Life can change in an instant.
How true is that statement? If you've ever lost someone you love, you've felt the pain of those words. Our lives get so busy, we forget how precious time is. One minute, you're running out the door to greet the hecticness of your day; and then you receive an unexpected call that brings you to your knees. Maybe it's the loss of a loved one. Maybe it's a medical call with bad results. But it's almost always news that ultimately makes you wish for more time.
Sixty-five years ago my grandparents decided to spend a long time together. My grandfather was a soldier in World War II, for which he received a purple heart. My grandmother, I call her Nonnie, was a young woman working in Washington D.C. They were from neighboring towns near a coal-mining area in Pennsylvania, which is where they met. They fell in love and got married. My Nonnie had dreams of seeing the world. My grandfather had no choice but to see the world because it had been a time of war. And time decided that this couple would spend over six decades of their lives together. They had four daughters, fourteen grandchildren and fourteen great grandchildren. Their summers were spent sipping on cold iced teas; either on the front porch of the home my grandfather built by hand, or on the backyard swing that was once painted canary yellow. Their evenings always started with one of Nonnie's homemade meals; cabbage rolls and chicken paprikash were two of her signature dishes. For many years they would end their nights watching Johnny Carson. In more recent years, their evening entertainment was a popular sitcom rerun, like Everybody Loves Raymond or Seinfeld. And a nightcap of scotch on the rocks was a pretty good bet! Their days and nights were routine. But one thing was constant. Their time was spent together.
For many years, I spent Tuesday nights with my grandparents for dinner. My grandmother called it, "Tuesdays with Nonnie." Over time, my life became busy and "Tuesdays with Nonnie" became a random Monday or Wednesday night. But even as time aged her, Nonnie still fussed over me during every visit. And at eight-five years old, she was still making her signature homemade pies with homemade crust (because the one time she settled for store bought crust, she threw out the pie, claiming that is was "junk"). About eight months ago, I made a surprise visit to my grandparent's house. My grandpa pulled out a bottle of wine and Nonnie fixed some snacks. We laughed for the next two hours telling stories. And I also shared dreams of my future. That night, we set a date for another "Tuesday with Nonnie." Except we picked the following Wednesday night. She marked it down with a pencil on her calendar. And I typed it into the calendar on my iPhone. Once the date was locked in, Nonnie spoke the same words she said to me every time we set a dinner date... "If anything better comes along, I'll understand." And then I sighed and smiled, saying, "Nothing better will come along." This was our time and I knew it wouldn't last forever.
Time. It can change in an instant.
Two days after my visit, Nonnie checked into a local hospital with pains in her back and down her arm. Three days later, Nonnie suffered a major stroke and was found slumped over in her hospital room chair. She was unresponsive. And the seconds, minutes and days that followed were critical. When you're praying for someone to heal, time seems to move so slowly. But when every hour counts, you keep wishing for more time. We, her army of family and friends, waited. Praying for a miracle. Willing Nonnie to open her eyes. Wishing for more time. And with every passing moment, clinging onto hope.
Time. We always wish for more of it in moments like this.
And then it happened. Was time on our side? Nonnie opened her eyes again. But something was clearly different. It was what the doctors prepared us for. Nonnie could not speak. And the words she could say were difficult to understand. The right side of her body could not move. Which meant she had to rely on others to move her from place to place. She no longer had the privacy of going to the bathroom or taking a shower alone. And she could no longer speak freely about stories from the past or how she was feeling on any given day. Nonnie's days and nights were no longer spent in the cozy rooms that her husband built years ago. She was now confined to the compound of a nursing facility, in her not-so-comfy-looking bed and rickety wheelchair.
Time. Was it really on her side?
I struggle with that question. Mostly because I believe that Nonnie hates her current condition. Who wouldn't?
