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.