We called her Grandma, and I think she liked it. Even when we were at each other’s throats, I never called her anything but Grandma. I took care of her for three years, my mother-in-law and I tag teaming it for everything you could think of to keep a human alive. We all lived in the same apartment complex, and my MIL actually had a baby monitor in her apartment so we could keep listening for Grandma even when we weren’t there. Her family didn’t really want to have that much to do with her, just wanted to write checks and not think about her rotting away in that apartment down the street. We bathed, fed, dressed, medicated, and entertained Grandma. We smoothed lotion on her face and scrubbed her hair in the shower. Towards the end, she had a hospital bed in the living room where we did everything, sponge baths and diaper changes. It’s amazing how close you can get to a person. I knew her body more intimately than I know my own; every wrinkle, every age spot. She was cantankerous, to say the least, and had her own opinions on everything from how big my pants were to how lesbians had sex. Sometimes she would get her mind set on refusing to do anything, and would completely bulk. No matter what we did, she would sit, unmoving, staring at us with those watery blue eyes. It could take her up to an hour to put on a sweatshirt and a pair of pants; God she was the slowest person that I have ever met. She would sit in her chair, completely naked, alternately dozing off and listening intently to figure out what I was making in the kitchen for her breakfast. I kissed her good night every night and greeted her every morning. Sometimes we would fight, she would get so infuriating, and she would take her arthritic finger and shake it in my face, giving me a piece of her mind. She told me that she used to have red hair, and that’s what made her have such a temper. I told her that she would never die because she was too mean, and she laughed and laughed. When I was pregnant, I was sick every day and carried a trash can wherever I went. I would throw up and she would stare at me, waiting until I was done, and then resume whatever it was she was doing without ever commenting on the puking. When I had the baby I took him over to her house with me, and she loved it. She would always tell me he was too fat, called him a “buster.” I would let her hold him on her lap while I hovered around her, always anxious that she may drop him, but she never did. We got her a cat to keep her company when we weren’t there, and she tormented him until he ran away. Her favorite things were cardinals and food, so on her birthday we would get her doughnuts and put a candle in it, and then something with a picture of a cardinal on it. I had to take care of those dumb bird feeders for her when she wasn’t able to get outside anymore; she always liked to watch the birds. She had the worst personal hygenie of any person I’ve ever met, especially from a woman. We had to nag her constantly to brush her hair, wash her face, wipe the crumbs off her mouth. After dinner she would take her false teeth out and lick them. Her glasses were always smudged with God knows what and she refused to clean them.
At the end, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Given her age, the doctor said there was no use doing anything for her and to just let her go comfortably. We got a hospital bed for the living room and had hospice start coming to the house. She had a tumor in her breast that actually excised itself from her body, so she ended up with a huge gaping hole in her breast that we had to pack and sterilize every day, and oh God I will never forget the smell of that rotting skin. Hospice gave us morphine to give her, and then she stopped eating. I went away on vacation, knowing that she probably wouldn’t be there when I got back. And she waited; waited until my mother-in-law ran to the store, I was on vacation, and the hospice worker was in the kitchen… that’s when she took her last breath. I never got to say good-bye, but I know that she knew how much I loved her. At her funeral, my mother-in-law and I sat in the back and bawled, the only ones crying at the whole ceremony. I got to keep some of her dishes and a curio cabinet that her husband made her. My mother-in-law also got some kitchen stuff. We gave her daughter all the cardinals.
Every once in a while I will be having a hard time and I’ll see a flash of red out of the corner of my eye, and I know, that’s Grandma saying hi. Whenever I see a cardinal, I say hi back.