She was in her nineties the January I went to stay with her. Still living alone at home in Cleveland, Ohio, she needed someone where winters were long, lonely, and frigid. I was divorced and in between jobs, and my aunt offered a stipend if I would spend the cold months there. I had stayed with her the summer I turned 16 and she had all kinds of rules like not dating. Two decades later, I wasn’t sure what boundaries my grandmother would set for me.
The evening I arrived, my first task was to fetch the Fleet enema from the medicine cabinet and follow the directions. I had never done this before, but I didn’t flinch. “I need replacements parts for everything,” she said.
She spent a lot of time in bed, resting, but she got dressed every morning and made her own breakfast, usually cooked cereal. She ran the household from her rocking chair in the kitchen and the refrigerator contents were strictly managed. Everything had to be visible, no leftovers lurking in the back. This seemed like a ridiculous demand, but a friend enlightened me, “When it appears you’ve lost control of everything, you will fight for control over something.” Other than breakfast she seemed to exist on homemade egg custard and tomato-pumpkin soup. They slid down easily when not much else did. Swallowing, it turns out, does not come with a guarantee.
My grandmother had outlived all but one school chum and they talked on the phone. Together they formed the “Ready-to-Go Club.” She told me, “Each night we pray that the good Lord will take us in our sleep, but thus far he has paid us no heed.”
We got along fine that winter except for the night I wanted to go dance the polka at a German bar. She forbade me to go. “But Grandma, I’m 37 years old. I should know how to polka.” This line of reasoning went nowhere. In the end I defied her and slipped out of the house after I thought she was asleep. Nothing was ever said about it, but that night I crossed a line and I wasn’t sure the oompah band was worth it.
We would watch the evening news together on the couch, sitting with faces frozen in sorrow as the first Gulf War raged in front of us. Using chair arms and doorframes, she teetered her way back through the house to her bed, explaining as she went, “I’ve already lived through too many wars.”
My grandmother lived another four years and was able to die at home in her own bed. She finally got the good Lord to listen.