Originally written in 2012 on another blog site, after the passing of my grandma.
There are few people I’ve had a harder time figuring out in my life than my grandmother. A good example of this were some of the last words she ever spoke. She had a small stroke (that’s what we’re calling it) on a Monday night last month in her recliner. I called 911 and we got her to the Emergency Room, where she spent the night. The next evening she was cleared to come home. I came and got her, and as we were driving home I asked her if she was scared when she was having the stroke. Predictably, she didn’t answer the question.
“Well, you know, I just couldn’t move my left side. I just felt numb, and that’s what happens when you have a stroke,” she answered.
Right, I said, but … were you scared? She paused for a moment and then in a confident voice simply said “no.”
The next day she suffered another stroke, this one so damaging most of her left brain was wiped out. That morning she said she still wasn’t wasn’t feeling right. I had to go to school, but I called my mom and she came over and took her back to the hospital, and in the waiting room is where it happened.
But right before I left for school, I came into her bedroom. She was sitting up, sort of hunched over on the side. I asked how she was doing and she said she wasn’t doing well.
“You know how you asked me last night if I was scared and I said no?” she said. “Well, I’m scared to death.”
And that was the Donna Hopley I knew for the past six years, equal parts assuring and vulnerable, although she would never let anyone see the latter when the sun was out. Maybe her balance was horrible, and maybe her hair became whiter and thinner each year, and her coughing and throat clearing grated on our nerves recently. But when she entered a room she controlled it. She was Donna, loud and proud,her voice booming as it bounced off the walls. She’d sit down and if someone else was smoking, she’d bum a cigerette off of them, put her elbow on the table and puff away, in between telling stories I had heard a million times before. Yes, grandma. OK, grandma. Whatever, grandma.
I also thought of her as someone who was void of of any emotion or sentimentality (She scoffed at me for holding on to some of grandpa’s belongings when he passed away in 2006).
Then she fell ill the day after the Super Bowl. She was bed-ridden the whole week, and what strength her legs were holding onto evaporated. She regained just enough energy to get to the breakfast table by the weekend, only to suffer those strokes days later, and the week after that we pulled her off the ventilator. She was strong, as she held all the way until last Friday afternoon.
The night the doctors told us the prognosis I went home and I dove into the closet in the office. I pulled out the photo albums I had looked through so many times before (I am a walking example of someone obsessed with nostalgia and sentimentality). I thumbed through a bunch of photos of her and grandpa I had seen before — presumably moments when they were not bickering, which were few and far between — but as I went along in the office and even in her bedroom, I uncovered much more than I thought I would. In her room I found Barack Obama on the cover of Time in 2008. There were also covers of the JFK assassination and the War on Terror coverage during George W. Bush’s presidency.
I looked for more and I found several postcards she had sent to our family while she was traveling to various places. I could never make out her writing (she wrote in cursive, always, and her D’s looked like G’s to me). But the important parts I was able to read. There was one addressed to me and my mom. It wished us well. There was one to me specifically, and she said she missed me and my basketball games. And then there was one to grandpa. It talked about her trip and what she had done, but then I read the bottom. She said she was homesick. She told him she was “getting lonesome.”
Then I came across an envelope of pictures sent by their old friend George Key. I took them out and saw several photos of a very young Donna smiling back. In those her waist is thin, her eyes are that like she is half squinting into the sun, but the smile is big and innocent.
She’s in several of them; her dark, curly hair showing more than ever, her posture a little slumped. She is, though, undeniably attractive on this day. She is all but 21 years old, a young Donna Hopley, shooting guns in a rocky, flat area with her husband and friends.
Then I began to think. Time has a way of reshaping thoughts and perception. It also redefines people. And, as I got older, it redefined my perception grandma, in a negative way. But I know, for whatever her faults were, she wasn’t exactly who she was when she died. She was once a little girl who admired Shirley Temple. Then she was a young woman completely in love (“when I saw your grandpa come up the driveway back then I had butterflies”). Then she was a mother of two, and a Realtor as well. Then she finally became my grandma, and we searched for monsters in the dark of her house with flashlights, and we got caught in the sprinklers one night in a park and had to make a run for it. And she welcomed me to live with her not once, not twice, but three separate times. And she wrote in a journal for me when I was still very young, “You are the joy of my life … I love to watch you grow and change … I wish you all the good things in life.”
So, yeah, maybe I was wrong. She was sentimental; she appreciated more things than I thought. Maybe I knew that, but somehow it just got away from me. But time does that. It takes things from you in an unforgiving manner. This doesn’t take away the fact that my grandma was imperfect, but in death I can appreciate her in a way I never had. I guess time has a way of doing that as well, which is pretty neat if you think about it.