I have a personal rule when it comes to my husband: everything I buy is “on sale” and everything I cook is “low-fat”. Or at least, that is the perception. A few months ago, he came home to two very large, lush ferns hanging on our front porch. I had been asked to participate in a “fern raiser” for a local non-profit, and the name of the fundraiser alone drew me in instantly. When he asked how much they cost, I abandoned my usual, “oh, they were on sale”, and instead adopted, “oh, it was for a good cause”. So two ferns later, here we were, pretending that these supposed discounted ferns were going to stay alive and well during the summer.
The paradox of my love of all things green versus my inability to keep them alive for any length of time is astounding. How is it that one can delight in gardening, get a twinkle in her eye at fresh succulents, and beam with pride at her fundraising ferns yet know that her black thumb of death was upon them? I did then what I have caught myself doing lately, but to no avail: I grabbed my phone to call my grandmother.
Except my grandmother isn’t going to answer. She is still in the nursing home, almost a year after having a life changing and debilitating stroke. And our family is still coping with how to handle this new normal. I never know what to say when we visit. I believe mostly because my whole life, the conversation has been me asking advice on a various topic and then waiting to receive the wise response. But now, her speech is so insanely limited that those conversations have ceased to exist. So, most of the time I just tell her about how the kids are doing, they will sing her a song, we will look at pictures together and laugh, then it is time to go. But I am still at a loss on what to do when I truly need solid advice, when I don’t know how to care for ferns, or just want to know how long to keep the pineapple upside down cake in the oven. And sure, I am in the midst of the most advanced technology in the history of man, so I can most certainly search for the answer on the internet and receive it in seconds. But I don’t want the advice of someone else’s grandmother, I want the advice of my own.
For Mother’s Day this year, we sent the mothers and my grandmother flowers from the local florist as a gift, instead of buying one more trinket for them to have to store and then us to one day comb through. Seeing as the space in my grandmother’s room in the nursing home is sparse, my mother returned the rosy pink vase to me after the flowers were gone, claiming that there was no space for her to store this vase in her current state. Then it occurred to me: I could bring the vase back with me, each time I visit, and fill it with fresh flowers. Because fresh cut flowers are already dead, I would not have to rely on my limited knowledge of plant maintenance to keep these bouquets alive.
So that’s what we did. We filled that pink rosy vase with a brightly colored bouquet of flowers, and her eyes lit up as we brought them into the room and sat them on a small table next to Christmas cards, pictures of grandkids, and two pieces of paper where she had shakily traced the following sentences: “I love my family” and “My name is Mary”. The irony of the fact that she taught preschoolers for over thirty years how to trace and write their names, and now she is relearning these skills herself is not lost on me. I would have never imagined that my grandmother would spend the latter years of her life in a nursing home. It is just not something you envision for someone whose social calendar was so full that when you would call for a lunch date at Charley’s Pizza, she would say that she would “pencil you in”. That she spent the large portion of her life caring for everyone: her stubborn yet loving husband, four kids, seven grandkids, nine great-grandkids, and generations of Campbell Countians in her daycare. And now, she is the recipient of the constant care.
What do you do when someone can no longer talk, but only listen? Does she know how smart and witty she is? That my children say that they can no longer remember what her voice sounds like, and that they miss her deviled eggs and throwing paper wads at her house on Christmas? That I have so many questions about being a wife and a mother and how in the world will I ever learn to cook a meal that everyone loves and keep living things alive? What if I never get to do all of the traveling, hiking, camping, loving, writing, and reading that I crave so greatly? What if I run out of time?
I never really know what to say when we visit. Maybe next time, I will start with these things first. These, and a fresh bouquet of flowers. And maybe one day, a very large, lush fern that I bought on sale.