I was in the midst of my growing years. It was just a few months before I’d learn how to multiply, how to give a eulogy. All of the kids and grandkids were loading up and driving to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. My cousins drove thousands of miles to meet us there, but my family and my grandparents lived a little over two hours away.
I was the first-born, and subsequently the favorite of all the grandchildren. That’s why I got to ride in my grandma’s car all the way to the Pirateship Waterslide. That’s why we were going to an indoor waterpark. Because despite my grandma’s debilitating fear of drowning, she braved the water for her grandkids. She’d do anything to make her kids happy.
There’s a picture of that day in my Great Aunt’s home. Grandma is standing in the pool wearing a big black shirt that clings to her. I can tell she had just gotten off the waterslide from her dripping nose and red eyes. She’d just slicked her short dark hair back to keep the water off her face. She was beaming, talking to her sister, who had probably splashed her as soon as she broke the surface. She was young, strong.
That’s the last photo of Grandma before she got sick.
I only saw my grandma a handful of times after I knew she was dying. I don’t know how long she had been sick before we all starting acting like it, but my mom taught me about death shortly before I saw it. I got to visit my grandma during her last few weeks. I’d been begging for a sleepover because it was plenty overdue. I rarely went more than a week without seeing my grandma, and my mom had been staying over there without me.
When I finally got to see grandma again, my mom and I sat in the driveway for a few minutes before going inside.
“Grandma’s going to look different,” she told me. “She’s been sick, but you don’t need to be scared. She’s the same grandma you’ve always had. Just talk to her like you always do.”
I nodded and we headed inside.
I think everyone was nervous with how I’d react. My grandma was my very best friend. From the time I could memorize her number, she was the first call I’d make if I was having a bad day. And she was always there, ready to help me with whatever early-life crisis I was having that week. I was too young to be told I was seeing her for the last time.
I walked into the house, holding mom’s hand as she led me to the living room. Grandma was sitting in her favorite rocking chair, a cow print blanket draped across her lap. The first thing I noticed was the oxygen cannula. It was different–new. Last time I had seen her she was breathing fine.
“Hi honey,” my grandma rasped, “I missed you.”
I think I just stared.
“You’re not afraid of grandma, are you? It’s okay if you are, I know I look scary right now. This tube helps me breathe though, so its nothing to be scared of.”
I shook my head. I wasn’t scared of Grandma, I was scared for her. She had wasted away while I was gone. She was wearing sweatshirts, but her neck and face were too thin to hide the weight she’d lost. She looked like death himself was starving her, but she still said yes to a slice of cherry pie and a strawberry soda.
I sat down with my slice of pie and watched everyone. Everybody was acting like this was normal, like Grandma never finished her pie, like she hadn’t always eaten it warmed up with a scoop of ice cream. But I’d never had cherry pie before that day, so I figured we just had similar tastes when we both let it sit after the first bite.
After an hour I started to get antsy. I usually spent the day playing at Grandma’s house, but today all I had done was sit. Grandpa was ready to get out of the house for a bit and give my mom some time with Grandma, so he took me downtown to get Grandma a little surprise. We walked about five blocks to get to the little main street in town and went into the one of the small shops on the corner.
In the back of the store was a bin of stuffed animals. Grandpa said I could spend five dollars on stuff for grandma, and the little stuffed how I found was $4.99. He was small and shaped like a teddy bear with a plaid patch on each leg. Grandma loved cows, so Patches was exactly what Grandma needed to feel better.
I gave Grandma Patches the Cow when we got back. She loved him and his name, and I gave her a big hug as we said our goodbyes. I wasn’t allowed to sit in her lap like usual, but she leaned over to hug me and said, “put your head on my heart.” I put my ear to her chest and listened to her heart tick. We did this every time I got sad (usually because I had to leave). I closed my eyes and listened to her pacemaker as she told me for the last time, “My heart ticks like a clock Gretchen, and I am with you all the time.”
I got Patches back five days later, along with a blue Kim Possible binder and loose leaf paper. My mom told me that every time I missed grandma, I needed to write down what I missed about her so I would never forget all the happy memories. I wrote her eulogy in that binder. And when we had Grandma’s memorial, my mom and dad walked me up to the podium and put me on a stool so I could reach the microphone. I’d never spoken in front of people before, but my parents stood next to me on stage as I told the story of my favorite vacation with grandma to the Pirateship Waterslide.