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Monday, March 14, 2011

The bell curve

I was supposed to drive to Whitman County to visit family last weekend, but by the first of March my schedule the Friday before and Monday after was so packed I couldn't make the trip worthwhile. I wanted to visit my sister and my mom, but mostly my grandmothers, whom I find increasingly fascinating as women.

My sister called at 6:20 on friday night. In typical dramatic Gretchen fashion, she'd already been crying.

"Grandma Joyce had a doctor's appointment today" she said of my 78 year old grandmother. " And the did a bunch of tests and found a bunch of cancerous masses."

(I can't remember the exact words, but that's the gist of it.)

We chatted for a few seconds longer. There was something about the cancer being related to why she'd needed pints of blood transfusions every other week, with no explanation as to where it was going. But really, I needed to get off of the phone with my sister as soon as I could to process those words. I remember saying, "Gretch, our grandparents are old" and "better fast an furious than slow and drawn out."

(Apparently I'm really awesome at consoling people, ps.)

My grandma Joyce is, likely, dying. This should come as no surprise, at her age and with her lengthy list of ailments.

My grandmother was born in the midst of the Great Depression in a farmhouse only recently electrified through FDR's Rural Electrification Agency. Parochial education and graduation from a private Catholic academy instilled a great sense of faith in her. At 17 years old she married the milk man and school bus driver; a dapper Bob Heitstuman who'd returned from a job with the railroad in Livingston, Montana to run his widowed mother's eastern Washington dairy farm. Together they raised four children on the farm, which they expanded through thrift and hard work. They now have eight grandchildren.

I wore her wedding dress as my own eight months ago last Thursday.

I often think of my grandmothers when considering mid-20th century history. I wonder how my grandma Joyce inwardly chafed at the gender roles assigned her. Did she find joy in the responsibilities assigned her by her conservative small-town values? Did she ever wonder what else was out there?

I spent summers with my grandparents while growing up. A week or two spent playing with cousins, eating popsicles on the back porch, reading too far into the night and not rolling out of bed until 10am when my cousins would wake me up. If I were to describe my "happy place", it might be dusk on the back porch of the Ranch style house my grandparents designed and built with their hands in 1954. With a book, a popsicle, the green back yard mowed into an Augusta gold course-like expanse, the sound of a mariners baseball game wafting through the screen door and the smell of blooming wheat.

These summer stays ended about when I was 14 and started playing basketball in the summer. I didn't have time to spend large blocks of my summer vacation devouring my grandma's Nora Roberts novels and lolling around aimlessly. My grandparents also purchased their first cabin on Lake Coeur d'Alene at this time, so we spent a lot of time together there.

I think aging is a bell curve. A gentle decline, then a steep precipice of lost energy, ability to drive, bowel control and dignity before flattening off in a slow taper towards the end. I can't seem to pinpoint where the bell curve began for my grandparents. It seems like they were strong and healthy and VITAL up until 2005 or so? And then I blinked and suddenly these people I loved so dearly were OLD. Walkers, canes, loss of driving privileges OLD.

So I've know in the depths of my heart that this call was inevitable. We all die someday. But what I wouldn't give to go back in time just a little and sit on the back porch for a while.

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