She lay there quietly, sliding her teeth across the top of her lip to release the final strand of skin clinging to the rest. It is a delicate process in the winter, removing the cumbersome shred without drawing blood. It’s like picking scabs from skinned knees in the summer, you go too early or too deep and new blood is drawn. I have never known my grandmother to do this. She tends to figit with her hands, rubbing the thumb along the first knuckle of her forefinger as if keeping time to a graceful waltz. Mimi would sit in a club chair in her living room, under the painting of a Bermuda beach scene. A small tray of crackers and cheese rest on the table with a small bowl of nuts beside. Ice cubes clink against her waterford highball containing the nightly scotch and soda. Cocktails float over gentle conversation about the horses or dogs while I wait, anxiously looking for the right time to ask for a memory, a snippet into her life which seems from a long ago time, one closer to literature than present day. One of my earliest memories of Mimi is from the movie On Golden Pond. I watched Katherine Hepburn love and push a grumpy Henry Fonda as she belted out “You old poop” and thought to myself, I bet that is what Mimi is like. Until her seventies and the move to Charlottesville, Mimi seemed more like a movie star than grandmother, always keeping the distance but drifting into our lives for a brief visit between horse races in Europe and her pink sand home. Grandmother was not on her list of things to do, mothering wasn’t really either. So we took what we could get, a story about her parakeet she trained to talk or pictures of her jumping Chitter, the horse who stood 18 hands high.
Mimi and I had become close in the late 80s. My teacher had the foresight to assign a term paper in which we would write about a woman in our family to show one did not have to be famous to be a part of history. We were spending Thanksgiving on the farm and I brought a tape recorder and microphone to record the voice and story of a person whose blood travels my body yet I barely knew. I sat on her dressing room floor as she reclined in her chaise recalling a life long lived. The loss of her father at age 4, growing up in Switzerland, Radcliffe, New York City, children, divorce, new life. When asked of her first husband, the one who left her on Christmas Eve 35 years before, she simply said I do not want to talk about it. She skipped over the midlife crisis and stay in Silver Hill mental hospital. While she could not choose what happened in life, Mimi could edit the facts however she wanted.
I had driven to the hospital all morning, leaving my own children behind. It was to be the final trip to visit this 97 1/2 year-old fighter. I made the same drive three years ago at Christmas to say goodbye as her body was shutting down, lungs and heart too sad from watching her 16th dog be put to sleep. It was time. Her husband Bob was blind and hunched, his once strong body crippled by sciatica. We were insisting on selling the farm and moving everyone to where they could be cared for by trained professionals. I was a day late, having been trapped by two inches of snow on Christmas night. Having nursed my own grief with cocktails, I decided my reflexes and the roads were too slippery to set out on the 26th. But she was waiting for me, hanging on, for our final goodbye.
I had never seen her lying down. Unlike my maternal grandparents who had us in their room every morning for snuggles and stories when they visited, Mimi simply came down stairs dressed, ready to be served breakfast. It was a surprise to see her with tubes coming out of her ears and arms, looking frail. But I had been prepared by my uncle and the medical staff who were simply trying to make her comfortable. As the door closed she turned her head towards me and in an affectionate drawl she said “Hello Darling, I am so glad you came. And don’t you look fabulous, not quite so fat anymore.” I knew she was back. Despite the charts and levels and machines, my grandmother was 100% present and living. We talked for 30 minutes and I listened as she told me the nurses were trying to make her fat. I told the staff and my uncle they were wrong, Mimi would be just fine. And 12 days later she checked out of the hospital and into her own apartment. While her cardiologist could not explain why or how she is living, Mimi got a dog.
But surely this was the end. Now 97 1/2, Mimi had broken her hip, getting out of bed in the middle of the night, for reasons no one can explain. The 17th dog had been put to sleep the week before, having died of cancer. Surely it was a sign and she was choosing her time to go. The animals, the farm, her husband -all gone. The house was sold, turned into a winery, and the possessions divided on paper and sitting in cartons on my parent’s basement floor. I was okay with it, we had already cheated death and said our goodbyes. She was in bed, sitting up in a wool sweater from Trimmingham’s. The wood buttons showed it was an old favorite, the varnish smoothed shiny from years of being pinched through the grosgrain ribbon hole. She and her companion Jamaica were talking quietly. Waiting. The same drawl greeted me: “Hello Darling, I am so glad you came.” (No commentary on the waistline this time. )
It is an odd sensation to sit with a loved one when both know the purpose of the visit. The quintessential elephant in the room. She was frustrated and thirsty, having to deny herself any liquids in case the surgery was coming. The lip dangled as she tried to shred the skin. She looked at me and said: “That tacky woman Helen bites her lip at dinner all the time and now I am doing it. Dammit.” I offered her my lip balm and she cherished each circle around the mouth. As I returned the container to my purse I realized I probably just gave my grandmother the worst cold I have ever had in my life. But what would it matter? She was insisting on the surgery and no one said she could survive.
Mimi and I signed her life away 29 times that day. Each doctor came in, asking questions about how she felt. She was fine, wanted the surgery, didn’t want to be a cripple the rest of her life. When one nurse asked for her birthday as S.O.P she said: “well it was so long ago and I can’t really remember.” The nurse agreed and smiled. With each new medical visitor Mimi worked harder, answering the questions saying I am between a rock and a hard place and I choose the rock. Like me, Mimi will always die trying rather than wondering what if. We talked about life, more mine than hers, and the great-grands -one of whom is her namesake. In a moment of levity, Mimi asked: “If I can, do you want me to come back and haunt you?” Only with advice I assured her.
The doctors came in and said they were refusing to do the surgery. The cardiologists could not recommend it, the anesthesiologist would not do it. Mimi insisted on going ahead anyway, knowing this was it. She looked at the doctors and said: “what are you scared of? I am fine with going to meet my maker and frankly a bit curious.” As I watched the exchange we both seemed to wonder, will there be trumpets?
We still don’t know. Mimi came through surgery, spent less than 36 hours in the ICU and returned home four days later. A week ago she got her stitches out. Over the weekend, the nursing home tried to give her pneumonia, taking x-rays and putting us all on alert. I am not sure what the obsession is. When she goes, she goes. But in the mean time she will live.