch squares), poppy seed and nut rolls, kielbasi sausage freshly stuffed by the Slovak parish men folk, simmered and served coiled on Nana’s finest china. We remembered Nana’s enthusiastic spring-cleaning, and her reverent passions for Mass, baseball and ice hockey, in that order. Handed-down stories of Nana’s haunted back stairs, crooked third floor window, the “burned-out” 2nd floor back room, were embellished; tales created by older cousins for younger generations to recount to their children. Aunts and Uncles boasted about Nana’s grandchildren’s accomplishments and compared careers; gossip about life styles filled the festive air.
My grandmother is a no-nonsense type of person. She was not happy being feted for living 80 years; she was uncomfortable with words of praise and congratulations. She did not think her years on earth remarkable. In short, she saw little reason to celebrate her living with a shrinking independence, limited mobility, and an impending future of burden for her children. Nana wished to die and each day greeted her with the curse of seeing it through. She felt that she had outlived her purpose on earth and it was indeed time to move on to better things, to go on to her heavenly reward. Eight years later found Nana a prisoner of her strong beating heart and Slovak constitution. Nana’s will to live vacillated and the family made plans to gather again.
I always thought that Nana’s face wore a mysterious smile. Like that of DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, her smile was inward. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that she wasn’t smiling at all. I realize that I don’t know my grandmother all that well; she is a cipher. All I really know about my grandmother has been divined from childhood observations. I have spent most of my visits to her house trying to make her laugh but her wizened face knows all as she says her legendary words, “Go on with you!” These few words had the power of taking the wind out of your sails if you needed to have your feet firmly replanted back on the ground. Conversely, they also had the ability to set you sailing with well-deserved praise. Nana always knew what you needed. Nothing amazed my grandmother more than the world’s foolish pursuit of happiness. Silliness and idleness were not tolerated in her house; hard work was commended, even lauded to the highest degree. Nana truly believed that there was a time for everything and everything in its time under the heavens. Nana was pragmatic; she was put on this Earth to marry and raise children. Although she didn’t have a high diploma, she could diagnose a multitude of illnesses. She was literate in two languages and offered advice in Slovak as well as English. It could be argued that she hardly ever looked completely content, determined would be what I would call the set of her jaw, and she had that “show-me state” attitude that compelled you to work harder trying to please her.
Nana was a whirlwind cleaning dynamo, dust bunnies feared her, laundry bowed to her stain releasing skill, and glass became invisible with tools as simple as vinegar and old newspapers. It was not unusual to find Nana polishing her third floor windows by fearlessly balancing herself on sills that made you hold your breath until she released her grasp and moved on the next window. Nana’s bed making skills were renown, although she was a Marine mom she could bounce a dime off sheets well before Uncle Norm was conceived. When Susan and I were little girls we would trail Nana around the house on dust patrol with our instruments: dust clothes, feather dusters, Electrolux vacuum attachments, and fluffy wool on long poles. Nana was a taskmaster. Everyday was organized around multiple related jobs that were always wrapped up before teatime in the afternoon. Nana ended every task with a simple “there” a short word that had the power of magic, like poof! or abracadabra! It also had a soothing sound, “t-h-e-r-e” with emphasis on the “th” that has become an unconscious part of my vocabulary. I find myself uttering the word throughout my day, much like umm, ah or clearing your throat. It is sort of like “there, that’s done” or “there, your power over me is useless!”
When I turned the corner onto Nana’s street I knew instantly that she was on the rebound, if one could rebound from kidney failure. In the event I had been met with a lot of cars parked around the house my initial fears would have been confirmed. I parked in front of the house to leave the driveway free if my aunt needed to run an errand. As I pressed the doorbell I peeked through the glass and saw my aunt stuffing her mother’s bed linens into the washer in the laundry area off the side porch, in what Maine folk call ‘the shed’. I wasn’t expected so the look of surprise on my aunt’s face when she turned to answer the doorbell, and on my grandmother’s face when she emerged from the bathroom with her nurse, was heartening. Nana’s surprise was expressed openly, like wonderment on the face of a child, and it warmed me in its glow. She told me that she was better (if only for the moment) without words.
Nana used a walker though my aunt, her full-time caretaker, must supervise her. Aunt Marilyn is Nana’s oldest child and has become her mother’s full-time care provider. Once in a great while Nana will make the effort to walk to the front porch for fresh air but her actual walking range has shrunk considerably from my last visit. Nana shuffles when she walks, she scuffs her feet, scuff, scuff, pushes the walker forward, scuff, scuff, takes two steps and pauses to collect her strength. I think to myself that it must be awfully painful to pick up her feet because she always had bad feet, bunions, corns, burning soles and swollen ankles, ever since I knew her. She would put sole liner in her lace-up shoes to relieve the burning pain. I imagined her feet looked like the bound feet of Chinese girls I read about in the National Geographic magazine. She would cut holes in her old shoes to relieve the pressure on her bunions. Her worse crime was doctoring her own feet (and not wearing correctly sized footwear as a girl). My mother used Nana’s sore feet as example whenever Susan or I wanted a special pair of shoes that pinched or rode our heels. “Do you girls want sore feet like your grandmother?” Mother asked. “Noooo!” we’d quickly reply, choosing an ill favored but better fitting shoe to appease our mother.
