“How will you ever find a boyfriend wearing that?” my 93-year-old grandma asked me as I stood before her in the nursing home.
I didn’t think my attire was bad—a red-and-black checkered wool coat and jeans tucked into a pair of pink and purple Sorel boots. Okay, maybe not the best matching combo, I thought, as I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the one window in her room—but it had been snowing on my way to see her, and wasn’t warmth more important than looks?
I looked at her, glued to her wheelchair—as much as I wanted to pry her out of it, I couldn’t unless I wanted to see her legs collapse under her. Her hair was matted—she often found ways to talk the staff out of washing her hair since she didn’t like to go to bed with it wet. Her face had maybe one wrinkle, two max, masking her age by decades. “Ivory soap’s the secret,” she liked to say, winking and reminding me of a retro TV commercial.
Her blue eyes, sparkling like turquoise gemstones, stared at me and were the most animated thing about her. And her one-liners, of course.
“I’ll manage to find someone who likes my unmatching wardrobe,” I said, laughing. She laughed, too.
I laughed as I remembered this conversation, which happened a few months ago. Now, all of our conversations happened via a rolodex of memories in my head that I desperately tried not to forget, for my grandma, my best friend, died suddenly six weeks ago.
For the past year-and-a-half, she’d been my nightly ritual; I’d go see her after work, after she was through with her communal dinner of chicken-and-something. Anything. I didn’t mind joining her for dinner, though I preferred to see her one-on-one and not share her with all the other residents.
We’d talk between dessert, around 6 p.m., and her nursing home-sanctioned bedtime—7:30, 8:00, or 8:30 p.m., depending on the CNAs on duty, as well as my grandma’s energy level and how well she could keep her eyes open.
I’d bring her a new treat every time, like her favorite caramels, Werther’s Originals (the chewy kind), and an eight-pack of mini Pepsis. She’d carefully unwrap a caramel like a little kid, it sticking to her teeth as she spoke, making her words muffled. Oftentimes, she couldn’t open a can of Pepsi herself, though I’d encourage her to try—just as she’d taught me to do as a young girl growing up with her. Each time, she’d succeed, sometimes using her dinner fork to pry open the top. By that point, I’d have tears in my eyes, silently congratulating her.
I loved having her be the last person I saw before I went home and went to bed, and hoped she shared the same sentiment.
Now, everything is different. Now, I take nightly walks instead, trying to get through them without crying. Now, I speak to her while looking up at the sky, inhaling the scent of freshly mowed grass and clean laundry from the dryer vents of houses as I walk, exhaling tears, smiles, laughter, or all three.
To onlookers, I look like I’m talking to myself, mumbling skyward. And when I laugh out loud recounting one of my grandma’s one-liners or brutally honest observations, like “Who told that singer he could sing,” I must look even crazier to others in the street.
But, even though my grandma’s physical presence is gone, I know her spirit remains. During each walk, she gives me signs that she’s present, and listening. I take a new route each time, and with each new street, I get a different signal—whether it’s the patch of wild orange lilies I find, her favorite, or the rhubarb someone’s growing on the side of their house like my grandma used to do. I mean, come on—who grows rhubarb anymore, especially in the city?!
If I skip a nightly walk, I feel off, just like the nights I’d miss visiting her. Something, someone, would be missing. This is our one-on-one time, my way of preserving our pre-bedtime talks. The walks are my way of being mindful of my memories and my way of keeping them alive, of keeping her alive.
And, mostly, I take the walks to keep not only my memories alive, but her essence. For if I stop walking, I’m afraid I’ll start forgetting. And all I want is to remember.
Author: Natalia Lusinski
Image: Courtesy of author
Editor: Travis May