Friday, May 15, 2009

A Year Ago Today.

This was the nicest apartment I ever lived in. Plush carpets. Round
the clock cleaning service. All of my meals delivered. Of course, the
smell of cleaning products was a bit much. And the views were
spectacular as long as you didn't mind looking at tombstones.

At age 27, I had moved into a retirement community to be with my
grandmother. She had a stroke, as I was wrapping up a visit to Japan,
so at my family's urging I went to be with Grandma. I had saved up my money
and was taking a year off from my graduate studies to travel, but an
Ohio nursing home wasn't my first choice.

Grandma's apartment looked a lot like the house she had lived in for
50 years with my grandfather. The walls were covered in paintings she had
created of old clowns and pastoral scenes. Grandma looked the same,
and as always was glad to see me. We had a special bond that had been
maintained through years of weekly phone calls no matter where I was
living. But Grandma was also different. She drifted in and out of
consciousness, only recognizing me part of the time.

I quickly learned that for most nursing home residents everyday is the
same. Grandma would read day after day while sitting alone. She told
me of her mother who worked in a potato chip factory during the Great
Depression and had eaten only potato chips for an entire year. She was
happy to tell me her story. All I did was listen.

Early in the morning, I got a call from the nurses telling me that they
thought my Grandmother was having a stroke. I put on my shoes and still
wearing my pajamas drove to the hospital. When my Grandmother
saw me she was shaking with fear. It had been a false alarm and she
was fine. To lighten the mood I joked with her about how watching all
the doctors running around reminded me of ER, which was one of her
favorite shows. She told me she was glad I was here.

A month went by and my Grandmother seemed to be on a steady road to
recovery. Then one day the real stroke came and knocked my her out of
commission. Grandma was in a comatose state with severe brain damage.
I knew she would never talk to me again.

The nurses told me hearing was the last thing to go when someone has a
massive stroke. So I read to her from whatever book I was reading and
told her about my day. I stayed with her another two months and was

With mixed feelings I decided I would go to Europe as planned. I
knew my grandmother would have wanted me to continue on with my plans
to travel.

As soon as I returned to Boston I drove back down to Ohio to say goodbye. I
wasn’t sure if she could still hear me, but thought she could. My
grandmother’s condition had worsened. Her pallor was grey
with illness. She had shrunk from being immobile. I held her hand and
stayed with her for a week before returning to school in Boston. When I
arrived, I got word that she had passed away.

After my year of travels I reflected back to my trip to Japan where I
saw that elders are revered and enjoy the company of each other. While in
Eastern Europe I saw cultures where families are close and stay in their
family’s home

I’m glad I had the opportunity to stay with my Grandmother. Holding
the hand of someone who couldn’t speak to me was more life affirming
than all my travels in Asia and Europe. I ended the year older and
wiser with a greater sense of how I want to live my life.

There’s a wok full of simmering spring vegetables mingling happily with oil and garlic on top of the stove. On the other burner, potstickers filled with napa cabbage and firm tofu are browning on the bottom of their starchy wrappers. These humble dumplings are shaped like a plump old lady’s purse and filled with aromatic ginger and Asian spices. The toasted sesame oil sparkles like flecks of gold in soy sauce. I am cooking tonight. I’m making Chinese food along with fried bananas in rum sauce and a dollop of fresh cream. Not bad for a dinner that cost about ten dollars to make.