We are in Florida. It is not, techically, another continent, as Mbot told his teacher yesterday when I pulled him out of preschool early to make the plane. But it might as well be one, because we are entering a foreign world: the world of the old.
My grandmother turned ninety-six on Saturday. I’d seen her last when Mbot was five weeks old. At ninety-one, she’d flown to a family reunion in Idaho. She’d been very much herself–slightly shorter, slightly whiter, slightly slower. But the same lightning sense of humor, keen intelligence, and outspokenness was in full display. “You look good,” she would say. And then, “Are you sure you’re not too skinny?”
But time changes everything, and things fall apart.
I have been attempting to visit her since Gbot was born, just three years ago. But several factors held me back, one of which was that I, a self-made expert at visualizing, and then enacting extensive travel plans that include one adult (myself) and an unmatched set of under-two, or under-three year-old seat-mates, simply could not visualize the bots and I making the journey. But in the past ten days, several sereptitious occurrences colluded to help us on our way, among them, my friend from second grade, Solveig, agreed to meet us in Denver and accompany us. She is a good sport, with an endless supply of humor and a cunning resourcefulness that can include a corkscrew when necessary.
In the days prior to departure, I steeled myself for the worst: I knew my grandmother might not recognize me and if she did, it wouldn’t last. I knew she might just doze off. I feared she would be smaller even than I remembered, bedridden, wearing hospital garb, confined to a room. I wondered if the staff kept her nails pretty and her hair–which always, in my memory, looked nice (although at a price–my grandfather used to kid her about her “lightning rods,” which is how he referred to her curlers).
Our plane touched down at close to midnight, and so we got a late start the next morning, arriving at John Knox Health Center close to noon. Solveig and the bots played on the grounds while I went up to her room. She wasn’t there–I was surprised to hear that she was at lunch. I ventured down the hall to a windowed room in which maybe thirty elderly people, in various states of aging, sat eating a meal that didn’t look too bad.
I recognized my grandmother immediately. She looked remarkably similar to the photos my parents had taken the year before. Her hair was well-taken care of. She was wearing fresh, clean clothes, including a very pretty red knit jacket that matched the vest I’d left in the car. A nurse was helping her eat dessert, a piece of lemon cake. I bent down and put my hand on her shoulder. “Grandma,” I said. “It’s your granddaughter, Betsy. I’ve come to visit, and I’ve brought my little boys, your great grandsons.”
She looked up, took me in, and said, “You’re so skinny!” I laughed with relief. No matter what I’d heard about her good days and her bad days, the incoherence over the phone, the tendency to get agitated–this was still Grandma.
Much of what followed didn’t make sense, but much did. I wheeled her inexpertly down the hall, into the elevator, and out the door onto the grounds. The weather was lovely–low seventies, the sun not too bright, a cool, fresh breeze. A few minutes later we came upon Solveig with the bots.
Something about the children seemed to awaken her synapses and bring her alert. She worried aloud when one of the bots would disappear behind a rose bush, or the fountain. “Thank you for helping me keep track of them,” I laughed, and she laughed too. Maybe not at that, but does it really matter? “Bring them to dinner,” she said. “Children are enjoyed,” she said. “They’re so much fun.” Mbot, who has always loved the smell of a rose, asked to smell one in the rose garden, and I picked one, held it to his nose, to Grandma’s. A look of pleasure crossed her face.
Nearly an hour into our visit, sitting by the fountain, she looked me, our faces twelve inches apart. “You know,” she said, “you look a lot like my granddaughter, Betsy.”
“I am your granddaughter, Betsy,” I said.
And we stared at one another, her bemused expression revealing that memory was attempting feats that mostly it had just grown too old for. At that moment, Mbot ran from the fountain. He held up his wrist, devoid of the red, heart-shaped sillyband he’d chosen from the airport store silly-band pack the day before. “Mommmmmm,” wailed Mbot. “Gbot threw my heart into the water.”
Oh, I know how you feel, I wanted to say to Mbot. I think I did say it, with tears in my lashes. “It will be okay,” I said to him, next. “I have another.” I felt how big a mother’s heart has to be. I felt like a magician able to pull a heart out of my sleeve whenever there is a call for one, and that as a mother, I have an endless supply. As a mother, and now, as a granddaughter. I was taken care of, all those years–am still taken care of, to some extent, by my own mother, although she lives three states away. And now it’s my turn. I am the grown up. Because, I think, of the role reversal, in my grandmother’s presence, I saw myself more as a grown up than I do in the presence of my children.
Just twenty minutes before, she had known who Mbot was when I’d introduced him. They’d held a brief conversation. She’d watched Gbot run and play. “He will be a fine man,” she said, smiling. At another point, she smiled again, admiring his hair.
Later, she looked at me and asked, “How’s your writing?”
I told her, briefly.
“Did you write any today?” she asked.
“Not yet,” I replied, not thinking of the notes scrawled across the palm of my left hand, or the ones I’d texted to myself on my phone.
Mbot asked to accompany us when I returned her to the social area on her floor. We left her sitting by a table. She hadn’t wanted to face the TV. (Like grandmother like granddaughter). We hugged and kissed her goodbye. She smiled and asked if “they were meeting us,” and I just said smiled and said yes. I turned back before we turned the corner to the elevator and she was still sitting, hands in her lap, just sitting, looking within, and I knew we had been lucky to have come on a good day. And I couldn’t help but feel that our coming had help make it a good day.
We will go back tomorrow.