Friday, March 11, 2011

Grand Rapids, Michigan

Great Grandma Jenks and her first garden (Grandpa always grew them before)
Grandma in her garden (my sister's photograph)

My grandmother sleeps this evening a floor above me, in my aunt’s day room, hooked up to oxygen and a catheter. She’s on three kinds of morphine, but still sometimes grimaces with pain in her sleep, when she feels the tumor pressing against the tender tissue of her lung. Last night, I made her boneless skinless chicken breast and potatoes for dinner. She looked up at me, smiled, and asked, “Is this one of your gourmet meals?” She ate every bite. Food has always been her favorite thing, and she’s keeping that joy till the end.

Tonight my grandfather sleeps five miles away, in the special care unit of a nursing home. He’s hale as a horse at 92, but his mind is slipping. Today, as I joined him for his lunch, he repeated the story of the flight he’s scheduled to make to California tomorrow, to speak to first the entire country, and then the entire world. He shook his head at the difficulty of it. “I just don’t think I’m qualified,” he said. “I don’t want to embarrass the president. I don’t want to make a fool of myself.”

The irony did not escape me. He was so concerend with not embarassing himself, as he was revealing his most vulnerable side to me, his granddaughter. I drew him back around to topics I knew he could manage—his garden of forty years, the farmstead where he grew up, stories from the boat. He asked me why I wasn’t married yet. “I’m an independent woman, Grandpa,” I said.

They’re both fading. I’m mentally preparing for this trip to be the last time I see both of them. I could be wrong—I hope so—but in some ways I know they’re preparing for their departure. My grandma asks her pastor why it’s taking so long, and I understand that, too. I don’t want her to end her life of faithfulness with excruciating suffering.

I’m glad to be communing with them at the end of their lives, but I prefer to remember them the last time I saw them at their own house. Grandma cooked a vast feast for a group of us, me, cousins, and assorted children—wilted chard, zucchini bread, sliced raw tomatoes, and blanched green beans with butter. Along with, of course, a ham and scalloped potatoes. An everyday meal in her house. Four ingredients from her own garden, and this was only two years ago. The cancer was already growing in her body.

Grandpa has a picture of that garden, from that year, on the wall in his nursing home. He stands, with a straw hat, between the cabbage and tomatoes. Maybe someday, when I’m eighty, someone will take a photograph of me, standing between my rows of cabbage and tomatoes. And I hope that at the moment that photograph is taken, I remember both of my grandparents, and this day.

No comments: