On Fireflies and Grandmothers

We visited my grandmother this weekend: my father, mother, brother, and I. The four of us have not spent such time together, probably, since my sister was born when I was nine. But my brother and I flew out to Indianapolis to see my grandmother for not even 48 hours.

There is this story she likes to tell about how, years ago on a summer night, she and my parents–and probably my grandfather, as well–were sitting on the back deck while my brother and I chased fireflies. Offhand, as we ran about the yard, she wondered why fireflies light up. My brother, maybe seven or so, ran past and yelled, “Chemical reactions!” She laughs at how he even heard her question, or how this child knew a cogent answer when the adults had none, or how he didn’t even slow his run as he said it.

She tells that story almost every time I see her.

We visited on Thursday night, after our flights got in and before dinner. My grandmother had lipstick and eyeliner on; she sat on the couch watching cable news. When we arrived she smiled and sighed and looked at the two of us–her grandsons–and told us again and again how glad she was that we’d come.

She lives in an assisted living home now, and my uncle–whom she now lives by, instead of four hours away in Ohio–says that he could see the tumor bulging out of her chest the last time her clothes did not cover her sternum.

When my sister visited her in November, she told my sister where there is a ring in her house that belonged to her mother or grandmother–I don’t even know offhand–and that she would like my sister to have it. My dad related that story to me over Thanksgiving, while I stood in the semidarkness of our friends’ daughters’ playroom just before we sat down to eat. The walls were filled with maps and a layout of the solar system.

We spent the entire day with her Friday. We came in the morning and showed her photos of her great-grandaughters. She has photos of them by her bed, too, in this assisted living apartmentĀ four hours from the house where she has lived for the last 65 years or so. When she spoke, she would often pause between words to catch her breath or find the right phrase somewhere in the folds of her tired brain.

The five of us went downstairs and played two hands of cards. Hearts. We used to play cards after meals, my grandmother and my father and the two of us boys. Sometimes another sister of my grandmother’s would play.

My brother told her, around the small table where the five of us perched in the assisted living home, that whenever he thought about Thanksgiving he thought about her house. She would melt sticks of butter in the mashed potatoes and bring out three or four pies. The whole family was there–she and her brother and sister, and my father and mother and brother and I, and after she was born when I was nine, my sister. She would buy whole wheat donuts and make sugar cookies, and we would sit playing cards after Thanksgiving meal and then watch the Lions play football. We were Lions fans, all of us. We talked about the donuts and cookies and played Hearts without keeping score. Only my father remembered all the rules after these intervening years.

In the afternoon we left for lunch while my grandmother slept. But we returned in the evening, and my father showed her more photos of her granddaughters. She spoke of how taken he was with five granddaughters and that he never showed so much excitement over his own sons. We laughed.

Might as well tell it like it is, she said.

When the four of us would talk, she would grow silent. She couldn’t follow all of the conversation, because of her mind and because of her hearing. We had to speak loudly and slowly. Her upper arms were no bigger than my wrists, and her legs perhaps the size of my forearms. In the elevator, as we went up and down between floors for dinner, she slumped against the wall, still standing. I looked down at her and she appeared almost shrunken: a smaller version of the already small grandmother I had grown up with and knew.

She spoke, at dinner, about wanting to go home. My father reminded her of the doctor appointment in a few days. None of us reminded her of the tumor in her chest. The twice-daily visits from nurses and litany of medications and twice-daily shots that she needed in her stomach were enough to remind her, I suppose. We didn’t want to remind her how she was dying and being eaten away from inside by something the doctors couldn’t control.

I tell people that she’s 86 and lived a good life, and it’s true. But the slow ravages that death brings to 21st century society leave a loneliness and sadness.

Perhaps the doctor will remind her in a few days. Perhaps she has forgotten altogether, or thought her round of radiation healed her. I don’t know. As a grandson, I didn’t think it was my place to make sure she understood her predicament.

We said goodbye twice. The first time, on Friday night, we prayed as a family and she told us how she never saw this coming. You don’t know what’s going to happen, she said. She thanked us for visiting. There was a finality to everything.

But we stopped by again on Saturday morning before leaving for the airport. We had 15 minutes in this small apartment, so far away from the house where she lived all her adult life and the other house, two doors down, where she grew up. She was groggy from sleep and unable to get to the door; we had a nurse help us in. She thanked us again for visiting and we sat, drinking coffee, unsure what to say. We told her we loved her. And she sat on the couch and searched for her own words, here with the four of us for the last time.

The last time the five of us will ever sit in a room together. We did not think it would be that room, or that time–we all thought she had 10 years left. She was healthy and robust for her mid-eighties, living on her own, going on bike rides, traveling.

She sat there, all of us looking for words, and like a groove in your brain or an earworm–the tune that you cannot forget and hum to yourself when there is silence–she told us how, years ago, she sat on the back deck with my parents while we caught fireflies. She wondered aloud why they light up and my brother, running across the backyard, shouted, “Chemical reactions.”

We walked to the car; we flew home. But we tell the stories because, for a moment, they become real: and there we all are at her house. The summer night is warm and calm. The water tower in the lot adjacent to her house looms over everything; the stars are out. My brother and I have jars, probably, that we will poke holes in and hold the fireflies until they are dead the next morning. My grandmother is not young, but she is healthy and happy; she is with family. My brother and I run barefoot on the grass. And she wonders something aloud only to hear wisdom from the mouth of babes. She–and everyone save my brother and I–laugh. We turn to see what they are laughing at and then turn back to the business of catching fireflies.

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