Dr. McNally, Nana’s podiatrist, recommended that she wear aerobic sneakers to relieve the pain and strain on her feet. Nana got her first ‘high tech’ sneakers when she was 84 years old. Aunt Marilyn and my mother never thought that their mother would consent to wearing aerobic sneakers but Nana loved them the minute they were laced up! Her daughters presented them as a gift instead of sharing the sneaker’s extravagant price tag with their frugal mother. But every Sunday, much to their consternation, Nana would put aside her sneakers and struggle into her aged, polished, one-inch-heel pumps to slowly walk to mass. I think that her feet knew every stone, rut, and tar patch on her route. Perhaps Nana felt her Sunday shoes were her penance—for what misdeed or thought, I can’t guess.
The homecare visiting nurse settled Nana into her recliner making sure to position her just so. She arranged Nana’s feet on a soft blanket and made sure that the chair is tilted back to prevent Nana from sliding out. Beginning her day reading obituaries Nana clicked her tongue making tutt, tutt sounds as she chronicled the deaths of neighbors and ancient friends. She wished to see her obituary among the funeral notices like a fortuneteller reading tealeaves. Nana tells her priest, when he visits, that she wishes to die. “Why can’t I die now?” she demands of him. She is tired of her swollen legs, open sores, crepe skin, bruises, the embarrassment of incontinence and being washed by her children perched on a stool in the tub. Traveling nurses change her diapers and trim her toenails. She is disgusted at her lack of control: at her kidney’s rebellion, her heart’s stubborn willingness to beat within her chest and cause pain at the same time, her ability to read fine print but inability to read lips. Nana hates the isolation, the long hours stretched between dusk and dawn, filled with endless thoughts and aches. The priest answers conscientiously, “You are spiritually ready to die, Anna, but haven’t reached the hour.” Nana’s God is unmerciful; he tries her patience.
Nana tells me that her feet hurt her something awful. She blames her swollen feet on a pill that she took seven months ago, prescribed by Dr. Philips or Dr. Fairchild, she can’t remember which, for edema. When Aunt Marilyn noticed Nana’s drug reaction she stopped the medication immediately. Whenever Nana sees her doctor she blames him for her kidney failure. And whenever Nana has an audience she informs them that her doctor is a quack and responsible for killing her. “Oh, mother!” Aunt Marilyn calmly rebukes her mother. She turns to tell me, and her mother, that it isn’t true, that she should stop talking that way. She tells me in a loud voice that the doctor prescribed the medicine to help her mother’s circulation and eliminate the toxic waste in her system. Nana bends her head, chided, and falls off to sleep. Aunt Marilyn mentions that Nana doesn’t have her hearing-aide on – that she has been saving her batteries just like she tries to save her pills. It isn’t that she can’t afford her medicine that keeps her frugal, it is the fear of living too long and running out that scares her.
I wish that I could ask my grandmother if she thinks about Grampy, about rejoining him. But I am unable to ask her because I can’t breach this subject; she seems too fragile. She never speaks about my grandfather, dead twenty-three years. Or of her sister that died a few years ago alone in a nursing home, bones as brittle as a birds’ and curled up like a fetus, breathing but miserable, whimpering like a baby whenever she was moved. I want to know if Nana is prepared to go to a place that her faith has built. In her anger at God, Nana has lapsed saying her rosary; her hands remain still in her lap, a sad reminder of their service. I take her hands in mine and mentally note that she still has strength in her fingers. Her fingernails are delicate, beautiful in their shape, perfectly oval with smooth cuticles and white half moons. Her hand is tiny in my hand. I notice the bruises and age spots that mar her skin. Her skin feels dry, papery, like it could rip with little effort. My aunt and I are oafish and clumsy beside her petite figure. I surpassed Nana’s height when I was in sixth grade; Nana is shrinking in her smallness.
I want to know if Nana is frightened of the unknown, of God’s final judgment. I want to know if she is prepared, if she needs anything. I want to know if I can help her. In my need to ask her if she is ready, I realize that I am not ready. I don’t want her to leave; I don’t want my life to change. I don’t want to deal with loss; horrible grief; cold emptiness. Because if I can deal with losing Nana then I will be able to let go of my other dear grandmother and I fully believe that my denial, my raw stubbornness, is keeping my loved ones alive! My grandmother told me that I lacked faith when I was a teenager and she was right. I didn’t even have faith in myself let alone faith in something I couldn’t see or feel. I was and still am searching for wisdom. I can hear Nana say, in a small whispery voice, “Faith is enough.”
July 18, 2010 KBP/revised February 2012