Thursday, March 18, 2010

Of humor, honesty, and the dog-stealing Grandma.

Before she went blind, my grandma, Catherine, used to wander around her neighborhood. She was tough as nails, and always independent. At 16, she became the first woman in the state of Texas to play high school basketball. Seventy-five years later, she shrugs at this, as if it was just 'one of those things.' Divorced when my dad was only a little kid, she raised 4 kids on her own--the kind of kids who still cling to their best friends like life preservers, and who find humor in even the tiniest, most ludicrous details.

The day that my dad, at 9, tried to run away from home in a pique of pre-adolescent temper, Catherine calmly walked into his room, handed him a sandwich, opened a drawer, and started packing. When he froze and asked her what she was doing, she looked into his serious little face and informed him that, if he was going to be leaving, she wanted to make sure that he had everything he needed. When he tried the same trick 3 weeks later, she packed her own bag and waited on the front step for him, merrily informing him that she was coming, too.

Catherine has never been a shrinking violet. Merry and a little devious, she raised a son who, on an impulse, hitchhiked to California "to be a movie star," only to camp out under a freeway underpass for 2 weeks. Years later, she just shakes her head at this misadventure--it all worked out for the best, she assures us. When, at 88 years old, she eventually retired from her job as a secretary at a mechanic's shop, she did so only because she had survived two sets of owners through to retirement. When she left, her absence was mourned by the mechanics and the shop's affectionate stray cat.

Before she began to go blind, Grandma Catherine would take walks around the neighborhood. On one such walk, she came across a dog. Tan, spotted, and eager to make friends, the mutt followed her home, and they spent the afternoon on her back porch, both keeping a speculative eye on Catherine's notoriously unpleasant cat. That night, she called my parents, and informed them that she'd acquired a new pet: Freckles. Mom and Dad prevailed upon Grandma to check the dog's collar--low and behold, she had an owner.

On hearing the story, none of us really believed that she hadn't encouraged that dog every step of the way.

Catherine called the number on Freckles' collar, and a young woman answered. She worked as a nurse at the local hospital, and the two chatted for a while. When the woman came to pick Freckles up, Catherine had worked up to her most charming. Two hours and a cup of tea later, the woman left--without her dog. She was, Catherine explained to us later, "Freckles' other Mommy." On weekdays, she would be Freckles, with Catherine. On weekends, she was Sarah, in her old home. Eventually, even the nurse started to call her Freckles.

Catherine went into a temporary nursing home three months ago, hoping to take care of some minor medical issues. By the time she entered the home, she was fully blind--a disheartening blow to such an independent woman. She was lonely, disillusioned, and she missed her pets. Dad and I took to calling on a regular basis, just to check in. We'd give her a run-down of our day, and she'd repeat the details back to us like a starving person. She was always honest with us, though never self-pitying: "How are you?" "I hate it here." Cheerily said, with an honest belief that she would be leaving again, soon. Each time I got off the phone with her, Grandma Catherine would implore, "Please, you'll call again, won't you? Soon?" It broke my heart to hear her beg to talk to me--I wished I could explain to her that this was not a pity phone call, that I missed her, that I would be lucky to grow up into half the woman that she did.

On her last day at the nursing home, I could hear Grandma's smile through the phone. Her only concern, she confided to me, was that Freckles might not understand why she was gone. Did I think that her feelings would be hurt? Would she understand? Did she miss her? I assured her that Freckles most certainly did, and would be beside herself with joy to have Catherine home again. It would be an adjustment at first, but a happy one. Grandma Catherine promised me that, the whole ride home, she would just hug Freckles tight--then, she would understand how much Catherine had missed her.

This morning, Catherine went in for surgery. What the doctors thought was just an abscess in her abdomen has blossomed into a tumor which has infested most of her torso, growing at a rate that alarmed even her doctors. Even for tough-as-nails Catherine, this is a difficult blow to a 92 year old lady, whose body has already begun to fail her in so many ways. So, several thousand miles away, Catherine is sedated and sleeping, while the doctors wait for the lab reports to come back. As they speculate, they are counting in hours and days, not months. Even this afternoon, Catherine is fearless, concerned for Freckles but otherwise untroubled by the writing that is already appearing on the wall.

This is the woman who still, months after her sight was gone, would talk to me about what color she thought my parents should paint the spare bedroom. Who, when asked how the food at the nursing home was, heartily assures me that it is "oh, simply awful. But the old people here like it." Who, still refers to Darwin as me "special friend," asking about him each time we speak, and telling me how she looks forward to meeting him, even long after such a meeting seemed likely. Who, a few weeks after her 90th birthday, insisted upon helping me to paint a porch, remarking along the way at the charm of the chairs, the goats outside in the field, the turn of the paint can, the way the brush felt under her hands. Her suitcase is packed, and she will go bravely into the next great adventure--it is the rest of us who are left staring blankly back at her.

I love you, Grandma C. And I promise we will help Freckles to understand.


just jenn said...

you know, there are some who live their lives and there are some who truly live their Life. Thanks for sharing Catherine's love for Life. awesomeness. and i'm sure Freckles will understand.

thelifeofalawstudent said...

She sounds like an amazing woman with an amazing life. I'm sorry about your loss. I'm sure you will do her proud.

lawschoolwife said...

So powerful. I'm so sorry that your family is going through a hard time. She seems like a truly wonderful woman to have had the opportunity to know. And I just want to scoop Freckles up!

ohhayitskk said...

Hugs love. Hugs.

Philosofya said...

Oh honey.

C said...

Beautifully written. And hilarious. I was nearly in tears and I've never even met you! What a great woman.

In it to my eyeballs said...

Eloquence is a gift we give to other people. You put yours to such good use.

All rights reserved to my snotty and generally self-deprecating writing. And if your comments bother me, I'll delete them. That's right, pumpkin.
...How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell one's name—the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog!
-- Emily Dickinson