One month ago my maternal grandmother, who we always called Nonnie, was put into hospice. This was as much a logistical decision as anything, since it allowed her to go home with the oxygen and pain meds she needed, rather than being stuck in the hospital. It wasn’t clear whether or not Nonnie was all that close to death. My mother said it could be a while still or it could be any day. My parents suggested it might be a good time to go visit her in California.
I looked at my calendar. There were three feasible weekends in the coming months where I could make a trip to California work: October 20th, November 10th, or December 1st. The weekend in October was certainly the least convenient as I was pretty busy, and I’d have to get all the arrangements in order very quickly. But I chose it because if I waited just out of convenience and Nonnie died before I saw her, I knew I’d never forgive myself. It turns out I did the right thing. Nonnie’s driver, the woman who’d been taking her on errands and to hair appointments for a long time, came by to pick her up today around noon. While they were getting ready Nonnie passed out in her apartment at the retirement home, and never woke up.
My trip in October was a short one, but I got to spend a full day and a half sitting next to my grandmother and asking her questions. Some of these questions gave more fruitful answers than others. I wanted to know more about her and my grandfather’s love story and how two people can stay happily married for nearly 70 years, dedicated to each other until the very end. When my grandfather got dementia, he slowly forgot who all of us were, where he lived, or what was going on at any particular moment. But for years he still didn’t forget Nonnie. She’d go to the bathroom and within a minute he’d be asked about her, wanting to know where she’d gone. He died about two years ago, and Nonnie told me she’d been asking the Lord to take her ever since.
Nonnie and Papa’s love story turned out to be pretty straight forward. I don’t remember the exact words, but it went something like this:
How did you meet?
I was working at the air force base and he was a pilot. I went to the water fountain to get a drink and that’s where I met him.
How did you start dating?
The next day he asked me for a date and I said yes.
How did you decide to get married?
He was going to go out to visit his family in Ohio and said he wanted me to go with him. I said I wasn’t going anywhere with him unless we were married. So he said let’s get married, and we did.
If I learned anything about the secret to a 70-year marriage, it’s that Nonnie couldn’t fathom anything else. In 1947, you got married and according to Nonnie, “That was it.”
“So you could either be happily married or unhappily married,” I suggested.
“That’s right,” she told me.
One of my favorite moments came unprompted. I don’t even remember what we were talking about because it didn’t seem related. I was so intrigued by what she’d said that I did my best to write it down word-for-word when I got back to the hotel that night:
“Your grandfather was never very demonstrative. And when the kids were in their teens I asked him, “How come you can’t just tell your kids you love them?” And he grumbled and wouldn’t say anything and I kept asking and eventually he said he didn’t know why. He said he just couldn’t find the words. I said it’s simple, “I love you.” So he tried it and he got better at it and before long he said it was the easiest thing in the world to do.”
I asked her if she had any regrets, and she really struggled to think of any. Sure, there were things they didn’t do, like fly Papa’s plane to Hawaii, but in general she was content with her decisions. She didn’t regret skipping college because the Air Force paid better than any job she’d get with a degree. She didn’t regret Papa, or the kids, or anything in particular. She did say she always wished she’d been a professional singer, and was sad that none of the girls in our family took up the same dream. And when I asked if she ever wished they’d moved out of California, even for a little while, she said something I found so sweetly profound I wrote it down in my notebook as soon as she said it:
“I would have liked to live in Montana. But what you like and what you do are two different things.”
I had a wonderful day and a half with my grandmother. I wish my boyfriend could have gotten the time off work to visit, I wish my sister could have come down as well. But I’m also happy I had that time just for the two of us. It was like when I was little, and Nonnie and Papa would drive their RV up to Seattle and park it at my parent’s house for the entire summer. I’d wander out there and sit in the RV with Nonnie, watching soap operas and learning how to do yarn cross stitch on plastic canvas. I’d fiddle with the rings on her fingers and she’d ask if I wanted any of them when she died. I always thought this was a silly thing to ask, since I knew (correctly) that Nonnie wasn’t going to die for a very long time. But it was also silly because I didn’t really care about the rings. I just liked to touch her hands. They were smooth and cold. Her skin was thin and her nails were always professionally manicured. My whole life I’ve always kept my nails long, only trimming when they get so long that they’d break if I didn’t do something. I keep them that way because I love them that way. I love them that way because of Nonnie, and her cold, soft hands, and her perfectly manicured nails.