I remember climbing up on to the roof of Grandma’s house back in the mid-80s. I was eight or nine years old (the age of my oldest son now), and my teenage cousins reached down over the edge of the sandpaper-like asphalt shingles and pulled me up, scraping the skin off my stomach. I remember the giddy feeling of being so high, of looking down on the corn that usually looked down on me.
There was something raw and wild about being on a roof, and as the sun set we lay there on the shallow slope, our hands behind our heads, our feet braced to keep us from sliding off. Then, when all was dark, the fireworks launched into the night sky, their explosions thudding against my small rib cage like a defibrillator.
I was too young to wonder how my Grandma was feeling during those years after my Grandfather had died. Almost thirty years ago. I wonder if she cried herself to sleep, missing him, or lay awake at night worrying about how she would pay the mortgage. I wonder if she heard those fireworks exploding and wished he was back for one last Fourth of July, sitting out on their small deck, smelling the cut hay and watching the fireflies.
* * * * *
My Grandma, my father’s mother, has always loved us with a tough and indefatigable love. Her kisses are direct and non-negotiable, always followed by a few firm slaps on the cheek or a vice-grip pinch on that fatty area under your chin. She has been sort of bony for most of the years that I remember her, but not frail. Anything but frail.
Ironic then that this tough love has always been accompanied by a soft voice, kind eyes, and a clearly communicated message: your presence means the world to her. Her love, after one of those signature greetings, came in the form of iced tea or a hot dinner. When I walked into her house (or, in recent years, her room), her reaction was always the same.
“Well!” she said, as if you were presenting her, not with just your presence, but with a check for $1 million. “Shawn, Shawn, Shawn. Look who it is. How are you? How are you?” Her voice came out in a sing-song kind of cadence, perhaps from all of those years of singing in church or with her children.
* * * * *
The text I got from my parents last night was a wake up call. When they walked into her room, there was no overwhelming welcome. She sat, and when she spoke it was with a quiet, weak voice. But she is 92, and her body has endured much, and her mind struggles to make all of the connections.
When I heard that, I knew it was time to head home.
To be sure, she has pushed on through overwhelming odds before: heart surgery, multiple strokes, a recent bout of pneumonia. But she is 92, and she seems to be fading, and I want to be home with her and with my family. So we’re cutting our trip short by a week or so and heading home this Friday night: a 12-hour drive, and we should get home by Saturday night.
111 days down. Three to go. I hope we make it in time.