Lake Effect essayist Meagan Schultz has loss on her mind:
I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage lately. And death.
My grandparents were married for almost seventy years. My grandfather died earlier this year and left behind my grandmother who spends her days in their small two bedroom apartment in a pleasant-enough senior community on the outskirts of Toledo. My grandfather was the socialite of the two, the one everyone loved because he remembered their names and could make them laugh with a terrible joke or terribly inappropriate innuendo. The one who probably had the other old ladies wishing my grandmother would go first so they might spend their last few good years with him.
People kindly tolerate my grandmother and her incessant talk of her ailments and medications. The waitresses and staff smile politely when she announces at each meal that she is blind and therefore won’t be able to read the menu. Her favorite visitors are the nurses who bring her pills twice a day, she is always friendly with them.
My family and I surprised her with a visit over Easter break and when we found her in the common dining area, she was at a small table in the corner, sitting by herself staring into the distance, her back to tables full of hunched-over, white-haired men and women whose chins grazed their soup bowls. When I asked her why she was sitting alone she simply said she preferred it. “That way, people can stop by and talk to me and I can see everyone,” she said. But for one, she is legally blind, and for two, it was quite clear no one was stopping by.
What is it like when your partner of nearly seventy-five years dies before you do?
“Can you believe that’s going to be us in there one day?” I said to my husband when we were back in the car. “Let’s never get old like that.” We sat in silence for the next few miles, each of us thinking about the inevitability of aging and the certainty of death.
After my grandfather’s funeral, my grandmother told me she writes him notes on scraps of paper every night and throws them out the window. I imagine she thinks they float up to heaven to meet him like the balloons she let go after his burial. I wonder if she knows they fall to the ground, to the nice gentleman’s apartment just below hers. I have this lovely vision of him collecting the torn scraps each night, attempting to make sense of her scribbles. Perhaps he’s come to look forward to his evening note from the lovesick lady above.
My grandmother has a picture of my grandfather on his side of their bed, resting in a frame on his pillow. At 4’11, she doesn’t take up much space, so the frame is never in danger of falling. She tells me she says goodnight to him every night and talks to him for awhile, I’d guess she gives his picture a kiss too. And then she sleeps because her pills kick in.
I’m sad for her. She wanders aimlessly through her days, eating the pastries my aunt restocks for her every Saturday, nibbling the Girl Scout cookies left by a cousin. If she talks to anyone besides the nurses, I’d imagine it’s because they instigate a conversation out of kindheartedness and a touch of pity. But at the end of the day, if I wished things any differently for her, would I be wishing away the long and beautiful marriage she had with my grandfather?
For 75 years, she went out of her way to please him, and for almost 70 years, she was his wife, his loyal sidekick, his partner. As he was to her. To be sure, it was a post-war, suburban marriage, complete with a ranch house, a pool, four kids and ample bickering. She stayed home with all of her children and became the den mother of the neighborhood; hosting parties, sleepovers, and fostering and feeding everyone else’s kids along with her own.
On the weekends, when my grandfather wasn’t working 14 hour days at the tool and dye business he started with his father, they danced. Waltzes, polkas, cha chas, they danced them all. They knew the supper clubs with the best bands, and in later years, were regulars at the Elks and the Eagles along with their other friends who still remembered the songs of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey.
There is no music anymore. Instead she sits on the couch most days and blares conservative cable news at a decibel far too high from the flat-screened TV she can hardly see. I imagine that’s only because she’s memorized the location of the on/off button with her fingers and it’s the last channel my grandfather had been watching before he died. I want to tell her that it’s okay. He’s gone now, she doesn’t need to watch Fox news anymore. Part of me is tempted to switch it to MSNBC. And even if in her heart of hearts, as I secretly suspect, she would probably agree with Rachel Maddow, I can’t bear to take the discord away from her. If it reminds her of my grandfather, I suppose the cacophony of conservative cable can stay.
Her mother lived to be 98, so she may have another decade in her. But I wonder if her heartache will take her before old age will?
I told my husband I didn’t want us to grow old like this. And while part of that is true - I hope we are not exiled to a senior community on the outskirts of town where we eat the bland food of toddlers and spend our days staring out windows. I also hope we should live so long as to experience a lifetime of love and marriage. Even if that demands a terrible heartache when it’s all over.
In my grandfather’s last moments on earth, as my grandmother tells it, he stumbled out of the lobby restroom and into her arms where she caught him and brought him to the ground. This seems an improbable story only because my grandfather was a foot taller than she and weighed nearly three hundred pounds. But each time she tells the story, she embellishes it a little more. The first time he simply collapsed and died. The next time he looked into her eyes and smiled. The next time he held her before going down and they had one final swaying dance. And the next time he told her he loved her.
I don’t mind her iterations. To me it’s like she’s collapsing their seventy five year love story into his last seventy five seconds.
I hope my own story one day is as romantic.
Milwaukee writer Meagan Schultz also wrote about her grandparents in the recently published anthology, Family Stories from the Attic.