You Can Walk Anywhere You Want


I flew to Iowa to visit my grandmother in the hospital a couple weeks ago. She’s been in and out of hospitals for the past few months, kind of one thing after another, the latest being a dental infection. I got off the plane in Des Moines, rented a car and drove straight to the hospital, where she was in bed, the right side of her face swollen up around the infection, IV drip in her arm.

I sat with her for three days, leaving when she went to sleep at night and took naps in the afternoon, but mostly we just sat and chatted like we always do. I ran across the street a couple times to get her milkshakes and real coffee from the coffee shop a block away. She only drank a few sips of it, but it didn’t matter. If it was between hospital coffee and espresso, I thought she should have espresso.

We went for short walks up and down the hallway, Grandma apologizing for how slow she was going, shuffling with her walker in front of her, and me telling her that she was the fastest 85-year-old lady I’d hung out with, plus I didn’t have anything else to do that day anyway. I have about a dozen deadlines and a million e-mails, but only one grandparent. Sitting there in the chair next to the hospital bed, helping her in and out of the chair, cutting up her food, I wondered how many more times I’d get to spend the whole day with my grandma, just me and her.

My grandma knows I live in a van and that I’m a writer, and I don’t think she cares what I do as long as I’m happy. She doesn’t read my blog, or care too much about rock climbing and mountains, and she knows I travel a lot, but I don’t think she cares where — I think she sees me in one of two locations: in person, and at the other end of the phone line wherever I call her from.

While I was visiting her in the hospital, I was supposed to talk her into moving into an assisted living home five minutes from my parents’ house, where she’d have her own apartment and her seven kids would be able to visit more frequently. I tried a little bit. Her other option was a nursing home in her hometown, and she liked that idea better, despite the wishes of all of her kids. She’s lived in the same town, Emmetsburg, Iowa, pop. 4,000, her entire life, and in the same house since 1956. She’s not going to be able to go back to her house, but she doesn’t want to leave Emmetsburg, where she raised seven children, and outlived almost every single one of her friends.

When we talked about the assisted living home, she said across the hospital table, “Brendan, I don’t want to go somewhere I don’t know anyone.”

I said Grandma, I go everywhere, and I don’t know anybody.

Which is a stupid thing to say to your grandmother when you’re a young guy who loves to travel, and she’s talking about leaving the same house she raised a family in for 30-plus years, and then lived in alone for 26 years. She said, I mean, Can you imagine me leaving the only place I’ve ever lived? and I understood how scared she is.

I’ve had something like 23 different addresses in my life, and every time I moved out of another apartment, I had a little twinge of nostalgia, a little sadness as I closed the door on all the emptied-out rooms I’d made memories in. My grandma had to multiply that feeling times 66 years. Driving away from the hospital, I realized Grandma and I were both talking about freedom, even though it looks wildly different to each of us. She doesn’t want to live anyplace where people tell her what to do, and I suppose I’m kind of doing the same right now.

I guess we like to point out the traits we get from the people who raised us, how we’re like our people — I was raised on spicy food; my family’s always been Cardinals fans; we never back down, et cetera. I’ve spent most of my life rebelling against everything I grew up with, but I get it. When you’re 85, like my grandma, people say you’re stubborn. I think I’m just like her, but I call it driven. I fancy myself to be pretty tough, able to get myself out of any jam in the mountains with sheer perseverance. My grandma doesn’t care if anybody thinks she’s tough, but she fell and broke her hip five years ago, and walked around her house for three days thinking it was just bruised before she went to get an x-ray. My family, both sides, has never been shy about busting people’s balls, no matter the situation. It’s a true art, and I have a hard time relating to people who don’t know how to do it. My Uncle Dan, on Grandma’s second day in the hospital, told her, “Mom, we’re so optimistic, we’re gonna buy you some green bananas.”

We walked down the hallway one evening, just me and Grandma, past a few open doors of hospital rooms, and she apologized again for being slow, and I just walked next to her with my hands in my pockets and assured her I wasn’t in a hurry to go anywhere. She said Brendan, I bet you can walk anywhere you want, and I said Yeah Grandma, I guess I can. I thought about all the places I had walked, like the top of the Grand Teton and the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and I don’t know why my grandma had to say something like that hunched over her walker and shuffling along in a hospital gown and why it made me so sad.

Last Christmas, after I hugged her goodbye, she grabbed my hand with both hands, taking one more second. That was the first time she’d ever done that, and I walked out the door of my parents’ house wondering if she did because she wasn’t sure if it was the last time she’d see me. It wasn’t, of course, but I guess you never know when you get to be 85.

Someday she’ll be gone, and then I’ll be a wreck for a while, but I suppose after that, I’ll find a few good places to think of her when I’m out there being stubborn and walking anywhere I want.


32 replies on “You Can Walk Anywhere You Want

  • Matt Hoffmann

    Thank you for this post. I teared up a little bit sitting at work reading it.

    I’m lucky enough that I get to see both my Grandmas (93 and 91) multiple times a week ever since I was little. I always tell them about my climbing days, about travelling, about how beautiful the sunsets in Indian Creek are and how excited I am to get back up to Squamish to work on some projects. They just smile and say something that only Grandmas can say. It’s times like those I think about how I don’t know anything. I just keep trying to learn and make my Grandmas smile.

