When it came time to make a wish and blow out her candles, my grandmother closed her eyes, muttered, “I got it,” and extinguished them with a sharp sigh. There was the standard, awkward moment where you wait to see if anyone’s bold enough to ask what was wished for. My cousin took the bait.
She sat up straight, looked like her old self for just a fraction of a second, and nodded sharply at the group of us huddled around her beautiful piano cake.
“I want Howard back,” she spat. Her wish hadn’t sounded like a wish at all. More like an order. And for the flutter of a second, I was slightly worried for Death himself, if indeed he refused to hand Howard over.
My grandma, Bonnie, turned 90 years old on January 1st of this year. She insisted that she wanted no parties. No gifts. No dinners. No fuss. And she made my father promise to abide by her wishes. He didn’t.
We postponed any celebrations until February, a time when the cold temperatures are at least tolerable in northern Illinois, and the snowbanks tend to play hide and seek. She’s had a number of falls in recent months, as well as open heart surgery in the last year, thus the prospect of unsure footing (as well as the sheer exhaustion of walking short distances) deters her from leaving her small apartment at the Heritage Woods Assisted Living Facility.
A simple dinner. About 15 guests. Just close family. Not much of a fuss, but enough to make her smile. I was late due to a long drive and an uninspiring appearance at ‘Disney on Ice’ with my littles, but I hear she was surprised. Though not nearly as surprised as I was to see the glass of Chardonnay clutched in her bony fist when I arrived. It was the first time I’d ever seen her drink.
“Hi, Gramma,” I said, and leaned in for a careful hug, feeling her collar bones against my chest. Her arms bore the deep, startling bruises from clumsy encounters with door frames and end tables, easily acquired due to the strict regiment of blood thinners she ingests each day. Her fingers are zig-zags of arthritis, angling awkwardly in the wrong directions at the ends, the results of banging on pianos and keyboards for the last 60 years. Grandma Bonnie smiled weakly and patted me on the back. “Happy Birthday. How are you?” I asked. “How are you feeling?”
She paused for just a second before saying, “Well…I definitely feel 90.” We giggled, and I felt the heaviness underneath her laugh, weighted down by the loss of two sisters, several friends, and her husband, Howard, all within the last three years. Her cotton ball of hair was thinner than ever, pressed flat in the back from her afternoon nap. A brown stain, probably salisbury steak at lunch, inked the left knee of her white pants. It’s hard to see her as she once was– impeccably clean, lively, snorting in laughter every few seconds at a joke she’d made at someone else’s expense –but I often try.
“Listen here, Buster,” she’d say playfully, and poke you stiff in chest. She was the boisterous, laugh-until-you-cry, feisty grandmother when I was young, the one who would offer you a jolly smack in the back of the head just to let you know she could still catch a young punk like you off-guard, or squeeze your hand until you were forced to admit a woman in her 70s had a grip like a bear trap. Hardened, ground down into a substance more rigid than most, Bonnie was cast from her earliest years on a farm in rural Illinois, the youngest of four sisters. Four sisters who did all the chores that boys would be asked to do (had there been any), particularly after their mother died young. Carrying a full milk can in each arm to the house from the barn, or heavy buckets of slop to the pigs, the threading of my grandmother’s strength was stitched into her at a young age, often against her will. But there was no time for crying about it. I can only assume that this is where she learned to play like a boy, rough and silly and antagonistic, the reason I loved her so very much when I was a little kid. She didn’t like to cook, never wore dresses, and refrained from gossipping with the ladies at the beauty parlor. No, her temperament was like her driving: swift and unapologetic. It served her well, raising three troublesome boys mostly on her own, dragging them around by fistfulls of their hair. It’s one of the reasons she was always more inclined to offer you an elbow in the ribs than an arm around your shoulder. The same reason I caught myself gritting my teeth (my wife looking on in horror) at the way Grandma Bonnie’s excitement caused her to jerk my daughter around like a ragdoll just a few weeks after she was born. Which was almost as priceless as the grin that spread across Emma’s newborn face a few seconds later.
The spark was gone. I could see that at the party. Even with the glass of wine, my grandmother’s lively persona had dimmed. All that light had crept somewhere back inside, or somehow evaporated from her pores. I suppose it’s been happening for the last few years, and I just never noticed, or perhaps I tried not to. The way big box stores slowly creep into a town and eat away at the business of mom and pop shops until they close up with little more than a note in the papers.
I have my excuses. Two kids. Work never ends. Living a couple hours away. None of them are good enough. The truth is, I just haven’t committed enough time to seeing her over the last few years to have watched the dwindling flame of her candle. Her smile can still pulse with electricity, but her laughter is momentary, a stabbing sound that requires too much effort. There is light in her eyes, but it trades places with foggy sadness when no one’s looking. I can remember the way her whole body used to laugh, the way she’d cover her mouth with her palm to try and keep it in, the long wheezy intro, sitting forward in her recliner, tears in her eyes, snorting, trying to catch her breath. The foot stomp. The rocking back into the recliner and letting the laughter flow out of her into the room. It was contagious.
She traded a few casual insults with my father throughout dinner, a small window into the love they will never declare for one another, and those of us who know so chuckled, seeing little flashes of her emerge. But each time, her light retreated. I saw it one final time in her assertive demand over the cake.
“I want Howard back,” she’d said, looking around the table at each of us, a challenge of sorts. My mother let out a comforting sigh, and the rest of us fought to quell the sadness that brimmed at our cups of tea and coffee, bubbled in the head of my beer.
For several days afterward I heard her voice in my head. “I want Howard back.” The way she delivered those four words. A simple demand. No nonsense. Just Howard. Nothing else. And I realized I wanted him back too.