Barbara Jean

I lost my Grandma when I was 14.  Almost 30 years later, I got her back.

Let me explain.

When I was a kid, I was pretty lucky.  I didn’t need braces.  I got along (for the most part) with my younger brother.  I had parents that didn’t get divorced.  I had a grandmother and a great grandmother.  Nanny, my great-grandmother, lived in Rochester, MN.  It’s a little big town a little bit further south in the state.  We’d take trips to visit her when we could since my mom and Nanny were really close.  We didn’t always love to go, but it was important to my mom so we’d pile into the big Caprice Classic station wagon and head south.

My mom and Grandma were close too.  At least it seemed that way from what I can remember.  They talked on the phone a lot.  They liked to shop together.  When my brother and I went shopping with them, we’d sit in the backseat of Grandma’s gray car with the red roof.  The two of them would sit up front and smoke cigarettes.  They loved those cigarettes.  I hated them and my brother hated them even more.  He would pretend he was dying from the smoke.  I just decided I’d never smoke when I got older.  And well, I never did.

Mom and Grandma would argue from time to time, I guess like parents and their kids do.  Sometimes it was a BIG DEAL, other times it was a stupid misunderstanding.  But after a while, cooler heads would prevail, they’d clear the air (before polluting it together again) and Grandma would come back over.  I guess I never thought much of it.  Heck, my brother and I would have LEGENDARY fights, but by the afternoon we were back in the basement building crap out of Legos and playing Atari.  In the long run, you got over the quarrels and just sort of forgot about it.  Staying mad wasn’t worth the energy.  At least I didn’t think so.

That’s something I’ve realized about myself in the 44 (and change) years I’ve been around.  I’m a bit of a peacemaker.  I’d rather just say “sorry” or try to fix things and move on.  I was like that as a kid and I’m still like that as an adult.  Saying sorry isn’t always an admission of guilt or blame.  It’s just dumb to stay mad for so long.  It’s not worth it, life is too short, etc, etc…

Sometime around my early teens (and I’m terrible with dates) Nanny got sick.  Like, really sick.  We helped move her to a care facility closer to home and went to visit her.  We all did.  After a while, we were told that Nanny wasn’t going to get better and that the end was coming soon.  It was extremely hard on my mom and we had a tough time with it, too.

Before long, Nanny passed away.  Our family went down to Rochester to help move all of her stuff from her house to my Grandma’s house in Northeast, Minneapolis.  It was a sad time, going through her empty house that always seemed like it was stuck in the 60’s.  We’d load up the trailer we’d brought with us.  We brought it all to Grandma’s house and helped unload it.  After a long day of packing, driving and moving stuff around, we were finally done.  We all piled into the station wagon to head home.

My grandma came running out of the house, shouting at the car.  “I never want to see you again,” she shouted.  I don’t remember if those were her exact words, but that’s what I heard.  She seemed to be directing her anger at my mom and dad.  My mom burst into tears and my dad drove away.

I was 14 years old and my brother was 12.

Now, I don’t know that it’s worth going through who did what.  I’m not even sure I fully understand why.  I’d heard that Grandma was mad about how Nanny divided up her assets, giving my parents more than she got.  I heard that Grandma thought we’d stolen from her.  My mom was angry with how Grandma treated Nanny.  There was blame and ill will to go around for days.  I didn’t know what to think, honestly.  All I knew was that in a matter of days, I’d lost both my great grandma and my grandma.  We didn’t see her again.

When I graduated high school a few years later, I sent my grandma an invitation to my graduation party.  I didn’t think she’d come since my mom and she never resolved their differences.  I wanted her know I’d finished school.  I honestly didn’t think I’d hear back.  But I did.  She sent me a card with a little note and some money.  But then, nothing.

I knew she still lived a couple miles from our house, but I never thought to go over there and see how she was doing.  I didn’t know if “never want to see you again” meant me, too.  I just figured I’d honor her wishes and stay away.  Plus, I didn’t want things to get weird with my mom, you know?  She didn’t have nice things to say about Grandma after that.  Whenever I’d bring it up, she’d say I could do what I want and have whatever relationship I wanted with my grandma, but I didn’t think I should.

So I didn’t.

I went through most of my life knowing that I still had a living grandparent out there somewhere, but didn’t have any contact with her.  When my kids would ask about my grandparents, it was kind of tricky to explain.  I’d met my maternal grandfather once when I was 5.  He and my grandma had divorced a long time ago and he moved to Arizona.  He and my mom were pretty much estranged, too.  He died and we didn’t even go to the funeral.  My paternal grandparents died when I was younger, so as far as my kids were concerned, I never really had grandparents.

On September 1, 2016 I got a message through LinkedIn from my Aunt Sue in Colorado.  Sue is my mom’s half sister who I haven’t seen for quite a while, either.

