I'm breathing heavy beneath a gray Pacific Northwest sky as my run slows to a walk, the end of this particular trek in sight. With my hands on my hips, I tilt my gaze upward, studying the cloud cover in an attempt to determine whether or not it is about to release a spring rainstorm upon us. Being able to read the skies is a necessary skill around these parts.
My mother appears, driving slowly in the other direction, my Grandfather in the passenger seat of her small SUV.
"We're going to the hospital," she says, unalarmed through the drivers window. "You're responsible for taking Grandma to the beauty parlor at 11:00."
I give her a two fingered salute, and she continues down the lane.
"Gram!" I yell, swinging the front door open. "I'm going to take a shower, then I'll take you into town!"
"All right, Sarah Jane," she hollers back at me from her room, where she is sitting on her bed, propped up with no less than eight pillows while completing the days crossword. I strip off sweaty socks and charge up the stairs.
My grandmother goes to the beauty parlor every week to see Jan, a woman roughly twenty years her junior, who she always leaves appointments looking a great deal like. She's not unsympathetic to the fact that Grandpa, her husband of 67 years, is headed to the hospital, simply used to this routine, and like the skies, is pretty good at reading what is serious, and what allows her to keep her weekly hair appointments without guilt.
That's the thing about growing up under the same roof as my Grandparents—I'm rather unfazed by doctors and hospitals and 911 calls. I have yet to lose anyone close, and that, coupled with my familiarity with the aging process, has tricked me into believing that they will always come back from these stints, because, well, they always have. It's silly logic, but it's what I know.
The last time I called 911 for one of them was the spring of my sophomore year in college. I happened to be home for a long weekend, when my Grandmother had a TIA—a mini stroke. Alerted to this fact by the bellowing voice of my Grandfather from the other room, I calmly dialed 911, explained the situation at hand, and waved the paramedics through the hard to find front door of our hard to find farmhouse.
When we were finally all settled with her in the emergency room, she looked around at my Grandfather, sister, and I, and announced,
"Well, it wasn't today."
They've each cheated death a handful of times. Grandma has had a bad heart since childhood—a bout of Scarlet Fever scarred it irreparably, which led to her receiving a plastic valve, the first of it's kind, when my mother was barely a toddler. To this day, if you sit close enough to her, you can her it's soft tick, tick, tick.
Grandpa will be quick to tell you that he shouldn't have survived his two years serving in World War II, let alone open heart surgery in his late 70's. When he had an artificial valve put in, the surgeons told him it would last 10-15 years, to which he calmly replied, "That's fine, I'll be dead by then anyway."
That was thirteen years ago.
"When you go, Bud," my mother likes to tease, "I'm just going to kick some dirt over you in the garden," referring to the half acre of vegetables behind the barn where he spends the majority of his time.
"That'll be just fine," he responds, with a smile and a wink.
I am given a list of errands to accomplish after dropping Grandma off at her appointment—bread from Red Fox Bakery, tomatoes from Harvest Fresh, and a prescription from the pharmacy. I begin at the bakery, where there is a five dollar minimum for card use, and am given no other option but to indulge in a pumpkin chocolate chip cookie, of which I often dream while I am away.
It sometimes surprises me, how easily I am able to step into the choreography of family, this dance of needing and being needed. Despite the inherent sorrow of the circumstances, I am oddly warmed by just how right it feels to be fetching bread and running Grandma to appointments and calling my cousins to tell them which room Grandpa is in—just how good it is to be someone's daughter and granddaughter, someone's niece and cousin and caretaker.
Upon accomplishing my tasks, I return to Jan's, and slowly walk my Grandmother from the beauty parlor to the car.
"Have you heard from your mother?" she asks, and I tell her, yes, I have, and we can go see her and Grandpa at the hospital now.
She is quick to tell me exactly which streets to take to get there. I am tempted to remind her that I grew up in this town, and am still quite capable of getting us where we need to go, but think better of it, and simply follow her directions.
A few weeks earlier, from my kitchen in California, I called my Aunt Chris, my mother's oldest sister, and asked her to give it to me straight—is Grandpa dying, or not? He had been admitted to the hospital again, and I needed someone who would give me the facts, rather than platitudes or cliches.
I want clarity, in the face of mortality. I want to know if I should get on a plane and come home, or if things are going to be okay for a while longer. I want to be told that yes, this time is really it, you can begin grieving and goodbyes, or no, this is not the end, there is still time.
Unfortunately, neither death nor life seems to care about giving us these kind of clear directives. We are simply left to navigate ours and others fragility, assured of nothing beyond this exact moment, and told to live in and out and from it the very best that we can.
It's been several weeks since I was home, and in that time, Grandpa was released from the hospital, and admitted once more.
My mother called last night to tell me she thinks we are going to lose him soon. How soon is a question no one can answer, but in all of our years of hospital visits, this is the first I've heard her say those words.
After our phone call, I spent the better part of an hour weeping, my ever dutiful friends Katie & Ann by my side, listening to me eek out statements about what a wonderful, rich life he has had, and how it's ok, really, and so very not, all at the same time.
"We have to do shots," I suddenly blurted out, mid sob.
I didn't have to explain to either of them what I meant—they know that for as long as I can remember, Grandpa has had a whiskey & coke at the close of everyday. As children, my cousins and I were told to smile at photographs not by saying, "Cheese!" but by repeating, "Grandpa's Whiskey!"
And so last night, we rummaged through my kitchen drawers until we found three shot glasses, and poured ourselves some single malt.
To Bud Brentano—Second Gunner's Mate in the United States Navy, husband to my Grandmother, father to my mother, much more than the title of Grandfather could ever capture, to me.