Frustration blended with exhaustion as my vehicle inched forward two feet. Construction had several miles of the interstate heading towards Memphis moving at a snail’s pace. Looking out the window, I could see a caterpillar on the shoulder passing me by. A flurry of wings flashed into view then the red-tailed hawk departed with his morning snack. I continued staring at the shoulder until a ding from my phone alerted me to an incoming text. No vehicles were moving, so I picked up the phone to read my mother’s message.
It won’t be long now.
To anyone outside of the family, the message would be vague, at best. I understood its meaning. I’m sure my son and my sister comprehended the text as well. My mother sat vigil at the nursing home with my grandmother.
Meanwhile, I was heading in the opposite direction, a three-hour trip that was gradually turning into five. My sister was on a cruise ship; my son was with his fiancée in New Orleans celebrating her birthday. My mother was alone awaiting her brothers and sisters to arrive to say one last goodbye to my ailing grandmother.
My grandmother had spent the last seven years widowed, staring at nebulous shadows because her macular degeneration allowed nothing more. Granted, my mother and other family members visited my grandmother on a daily basis; she was luckier than some of the residents who never received visitors—even from family members who lived nearby. Still, since the death of my grandfather not long after the long-married couple was admitted to the facility, she sat alone, even in a room with this roommate and that before they passed away and a new person would be moved in. I visited when I could, generally once per month. I would read to her, a stack of birthday and Mother’s Day cards, which she always enjoyed.
My grandfather had been her best friend. They shared the same birthday, divided by a five-year difference. They had been wedded over seventy-one years. Once, they received a signed certificate from the President of the United States congratulating them on one of their landmark anniversaries. My grandmother remarked, “I wish the president would spend more time fixing the problems in the country instead of sending us a certificate.”
Still, she appreciated the simple piece of official paper and had it framed. She hung it on the wall next to the autographed Charley Pride headshot I obtained for them as a gift for their sixtieth anniversary. That was one of their favorite performers and I fondly remembered the rare time they came to visit our house when I was a child because Charley was performing in our town. I had contacts in the entertainment industry when I got older, so getting Charley to personalize a photo for them was easy, him being a considerate and friendly man. The gift brought a bigger smile to my grandparent’s faces than the generic certificate from our country’s leader.
Another text came through. I had only moved forward a couple of car lengths over the past fifteen minutes.
Her hands and fingers are turning from blue to purple, almost black.
My grandparents never traveled that much out of their own region within the Ouachita Mountains. They’d go camping or fishing with us, and my grandfather would walk about their neighborhood in the morning. He’d sit on a front porch swing, visiting with friends once he retired and no longer worked in the grocery or hardware stores.
My grandmother preferred to sit at home and let people visit her, which they always did. Their house felt like Grand Central Station at times. No sooner had an aunt or several cousins left than an uncle with his children and grandchildren would show up.
Not as many relatives came to the nursing home. Can’t say that I blame them. It’s a depressing place seeing people just wasting away, calling out the name of a long-dead spouse or child, unable to care for themselves. I can’t imagine how embarrassing it has to be for my grandmother to have someone assist her with a bath or other personal necessities. She has always been a very modest person.
I remember once I almost made my grandmother choke as she was eating Jell-O. She had remarked, “I can’t stand someone having to feed me or helping me wipe when I’m finished in the bathroom.” I replied, “At least they aren’t getting confused and switching ends when they do it.” The crass joke took some visitors aback, but my grandmother understood my humor and laughed, accidentally inhaling the gelatin. She overcame her brief choking then thanked me for making her happy as her frail, bony hand patted my hand.
That’s all the entire message read. From the first text to the last, it had taken an hour and I had moved forward all of a mile. A teardrop trickled down my face. An exit ramp appeared and I took it, moving on to my destination as my grandmother moved on to my grandfather and her final destination.