Nine months have now passed since my grandmother moved into Milder Manor Nursing Home. One morning last September she was getting dressed, took a fall, and in that instant was transformed from a commanding, bridge-playing, globe-trotting golden girl into a disoriented elder in a wheel chair. With years of lively restaurant dinners and trans-Atlantic flights behind her, she must now learn to live for small things: the blooming rose at her bedside, the soft green fleece blanket she wears wrapped around her shoulders.
During my visit last month, I was determined to widen the breadth of her newly constricted routine. Between her rounds of medication and physical therapy sessions, I’d visit. Together, we nodded along to Frank Sinatra CDs, ate ice cream bars, and read the newspaper aloud. We cruised the nursing room hallways and studied the art on the walls. One night I stayed for dinner and engaged her dozing table mates, doing my best to celebrate the watery soup, hard cookies, and knuckles of translucent cauliflower set in front of me.
Except for a few doctor appointments, my grandmother–who still wears jewelry from Bangkok–has rarely left the nursing home. She is now so frail that the ordinary world has become a hazardous place, full of precipitous curbs, careening action, and unpredictable weather. Despite these dangers, one day during my visit–after we’d run out of things to do–I insisted on a walk. Living each day safely indoors was never her style, and with all the medications she is on–antidepressants, blood thinners–nothing could be better for her than fresh air.
I rolled my trusting grandmother out of the nursing home that afternoon. From the drab confines of the lobby with its caged cockatiels and synthetic greenery, we punched the “open” button. The door swung open, and we broke into a world of blazing sun and wild blue sky.
We wheeled around in front of the building, gushed over a patch of red-orange lilies and then, little by little, found ourselves on a slow cruise down the sidewalk. She seemed delighted.
For a second, I balked. “Do you think this is okay?” We hadn’t formally checked-out. I imagined the nurses discovering her empty bed, finding her usual hallway hangouts vacant, and initiating a panicked search.
“Who cares?” My normally law-abiding grandmother waved me onward. “No one pays attention. It’s good to be free.”
Now accomplices in this foray, we picked up speed, heading away from the nursing home grounds with an aire of defiance. As we cruised, I began to imagine myself a heroine who had returned to repay the many kindnesses my grandmother had shown me since birth. For all the hugs she gave me, for all the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, for the summers at horse camp, and for the Christmas presents, I would now even the balance by saving her from life in a nursing home.
Together we would embark another grand journey, rolling down the sidewalk forever, block after block, and never get tired. We’d cross streets, push through parking lots, and stop in libraries, art galleries, and museums. We’d dash inside grocery stores for ice cream bars and then continue on. Fields and miles would move underneath us, sunrises and sunsets would circle by. At night we would marvel at stars and planets, go to drive-in movies, and stay in hotels where in the morning we’d order up bacon, eggs, and coffee in bed. We would not live in the past, we would live in the now. We would meet new people. Find new places.
“I’m hot,” my grandmother complained, snapping me back to reality: it was 3:00 in the afternoon in Lincoln, Nebraska, and from where we stood on South 20th street, we’d only traveled a block.
It seemed too soon to take her back. A trail broke off the main sidewalk and wound through a small park. “Let’s go a little further,” I urged.
The park didn’t amount to much: a scattering of deciduous trees and a gesture toward landscaping that amounted to a few hydrangeas, a mowed and watered lawn, blue birds. I felt judgmental, thinking of how much better the trees are at home in Oregon, and how this humble neighborhood parcel was inadequate for my strong hikers’ legs: legs that wanted to stretch and stride up and down long grades. Worse: it was inadequate for my grandmother—a woman who in her life had seen the Pyramids, Africa, and the Taj Mahal.
But in truth, to my grandmother, the 100-yard path cutting across the park looked interminable. “Look at that long, hot stretch,” she droned. Her thin puff of dyed brown hair glinted red in the sun. I pushed the chair faster and coached: “Almost there. We can make it. Yes we can.” The path rejoined the sidewalk and we continued on down the shadier neighborhood street. My grandma grew concerned. “We’re getting a long ways away,” she fretted.
It was time to concede. My travel partner was getting homesick. We turned around, and re-crossed the hot arc of trail through the park. As the sun beat on us, I was forced to acknowledge that my fantasy where I was tireless and my grandmother still a free spirit might make a good screenplay, but that truly being the heroine would be far less glamorous. It’d entail moving back from the West Coast and living on her limited terms. It would require giving up my beloved mountains, my friends, my traveling, and settling for a while into this Midwestern eternity of humid corn fields. But could I really move here? This was a question I would have to tackle later. For now, since I could not save her, I would just do what I could: make life more interesting for a few days.
We rolled back down the block, her chair vibrating over the concrete. We passed the red-orange lilies and arrived at the nursing home door.
Before we went in, a breeze kicked up. “Feel that,” she observed, holding up an open palm. My grandmother has never before been a nature lover, tending only a few tulips in her lifetime and shooing “pests” that homesteaded on her patio. Suddenly, in her old age, she was an admirer of trees and of passing clouds.
“A perfect day,” she declared.
We’d only gone to the park at end of the block and back. For me, it was a rather dull outing. For her, it was plenty. Like anyone’s idea of a good journey, it seemed to strike the perfect balance between effort and payoff, and to contain just the right interval between departure and return.
My grandma was happy. “Let’s put this one on the good memory page,” she said aloud. I can only surmise she was imagining her reams of photo albums stuffed with snapshots of Africa, France, and Cuba. From where she now sat, it was clear that the perimeters of this wide world were drawing close, that the horizon no longer receded. I squeezed her delicate shoulders, grateful to have shared this late foray with her, and then rolled her back inside.
in memory of my grandmother, Dorothy Ammon, who embarked on the ultimate journey on August 10, 2008.