Recently my Grandpa told me about the last moments that he spent with his wife. Though his memory is starting to wane, he was able to recall it with vivid precision.
“We will be taking off from Fort Lauderdale for four days, and then we will be going to visit my daughter and my new son-in-law.” Donna glibly blabbed, going on to say “Her husband has a large ranch, and they travel a lot, in fact I think she has found herself a ‘Howard’, if you know what I mean!” I did know what she meant, because the ‘Howard’ she alluded to was my Grandpa. If I hadn’t already become accustomed to my step-Grandma’s idiosyncrasies I would have been shocked to hear any Grandma talk about herself as a gold digger so openly. I never have known what to call Donna, as she is a bit of a sore thumb in our family and isn’t actually my Grandma. So I go back and forth between calling her Donna and Grandma, at times even referring to her as “Don-ma” behind her back to siblings or cousins. I don’t think of her as a gold digger, and she surely had a heart of gold, but if ever there were a couple that is unequally yoked it is them.
In a way my Grandpa probably has enough education for both of them. He has four university degrees, including a PHD from Stanford, while Donna only managed to squeak through high school. Donna is shamelessly extroverted, while my Grandfather is calm and measured. When he talks it is often slow and quiet, especially in recent years, as he just turned 90. In a way, Don-ma is his perfect foil, as she has energy to spare and keeps him busy. They spend their time alternately traveling the world, playing bingo at the senior center, and unloading stale food (that they win playing bingo) on their family. Today they had an offering of a dozen doughnuts that had expired several months earlier. We were assured they had been frozen and were still edible, and perhaps even tolerable. I had my doubts, as I had heard that story before.
My parents were the likely victims of the questionable doughnuts, and we continued talking as we drove to visit them. The topic turned to my actual Grandma, as my niece Julia had recently been named after her. My Grandpa often stumbled on his words as he spoke, his once clear mind clouded with cobwebs. But when he began to recall my grandmother, his beloved companion of more than half a century, he was able to express himself with precision.
He told of the last moments he had with his wife, something I had never heard him speak about before. It was the day after Thanksgiving, and they had just finished a dinner of mac-and-cheese. I could see them eating in my minds eye. Surely my Grandma only ate a bite or two, and the rest of her meal would have been made up of a half a cup or so of Ensure, or as much as my Grandpa could coax her into drinking. The last years of her life she always was slurping at Vanilla Ensure, with the beads of yellowish-white liquid dried to her cracked lips.
My Grandma had been in a wheelchair for several years, and so after dinner my Grandpa wheeled her to the living room to watch the evening news. After a few minutes, Julia said that there was nothing else she was interested in seeing and she wasn’t feeling well, so she wanted to go to bed. My Grandpa told her “that’s fine, I can take you to bed, but there is a ballgame I want to see the score of before I go to bed.” He didn’t know it at the time, but those were the final words he spoke to her in this life. He then gently lifted her from her wheelchair and carried her to their bedroom. After getting her into bed, he went back to watching the news. The next morning, my Grandma was comatose and unresponsive, though still breathing, and my Grandpa took her to the hospital.
“Did you know that was going to be the end?” I asked my Grandpa, curious at what point he had known. He indicated that the doctors told him there was still a chance, but he had been worried. He looked at me as he spoke, and his wistful steely blue eyes looked through me into what now seemed a not-so-distant past.
As my grandfather talked, I reflected on another elderly man, who lived centuries earlier, in ancient America. His name was Jacob, a prophet from the Book of Mormon, and as he grew old, he expressed that his life had “passed away as if it were a dream”, as his people became lonesome and solemn and they mourned out their days. Many years latter, a Book of Mormon missionary, Ammon, blessed the name of God for having been mindful of him when he was a wanderer in a strange land. I mused on this theme from the Book of Mormon, and how we truly are travelers that pass through this brief existence.
“I should have known to cancel Aunt Noreen’s family dinner.” I was abruptly brought back to the conversation as my Grandpa remembered his train of thought. After my Grandma was admitted to the hospital, he went back and forth between her bedside and preparing for a family dinner where he would have the opportunity to be with many of his grandchildren. At around four in the afternoon, he got a phone call from my Uncle, who merely said, “Come quickly.” By the time he arrived his dear companion had already breathed her last breath.
My Grandpa began trailing off, and I noticed that Donna had been uncharacteristically quiet for the past several minutes. I wondered if she would try to one-up him with a story about how her first husband had died. I seemed to remember having heard it before, and it involved a car accident. As I recalled, she told it in a very gruesome and straightforward fashion, and especially considering I didn’t have any connection to him, I wasn’t particularly interested in hearing it again.
So I was happy to hear her start along another vein of thought entirely “Now, Clark, what is your sister doing with her life? Is she going to college, or not? I just want to know so I don’t say anything wrong.” I chuckled to myself about how ironic her statement was. That was the Donna I knew and loved, so brash and improper, yet genuinely loving. I started to explain that my sister was going to be starting classes soon. As I explained, my mind mulled over what my Grandpa had just said, and I realized I had learned a lesson about the brevity of our lives. As Jacob said, our lives can pass away as a dream, and we never know what moment will be our last.