The last semester of my senior year of college was for me what it is for most seniors; a race to the finish line. I needed to fill my schedule with classes to be considered a full-time student; so I took an English writing class. Little did I know, it would be one of the most impactful college courses I would ever take.
Ben Percy, an accomplished author, was our professor for the semester. I am forever grateful for his teaching technique and style as it pushed me to my creative edge to open a door I sealed shut years before. You see, I was diagnosed as being dyslexic, so I didn’t give myself the credit I deserved to think I was capable of writing anything of quality. Ben didn’t see limitations to our class, he saw possibilities to explore the unknown. Below was the piece I submitted as my senior final. I’ll never forget; when he presented it to the class for review he showed a movie clip from the Godfather. The clip was of Michael’s child being baptized while heads of other families were being killed, flipping back and forth between memorable events.
Even to this day, I associate the clip with the writing piece. When I think back, and reflect on my grandmother I reflect on the love she had for me and the bond we will hold forever.
It was Thanksgiving break of 2007, and I spent the week next to the woman’s bed who I always remembered as cooking with not a single hair out of place and always wearing the perfectly puffed dress. My grandmother had suffered a massive stroke, sending her into a nursing home. Although her words never slurred after the stroke, she was delusional, could no longer move by herself, and had become connected to machines. As I walked through the hallways of the nursing home, my knee-high leather boots and fast-paced walk formed a new language warning all to get out of the way, I’m on a mission. Entering the room, it smelled of her White Shoulders perfume. The bright rays of light shined through the stained divider curtains and came to a rest on the light blue walls. My grandpa seemed drained from the many endless nights as he had kept vigil by her bed. The changing of the guards couldn’t have come soon enough for the staff who had become irritated with the constant questions my grandmother asked daily, “I’m going to die, aren’t I? I know I am. I’ve lived a good life, just let me die.” She knew the moment she saw my exhausted face enter through the doors this wasn’t going to be a leisure trip for me.
I’m going to die, aren’t I? I know I am. I’ve lived a good life, just let me die
I could tell, from my grandmother’s expression, she was happy to see me. As the physical therapist and my grandpa left us in the room, we were ordered to take a nice relaxing nap. I thought that to be an amazing idea as I dropped my purse next to the pink La-Z-Boy and snuggled into the chair that would smell of my grandpa’s musk cologne.
As I was driving back that cold January winter night in 2009, all I could think about was the conversation I had had three hours before. Did I say the appropriate things? Would my words make a difference? Would she remember what I said? How much longer was she going to live? Then, there in front of me was a black sports car speeding around the curves of the icy highway. As I slowed down, my forest green car started to spin out of control. Left… right… left… right. The front of the car suddenly hit an electrical box sending the trunk air-born. The gift that had been given to me two years prior now rolled end over end three times before resting in the ditch fifteen feet from civilization. With the top concaved in, rubbing my head as though to comfort my shocked body I stared in front of me. As I comprehended what had just happened I dialed my dad; “Daddy, I’ve been in a car accident, what do I do?” As he went through the normal parental questions, the shock overtook me. As I sobbed on the phone, a stranger approached the window, “Are you OK? I’m a firefighter and saw your car flip, do you need me to call 911?” The man’s words meant nothing as the shooting pain started through my spine, neck, and head. As he dialed 911, I tried to move my body but it was plastered to the leather seats as though we became one unit on impact. The Samaritan took off his winter coat in the arctic cold January night to keep me warm until help could arrive. The nameless man asked questions to keep me awake and comfortable as we waited for help to arrive.
Help was coming to rescue me the way I rescued my grandma two years prior. I don’t have all that many memories of my grandmother growing up. She was a fashion-diva, with the walls in the kitchen lined ceiling to floor with mirrors, so that as she cooked she could look at her porcelain skin and her bouffant hairstyle. I would wake up early as a little girl and there was my grandmother, standing in the kitchen with the cupboard open exposing her hair products and hoards of make-up. She would work to make herself perfect, even if that meant burning the food – we still ate it.
Those days were gone as I lounged comfortably in the La-Z-Boy in the nursing home, slowly opening my left eye to see her. Acting like a young girl she stared at me asking, “Are you tired? Are you going to nap?”
