At 99, her irises have literally faded, but my sassy Grandma Velda still sees well enough to sew, bead necklaces and color within the lines. And, like women of any age, she sees and is critical of her body: her nails that crack, her saggy belly, the spots on her face. “If I get any uglier, I’m gonna stay at home,” she told me once. But her petite bellybutton? Now, that’s a different story: “I’m proud of that,” she told me during one massage when I commented on how cute it was.
As a massage therapist, I’ve felt the parts of the kyphotic curve in her back and the translucent skin on her bony arms that reveal the veins that have pumped blood from her well-worn hands. I’ve run my fingers through the spaces between her ribs. There’s nothing quite like feeling the life in her 99-year-old lungs expand into my hands cupping either side of the small rib cage that matches my own. I’ve massaged the scar tissue — the eyelids that shyly remain where once sat her glorious 36DD breasts before they were both removed because of cancer, the same buxom breasts I inherited. I touch the scar on my left breast where a benign mass was removed last year and wonder if I too will lose my breasts to cancer.
While I sit on the precipice of turning 40, she eagerly awaits turning 100. My grandma and I might be 60 years apart, but our shared physical and emotional features are still recognizable. We have many of the same hopes and fears for each other and ourselves.
We fear the other falling: me falling out of faith and her physically falling while alone. We have a deal: I’ll try to find a church “home” where I don’t feel lonely if she’ll do her physical therapy exercises to strengthen her hips. We both hope to meet our true love: my future husband, and her husband who passed away 45 years ago. “He’s out there,” she regularly assures me of both.
We both still play to win. When I go fishing, I tie on my fly, cast my line and hope to catch something — even if it means coming home empty-handed. Now resigned to a walker to get around, Grandma Velda still makes every effort to get her Publishers Clearing House entry to the mailbox. She says she doesn’t yet know what she’d do with a brand-new Mustang.
We cling tightly to our independence but deeply fear being left behind. She fears being left behind by friends who think she’s too frail to go to their weekly brunch after their adult Sunday school. I fear being left behind by friends, married with children, whose play dates don’t include me. I most fear being left behind by a heroic man, fearful of nothing but commitment, to whom I become attached. We also fear leaving each other — for a few months or a lifetime. Every visit home is another goodbye. “Don’t go,” she says with a pouty face. “I hate when you leave.” I squeeze my eyes shut and say in my sternest, most confident voice, “I’ll see you again soon.”
In September, she suffered from several mini-strokes, a seizure and a couple falls. I thought this was the end. I bought a ticket on a Monday and flew out of Denver on a Tuesday to see her in Ohio, where she’s lived with my parents since I was 8 years old. “If you are ever in great pain, you know you don’t have to hang on for me,” I told her as I helped her to the bathroom. She said nothing. I said out loud what I was hoping she’d say: “Well, I guess you’ll know when it’s time to go.” She looked up at me in disgust, as if I’d just told her I was going to get rid of her giant collection of heels. “Heavenly days, McGee!” she says, riled by my projection. “I’m not ready to go now.”
I viscerally fear my grandma dying before I marry. Anxiety takes hold of my throat and squeezes as if its grip could shake me loose from the paralyzing patterns I fear have kept me single. I feel like I’ve failed at a responsibility to be more than one.
In a conversation with a friend getting married this past spring, he explained how they cut costs by only sending out “plus-one” invitations to friends in “serious committed relationships.” This is, of course, not the first time I’ve been told this. I’ve attended over 45 weddings and gone single to all but five.
“You won’t be getting a ‘plus-one,’ darling,” he said.
“Well, the wedding IS four months away,” I said smiling. “What if I’m in a serious committed relationship by then? What if I’m more than one then?”
“You won’t be,” he answered.
For 45 years, Grandma Velda attended social events without a “plus-one” and sat next to empty seats at dinners set with an even number of chairs for couples. I asked my grandma if she’d sew something I could wear on my wedding day. This way, I thought to myself, if she isn’t physically present at my wedding, I’d be wearing something she’d designed for that day. I wouldn’t simply light an altar candle for her absence. She would have very intentionally taken part in the day we’d both talked about since I was a little girl.
She giggled when I asked her. “Do you think I have enough time?”
I knew immediately she was not suggesting what you would think: that she might die before the wedding.
“You don’t have anyone waiting in the wings, do you?” she asked sarcastically with a grin.
“I don’t,” I told her. “But start sewing anyways.”