Doug Stanton

Doug Stanton

A weeklong electronic journal.
July 13 1999 8:30 PM

Doug Stanton

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She was sitting up in bed when we walked in. Mom and Dad were there; they were just leaving and turned around and walked back in. A nurse was swabbing Grandma's mouth with a small square of sponge on a stick, cleaning her teeth. Grandma's face was drawn tight, her skin was shiny. She was no longer reaching out at imaginary things in the room.

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Dad went to the bed and bent down, and he looked suddenly 30, 40, 50 years younger, his voice rising, "Hello, Grandma, it's me. Doug and Anne and the kids are here, can you hear me?"

She nodded. "Someone took all my jewelry," she said. "Someone took it. Where is it?"

"It's right here, Grandma," Dad said. He stared a moment at her glasses, at her watch, her birthstone ring of ruby red, and then he closed the bureau drawer.

He touched her wedding ring, a gold band worn thin under her strong knuckle. "Is this comfortable?" he asked. "Would you like me take this off, Grandma?"

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She drew her hand away quickly. "Now, that's never been off since the day Grandpa put it on me!" and she lay her folded hands back on her chest. She said all this with her eyes closed; it occurred to me she was aware of everything without seeing it.

Dad burst into tears at this, catching his breath with a boyish whoop and standing up, wiping his eyes. I was sitting next to Grandma in a white Formica chair, holding Katie on my lap; I felt dead.

A nurse came in and said it was time to get Grandma out of bed. We left the room and Anne and I walked hand in hand through the nursing home with the kids in each arm. When we came back, she was propped up in the hallway, her oxygen machine sitting beside her purring quietly. A cold, white light poured in through the glass door, looking out at the parking lot in the early summer rain.

"She delivered my grandmother and my aunt," said the nurse. "My aunt is even named Gertie, after her. She's quite a lady."

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Grandma Gertie, who was born in 1898, had worked as a midwife and she'd delivered lots of people in Reed City, Mich.. Of all the people I knew, she loved the woods and the lakes and rivers the best; she loved gardens and dogs and birds and she'd taught my father and uncle and her sons how to fish. She was strong and smart and I loved her dearly and I knew when she died more things than I cared to count would be ending. The nurse adjusted pillows under Grandma's bruised arms and kissed her forehead and left.

"Hello, Grandma, it's me," I said. She looked at me through the slight, orange slits of her eyes--what we used to call "sleepers" as kids were in the corners of those pale, blue eyes. They were the color of two blueberries dropped in milk.

Before coming into the nursing home, Katie had picked a dandelion, and I pulled it out of my pocket, and I showed it to her.

"Here, Grandma, Katie brought this." Grandma lifted it from my hand and brought it to her nose, her nostrils enlarged and gray and dry from the oxygen tubes inserted into them. She sniffed and smiled. Her eyes were still closed.

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"Purty," she finally said.

She lay there with that dandelion pinched between her broad thumb and forefinger, looking out at the parking lot, with her eyes closed.

I sat there awhile next to her, just the two of us, looking out the glass door at the broadside of a blue Chevy Lumina. Then I kissed her forehead and ran my fingers through her fine hair. I sat there a long time looking out at the parking lot. Finally, I said, "I love you," and she said, "Thanks for coming."

On the drive home, Anne said, "It's so odd how you live a whole life with a house and things and children and trips and pets--all of it--everything that we have, and one day you leave it all." She was crying. "I'm so sorry for being mean to you," she said.

I touched her hand and squeezed as we drove through the rain. In the rearview mirror, I could see Johnny looking up at me, his confused face staring at me. "Do you understand what's happening?" I asked.

"Yes, Grandma's sick, and she doesn't feel well."

"That's right."

Autumn-- autumn is a time for burning; but summer, what is it, but the laying out of dreams and memories and night-fears to be cleaned by the sun? I lay awake in bed last night, thinking about what I'd written Monday in this diary, thinking about how it is you can belong to a place, and that saying goodbye to Grandma was just one way. I never saw her alive again.