She let me know that Grandma was in a nursing home in Columbia Heights, MN, about a half hour from my house.  Sue also let me know that Grandma was more easy going and it might be a good time to see her.

I was one part excited and one part horrified.

I thought about going.  I thought about not going.  I thought about what my mom would think.  I thought about what my Grandma would say if she saw me.

The next day, I responded.  I told Sue I was interested and that I’d have to do it on the down-low.  I didn’t want things to get weird with my mom.  Pathetic, I know.  I guess I just wanted to keep things smooth and not rock the boat.  Plus, I didn’t even know how it’d go.  I went back and forth.  Should I go?  Should I forget it?  What would I be walking into?

I decided to roll the dice a few days later on Labor Day.  My wife and kids came along with me.  We decided early on that I would go in alone.  I had them wait in case I:

a) chickened out
b) was thrown out
c) couldn’t find her
d) changed my mind

I went into the nursing home and looked around.  There were old people rolling around in wheelchairs.  Some were sitting in a group doing exercises.  A guy with only one leg was sitting in a chair in the waiting room.  I signed in and to the left of the sign-in book, I saw badges we were supposed to wear.  One pile were a bunch of stickers with VISITOR written on them.  The other were laminated badges that said FAMILY MEMBER.

I grabbed a FAMILY MEMBER one, hoping that would mean something to my Grandma.  You know, if I found her.

I wandered through the halls of the nursing home.  It was tough to see people in their rooms, just lying there, waiting for a visitor or even the end to come.  I weaved through crowded hallways teeming with the elderly.  Some alert and spritely, others just sitting with their heads hanging, asleep in the middle of the hall.

I spotted a lunchroom filled with people in wheelchairs eating.  I wondered if she was in there and if she’d spot me.  I wondered if I’d even recognize her.  I scanned the crowd.  No one seemed to take much notice of me and instead worked on their lunches.  Potatoes, some stinky beef concoction, peas.

I finally asked if anyone knew where my grandmother was.  I told them her name was Barbara Jean.

The lady (who had a killer Jamaican accent) asked one of her nurse/aide friends.  Who asked another lady.  Finally one of them waved me over and led me down the hall.  In moments, I stood in front of a door with my grandmother’s name on it.

Now, I’m not scared of anything.  I don’t get squeamish.  I investigate haunted houses.  I used to run into burning buildings.  I used to pull injured people out of car accidents.

But right then?  I was scared.  I thought of spinning on my heels, heading out and seeing if my wife and kids were still waiting in the parking lot.  I peeked in.  I could see the room was divided into two.  A TV was on in the further end of the room.

My heart was beating like a galloping horse, but I stepped inside.  The first bed was empty, so I kept going.  I rounded the curtain and saw a woman sitting up in her bed.  She was wearing headphones and watching the TV.  She glanced up at me and I could see she was confused.

“Who are you?” she asked.

I took a deep breath.

“I’m your grandson,” I said.


“I’m Tamara’s son,” I said.  “I’m your grandson…Tommy.”

It took a second, but I could see her face change as realization kicked in.  She smiled a little bit and said, “What’re you doing here?”

I smiled back.  “I came here to see you.”

“Tammy’s son?” she asked as if she still couldn’t believe it.

So we talked.  I pulled up a chair and sat down.  She didn’t look like I remembered.  Grandma was thin and (obviously) quite a bit older.  Her hair was longer, but dark with very little gray in it.  Her hands were almost skeletal.  I quickly discovered she was hard of hearing.  I had to talk really loudly for her to hear.  I discovered that she couldn’t walk anymore.  She’d broken her hip in a fall and was stuck in bed.

And I mean stuck.  She couldn’t tolerate a wheelchair, so she sat in bed all day.  Round the clock, watching shows through some old headphones connected to the TV.

We talked for an hour and a half.  I let her know a little about my parents.  I told her she had 4 great-grand kids from my side of the family.  Two boys (mine) and two girls (my bro’s).  I told her I write kid’s books.  She told me about my grandpa and her life.

I also found out that no one was coming to see her.  My aunt Sue in Colorado came when she could over holidays, but really no one else.  My uncle Charlie (who lives 5 minutes away) had stopped coming to see her.  My brother lives in Florida.  My uncle Richard lives in Arizona.  My mom wasn’t going to visit her.

Locally? I was it.

“I want to come see you again, Grandma,” I said.

“Okay,” she said.

So I did.  From Labor Day on, I came to visit her every Sunday.  Her hearing got rapidly worse, so I got smart and brought my iPad so I could type out messages to her.  I brought her a copy of my LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF book.  She thought the pictures were creepy and I explained that I didn’t draw them, I just came up with the words.  When I came back the following Sunday, she’d ordered a copy of my VIKING SHIP book.  I brought her a framed picture of my family and pointed out my wife and kids.  She thought it was just about the best thing ever.  She insisted on having it near her bed where she could see it.

