Today has already been a long day and it’s only late afternoon.
At 3:45 this morning, Ginger and I were on the way to the airport. She drove me into Logan since leaving the car there for three days would have cost more than the plane ticket. We got to the exit for the Ted Williams Tunnel, which runs under Boston Harbor to the airport, and it was blocked. So was our second option. So, at 4:30 in the morning, we were wandering the streets of Boston, past landmarks that were once the backdrop to our daily lives, trying to find our way.
By 10:00 Central Standard Time I was getting in my rental car (a Mustang!) getting drive out of D/FW Airport. Since my cell phone fell out of my bag as I was getting out of Ginger’s Jeep, I spent more time in the rental car center than I had planned trying to figure out how to use a pay phone again. My first task was to find a way to get in touch with my brother, Miller, who, it turns out, was also in Dallas today. We connected and made plans to meet later, and I drove to Waxahachie to see my grandmother and tell her goodbye.
I drove to the nursing home where she has always been, only to find “she had not been there in years.” The nurse tried to tell me how to get to “Renfro,” the place she moved, but her directions didn’t make sense to me. Somehow I had lost my grandmother, much like I had lost my cell phone. I didn’t know what to do. I drove down to the Target store nearby and called my brother from another pay phone.
“I can’t find Grandma,” I said.
“I thought about it after we hung up,” he said, “They moved her. It’s a terrible place.”
“Do you know how to get there?”
He stammered, trying to think. “Gosh, Milton. We’ve been there a couple of times, but I don’t remember how to get back, or the name. It’s a terrible place.”
“Renfro is what the nurse at the other place said,” I offered.
“Yeah. That’s right.”
About that time I noticed a young couple standing behind me, looking as though they had something to add to the conversation.
“You lookin’ for Renfro?” the woman asked. “I can tell you how to get there.” And she did.
The sign in front of the Renfro Healthcare Center said, “History lives here.” I drove around the side of the building and parked in front of a veranda peopled with four or five feeble folks sitting in wheelchairs and smoking cigarettes. I walked up to the main door, punched in the security code posted above the key pad, asked for my grandmother’s room and found my way to her.
I’ve been trying to think of words to describe the facility where she is. The ones that keep coming to mind are “kennel for adults.” The rooms were like pens; the lights were dim and yellow, like the walls; everything felt worn and designed to meet minimum requirements. My grandmother was lying on a low bed that was more like a cot, her frail body and blankets all wrinkled together. Ms. Speck is the person who has been her caregiver for years. She is wonderful and cares deeply for my grandmother. She was feeding her from a plate of pureed foods of varying shades of green and brown. She would gently call my grandmother’s name and offer a spoonful, but Grandma was taking in very little.
What bothered me most was the giant purple and grey bruise that wrapped around the top of her right eye, and the two inch cut above the bruise that looked stitched, but I couldn’t tell for sure because of the dried blood over it. Ms. Speck said she had fallen in the night (when she was alone) and had bruises all over her body.
I swallowed hard and called her name, but she was unresponsive and kept staring at the wall.
“Ms. Sutton,” Ms. Speck said. Grandma perked up a bit, recognizing her voice. “Your grandson is here — the one from Boston.”
“It’s me, Grandma. Milton,” I added.
Her mouth moved in a sort of chewing motion and then she said, “I’m real sick. I’m real sick.” Her voice faded, she closed her eyes, and shut down again.
“I love you, Grandma,” I said, putting my hand on her arm. I stood there touching her for a few more minutes. “Goodbye.” I think I said it so I could hear it as much as anything. I left her yellow room and walked down the yellow hall and back out into the gray afternoon. The wind felt colder than it had been when I entered. Only one old man was still smoking on the porch. I got in the car and headed to Dallas to meet my brother. As I drove by myself, I couldn’t get past how alone my grandmother looked. Ms. Speck takes good care of her, but even she barely penetrates the distance between who is lying in that bed and who my grandmother was. To me, she is the one who could fry shrimp better than anyone, who loved to talk and tell stories of her life (and she had good ones to tell), who — on the eve of her wedding when she was eighty — called my mom, dad, and me into her room to show us the lingerie she had bought for her honeymoon.
I love you, Grandma. Goodbye.
I drove on to Dallas and another set of streets that had also once been the backdrop to my life. Since Texans don’t know much how to leave things alone, the streets here had changed more than those in Boston, strip mall layered on strip mall, development cropping up everywhere. I ended up in a Starbucks, which made my geography relative: I could be anywhere. Miller came over to meet me after his meeting to tell me we had about a thirty minute window before he had to leave for the airport himself. We made the best of it.
By tonight, I will be at the home of Lynn and Bob, friends from my days as a hospital chaplain. I was one of the ministers who performed their wedding. I’ve not seen them in a long time, but they were willing to take me in when they heard I was coming for the funeral. Tomorrow afternoon, I will say my goodbye’s to my friend’s father at a service that will be filled with people who loved him. On Sunday, I will go home to Ginger, to the best love I know.
“Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand” says the old gospel song, “I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.”
In the middle of a day of lost and found, that’s how I feel.