Issue 06

A Sojourner’s Staff

Written by Heather Newell

“The bruises,” she claims, “penetrate more easily because of my daily intake of Advil,” a partial truth for the grimace across her face with each step she takes. Her words say one thing, but the purple pervading the veins on her fingers says enough.

Grandma, prone to concealing her vulnerability, is hiding the obvious: she’s falling.

Last week, she slipped on her stairs and her face collided into a wall of pavement.

Her small duplex has been home for twenty-two years. She moved to Aurora, following the finalization of her divorce from my grandfather, to start a new life. With four grown girls and twenty years of marriage behind her, she had expected her vows to carry them through old age, grey hair, and wistful memories. Instead, the alcohol, sex, and eventual abandonment for another woman destroyed even her most hopeful of plans. Her life, I know, did not turn out how she wanted. Frankly, it is and always has been grossly unfair.

She laments her physical bruises, and also expresses her frustration about life’s tendency to take unexpected turns. “I didn’t think I would need a railing someday.”

We’ve talked about this before, with other falls, and I’ve gently suggested the use of a cane. With every interaction, her eyebrows furrow and I’m met with the resistance of a brick wall. A cane represents dependence. And to be fair, she is the kind of woman who has had to carve out her own independence so late in life—who would want to give that up? She’s quick—and emphatic—to show that she doesn’t need that kind of aid. A cane is for “old people, sick people…people at the end of their life.” A cane, for grandma, is a resignation that she cannot keep up with the life that she has lived for all of these years.

“I just don’t feel this old…” her voice breaks and a single, heavy tear glides down her cheek.

I swallow the lump of anxiety caught in my throat so she won’t notice.

Grandma is the friend of all friends; my brother once said, regarding her ability to showcase kindness in all circumstances, “She is the nicest human being in the world.” For Grandma, free time is an opportunity to be present with someone who needs it most. One of her best friends—they met through the Red Hat Society—is obese to the degree that it is difficult to move and take part in public activities. Unfazed, grandma takes her to plays, to dinner, and on train rides through the highest of peaks in the Rocky Mountains. Another person’s comfortability is a bridge for love, at least when it comes to my grandmother’s rules of life.

Now, ironically, she needs help and suddenly, I am anxious about who will answer that need.

Love is not always the fixed moments of glee and giddy; it’s caught in corners of change, the bruises and the dull aches life can bring. Love is a willingness to pivot with a person when they are scared to do so. Grandma pivoted when her husband left her. Grandma pivoted when she lost her dream job. Grandma pivoted when she was a caretaker for her own mother. Time and time, and still time again, this woman had to re-calibrate her life because her love for others compelled her to do so. This artful dance of selflessness is a tall order, and in many ways, I am fearful that I cannot match it.

I dispel my fears and look to her instead. I can see a level of determination thickening in her face; a fall may bring her low, but again, she will rise. Our hands touch as the summer cicadas raise their voices in a perfect, holy unison. It’s time for night. For rest. Perhaps, in the magic of night, we will wake up with a solution to her falls, to her old age. Or, perhaps not. But certainly, one can always hope.

*

The creaks in her floor whine, like an irritable alarm, as the sun storms through the blinds. It’s Saturday morning. Brunch is calling us.

I don’t spend the night frequently, but our visits are regular enough that I have my own room. “A night at grandma’s house” was not something we did much when I was a young girl; however, as I’ve grown into my own womanhood, the availability of her room—away from the chaos of adulthood—has become a welcomed escape. Shifting my legs aimlessly off the bed, my mouth waters as I imagine the bright yellow delight of a poached egg. It’s a mid-July summer weekend, and grandma and I are planning to travel ninety miles south of Denver—to stay in a castle built by Western explorer William Jackson Palmer, an abolitionist, civil engineer, and philanthropist.

Before we spend the night like living queens, though, we need breakfast. And my god, I need coffee.

I wear road-trip clothes that are essential mandates in the state of Colorado: Teva sandals, a wick-sport shirt, and bright orange shorts. Mid-morning, I savor her delight over a steamy cup of chai at The French Press, our favorite Aurora-based breakfast place.

