(first published in the Denver Post in 1995)
For at least seven years, maybe longer, my Aunt Joanne and I have been expecting her mother Anna, my grandmother, to die “soon.” Anna finally made our prediction come true on an early Sunday morning this past September.
Anna, 93, had the mental vibrancy of a 20-year-old. Considering the wonders and heartbreaks Anna experienced in her lifetime, including the passing of her beloved son Joseph, my father, three years before her own death, Anna had lived an exhaustingly full life. For five people.
Prior to moving in to Carter May Nursing Home, Anna lived in New York with Joanne. For nearly 46 years they had never lived apart. Finally, Joanne realized she would have to move her mother, then 89, into a nursing home.
One Saturday morning in August, I rang the home. Normally, Anna was uplifting and an inspiration. That day, for the first time since my father died, the joy in her voice was absent, replaced with a bridled frustration. As usual I asked how she was feeling.
“Giselle, it’s very difficult being 93,” she said softly. “I need someone to help me with everything I do. It’s not easy.”
I found no quick words to console her, so instead I began chatting nervously with stories of my current preoccupations. What I might have considered a problem to me at the moment instantly transformed itself into self-indulgent obsession. I didn’t have real problems. I could still rely on myself to help myself. I had the luxury of independence.
Having to be “inspirational” to my grandmother was an unexpected turnabout to me. I’ll never know if I succeeded that day. All I know is she was glad to hear my voice.
How do you console someone who loved to read, who had lost that pleasure to cataracts? Anna could no longer read my letters, so a caregiver at the home read them to her. There was a nurse to administer Anna’s insulin shots, as she couldn’t see well enough anymore to inject herself. There was someone to prepare her ritual morning coffee, as well as special meals to accommodate her high blood pressure and diabetes. And then there was Joanne, ever present to do Anna’s laundry and errands. Ever since Anna moved into the nursing home her scope of personal responsibilities diminished. Her dependency on others only increased.
After her busy life as mother of three, a competent owner of a small business and a consummate volunteer social worker inside and outside the Catholic church, having to rely on others was for Anna, a bitter pill to swallow. Yet Anna was not bitter.
She was a marvel to those who knew her. Most especially her doctors and her family.
For years Anna’s diet was atrocious and utterly delicious. Her Italian heritage entitled her to rich pastries, sauces and cholesterol-laden delicacies that kept her overweight and happy during and between meals. Getting a pacemaker seven years ago didn’t slow her down. I can’t recall how it happened, but somehow she did commit to losing weight.
When Anna moved into Carter May we knew her diet would be more closely monitored. On a few occasions Anna’s blood sugar would rise, and no one seemed to know the reason. Anna would tell Joanne she had been watching what she ate, following doctor’s orders for the most part. We suspected otherwise but were conflicted over how much pressure anyone should put on such an old woman who only had a few of life’s pleasures to enjoy.
After a while Anna’s blood levels would return to a more acceptable range, we’d sigh relief and marvel some more at her resilience and good genes.
In January I surprised Anna for her 93rd birthday. Seeing her in the nursing home among the women who had become extended family eased any anxiety I had had about her level of happiness. I often wondered what kept her going when others much younger and healthier than Anna, folks who still had the luxury of living with their spouses or their children, had given up either mentally or physically.
Seeing Anna in her element, I rediscovered her passion for life. It was Anna’s conviction that she still had much work to do that kept her from dying. She believed she had much to share. Certainly not financially, as she had long since given what money she had away. Money to her children, grandchildren, the church, charities. In all those meals she served her lifetime of guests.
It was Anna’s love of people and her compassion for their struggles that kept her busy. But mostly it was her love of stories and a good laugh that energized her spirit. Anna would make the rounds at the nursing home, shuffling down the corridors to visit with the ladies, carrying in her expressive hands, years of stories. Fascinating stories that in the remembering and retelling of them kept her mind active and her audience alert. More than just stories of the growing up and away of children and grandchildren, Anna’s stories encompassed world’s long gone.
Times of war and depression. Times of economy and decadence. Decades of interesting friendships that crossed bridges of different religions and races. Stories of how she began a lucrative business sewing ladies custom hats in New York City in a far distant time when ladies wore elegant hats. Anna could weave a tale flowing so vividly in descriptions, so packed with action and movement, the sounds and smells would be palpable.
Anna could make you forget your own time and space by showing you hers.
Always Anna kept her audiences entertained. She bathed her listeners with loving attention and the gift of her extraordinary mind. She kept them safe from loneliness.
Joanne was in Connecticut the Sunday Anna died. The difficult emotional job of collecting Anna’s few personal belongings from the nursing home fell to Joanne’s daughter Cristine.
Tucked way back in Anna’s drawers, wrapped in silky undergarments, Cristine found Anna’s stash. It wasn’t a wad of money or jewelry. It was assorted candies. Candies with real sugar. The kind Anna was never permitted by her doctors to eat. Cristine also found something else. The forbidden salt. Anna had a box of that, too, wrapped up in her lingerie. Oh, and yes, Grandma had left her savings in the drawer. All $28.31.
I’m convinced it’s not longevity genes that kept my grandmother vibrant to the very day she died. It was a combination of Anna’s desire to help others find peace in this troubled world and that dreadfully wonderful forbidden salt and sugar.
We should all be so sweetly alive.
— Giselle M. Massi © 1995