I have an antique coo-coo clock on the wall in my office that is accurate maybe three or four times a day – which, yeah, I know, weird, huh? Especially considering that the running joke is “it’s right twice a day.” However, this clock does tell time, except like every other person in this house, it does it on its own terms. I could, I suppose, tighten the arms or whatever to “fix” it, but I like it this way. I like how it doesn’t chime, but instead you can hear the gears working extra hard every fifteen minutes. I like the toc tac sound that subtly fills my study. (Yes, toc tac. This clock is unique just as its previous owner was.) Most of the time it’s white noise that I don’t notice until it’s gone, but there are moments when it forces me to pay attention to it and in doing so to remember the very special lady who gave it to me.
If you don’t already know, just like everyone else, the elderly want to matter. They don’t want to be the person that no one knows what to do with. They don’t want to be their grandparents who received the expected hello and good-bye kisses but were ignored or condescended to during the in between. They want to talk and be talked with. They want discussions. As a stay at home mom who spent her waking time with Barney and Teletubbies and two pre-schoolers I was hungry for discussions as well. Jack’s grandma GiGi and I were perfectly suited.
I knew she was lonely after Grandpa died, and being afraid she’d pull a Charlotte Bronte, I would take the girls every week to her retirement village and the four of us would run errands, go to lunch or a matinee, or even just hang around her place and play cards. “I always wanted a sister,” she said once, “and you’re like that to me.”
To be honest, those visits weren’t always easy or convenient. Amy was a little over 3 and Amelia was maybe 18 months. GiGi was 93 years old, had a walker and a side to side waddle so extreme that I was afraid she’d tip herself right over. I’d have to buckle kids into car seats and help GiGi into the van, and fold up strollers and walkers and then unload and unpack, and try try try to remember to treat GiGi as the adult she was and not like one of my children. Still every week we went and spent time with a woman who had a lot of stories to tell – the depression, the wars, the victory gardens, and each time we did it felt like less and less of a chore and more of a privilege.
As sweet and as proper as she looked with her cotton candy puff of snow white hair and accessorized outfits, GiGi was open to all kinds of discussions. Nothing was off limits. “What’s it like to stop having sex?” I once asked her. She paused for a moment, then sighed. “It’s damned depressing.” I knew which of her grandchildren were her favorites and which ones she merely tolerated because of genetics. I knew how she really felt about her daughter-in-law’s mother. I knew how badly it hurt her when someone suggested that it was time to stop signing our birthday and Christmas cards with both her and Grandpa’s names. “Do I only get a year to mourn a man I’ve loved my entire life?” she asked me. But, because it made some of us uncomfortable, she stopped signing his name with a halo above it, and eventually, she stopped signing his name at all. I knew that she sometimes pretended to sleep so she could disappear to those who were having conversations. “You learn a lot that way,” she said with a wink.
Eventually GiGi had a stroke that left her unable to speak and unable to swallow well enough to eat or drink. We asked if she wanted a feeding tube, but she declined. Simply put, she was finished. Tired. God had been good to her, she had a wonderful family and an excellent life, she’d seen things and done things, but she was ready to be with her husband and friends again. She was the last of her peers and it was lonely.
I think she lived for a little over a week and all but the last few days were spent enjoying family. I broke into tears when I walked into her room, and even though she knew it was the end of this life for her, she was the one comforting me. I will never forget the way her hands felt when held mine and stroked my arm, nor the warmth and love in her eyes. There wer a lot of tears that week, but not as much as there was laughter as we told stories of the past, of the many times GiGi and Grandpa had foiled bad behaviors or busted us for cheating at Euchre. We played cards while she slept. We held her hand and moistened her mouth with those funky pink swabs. Jack brought in his laptop and showed her a slide show of her family, the homes she’d lived in, the places she and Grandpa had visited, pictures of sunrises and sunsets, mountains and oceans, flowers and birds. Everything she loved. Her sons, who had long ago fallen out and now barely tolerated each other, stood together at her bedside, lined up by age and height just as they must have when she was young and they were boys. Upon her non-verbal request my sister-in-law prepared her a cup of hot tea – GiGi’s favorite drink, and by some miracle GiGi drank it, smiled at us all and went to sleep. She never regained consciousness after that.
It’s been 7 years this month, but I don’t think I would have realized it if, for whatever reason, tonight I hadn’t been distracted by the ticking of the antique coo-coo clock that hangs on my study wall. Don’t worry GiGi, I haven’t forgotten you. That, my sister, would be impossible.
I miss her.
She liked me. She really like me.