We started frequenting The French Press in 2014, when we both began attending church together. It became a ritual for us to leave church and grab a meal immediately following the service. Now, the summer has slipped away, and so have our shared huevos rancheros. They’ve been traded for vacations, obligations, and theatre shows. I taste a twinge of regret as I chew my food; that hellish anxiety rears its ugly head and all I can think about is her continued falls and how much time she has left. In life. My anxiety swells into guilt and I blame myself for allowing her age to come in isolation. Who else does she have? Why haven’t I been more available? I’m not sure this anxiety is necessary. Aging is inevitable, and could I really have expected myself to stand in the gap between time and my grandmother?

 So much for enjoying the glorious luxury of brunch.

As we devour our breakfast platters, our manners, and our warm beverages, grandma slowly and humbly admits that something is not right with her body. I recognize in that moment the kind of courage it takes to acknowledge your own weakness. I’m in awe.

“Let’s go to the health supply store for seniors. I want to get one of those…things to help me walk.”

“A cane…?” I pose with slight hesitation.

“Oh, yes…I mean, yeah, I suppose that’s what I need.”

Muscles between the blades of my shoulders release slightly as we enter the shop. We are warmly greeted—like travelers meandering remote villages far from home. The journey, indeed, has been long, and like mountain climbers scaling between crevices, caves, and Colorado hills, we need a stick to guide our way. When sojourners move nomadically through the terrain and soil of this world, they too need a stick. I hold my posture in place, confident that our scenario is no different.

Near the entrance, on display like a set of shiny model cars, rests a series of canes—all sorts, sizes, and colors.

The sales lady provides recommendations about the ideal option for Grandma. There are folding canes, adjustable canes, and wooden canes. Not to be outdone, there are even leopard canes. With a growing set of options, grandma’s mouth droops. Clearly, this is not what she wants.

A mature woman, however, she still tries to get comfortable with the various models, sizes, and brands. Her bright red nails accent the smooth black cane, in particular, nicely. The cane has four prongs on the bottom – built for lots of support—and even though it’s the third or fourth model that she tries, she welcomes it a bit more boldly, sticking the bottom of the cane to Earth as though she announces, “I am here.”

There’s a loud thud each time the cane hits the floor as she walks across the room. It’s awkward and strange at first, but slowly—and gently—she recognizes the power this stick could hold. It could help her do life. It could support her as she moves. Inherently, it doesn’t make her lesser; it makes her stronger.

Grandma chooses the square-shaped cane, almost proudly, and is also soon ready to leave. I sense her vulnerability is raw, and she wants to go back in the car and make the two-hour drive to the mountains. There’s a slight, palpable moment of tension as she pays for her purchase. She wants it, and she doesn’t. She needs it, but still struggles to admit it. And still, she passes her credit card, faithful to the process.

That’s what canes—or sticks—do for us. They lead us along paths we are unsure of, trusting that we will find our way. They reinforce and encourage the strengths we already have. We can’t always see, but we can feel, hope, touch, and believe. I think that’s what grandma does, each and every day that she choose to use her cane, believing that she is both supported and able. Believing that she can continue to walk her path.

Carol Haman

Heather, thank you so much for sharing. Even though you probably have no clue who I am, your writing has brought me to tears. I grew up in Brighton and went to school with your aunts. Your mom is a dear friend of a friend of mine, Robin. I know your grandma, such a lovely woman, beautiful and kind, inside and out. Just a few short months ago, I lost my mom due to old age an illness. So your story hit so close to home. Keep writing and sharing, you have a beautiful gift to give others. I look forward to reading more of your work.

 

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Heather Newell

Carol, thank you for your kind words and encouragement. I am really moved by your support and also your experience. It’s so beautiful how connected we all are! Continue the fight and know that your strength will carry you through even the toughest of times. Sending love!

 

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Mary Jo Vitulli

I’ve always known behind that soft voice and her quiet, kind ways, the was a
very strong woman. She was so kind to me and I cherish the time we did have
together in Colorado. Heather, you are a good granddaughter and I’m sure
she appreciated all you do. Thank you for writing a lovely article and for all
good you do in this world.

 

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Ted Newell

Heather, such a work of art. You so captured the humanity of a wonderful woman. I was moved and tears came to my eyes because I get what you were writing about.

 

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