He tucked her disheveled white hair behind her ears, then slipped her sheets over her shoulders, leaned over and gave her a kiss on the lips. She smiled, then turned to look back at the TV. Halfway to her 91st birthday, she’s 4 years John’s senior. There were probably 100 emotions going through John’s mind in those 10 seconds of making grandma Mary comfortable before having to retire to his home across town. As her mate for the past 12 years, it was distressing for him to leave her bedside every evening in this nursing home. Her most recent battles with failing health have included colon cancer, several surgeries to repair intestinal issues, and a recent diagnosis of dementia. The result has been lengthy hospital stays, complications post-op, lack of appetite and general malaise. One day she’ll know who you are and the next day she won’t. As someone who was sharp as a tack and could remember the color of the shoes you wore as a child on a road trip, it’s difficult watching this slow demise of memory.
They were next door neighbors in a small town in Northeast Arkansas. John and his wife, Ann, played cards with Mary and her husband, Kemp, otherwise known as Pawpaw. Occasionally they went to dinner together to a small place where Pawpaw would order a very rare (“bloody”, as John described it) steak; John and Ann would order fish. Mary, my grandmother, would order shrimp. She really liked the shrimp, John said. He didn’t care to see the blood from the steak. He preferred meat that was cooked pretty well done.
Living a stone’s throw from each other, they assumed a certain kinship. But when my grandfather passed away in 1993 and John’s wife passed away in 1999, Mary and John’s friendship progressed to a new level. He’d come over in the mornings, like clockwork, for coffee and also in the late afternoons, knowing a hearty meal and comfortable conversation awaited him. But then age started to catch up with them. Knowing Mary’s sons and better medical care were in Little Rock three and a half hours away, John was afraid Mary would soon pack up and move there. At the same time, John’s closest next-of-kin was in Kentucky, so he was also afraid he’d have to move there.
John soon asked Mary: “Will you be my girlfriend?”
Mary responded: “Well, I’ll be your girlfriend, but I won’t marry you!”
So it was decided then that a) Mary wouldn’t move to Little Rock and b) John wouldn’t move to Kentucky.
Since then, they’ve been inseparable. Through various cancers, knee replacements, broken backs, and other illnesses associated with old age, John and Mary have been by each other’s sides day and night.
“She’s the pertiest woman, ain’t she?”, John exclaimed as we stood outside her nursing home room while a nurse changed her and got her cleaned up.
“Of course she is. She’s amazing. She was super grandma to us.”
“She could’ve looked like Liz Taylor if her hair were a little darker,” he said.
“Yes, she was just as beautiful.”
The nurse called us in when he was finished. Grandma was once again cozy and content in her bed, watching CNN, passively. John asked her a dozen questions: “Are you tired? Are you hungry? Are you cold? Can I pull the blanket above your shoulders? You’re probably cold by your shoulders – let me tuck the blanket in. Do you want some Kleenex? Here, I’ll put some right here. Do you want the TV on? Where’s your call button? Here, I’ll put it right here so you can call someone if you need something. Do you want this light on? You’ll probably go to bed soon, so I’ll turn it off.”
He ambled over to his wheeled walker and we started to leave her room. An ambitious attempt to mow his lawn resulted in a fall and an ensuing broken back. A once daily exerciser, he now has to rely on this walker to get around. Outside the door, I turned around and John’s eyes were red and teary. He’d done this same drill dozens of times, over years, yet he still seemed to be sad to leave her. The only thing he wanted was to live in the same place and help take care of her.
It was time for me to drive him to their shared retirement home a few miles away, where grandma Mary lived until recent surgeries and failing health required full-time nursing care. Loading his walker into the car, I could tell he was excited to talk to someone “new”. We talked about how hilly Little Rock was compared to Blytheville, how he missed being able to drive himself around, how he missed being able to help grandma on his own. I pulled up to his apartment, unloaded his walker, gave him a hug and watched him slowly shuffle to the entrance. If it weren’t for each other, who knows if they would’ve lived as long as they have already. Everyone needs someone to keep a twinkle in their wrinkles.
“To the world you might be one person, but to one person you might be the world.” ~Author Unknown