When did you first understand the meaning of love? I was once asked this question … here was my answer.
My grandmother could peel an apple. It wasn’t haphazardly cored — the way I do it. Instead, the process was in long curling strips into the kitchen sink, never ending until the entire skin was removed in one swift step. Effortless is perhaps the best word to describe it.
But that was Grandma Mary. It didn’t seem that she had to try. When she knitted a blanket, she carried on conversations as if she wasn’t working the needles. Rolling out pasta seemed to be a small task, quickly accomplished. And patience was never an issue, as she listened to a loved one’s problems with full attention.
She was a hard-working Iowa farm wife. She diligently performed each and every task, and provided nourishment to all who needed it.
During our college years, my cousin Jennifer and I looked forward to noon on Mondays. That day we’d travel to our grandparents’ home for a feast, of sorts. The kitchen table would be heaped with everything a hungry farmer would ever want — a roast, simmering vegetables, baked bread, cheeses, a fresh dessert and more. We’d sit, relaying stories of school, while Grandma watched us, amused, laughing with this slight lilt. We’d walk out the door, an hour later, hardly able to keep our eyes open due to the food overload we had experienced.
A few years later, I found myself living in a new city, away from family. Life had gotten in the way — romantic relationships, finances, the normal worries of adulthood. Everything constantly surrounding me seemed of dire importance — and during that chaotic mess was when I received the phone call. My mother called me with startling news, one September day, that would cause my concentration to lapse. “Your grandmother’s cancer is back.”
“Well, she’s going to get better again, right?”
“Not this time.”
She had been diagnosed with uterine cancer a few years back, but had succeeded in fighting the battle.
But this time, it had spread. All over.
That day was a blur. I’m not sure how I got back to my apartment, after driving through rush-hour traffic. I wasn’t thinking of anything besides the rotting feeling that had settled in my stomach cavity.
She had a half a year at the most, doctors said.
Three months passed, and Christmas-time was fast approaching. I looked forward to spending time with my family in central Iowa. A perfect place for spending the holidays — fields blanked with snow, fireplaces, blankets and hot chocolate waiting inside to provide warmth.
Grandma had been in and out of the hospital recently. Sick with the ailments that come along with cancer. She had gone into the local hospital on Dec. 22, but we were assured that she would come home soon. Grandpa was quite worried — knowing that this was likely to be the last holiday he’d spend with his wife. On Christmas Eve, I came into her hospital room with a small-lighted tree, to bring some cheer to the blank atmosphere. She was asleep, peaceful, and very pale in her bed. I couldn’t bear to wake her as she lay with a slight smile on her face. That moment, I realized how vulnerable she was — how I was.
The next morning, while opening up presents with my family, the phone rang. It was the hospital — and we were advised to hurry. We dressed quickly, and arrived to find our large extended family gathering in the lobby. The end was coming soon for Grandma Mary, as the cancer had entered her brain. A day or two left, the doctors said. A priest came to give her last rites, and we knew then that the tough stuff had come.
She stayed for a day. Then two. Three, and finally four. While there, she laughed and talked with family — relaying stories of the past we had never heard. We enjoyed her company and she enjoyed ours.
But there was something missing in this hospital room. My younger sister Emily. Oh, she was at the hospital — more than most, in fact. But she hadn’t set foot in Grandma’s room since Christmas Day. She had her reasons.
While my grandmother and I had a strong connection, as most of my cousins did — the one bond that stuck out was the one she shared with Emily. They had nicknames for each other and daily card games to play. Instead of coming right home after school during our younger years, Emily would stop over at our grandparents’ instead. For cookies and punch, she’d say. In reality, it was for the conversation and the jokes they’d share. My sister couldn’t, or didn’t, want to say goodbye. So after three days of avoiding her grandmother’s hospital room, it was time. Well that was what my mother and aunts said. Emily didn’t think so. She sat stubbornly in the waiting room, arms folded, as my aunts coaxed her to the room. At first it was “I’m fine, thanks anyway,” to “No, I’m not going. Stop.” But she failed against the defiant aunts. Arm in arm, the two led her toward my sleeping grandma. She stayed in the doorway of the hospital room for a while, afraid. A gentle push from behind made her enter the room, to reality. Emily sat slowly next to the bed. Her face immobile. Frigidly still as she gradually looked at grandma’s closed eyes. Finally, an uncle gently took her hand and placed it into the frail embrace of my grandmother’s. That was all it took. These heaving sobs started coming out of Emily — her whole body shaking as she grasped onto my grandmother’s body with all her might. She couldn’t stop and wouldn’t let go. I stood in the doorway watching the situation. All who were in the room began to cry, touched by the situation. Seconds became minutes, before Emily, red-faced and spent, left the room.
It was then and there that I first knew what true love was. It wasn’t my first kiss, or hearing my boyfriend say, “I love you.” Romantic love couldn’t compare. It was watching my sister grieving over her dying grandmother, her friend. She didn’t want to say goodbye, didn’t want to believe it was true. But it was. The next morning Grandma left us, as we knew she eventually would. She left as she had lived — effortlessly.
Her favorite song “Claire de Lune” was played at the funeral. A tune known for it’s quiet simplicity, something that grandma knew something about.
That was six years ago — and I still look at that night at the hospital as one of the most beautiful, yet sad, moments of my life.
My grandmother loved, and we loved her back. And for that, I am extremely blessed.