  • Aaron F

    I wish I lived closer to my grandmother in Shellrock Iowa. She is 92 years old, still lives on a 6 acre farmstead, rents out 250 acres of land, and drives to town to have coffee with the ladies. She is a inspiration. Those Iowa farm people are tough folks. Thank you for your story Brenden, it brings a tear to my eye.

  • wansun

    great post. this reminded me of my grandma who passed away several years ago. she was a lover of life, high-spirited yet one of the most grounded people I knew. I miss her terribly.

  • Silas

    So I show up to work this morning:

    First thing someone tells me is the wheel bearing is out on the crew truck.
    then a Crew member calls in sick
    I unload my truck and the crew takes it.

    Next, my ton truck is vibrating at speeds of 45.
    Notice tires are bald. Park it.
    Crew member calls and says his back is hurt and is going home

    Grab an explorer to drive…battery dead.

    Get back into the office and sit down and the dog throws up at my feet.

    But hey the Kids are all alright and I read this great article.

  • Maureen Medeiros

    What a beautiful story, Brendan! I was with my Grandmother and helped her transition to the other side 15-years ago when she was 85. Long story short, when I said good bye to her I hugged her and made her say “ugh”. All my life whenever I hugged her she said “ugh”. I told her I was not leaving until she said “ugh” and she did. I left the hospital and flew from New Jersey to Boston. When I got home my mother called to tell me Grandma passed peacefully right after I left. I said of course she did. She always made me call her when I got home so she would know I was safe. She made sure I got home safe that night and our spiritual connection is still strong and safe. Love, peace, & Namaste

  • db

    Great post. My last grandparent died a few years ago, and he was someone I’d always felt close too. You’re right — when they leave, it tears you up and then your memories of them accompany you.

  • Mark Griffith

    What a great write up. I feel a little bit like those old radio days : “long time listener, first time caller” – I’ve just started reading your blog and love the stuff you produce.

    Keep it up


  • Eric O'Rafferty

    Right on! My grandparents are all gone, but the last to go, my Grandma, reminds me a lot of yours. Both are real gems.

  • Ben Gerig

    Thanks for this Brendan. I just returned from visiting my 85-year-old Grandma as well–it’s good to learn from the wiser generations once in a while!

  • Mark Limage

    Damn Brendan – You make me laugh. You make me cry. Your words hit the nerves. Thanks for capturing life in your own little word jumble. Always a treat to see the new Semi-Rad post in my Yahoo Inbox.

  • Nora

    Thanks Brendan! I didn’t, tear up at all!!!! It was absolutely beautiful. You have a relationship with grandma just like I had with mine. I think abou.t her everyday!! you would have enjoyed her too!

  • Ann

    Thanks for sharing this. It sounds like your grandmother is an incredible woman. I love that she supports you no matter what. I love even more that you return that favor.

    • Kendall

      I couldn’t agree more. I would buy said coffee table book. Great post Brendan, puts things in perspective quite well. Something to be said about slowing down so we don’t miss the important things…and especially the important people.

  • Dave Sandel

    Amen, brotha. My 3 grandparents are 89 and older. They keep saying and doing subtle things, such as the grasping with two hands and holding mine just a moment longer, that I pick up on.

    Nearly kills me everytime.

    Seems like saying, “I love you” is so insignificant to what we’re truly feeling inside. Yet, there’s very little you can do to portray your actual feelings.

    It’s very saddening to know that everytime I walk out that door, just as you do, we are both wondering the same thing: is this the last time?

  • Korynn Underwood

    I loved this piece. I think you were sad when your grandma said “You can walk anywhere you want” because she could no longer. But you walked with her literally and figuratively, and understood her desire to not move. It’s hard. (P.S. I work with your aunt!)

  • Will Power

    Your writing is usually so funny and clever and inspiring. This is none of those things, but some of your best work yet.

  • Karen O'Dougherty

    As I begin to be with my aging parents this helps me understand more of there perspective. I have come to see their “stubbornness” is what drives them to keeping doing what it is they love to do. My worries and wishes are mine, not theirs. Heck , my Dad talks about “the old guys” he play golf with. He’s 84. He truly is walking wherever he wants.

  • claire

    Thank you for sharing your hospital journey with your grandma. During my lifetime, I have hiked mountains, sailed oceans, traveled the world, walked hundreds of miles, and made hospital vigils for loved ones. Of them all, the most difficult was sitting with my loved one in the hospital. (I worked all my life as a nurse). I never resented my time with them….I cherished it…but, I did fear for our changing futures. Thank you for the gift of your lovely writing and an even lovlier story. You are a precious gift to your grandma.

  • doug moore

    Thanks Brendan, that was really nice. One year – I think it was back in 2005 or so – I had gobs of vacation time and made a bunch of special trips to visit Gr and Gr (as I called them). Just me and them. Wow, the conversations were often profound. They’ve both passed on now, but gave Gramps a tribute here:

    For all you whippersnappers out there, take some time from being so awesome on the mountain, and visit your Grandma or Gramps. Listen to their stories – you will be soooooo glad you did.

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