My mom was an only child, so we were the only grandchildren for my Minnesotan grandparents. Not only that, Grandma was an only child too, and Grampa's only sibling had passed away in the sixties, childless. We were it, for family.
We'd visit, as often as we could. That's probably a little white lie; we could have visited more often, technically. But they were in Cold As Hell Minnesota, and we gradually spread as a family over nine time zones (although, curiously enough, pretty much all at the 45th parallel, lattitudinally speaking). As children, we went up in car trips (bookstore trip before we went, stop at Tomah for McDonalds, fight over the middle seat in the caravan). As adults we would try to visit when we were in the vicinity (which was anywhere in a five hour driving radius, because, really, when are any of us in the vicinity of Duluth? it was tough enough to be THAT close).
At the end of each visit, as we backed up out of the driveway and pointed the car towards the freeway, Grandma and Grandpa would stand, arm in arm, large and solid Grampa, tiny bird-like Grandma, forlornly waving until the car was out of sight. Even as new cars (or rental cars) had tinted windows and they couldn't tell if we were waving back (or looking at all), they would wave and wave and wave. Not frenetically, but gently, continuously, graciously.
Last Sunday, my brother, Andrew and I each packed up our clothes and whatever family pictures or documents we were salvaging from years of fruit crates. Fortunately, we had only brought one carry on suitcase, so we also grabbed a suitcase (oh, so ancient suitcase) from the collection of suitcases in the basement for our piles of precious cargo, figuring we could check it on the way back.
Mom had spent the previous day helping Grandma pack up clothes. At one point, Grandma had turned to me, showing me one of her trademark Classy Lady jackets, tailored, timeless, (in fact, the one she wore to our wedding), red and black houndstooth-checked, with subtle gold buttons, asking me if it "widows wear such things."
"Grandma," I said, "widows wear whatever they want to."
"Oh," she said faintly.
"Do you feel pretty in it?" I asked.
She looked at the jacket, with her head tilted. "Howard always liked me in it."
"It comes with us, then," Mom said decisively, and folded it gently into the suitcase that had been requisitioned for this trip.
Grandma is nearly blind, partly deaf, can't drive, and has very little short term memory and is losing her long-term memory. Convincing her that she couldn't stay in the house she and her husband had built fifty years ago was a traumatic and heart-breaking process, because she couldn't always remember which parts of the conversation she'd already had. She would be sitting quietly at breakfast, and then turn to Mom and say, "You know, dear, I think I should just stay here," as if she were politely refusing an invitation to winter in Michigan. Even after we reminded her that her doctor, the reverend at her church, and her friends all said she could not stay in her house by herself, all were relieved to know that Mom wanted to bring Grandma back with her, she would find a new reason to stay. Or rehash an old one. Again and again and again.
But there is no way possible. And each time we have to remind her of that, it's incredibly hard not to cry. Or grind our teeth into oblivion. Because it's tragic and frustrating all at the same time.
So when the time came Sunday morning for Mom and Dad to be off (they had a two-day car trip), the car was packed and all it took was getting everyone into the car. Andrew and I didn't fly out of Minneapolis until after 7 that night, and my brother's flight wasn't until that afternoon either, so we were leaving a little later. The plan was, we would do thing things to close up the house, those little things that would have been terrible for Grandma to witness. Toss any remaining food in the fridge (some of the eggs, by the way? "Use by 2006"). Take out live plants. Lock all doors, close all curtains. That kind of thing.
But first, Grandma was leaving.
We all went to the door, out into the yard. Grandma took Andrew's arm as she negotiated the steps down to the driveway. He walked slowly with her, not taking a step until he was sure of her footing. Mom tried hard not to look like she was crying. Dad forced himself to walk patiently behind the procession. Surprisingly, no last minute petitions to stay. Maybe it was the influence of walking on a man's arm, but she was graceful as she sat in the car and waved at us, her grandchildren, staying behind.
They loaded themselves into the car, Grandma in front, Mom in back with the dog, Dad driving. As they backed slowly out of the driveway, and pointed the car towards the freeway, my brother, Andrew and I stood in the driveway, waving good-bye, long past when we could tell if anyone was waving back. Or looking at all. Waving until the car was out of sight.