As I meander through the finer details of my grandparents’ life together, I realize I’m going to get some of these exact facts wrong, and I’ve probably fudged a few already. Perhaps I was 5 or 6, instead of 7. Perhaps Howard’s shirt was green, not yellow. This is becoming a monster bit of writing on its own all of a sudden, but the words are flowing, so I’m going to run with it while I can. I will, in all cases, be as exact as my own skewed lens will allow, but I apologize if I have to change little details later when I get the correct year or city or name from my parents, or from Grandma herself. I will try to make note if I’m completely off target in any particular post. One such mistake my father helped me correct yesterday. Howard was actually one of 12 children, 11 boys and 1 girl.
It’s hard to dig too deep with Grandma Bonnie anymore. Not necessarily because of her mental state. For the most part, she still has an amazing memory for her age. But that’s just the problem. It’s the memories themselves. She’s grown so slow and heartbroken. So many people lost. So much grief. So many gashes in the fabric of her life that she’s too old to patch or ignore. A nostalgic giggle about her life can turn her to tears, where she abruptly shuts down all interaction.
“Take me home,” she’ll say softly, and inch her way to the door without waiting for someone to argue her out of it.
Pops sees her a couple times a week, but his reports vary depending on the current health hurdle.
“She was feelin’ her oats today, boy,” he’ll laugh. “Slugged me right in the side when I hollered at her for not using her walker. Told me she wasn’t too old to grab a handful of my hair and give me a whoopin’.”
The following week might be different. “I don’t know, Ben,” he’ll sigh. “She’s just so confused this week. Repeating herself. Asked me if it was lunchtime about ten times in 15 minutes. I just…I don’t know.” There are ebbs and flows to her confusion, which is always triggered by poor health, and falling down. A small heart attack. A fall in the bathroom. Bruising across half her face. A broken hip. These things leave nasty potholes in her awareness, shaking loose chunks of her very consciousness, and leave her scrambling for a mental foothold for weeks. It’s never so bad that she can’t recite the basics: her name, her children’s names, where she is. And, to this point, she always finds her way back from the minor lapses in memory, or manages to jump the skipping turntable of her brain out of its repetitious line of questioning. But one thing she never loses, even under the black cloak of her confusion: her resolve. I learned long ago never to doubt Grandma’s physical prowess. The little girl hauling milk cans reappears, and annihilates any expectation that she can’t do it.
Grandma Bonnie had herself a name pair. They were forever Bonnie and Howard after that first meeting in the park. And I realized for the first time that this man, Howard Estes, who was going to play the role of grandfather to me, was, at the same time, taking my grandmother far away. Taking her away from us. From me. They’d decided she would join him in Arkansas, and it pulled the rug out from under my Attack Force tennis shoes. When would I see her again? Summer vacation was 9 months away. I had a jigsaw puzzle of the 50 States, so I pulled it out from under my bed and traced the distance with my hands. Index finger and half a palm. That was a problem. We rarely ever saw my mother’s cousins, and they were just half a pinky away.
While Grandma Bonnie was always thrilled to see any one of her grandchildren, her and I always seemed to be a little closer than the others. Not that she doted on me. This is a woman who I’ve never heard utter the words ‘I love you.’ Not to anyone. Perhaps it was the youngest child thing. Bonnie, Pops, and I were the youngest children in our families. Maybe she saw a little of my father in me, the son who always took such good care of her, even if she’d never admit it to him. Perhaps it was just her nature, having raised only rugged boys, and the fact that I was more prone to handle her bony-fisted jabs, dish her playful banter back at her, than my sisters were. Perhaps it was all of that, atop the reality that, until Howard came along, I cried whenever we left her 2nd floor apartment. Such a long, lonely staircase. Like an elderly princess in a castle tower. It still brings tears to my mother’s eyes to tell others about my sobs in the Buick after leaving Bonnie’s house when I was little more than a toddler.
“But she’s all alone,” I would howl, crying into my little hands. “Who’s going to take care of her?”
Howard Estes. That’s who.
Two years ago she fell and broke her hip after going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. I apologize to the squeamish here, but if you want the details, she completely broke the ball off the femur that fit into her hip socket. Laid there on the floor for hours until someone found her the next morning. I cannot imagine the unending lightning bolts of agonizing pain she endured lying there in the gloomiest hours of the morning, her own shrieks and moans the only sound, soaked with sweat from the physical suffering. Couldn’t reach the phone or the pull cord or the emergency button for help. The disorientation she must have felt, so alone there in the dark, wondering why this was happening. So empty. So alone already in life. After surgery, the doctor and assisted living facility managers broke down the insurance protocols to my father in sterile rooms with fishing boat pictures on the walls. Nursing home for physical therapy. Transportation arrangements. Premiums. Deductibles. The conditions of her current living arrangement. No extensions. Long waiting list of potential residents. Grandma was too confused or sedated to understand the formal talk, but she did hear the most important thing.
“She’ll have to return to return to Heritage Woods at the end of 30 days. And she’ll have to be completely independent by then. We won’t be bringing meals to her, or provide any in-unit care.” Four short weeks before she would have to navigate to an elevator or take the stairs down to breakfast, lunch, and dinner. On her own. Thirty days to be able to get herself dressed every day. Go to the bathroom. Take a shower. All by herself. Just 30 days. My parents operated on the assumption that her apartment was lost, and began moving heavy wooden furniture around their home to accommodate her.
Grandma Bonnie was back in 27 days.