We sat out on a covered balcony on Sunday evening. It was around 5pm, one of those summer evenings that was hot but could have been hotter. In the shade it felt nice: a sit-outside-and-drink-iced-tea kind of evening fading into night. Fading into night.
I sat as close as I could to my grandmother, all 82 pounds of her. So light, 82 pounds – the weight of a growing child. She seemed so small in the wheelchair, like a little one sitting in her daddy’s office chair. Her feet were clad in teal blue slippers with those non-slip bumps all around them, but the rest of her clothes were the clothes she had always worn: a plain skirt with a button-up sweater over some sort of blouse.
“Someone needs to water my flowers,” she said quietly, motioning towards the dying plant on the patio table, the plants that are not hers to water. “I would do it, but I’m just so tired.”
I leaned in closer, and she dropped her ear towards me, happy to receive.
“We came back early to see you,” I whisper-shouted into her ear.
“That’s okay,” she said, her weak voice coming out in a mumbling stream. “You can see me for a while yet.”
* * * * *
My dad feeds her ice cream. It is hard to speak to her, when my throat is one of those miserable lumps and my eyes keep welling up, so I let her squeeze my hand and I feel her fragile skin. She used to treat my hand when I was a sick child and she’d rub the bones so hard I eventually pulled them away with a yelp. But the power in her hands is gone, and I find myself wishing for the pain.
My voice still doesn’t want to work so I hold a cup of water up to her mouth and she drinks it like a bird. Then I move Chap-stick over her dry lips. I finally manage to speak, ask her if she would like something to eat. Some soup? Some applesauce? Some coffee? I try the coffee as a testament to its goodness. It’s sweet, I tell her, just as she always liked it.
She leans towards me.
“I don’t drink coffee anymore – they put my pills in it.”
I look questioningly at the mug. My dad laughs.
* * * * *
My dad talks to her in Pennsylvania Dutch, and she responds in brighter tones, as if something buried was coming alive. He asks her about her recent dreams, and she responds. I do not know this language. It is a strange combination of foreign and familiar to me.
Later my dad tells me what she said, that she has been dreaming a lot about her parents.
“I just get so tired of missing them,” she had said wistfully.
* * * * *
My dad had told me of their previous visit, how she took a small part of her skirt and folded it and moved it and folded it, over and over again. Finally my mom realized what she was doing: grandma was binding a quilt. She had done that practically her whole life, and in these days when her mind seems absent a fair amount of the time, it’s almost like her body goes back to what it remembers. So my mom handed her a piece of fabric, and she folded it and creased it and smoothed it, refolded it and creased it and smoothed it again. And again.
Her hands moved in a slow rhythm of life – there were years of history in those movements. She was a small girl, learning to quilt. She was a newly-wed, quilting for extra money. She was a new mom, a baby on the floor beside her. She was in her middle age, quilting for her business. She was a recent widow, quilting through her grief.
In that moment of imaginary quilting, she was not 92: she was 9 and 18 and 23 and 45 and 60. She was an entire life.
Perhaps this is why it is so important that we do not overlook the older ones among us: they are the embodiment of an entire life, and every age they have ever been is there for us to see, for us to bear witness to. They are years within years within years, layers of wisdom and experience, heartache and hope, death and life.
The veins and wrinkled skin and whispered memories form a topography, a stunning landscape, a map by which we who are so lost can hope to find our way.