“Yes, I’m tired, and you should be too”. Frustrated, I knew she wouldn’t nap, but she was stuck in bed so I went back to sleep. Within five minutes, the same two questions came out of her mouth. This time, with my repeated response, she wrinkled her thinning eyebrows and shaped her mouth in an “O” to show disgust with me. I knew I lost the battle and for the rest of the afternoon we watched 1940’s black and white love stories, talked about school, boys, and the old days; all while playing card games. I’ll never forget that week with my grandmother. We bonded over unexpected conversations and created our own form of communication. It was the perfect Thanksgiving for me as I had discovered a new grandmother that I had never taken the time to know.
Once the fire department attached me to a backboard and drove me away in the snowy night, I thought about that week two years before with my grandmother and how precious of the memory it had become. “Hello, I work for the Boone County Sheriff’s office. Do you know where you were coming from?”
In response, as the EMT was taking my vitals, the words slowly fell from my lips; “Cherokee, Iowa … my grandmother is going to die tonight, I was saying goodbye”. Unsure of how to respond, he continued to question who I was and where I was going. I was terrified as the EMT proclaimed my oxygen level was 75 percent. The thought floated through my mind of how every few hours my grandmother’s oxygen was checked and now, was she more alive than I? I searched around me for signs that I was going to be OK. The sheriff and EMT exchanged blank looks that concerned me. Was I going to be seeing a bright light soon? Was I already there and they were just awkward looking angels? Was I going to be greeting my grandmother soon, or would she be greeting me?
“Twenty-three year old, white, female will be arriving with spinal difficulties, lack of oxygen, and possible head injury” was announced by the EMT as though I was about to die – was I? Was I going to die and they just didn’t want to tell me? Watching the Mary Greely hospital’s florescent lights pass over my head, my eyes opened and closed as though a monitor for my pain. At the end of a hallway maze, the bed was stopped by an aging man in heavy untied snow boots, wearing a stained camel-colored coat that seemed out of place on his tall thin body along with the sheepskin hat that gave his glasses enough room to sit comfortably on his face. An orderly questioned him; “Dr. Wilson, we weren’t expecting you in. We thought you had a family emergency.”
“Yes, I did. Something has come up” proclaimed the scholarly man walking next to where I lay. As the technicians became jittery with this surprise visit, he bent down to my level, “How are you, Andrea?”
“Uncle Russ, my back hurts” I pushed the words out of my mouth in pain. As everyone stood in shock as the head of radiology wanted to comfort me; I started weeping in fear of the future for myself and my grandmother. Over the next three hours, doctors examined me as a constant flow of tears fell from my face. Our entire family sat at my grandmother’s side waiting for one of us to live and the other to finally let go. As everyone sat by her bedside, no one could sit by mine as I was in physical and emotional distress. I was alone, my uncle sat in his office reviewing CAT scans, MRI results, X-rays, blood work, urine results, etc; all while I counted the dots on the ceiling, waiting. The ticks and tocks of the clock passed like hours on the clock; when really, they were only seconds. With caution, my uncle had the hospital release me under his care. The short drive to his estate in his luxury BMW felt endless with the late-night silence all around. He called my parents to tell them my prognosis as I sat at the kitchen’s Italian marble counter. He knew that with faith I would be fine, but the hospital would need to induce a comma. I would be in physical therapy for months to heal from injured organs and bones. With no warning, we decided to go to the accident location. It was important to see if the car was going to be salvageable, but more importantly, I needed to find the last Christmas gift my grandmother gave me – a bracelet. For three hours I had been playing with the bracelet between my fingers thinking of her, and now I had lost it. Even at midnight, with the snow still blowing in the countryside, the tire tracks could be seen on the highway. The marks showed my struggle as the car swayed from left to right, left to right before disappearing into the fresh layer of snow. There, 15 feet away, sat the car I had nicknamed, Eliza. The path Eliza had made when she started rolling end over end three times could still be seen. With the top caved in and her mirrors lost in the ditch, it was hard to believe I had been here just hours before. The surprise of how deep the snow was startled me as I sunk down until it was waist-high.
After I spent that Thanksgiving week in the nursing home while our family prepared to part with our beloved matriarch, but yet, she stayed around. Each time she and I saw each other, we were sure it was going to be the last.
“Goodbye grandma, I love you!”
“You keep doing that; keep loving me.”
