Tough Old Broad

In the summer of 1996 my then 71-year-old grandmother joined my family on a whitewater rafting trip. We rode the musty school bus up and around narrow mountain roads to get to the put-in. We slathered on sunscreen and strapped on life vests. We climbed into an equally musty raft with another family and a beefy guide who seemed grown up to the teenage me, but was probably only twenty. Twenty-two tops. Together we floated and paddled our way through the four-hour trip on the French Broad River. I don’t know how my grandmother felt about the experience, but to me, she rocked it.

Seventy-one isn’t so old. My parents, gulp, are getting close. A dear student started yoga around that age and then took his grandchildren on a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon.

What seemed at the time to be an extraordinary adventure in her life is really just one more example of how Grandma meets life as it is – messy and sometimes exhilarating. She assisted with the resettlement of German scientists during World War II. She raised six boys without much help. After splitting with my grandfather she and the three younger boys moved from New York to California where she became a single mom in every sense of the word. She coached soccer. She worked with technology. She racked up travel credits from getting bumped while flying. Flying to travel, to visit her boys, to attend my dance recitals and plays.

Grandma is one of those gems who celebrates achievement but doesn’t make it a condition for love.

She’s also ornery, stubborn, opinionated and occasionally mean to wait staff. My brother and I were afraid of her when we were kids. In part because she made us eat our fish-sticks and didn’t brook moodiness.

A few weeks ago she had a shower of mini-strokes in both hemispheres of her brain and in her brainstem. The doctors were conservative in their treatment and expectations. Forty-eight hours later a death watch felt imminent.

And then my battle tested Grandmother opened her eyes.

And tracked the faces in the room. And squeezed both hands. And said the names and ages of all six of her sons. Read the time. Said the last few lines of the Lord’s Prayer with mom and dad. Scowled at my dad’s bad jokes.

After touring several rooms on the second floor of Wake Med, she is now recovering at her retirement facility. Her face is bright. Her eyes are clear. Her humor is back. She’s feeding herself – chocolate pudding in particular. She can walk short distances with her walker. She understands everything I tell her about what is new in my life, what fun and exasperating things Cole is doing. We have conversations.  And when I leave she says, “I love you.”

She’s 91.

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