This entry because I miss her, her voice, her visits, her sayings - her life.
Oh, Honey“What do you know that’s new,” my great-grandmother, known affectionately as Honey, inquired as I entered the nursing home for the second night that week. The truth was, not much was “new” in my life since the last time I had seen her. Yet, “nothing” didn’t seem to be an adequate answer. Certainly not the answer to give a 93 year old woman living in a cold cell with ails and hours of loneliness. After all, here in front of me was a woman living with the third stranger she’d have for a roommate; the third stranger, after decades in a house with her daughter, granddaughter, grandson, and eventually even her great-granddaughter. The third stranger, when family is what she needed most. So, in that moment I became grown-up and put her reality before mine. I told Honey the details of my day, which contrary to how I felt, proved interesting to her.
Later that night we sat and laughed about how she came to be known as Honey. As a baby, she’d endearingly beckon me, "Honey, smile. Show your teeth. Honey, walk with me." As I grew up and learned to speak, I mimicked her words and called her "Honey" in return. I wanted to do as she did and say as she said. Much of my childhood is recounted to me in stories of moseying beside her. I’d walk and chant her name, Eleanor, and the brand of her hand cream in sequence. “Porcelana. Eleanor. Porcelana. Eleanor,” my toddler tongue practiced, over and over again.
Time passed and school days replaced my days at Honey’s side. And while I was hitting the books, arthritis was hitting Honey hard in the joints. She became immobilized and spent many years becoming one with the couch. There she found comfort in her favorite views: by day, a three-pane window with a panoramic view of a weeping willow…by night, Wheel-of-Fortune.
It was there, next to her on that couch, where I was truly able to get to know Honey and return the loving attention she gave to me in my youth. We’d spend hours talking about her job at the Cleveland Twist Drill, and how gentlemanly the boys were at the dance hall. Honey was known as the best dancer in town. “People would line up to dance with her,” my grandfather once told me. It was also on that couch where I learned about her marriage and eventual divorce. Listening to the details of her unresolved heartbreak broke my heart. “We never spoke mean to each other, Jamie. Never. I don’t understand,” she’d mourn.
The last exchange I shared with Honey on that couch was in September of 2006. I arrived at her house just in time. “Thank God you are here,” my cousin choked out as she rushed towards the door. Honey’s legs were weaker than ever before and, despite all efforts, they couldn’t get her out of their small bathroom. She was scared and trapped by her own physical weakness. Searching for a solution in earshot of the bathroom door, we discussed calling 911. “I don’t want to go to the hospital, Jamie,” Honey shivered as I poked my head into the bathroom. I knew she didn’t. We all knew she didn’t. She always believed that once she went, she was going there to die. I choked back my tears, tried my best to calm her down and we did eventually get her out of the bathroom. Unfortunately, her struggle didn’t end once we had her safely back on her couch.
Over the course of the week leading up to this bathroom incident my Honey had started to show signs of dementia. She was hallucinating, seeing ants crawling through the living room and getting acquainted with ghosts of her past of as if they had just visited the house. In her intermittent moments of clarity we’d pray that another hallucination wouldn’t steal her from reality. Unfortunately, our prayers went unanswered. The “ants,” once on an occasional tour of duty, were becoming permanent residents. Defeated, we made the call for help. We followed the flashing lights of the ambulance to the hospital. We spent the night inside her room trying to comfort her into understanding: in order to get better, she had to have medical attention. “Help me, Jamie. Take me home,” she’d cry. I was holding in my tears every second of that evening. I couldn’t do what she was pleading. I couldn’t take care of her in the way she wanted. Taking her home wasn’t the grown-up choice.
Honey's hospital stay resulted in a recovery from an infection and an eventual move into a nursing home. She did well with nursing care for almost a year. On rare days during that last year of her life she’d slip back into a dementia-like state and drift into the world of her past. There she’d often “see” her deceased mother standing in front of her. “My mother was here this afternoon. She promised to be back to visit later tonight or tomorrow. I wonder when,” she dreamily pondered. I feared what that visit would mean and always hoped that her mother’s return would be further than a day away. Honey would also take me on long descriptive walks through the streets of her youth: walks canopied with trees, detailed down to their barks, and people she had remembered from the past. I willingly took these adventures with her, trying to soak up whatever details I could from a woman who too soon I would lose.
On June 17th, 2007 it happened. While eating birthday cake for my brother, the phone rang. “The nursing home wants you to call. It doesn’t sound good,” my uncle told Honey’s daughter. Immediately, the phone sunk from her ear and began to dangle, weak in her grip. Rather than calling, we intuitively piled into a chain of cars and made our way to the place we’d have to say goodbye. Before we could get there, Honey passed on. The tears I had choked back on many other occasions in order to be grown-up filled the room in child-like sobs the moment I saw her. She was still. She was quiet. I was not.
I reflect on this day often. The lesson I have learned is this: throughout life we certainly have moments where we grow up, but we are never fully "grown-ups". There will always be moments that leave us vulnerable and affected…as unprepared as our childhood-self experiencing pain for the first time. All we do is the best we can with what we have – and that’s the same thing that we did as children, before life expected us to be grown-up at all.