“Do you want to meet your great grand-kids sometime?” I asked.

“Oh, they won’t want to see a dying old lady,” she said.

“Never mind that,” I said.  “They’d like to meet their great-grandma.”

She agreed and the following week I brought the family in for a few minutes.  Her face lit up and she was so sweet to my little guys.  She would ask about them every time I went to visit.

I found out my great-grandpa (her dad) wasn’t around long.  He left Nanny to join the carnival and became a fighter.  I heard about her trials and tribulations at work in downtown Minneapolis.  She told me about how my uncle would sneak the car out of the garage every night.  When the election came, she had me fill out her ballot for her.

“You can vote for a dog for all I care,” she said.  “Just don’t vote for that idiot, Donald Trump.”

I filled out her absentee ballot and she nodded.  When we found out the results later on, she wasn’t happy.

“Well,” she said.  “Maybe we’ll get lucky and someone will assassinate him.”

Around Christmas time, I couldn’t come to see her on Sunday, but I told her I’d come the next day, on Monday.  I asked if she wanted anything for Christmas.  She asked for a better comb.

When I showed up on Monday, she said: “Is it really you?”

I nodded.  She always liked to start talking before I could get my iPad out of my bag.

“It’s me, Grandma,” I said and held her hand.  “I’m sorry I couldn’t be here yesterday.”

I showed her the comb I’d found.  I mean, it was nothing special.  Just something with wider teeth that I found at Walgreen’s.  The look on her face was priceless.  It was like the announcer on The Price Is Right telling a contestant they could win a brand new car!  She immediately began combing her hair.

“You couldn’t ask for a better comb,” she said.

I bought her some warmer shirts.  I brought her candy that she had me stuff into an empty Kleenex box and I refilled it every week.

“I give these to the people here,” she said.  “I get better service that way.”

Somewhere during this time, I came clean and told my parents that I was visiting Grandma.  I didn’t know what to expect.  I didn’t want my mom to be angry with me.  I don’t know.  It’s dumb.  I’m 44 years old and I was worried that it might upset her or seem like a betrayal of some sort.  She appreciated me telling her, but was quick to remind me that she wouldn’t visit Grandma for a “million dollars.”

Which was fine.  I don’t have that kind of cash lying around.

The last couple of months were a little more tricky.  I’d show up and she seemed kind of out of it.   She’d inform me: “I’m very sick.”

Or a few weeks ago: “I thought you’d given up on me.”  She’d forgotten that I’d been by the week before.  I reminded her that I was there every Sunday and she just shook her head.  “I don’t know where my mind goes.  How can I be so stupid?”

I told her she was being too hard on herself.  She just smiled and told me how glad she was to see me.

“My little Tommy.”  She said that to me a lot in a the last few months.  Not a lot of people can get away with calling me “Tommy.”  My grandma can.

The last few weeks, things changed.  When I got there and would type a message out to her, she’d read a little and then close her eyes, like she was falling asleep.  She’d open them again and wouldn’t respond.  I found out that they were giving her pain medication that made her very sleepy.  Her meals on the bedside tray were mostly untouched.  The nurses asked me to try and get her to eat since she wasn’t listening to them.

“When you’re 81 years old, you don’t have much of an appetite,” she said.

“You’re 87, Grandma,” I reminded her.

“That’s right.”

My visits were shorter.  I’d sit with her for as long as I could, but I felt like I was keeping her awake.  I’d kiss her head and tell her I loved her and I’d be back next week.

One time she asked to see the pictures again.  I showed her pictures of my family on my “info box” (phone) and she smiled.  “Isn’t that something,” she’d say.  “Little Travis and Jake.”

When I went to see her this past Sunday, she wasn’t herself.  She told me she was sick.  I asked her if she wanted me to stay and she nodded.

“There’s something I was going to tell you,” she said.  I waited, wondering what it was.  “But I can’t remember.”

She didn’t say much after that.  I sat with her and held her hand while the TV showed it’s usual line-up of awful daytime Sunday shows.  After a while, I packed up my stuff and headed home.

I got to work yesterday morning and got a text from my Aunt Sue.  She said she’d gotten a call from the home and that Grandma was “actively dying.”  I left work right away and headed over there.  I didn’t want her to be alone.  I got to the home around 9:30am and saw her.  She was gulping air by the mouthful and it reminded me of a fish out of water.  Grandma looked completely different than she had even 24 hours earlier.

I grabbed her hand.  She opened her eyes.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi Grandma,” I said.  “I’m here.”

