My grandmother never had spectacular health. Since I was a kid, she hobbled around on either a cane or walker before she graduated eventually to a wheelchair in which, at family dinners, I rolled my cousins around the house while my grandma swatted at us with her picker-upper stick and shouted, “That’s not a toy!” What was even less of a toy was her electric scooter, and it was also much more fun.
In the last couple of years, my grandma became bedridden. I do not think she would have used that word. My grandma was an optimist. “Bedridden” may imply some failing or inevitability. My grandma did not have that outlook.
When my grandpa passed almost a decade ago, my grandma maintained her independence for as long as she could. My grandparents had led rather separate, yet daily-intertwined lives. Every morning they convened to eat the Hardee’s biscuits my grandpa fetched and watch their birdfeeders. They reunited in the evening for the dinner my grandma made (or bought), which always included potatoes (my grandpa grew up on the Dakota plains, or so the explanation went). Occasionally, they ended the night over a puzzle—either together or separately.
Like most grandchildren, I never saw my grandma work. In my mind, she existed as a perpetual homemaker. However, my mom remembered and my grandma insisted she had worked her assortment of jobs back in the day—a secretary, a seamstress (including for a ballet!), and most impressionably a teacher that I would have feared to have. She had a favorite story where she grumbled of misbehaving pupils who spoke back to the teacher and deservedly had their fingers smacked. My grandma seemed much stricter in her narration than how she spoiled me, her grandson (or all her other various grand- and great- and great-great-grandchildren).
As a child, my grandma helped with many Halloween costumes. Most notably, she made me into Godzilla. No, I was not just a green T-rex; I was the God of the Monsters complete with yellow back plates, sparkling talons, and a thick tail that trailed behind me as I ran up driveways to say, “Trick-or-treat!” and threatened to catch on fire as it swished past jack-o’-lanterns.
Both my grandparents were Renaissance people. My grandpa carved, painted, canoed, fished, and sculpted. My grandma painted, sewed, and did crosswords. I wonder now if love or watercolor came first in their relationship.
When my grandpa was alive, my grandma seemed to paint less. I remember remarking to my mom that my grandpa was the artist and she corrected me that they both were. Indeed, in the last few years, as my grandma traveled between one assisted living facility to another with more assistance, she reclaimed her paintbrush and returned to her familiar watercolors and acrylics. She painted landscapes, photos of her other grandsons’ pets (always dogs and never the cats she was allergic to), and notably a snow-covered tree filled with red cardinals. She also raced through Sudoku puzzles.
My grandmother faced death many times. Her own mother, my G.G., had done the same. My dad tells stories of rushing to my great-grandma’s bedside only for her to continue living for years onward. The same seemed to happen with my grandma. A common cold, pneumonia, diabetes, bronchitis—the list was endless. More recently, she ended up in the hospital and rambled of voices, possibly angels. Against odds, she returned to health with the only lasting remnant a strong memory that I had punched my uncle (which was entirely not true) and was my uncle out of jail (well, was he?). My uncle had never been to jail in his entire life.
After that spell, she became more dependent on her wheelchair and the bed. She spent a few weeks in rehabilitation, which allowed her to potentially stand for a brief period. Staggering even a few steps seemed a long way off. Indeed, “walking” was a distant goal to her—not an impossibility. My grandmother never seemed to grasp her inevitability or, more frankly, her mortality. She lived each day as if she had a thousand more left.
Possibly because her health had been at risk for most of her life or perhaps just because she was an optimist, she spoke of years down the road. Even as her time spent in bed grew proportionally more to the point of asymptotic permanency, she never doubted the life she had left. She saw no holiday as the last. She saw no condition as permanent. She had long been a large woman, and she continued to diet (or try to), munching on her sugar-free candies. She spoke of seeing my or many of my other cousins’ weddings, if not children. I always wondered if deep inside she knew, this would not change, that would not change—or perhaps I needed her optimism.
The end came swiftly, if not unexpectedly. When my mom called to say she had gone on hospice, I dismissed the timeline as unusual pessimism. My grandmother had at least six months, I assumed, and I would be surprised if she did not sneak six more after that. Multiple close calls with death can desensitize one to the urgency of the last call. Apparently, my grandma only ceded to the inevitable after the doctors reminded her she was too old, frail, and inoperable for the hopeful, last ditch efforts she spoke to. A specialist could put out one fire and maybe the next, but these were not individual fires; her body was failing her while her mind was not. Yet, the will to live can outlast the most advanced medicine. Time and again, my grandma taught us all that.
When I saw her two days before the end, she had already slipped into restful slumber. Beside her bed stood a large canvas almost complete: two lions beneath a tree on the savannah. One slept. I remarked how beautiful it was. It was her last work.
“Her painting teacher said it may be her best,” my mom said. “She said someone from her painting class can finish it if she doesn’t.”
“I think it’s beautiful as is.”
Admittedly, the standing lion’s face was incomplete: sketched, but not painted.
“Can I have it?” I asked.
“Do you want it finished?” my mom asked. I said no. Someone else’s brush touching it would remove some of the specialness.
“Her art teacher did say Picasso has some unfinished paintings,” my mom added.
My grandma briefly woke the next day. She did not have much energy and seemed more concerned with rest and some adages like, “Be kind,” but my mom hugged her and told her while she fell back asleep that I loved the painting. “He asked for it, he doesn’t even want it finished,” my mom half-laughed.
While my grandma accepted it was the end, the painting retains her hopefulness that there is always more. I half-suspect that when my grandma sunk into her last rest, she fully believed she would take a nap and wake again to finish the painting. Maybe not after this nap or the next, but soon she would paint the second lion’s face.
People always speak of having a finished and complete life. My grandma had that. But she also hadn’t finished every project or painting, in the best way possible. A life complete and too tidy leaves nothing to live for. My grandma lived for the next painting, the next puzzle, the next great-grandchild, and perhaps even the next walk, but most of all, the next moment of happiness, which all those things brought her.
I have decided that the unfinished lion is akin to God, whose face she now may see and paint, and the sleeping lion is my grandma, at rest finally.