Notes from Claudette - Goodbye to a Grandma

Claudette Sutton - June 2, 2008

The sidewalk at the Carriage Hill Nursing Home in Maryland was lined with yellow and purple pansies, flowers my grandmother always had around her home since I was a little girl. Up on the second floor, my grandmother didn't look like she always had. She was 99 and dying.

"Hello, Grandma! It's Claudette," I announced by her bed, where she lay awake but with eyes closed.

"Ah, Claudette," she said in a weak voice, opening eyes to look at me briefly and smile. "I love Claudette."

I rested my hand on hers and sat by the bed. Her aide, Beverly, filled me in on recent changes in my grandmother's health, while I struggled for my bearings. A cup of lilies of the valley, brought by my Aunt Vivian, brightened the tray by her bedside. A few of my grandmother's paintings decorated the walls, along with photos of her grandchildren and great grandchildren.

I'd flown across the country just for this, to hold her hand as I'd held my grandpa's before he died 23 years before, yet being there felt dreamlike, unreal. For many years, I'd wondered if each visit to my grandmother would be my last. My grandmother was an expert in love and survival. Essentially orphaned when she was young, she lived in a boarding school in Paris, without contact from family, until my grandfather met her, fell in love, and brought her back with him to New York to get married. Almost 30 years ago she got cancer but survived. In recent years she grew weaker but remained lucid and vibrant in our brief phone calls and visits. Lately those calls had grown briefer than ever, often not much more than, "Claudette! I love hearing that voice!"

But time doesn't hold magic forever. This time it was clear she'd be leaving soon.

"Some Boost?" Beverly asked, offering my grandmother frequent, tiny sips of a protein drink off a spoon, and rubbing cream on the parts of her body that itched. The gold bracelet my grandfather had given her years ago now fell almost to her elbow.

I can't get my head around death, as much a part of life as birth or flowers in spring but so much harder to understand. I'd flown across the country in hopes of seeing her one last time, and I'd succeeded, but I didn't know if I'd really absorbed that she was dying.

In the silence, Beverly started an old song, "I love you my baby, my baby loves me"" I remembered my uncle telling me that Grandma loved hearing us sing when she was too tired to talk. So I sang, wondering what it meant to be singing to comfort and calm my grandmother as she used to sing to us.

"You used to watch Dean Martin on Saturday nights."

"Oh, I loved him!" she said faintly.

"I know! You used to call him your boyfriend!" As a kid I wondered if that made my grandfather jealous. I never got into Dean Martin, that loopy, boozy quality he was famous for, but he made my grandmother swoon. "What was that song he used to sing?"

Beverly pointed out that Grandma had answered, softer than I could hear: "That's Amore."

"That's it!" I said, excitedly singing: When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's amore,making up words where I forgot them. Grandma joined me here and there.

Such a special bond can exist between children and grandparents. In her essay, "Through the Eyes of Babes," Rosemary Zibart revels in weekly visits with her new baby grandson, too young to converse but old enough to enjoy time with her. Dawn Wink's "Landscape of Summer", shares a mom's efforts to sustain children's ties to long-distance grandparents. Just a branch apart on the family tree, the relationship of child to grandparent is unique-different from either the relationship we have with our parents or that between our parents and theirs.

Grandma died just a few days later. Relatives gathered in her nursing home room one last time, until the funeral home people came for her body. That night I dreamt of our cat Rex, who died a year ago. Dream-Rex jumped on a table in front of me, in my aunt and uncle's guestroom, where my grandmother used to stay.

"Rex!" I said. "How kind of you to come see us now."

"You know that was Grandma, don't you?" my cousin Kate told me the next day. (Forty-some-odd years ago Kate tried to set me straight about Santa Claus: "Let me tell you something: It's your parents." I didn't believe her.) I wasn't so sure Rex was Grandma in disguise. He seemed just a benevolent visitor, come from the other side to say, "It's okay here."

Azalea bushes and dogwood trees burst with color along the street outside my aunt and uncle's house where we held shiva, the Jewish ritual of mourning. Outside, hundreds of caterpillars crawled along the patio, furry reminders of life's progression. Inside, the house filled with relatives from across the country, and family friends who stopped by to support the relatives. I felt grateful for my family and traditions, the way our shared strengths triumph over private sorrows.

I flew home the day after the funeral. Before I left, I dug up some lilies of the valley from my aunt's flower bed, wrapped them in wet paper towels and put them in a plastic bag to take on the plane.

Between planes in the Houston airport, I saw a fat, furry caterpillar fall to the ground by my feet in the bathroom stall. How did it get there, halfway between my old home and my current one? It must have crawled on my pants or into my bag when I was digging up the lilies. Somehow it survived, unnoticed, for several hours and thousands of miles on the airplane. What to do? To leave it there-certain death. Would it survive in Santa Fe, away from its kin? Like Rex, it seemed a visitor, signifying something. But what?

There'd be time for symbology later. I dropped the caterpillar in the bag with my lilies, tied up the ends and dropped it in my carry-on bag to take home.