“I love you,” she said.  “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” I reminded her.  “I’m going to stay with you.”

And I did.  I sat with my Grandma for a long time.  Anyone who knows me even a little bit knows how tough it is for me to sit still for any period of time.  But I did.  I just held her hand so she knew I was there.

My wife Laura came and brought me food and sat with me.  I was afraid to leave, even though I was sweating in the sauna-esqe room.  We left for 20 minutes to go buy a t-shirt to replace the sweater I was wearing.  All I could find was a Super Mario Bros. t-shirt.  Naturally.  I got back to the home as soon as I could.

I wanted to be there until my aunt flew in from Colorado.  A chaplain came in and read her last rites and talked to me about his talks with my grandma.  He said she was pretty resistant to the idea of prayer and stuff and I told him I could understand that, not being a religious guy myself.  A lady with a dog came in and put the dog (Dinah) on her lap.  Grandma sort of stirred a bit as Dinah licked her hands and arms.

My wife went to go get the kids and I sat with my grandma, occasionally smoothing out her hair and kissing her forehead.  Anytime I let go of her hand, she reached for it.  She didn’t want me to let go…and I didn’t want to let go, either.  I let her know that Sue was coming.

My aunt got there around 6pm and I gave her a huge hug.  Sue was worried she wasn’t going to make it back to Minnesota in time.  Her original plan was to come the next day around noon.  She changed her flight to get there earlier.  I’m glad she did.

We sat with Grandma for a while and after a bit, Laura was back to pick me up and take me home.  My kids were out in the hallway and my youngest, Jake, wanted to see her again.  I went out there and told him it wasn’t a good idea.  That Grandma was really sick and that she wasn’t the same as she was before.  I reminded him that she was so happy to have met them and that she loved them and the family picture we gave her very much.  He started to cry.  I hugged both of my little dudes.

“I’m going to seem like a big jerk,” Jake said.  “I came out here and I didn’t even see her.”

I told him that she knew he and Travis loved her and that it was hard for all of us.

I went back in the room to tell Sue I was going to go and if she needed anything or if anything changed, to call me.  I gave her a hug, grabbed my stuff and started to leave.  About halfway out of the room, I stopped.   I turned around, went to the other side of Grandma’s bed and kissed her forehead again.

“Goodbye, Grandma,” I said.  “I love you.”

I held her hand again and then let go.  It was time to go home.

I kept the phone by my bed last night and it didn’t ring.  I went into work, expecting to go back to the home when I was done.   I checked in with Sue and got the news.

My grandmother passed away around 9:30am today.

It’s strange.  I haven’t had anyone close to me die.  I mean, I’ve had a few classmates pass away and my other grandparents when I was younger, but nothing like this.  But in truth, it made me realize something: I screwed up.  I should’ve reconnected with my grandmother decades ago.  I could’ve had a much longer relationship with her.  I could’ve talked to her about what it was like growing up when she did.  I could’ve asked her about ice-skating, and about doing cartwheels.  I remember her doing them when we were kids.  No one else had a grandma that could do that.

But when it really comes down to it?  The last 5 months or so were a gift.  I know a lot of people close to me think I gave her a gift by going to visit her when no one else could/would, but I think the opposite is true.  Getting to reconnect with my grandma was probably one of the best things I’ve done for myself in a long time.  She made me laugh.  She filled in some blanks about my family.  She didn’t hold a grudge.  She ultimately didn’t care about all the crap from the past.  She moved on before she moved on.

It’s sad, but I’m glad she’s at peace now.  She told me she was tired of lying around (now I know where I get it from!) and that she was ready.

When I picked up Jake from school today, I told him the news.

“Hey buddy,” I said.  “Just wanted to let you know, Great-Grandma passed away this morning.”

He was quiet and looked down at his lap.  Even though he’s a bit of a handful, he’s a sensitive little guy.

“Grandma was ready to go,” I said.  “It was driving her nuts having to be in that place and in pain and everything.”

“Yeah,” Jake said.  “It’s sad though.  Well, at least now I can see her when I look up at the stars.”

It took everything I had to hold it together.  When we got home today, we had a little bit of snow to shovel on the driveway.  Travis, Jake and I picked up our shovels and got to work.  As we pushed the wet, sloppy snow from the driveway, the sun peeked out through the clouds.  It’d been gray and dreary here for weeks.

“Hey,” I said.  “We do still have a sun.”

“You have two sons, Dad,” Jake said.

“Three, actually,” Travis said, pointing to the sun.

“Maybe it’s a sign,” I said, looking up at the patches of blue, burning through the clouds.

“Yeah,” Travis said.  “Great Grandma can look down on us now.”

I nodded.  Even though I’m not a religious guy, I thought that sounded pretty good.