She didn't see me walk in the kitchen or notice that I was standing behind her. She looked smaller but still pretty and had a pleasant look on her face as she raised her glass of apple juice to the table of five other elderly people and said, "Cheers!"
I touched her shoulder, she turned and smiled big, "Oh! It's you!"
I last saw Mamaw in September and she was still living in a two-bedroom apartment at an assisted living facility. She was in the moment, but aware her short-term memory was poor and her physical strength was deteriorating. Several weeks later, she had an abrupt decline in her cognitive and physical health. Dad had to make the difficult decision to move her to a residential group home. Mamaw, although tired and confused, agreed and didn't debate the decision. She's been living in a house with seven other elderly people, all requiring significant care.
I said, "Look who I brought. It's Toddler Child." She was happy and thought for a moment, "Now, am I his great-aunt?" I told her no, that she was his great-grandmother. "Oh, hells bells. Of course I am. Damn, Chrisy. Getting old is for the birds. I mean to tell you."
We went to her room. It's a generous bedroom that accommodates her desk, a queen-size bed, and an easy chair with a footstool. She asked for a pillow and tossed it on the floor when I handed it to her. I wasn't sure what she was going to do. She began to lower herself in an effort to sit on the floor. I asked her what she was doing. She said she wanted to play cars with Toddler Child.
Toddler Child asked for a stick of gum. Mamaw said, "I haven't had bubble gum in years. Could I have a piece?" I said, "Sure. But I'm gonna tell you what I tell Toddler Child, chew, chew, chew. Don't swallow it." She laughed, took the gum and chewed it for the remainder of our visit. When I returned the following day, her chewed gum was stuck to the lamp on her nightstand. She was saving it.
We thought it would be nice to get some fresh air and walk around the backyard. I asked Mamaw if I could help her up from her spot on the floor. She declined and said she's more comfortable figuring it out for herself. I said, "If you get hurt, Dad's gonna kill me." "Don't you worry," she said.
We stopped in the bathroom across the hall before heading outside. Mamaw wanted to grab a tissue. We tried to take an artsy-fartsy picture. I can never do this right, but Mamaw seemed to enjoy it.
While we were outside I asked Mamaw if she was happy. She said, "Oh, in a perfect world, I'd have my own little house, and my own yard, but an older person needs help with the details of life. I can't manage the details anymore." She also said, "Being older is one of the most difficult times of my life. It's terrible when you can't remember things. All I really hope for now is that I die without a struggle, and in my sleep." I told her I hoped that for her too.
Mamaw and I have talked about death openly since I was a little girl. I vividly remember asking her questions about death, heaven, fear, pain, if anyone she'd buried had ever contacted her. She always took me seriously and answered honestly, even when she didn't really know the answer. When I was about 10 years old, I respectfully requested that upon her death, she please contact me to tell me what the real story was, but only if she could do it without frightening me. She agreed.
The first day I visited Mamaw she wasn't wearing her signature red lipstick. We arrived while she was eating lunch, and the excitement of our visit threw off her routine. She'd had her hair done earlier that morning so she looked pretty and coiffed. She prefers her naturally curly hair a little less "done" but was happy to have the shampoo and cut.
When I returned the following day, without Toddler Child, we were able to lounge on her bed together and talk. Like girls at a slumber party. She had run a comb through the coiffed hairdo and tried to get her natural curls to do their thing, and she had on her red lipstick.
We chatted, she touched me a lot, and I her. We looked at our nails and fluffed our hair, sifted through old cards and letters in her desk, and talked about death, again.
I said, "Mamaw, I'll be back in a few months, and Chris and all three boys will be with me." "Good!" she said. I said, "Now please don't forget, if and when you die, I really want you to contact me, but ONLY if you don't scare me."
"God I'm glad you reminded me of that, Honey. That's always been important to you. I'll do it. But only if I can't scare you? What if I have to startle you a little?"
I said, "Use your best judgment, but err on the side of caution."
She laughed and gave me a little smack.