Two years had come and gone and yet the ailing woman still remained. The family had been called in countless times to say goodbye, but this time was different. “This is it, a hospice nurse will meet with the family in the morning” my mother somberly informed me. I made the three-hour trek from Ames to Cherokee in January of 2009, doubting my mother’s words until I walked through the door to my grandmother’s room. The air was stale in the gloomy room as the blinds were closed shut with anxiety and anticipation surrounding us all. With her head leaning backward and her mouth open in attempts to catch as much air, she used all of her stored energy to open her eyes and smile as I walked through the door. While the family met with the hospice nurse and minister, I was with my grandmother like I had done two years before. Lowering my exhausted body into the now brown La-Z-Boy, I held her hand so she would know I wasn’t going to leave. Over the next hour, when I could no longer hear the gasping of my ailing grandmother, I would squeeze her hand. Without a moment passing, each time she would squeeze back to signify her love for me. No matter how many times she squeezed back, each time was a surprise to me as the intense grip was a reminder of her intense love for me. The new bracelet that she had given me for Christmas two weeks before shook each time she squeezed my hand. I can do all things through him who gives me strength; Philippians 4:13, read the bracelet. For three days we continued our secret love language of hand squeezing and eye contact. For two years I had been ready for this day, and as the clock ticked away it was no longer ticking away the seconds of our lives, but signifying what time I would have left.
I can do all things through him who gives me strengthPhillippians 4:13
As friends and family members started accumulating around my grandmother, I knew I needed to share her with others those final days. I made the difficult decision to return to Ames for classes the next day. I waited until the last possible moment to leave her side. “It’s time Andrea, you need to go home” my mother gestured to me. With my mom and aunts sitting by my side, I swallowed my emotions to be strong for everyone in the room. As I said goodbye, I thanked her for being a role-model and a constant presence in my life. With tears falling down my cheeks I tried to drag out time because it would be our last words, it would be the last warm kiss I would receive, it would be the last inspirational message I would hear from her lips. I told her how I had my sense of humor, sense of curiosity, and a sense of joy from her. As she raised her arms for a hug, I bent over to be welcomed by the most intense pull of love. I prepared to leave but I promised her that I would find my true love the way she did, and not only be married for 60 years as she had been but 61 years. In return, she smiled and whispered that she hoped so. As I collected my belongings, she found all of her energy to tell me how proud she was of me and how she would be watching over me every day. As I left my mother and her sisters in tears, my grandpa walked me to the door and wished me safety on my drive home not knowing what was yet to come that night. Although I will never know, it is said that the words my grandmother and I exchanged that night were the last words she exchanged with anyone, as she became too weak to talk.
As we stared at the now destroyed car in the ditch, the emotion of that afternoon and evening swallowed me. Waking up in my uncle’s quiet home felt unreal for me, my entire body hurt from intense emotion. With my hospital bracelet and IV cotton swab still attached to my wrist, I found my way back to campus; back to what I thought was going to be normalcy. For two days I didn’t answer my phone attempting to avoid the inevitable news, but it was coming.
Back at the nursing home, it became a waiting game. Everyone said goodbye, and yet she didn’t give up. The minister came in to give her the last communion, and yet she wouldn’t falter. She was fighting for something, but what? As she slid into silence, the whispers of her first great-granddaughter’s birth brought a smile to her withering face. In an almost poetic way, on January 21, 2009, as the love of her life for 60 years, her four children, and other loved ones finished singing Amazing Grace, Lucille Ryden took her last breath.
Two hundred miles away, I was being told of the luck I had on my return from my grandmother’s death-bed. As the car was being torn apart my bracelet was found broke on the floor. I was told how as the firefighters were approaching the vehicle on that snowy night just miles west of Ames, they were preparing to assist me out of the mangled vehicle in which I was entangled in. Without a way to enter the car beside the small opening the stranger had created, the Jaws of Life had been sent for. The firemen said it was a miracle they were able to reach me, but more importantly that someone had seen the accident. Had the man not seen the accident, there would have been no way of knowing that my vehicle sat holding me captive. Doctors were expecting the worst that night, possible death; or at best, to be paralyzed. I became a miracle story; my family said it was my grandmother watching out for me.
Two lives were at stake that night; one that had lived a fulfilling life with a beautiful harvest of love to last a lifetime. The other was a life that was still blossoming and had the potential to make a difference in the world. I will never forget my grandmother; the way she loved to cook, and even more how she had to be fashionable doing it. It wasn’t my time to go; no one would have been prepared for my departure. She, on the other hand, it was her time; we were ready to give her unto the Lord. My grandmother not only became one of my closest friends as we bonded in the nursing home, but she also became my role-model –she was my Amazing Grace.
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