Relationships

My Grandparents' Last Goodbye

Their final kiss encompassed thousands of moments woven together and smoothed over by time

(Getty Images)

I was sitting in the emergency room when I caught a glimpse of the raw, muscular heart of my grandparents' marriage.

Until that day, I thought the marriage of my stubborn, near-deaf grandfather and my immaculate, ultrasuede-and-melon-lipstick-wearing grandma was best summed up in this story: One afternoon, they'd been arguing over where to go for lunch. "How about Chinese?" my grandfather finally asked my grandma.

"Suits me," my grandma said.

"Bang, bang," my grandfather replied, holding his pointer finger and thumb out like a pistol. He thought she'd said, "Shoot me."

"Not 'shoot me,' you idiot," my grandma replied, grabbing her jacket.

At 25 years old, I viewed my grandparents' marriage as a braid of outdated gender roles, misunderstandings and insults.

Until one day in the emergency room.

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That morning, when my grandma had woken up, her mouth drooped to one side, and her words were slurred and disobedient. My mom, who'd spent the night at my grandparents' condo that evening because their regular caregiver was unavailable, took one look at my grandmother and called an ambulance. They'd blazed through the bleak February fog to the hospital, where the doctors quickly confirmed she'd suffered a stroke.

By the time my dad and I met them at the hospital, my grandma laid in a narrow hospital bed, drifting in and out of consciousness. The thin curtains dividing her from the other patients did nothing to muffle the drunken rants of the woman in the next hospital bed over.

"I recommend we medevac her to Seattle," the doctor said. His face was kind but concerned. In Juneau, the small Alaskan town where we lived, people with life-threatening health problems were often flown to Seattle or Anchorage to be cared for by specialists.

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"OK," my dad said. The doctor lingered, one hand tugging at his stethoscope.

"I do want to tell you that there's a significant chance that she won't survive this," he said. He raised his voice when he saw my grandfather cupping his ear, struggling to hear. "Given her age and all. Do you understand?" he asked.

"Yes, I understand," my grandpa grunted. The doctor nodded and left.

My grandfather sat in his wheelchair beside my grandma's bed, shaking his head. The prior summer, when he'd missed the curb walking to his car after lunch and broken his leg, he too had been medevacked to Seattle, where he'd stayed for several weeks doing rehab.

His head slumped into his hands and he began crying. My mom, dad and I flanked him, putting our hands on his back.

Just a few years before, I couldn't have imagined my grandfather crying. The man had once barked at me for double-dipping a tortilla chip in the communal guacamole, and often warned my brother and me to keep our elbows off the table during dinner. In his younger years, compact and handsome, he'd hiked up steep Alaskan mountains and skied down them, leaving a stream of snow-spray in his wake. He'd worked in the family insurance business well into his 70s and was a savvy, charismatic businessman.

Now, at 92, age had whittled him down to his essence—and his essence was surprisingly tender and soft.

I looked from my grandfather to my grandmother, the pink of her scalp showing beneath her still-blond hair.

Was this the last time my grandpa would see his wife of 60 years?

The doctor pushed through the curtain again. "Are one of you available to accompany Louise on the medevac?" he asked.

My parents looked at each other. "I'll go down on the medevac with her," my mom volunteered.

"I want to go, too," my grandpa said.

"Dad, I'll get us tickets and we can fly down later today," my dad assured him. My grandpa nodded.

A minute later, a flurry of men swept in—it was time for my grandma to board the medevac.

"I love you, Mom," my dad said.

"I love you, Grandma," I said, standing to squeeze her shoulder.

My grandpa rose up out of his wheelchair, grabbing onto the railings of my grandma's hospital bed to sturdy himself. Then he leaned in, slowly, arthritically, lowering his head towards hers.

Her eyes flickered open and she tilted her head towards her husband, straining. Their faces hovered within an inch of each other. For a moment, they were frozen like that, stretching towards each other, the starchy white sheets shining through the space between their faces.

And then my grandpa rallied, bending over the railing, closing the distance between each other, and they kissed.

They lingered there, their lined faces pressed together, for seconds that felt like years.

It was a stubborn kiss, a fierce kiss, a tender kiss. Not a kiss of passion, not a Hollywood kiss, not a kiss of beginnings. It was a kiss that held 60 years of love and pain and history. It held their three children and mai tais on the lanai and regrets. It was a kiss of thousands of moments woven together and smoothed over by time.

It was a kiss that said, I know we will both die, but please don't let it be today.

I stood there watching, trying to memorize the moment, until it was time for the men to wheel my grandma away to the airplane. So many times, I'd rolled my eyes as they bickered like siblings. But watching them kiss each other goodbye—maybe for a few hours and maybe forever—I saw something else, something sinewy strong.

Something I prayed I'd be lucky enough to have myself someday.

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