As I tucked the laundered thinness of her hospital gown around her, I had to smile at the irony. Tucked away in a veneered dresser drawer in her bedroom were at least twenty flannel gowns and robes, faithfully given to her by her cousin Georgie. Georgie brought her one at least once a year when she saw Nanny in a faded, often-mended housecoat over the scooped-necked cotton slips she wore as gowns. Nanny would mutter under her breath about such finery and add them to her growing collection, put away against the time she might ever enter a hospital. She never intended to use them because she never intended to go. A few of the gowns had made their way into the tufted quilts she made regularly, backed with a flannel sheet and the finest things you’d ever want to sleep under.
She went into a hospital for the first time at 85, not seeing one as necessary, and certainly not financially possible, when she bore her four children. She detested hospitals, visiting only when her husband was badly injured in a mining cave-in. She came from a long line of tough women, although her own mother had not survived the hardness very long, dying when Nanny was nine, and leaving behind several children and a husband who couldn’t cope without her. When he remarried a harsh woman, Nanny began working for others at the age of nine. Years later, she married her husband, a union that lasted 64 years, and survived house fires, coal camps, and a Depression that in West Virginia, unofficially began long before 1929. She told of her sister nursing a sick child, who walked with her older children seven miles to the hospital. By the time she arrived, the child was dead, and the sad procession walked home again to bury their baby. Doctors weren’t too accessible to coal-miners. You couldn’t pay one with scrip.
Now, at 87, she lay dying, unable to primly tuck the blankets around herself as she would have if healthier. Her husband was gone, dead these past two years. Once they had been hospitalized at the same time, and he sat stroking her hands, the skin parchment-thin and stretched loosely across knuckles enlarged with arthritis. “Elsie,” he said, “you always had the prettiest hands.” But he was gone now, and in the cold ICU, with an assortment of machines monitoring her condition and humming softly, there was just me and her.
I knew that she’d rather be at home, even now. Her eyes weakened by cataracts, she’d be asking mom if there were any flowers left, or had the frost got them all? The last of her Ponderosa tomatoes, sliced up and nearly covering a saucer, would be gone. The remaining stalks of corn Dad had planted for her would have been rattling in the fall wind, and even her late-blooming hibiscus would have succumbed to an October freeze,
But she was here, guarded by nurses who clearly wanted me to leave as I had already exceeded the time allotted for visiting.
How did you leave someone who meant so much? They say that when you are dying, your whole life flashes before you. Perhaps in her unconsciousness, memories were flitting through her mind. Just in case they weren’t, I remembered for her. I saw her in real memories, things I’d experienced with her, and in case that wasn’t enough, I remember the things that had only been told to me. I saw her finding Pa’s stash of liquor in the bean patch. With a frown on her face, she smashed it with her hoe, buried the remains, and kept working. I saw her sitting on the porch, telling me I’d get a belly-ache if I ate any more gooseberries, her iron glider squeaking softly on the cement porch outside her canning room. In the canning room just off the porch, biscuits browned in the coal cook stove. She made them twice a day every day of her married life for her husband, and served them up with honey, jelly and “sorghums”, or perhaps with the tomatoes that grew beside the creek. She could have them in the oven faster than I could open canned biscuits. She wore cotton housedresses, neatly tucked around her knees as she sat down. She despised “floosies” and warned Pa of them when he offered ride to town in his truck, (lovingly described as a 1976 Jeep International “with Posi-traction) to the neighbor up the road. When her tennis shoes cramped her toes, she promptly cut the ends off and kept wearing them, a fact that embarrassed her daughter-in-law, who wouldn’t be seen in public with her but didn’t mind it when Nanny washed her husband’s coal-embedded work clothes in her wringer washer to keep her own automatic clean.
The nurses warned me time was up, but I shooed them away. “Five more minutes,” I said, and went back to my thoughts. I spent every Friday night at her house, and you had to arrive hungry. “You get skinnier every time I see you,” she’d declare, and then set out to fix the situation. It seemed that only minutes later, the feast would appear: pork chops with red-eye gravy, biscuits of course, fried chicken, and whatever vegetables were in season. Neatly covered on the gas stove (vastly inferior in her opinion to the coal stove outside) were at least two pies: always chocolate, perhaps lemon or coconut, piled high with golden meringue. You had to starve for a day or two before you went, or she was offended. I stayed with her a week or two at the age of seven when my mom was in the hospital, leaving my dad’s scrambled eggs and baloney breakfasts for the richer fare at her house.
I thought of the day they’d buried Pa. I’d stayed with her, already sick, wile they had the funeral. She sat on the horsehair sofa in a brown polyester shirt-dress. How could a woman of thirty, with only two years of marriage behind her, comfort a widow who’d slept with the same man for 64 years? For weeks afterward, she thought her oldest son was her husband, and developed a fierce jealousy of her daughter-in-law. At odd times she would announce that she had to get “Dad” some dinner and take to him. Old habits die hard. Two months after he died, I ignorantly asked if it were getting any easier. “I don’t see how that could be,” she calmly replied, “Since every day is another day since I’ve seen him.” I had the good sense to shut up.
Once again, I came out of the past to see a nurse approaching. “You know Mrs. Wolfe needs her rest,” she quipped, apparently a stock approach to un-cooperating visitors. I thought fiercely that soon Nanny would have quite enough rest, but didn’t say it because, what if Nanny could hear? “Just five more minutes,” I insisted, and she bustled off to wherever busy nurses go when they’re not harassing relatives.
Only time for a few more memories. She re-used everything: wrapping paper, bows, bread bags that she made rugs out of. Her carpets were worn to the floorboards, but a new truck and tractor set in the barn. “Never knew when you might need it,” she said of her collectibles. She crocheted without patterns, cooked without recipes, did without. She never wrote a check in her life, and never checked the mail. That was Pa’s job. I saw her reading “The Grit” and the Sunday Charleston Gazette. She pinned and sewed the pages of her Bible back together when they slipped out of the binding. When Pa died, there was more money put away than anyone would ever have dreamed, but she picked up pennies from the hospital floor and tucked them into her shoes, just in case there wasn’t enough. I smiled when I thought of the nurse that had approached her during her first hospitalization. “You don’t look so well, today, Mrs. Wolfe,” the nurse had said. “You don’t look so good yourself,” was the quick reply. She lied to all of them—doctors, nurses, social worker types. “Are you feeling better?” “Yes.” “Are you eating well?” “Yes.” (As if that were possible in the hospital). “Have you had a bowel movement?” “Yes”. (None of your business.) She lied to them so she could go home, but now she was here, and both of us hated it.
The relentless nurse was re-approaching so I arose, tired of stalling her. It was Sunday afternoon, and I had to drive back to Virginia for work the next day. I figured I could finish her memories in the car. On the way home, I worked on it, but I was greeted by my husband, who told me that she had died almost as soon as I had left the ICU. I was the last person to see her alive, unless you counted hospital staff. Reeling in grief, I realized I could have been there, could have touched her, could have smoothed her blanket one more time, could have held her while she died.
Just five more minutes.
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This is powerful! So much of what yoy wrote is true of my own grandmother, reading "the grit", re-using everything, even the number of years she was married. I had to squelch tears as I read. Thank you for sharing such a wonderful piece.