One day, a dear family friend and physician visited Nonnie. And while Nonnie can't speak in sentences, our friend asked her some pointed questions. She asked, "Are you afraid?" Nonnie shook her head yes. She then asked,"Are you frustrated?" Again, Nonnie nodded with a firm yes. Our doctor friend then said, "Do you like the food here?" There was no question about her answer. Nonnie's response was loud and direct. Through her eyes and firm shakes of her head, Nonnie responded that she did NOT like the food! Nonnie could no longer speak with words, but we now knew that she was scared, frustrated and had no appetite for the nursing home stews and pies. She was communicating. In a different way. The only way she was able to communicate. But still, that question, "Was time on her side?" remained on the forefront of my brain.
Let's break it down more honestly. This is what I was really thinking...
I know she hates being like this. She would not want this. She always said she would not want this. She used to pray to God not to give her a stroke. She's such a wonderful person, why did she have a stroke? It's too hard to see her like this. I hate seeing her like this. She loved to laugh and tell stories. And now she can't speak. That's such a cruel fate for a woman who was so full of life. This is no way to live. She can't want to live like this. I wonder if she wants to die? I sometimes wish she would just die.
That last sentence. That's a hard one to write. It's one of those brutually honest thoughts that you have in your mind, but don't dare to speak out loud. The first reason; it makes you feel like a horrible person. The second; you fear that cliched phrase, "Be careful what you wish for." The truth is, I really don't want Nonnie to leave us. I wish she could be with us forever. I still long for that lively woman, who even in her old age, was the energy of all parties (and truth be told, could drink everyone under the table). And sometimes, I still think I might have one of her homemade pies again. And if by some miracle she recovers, I will force her to show me how she makes her chicken paprikash. Step by step. She was the ultimate secret keeper of her recipes. We, her family, thought is was because she always wanted to be known and never copied for her signature meals. Whether or not that was her wish, she will never be forgotten for her food made with love. But I know in my heart that cooking lessons with Nonnie will not happen now. That time has passed.
Time. It can really be a bitch, some of the time.
It's been almost eight months since Nonnie's stroke. I used to visit her every Sunday. And then about two months ago, I stopped going. I wish I could give some thoughtful reason as to why. Yes, it was hard to see her so helpless. Sure, it made me sad every time I left her. But why would I abandon the side of a woman who always showed me pure love and joy my entire life? I don't know. Maybe in time, I'll understand why. But I knew that it was time for me to go back. Nonnie was still with us. And she needed to hear me say that nothing better had come along. I think she needed another visit. Or maybe I was the one who needed the visit?
It was a Tuesday morning when I went back. I was on my way to work and my car took a detour. I found myself driving in the direction of Nonnie's nursing home. The front door was still smudged with fingerprints, just as I remembered it from earlier in the summer. My grandmother was moved to longterm care, so her room changed. I walked to the room I had yet to visit this summer. It was empty. I was told she was getting her hair done, as she does every Tuesday. One of the nurses directed me to the "beauty salon" where I found Nonnie with her eyes closed, relaxing while her hair was being shampooed. I called out to her. She still can't speak much. And for a moment, I wasn't sure if she recognized me. But as our eyes read the faces of each other, it was clear she knew exactly who I was. After her stylist rolled curlers in her hair and put Nonnie under the dryer, I pulled up a chair and sat down next to her. She was sleepy, but trying hard to give me her attention. I grabbed her hand and said, "I'm sorry it's been so long since my last visit." She smilled with her eyes. I then asked, "Are you made at me?" With every bit of energy that her weakened body and damaged brain could muster, she slowly spoke these words..." Oh... my... God... no." And then she shook her head with a smile on her face, indicating the same sentiment that she tried to speak... she could never be mad at her granddaughter.
It was a Tuesday with Nonnie. I'm still not sure if I did it more for her, or more for me. But it felt right to be with her.
Time. It's a beautiful gift. We can't stop it, speed it up, or wish it away. And why would we want to? We need to make the most of our time. After all, it can change in an instant.