Remembering my Grandmother Stowe who passed away in 1991. I wrote this shortly after her death and recently stumbled upon it.
My grandmother died last week. I returned to the piney rolling hills of my childhood to be with her during the final days of her life. For five days, a collection of close and distant relatives and I huddled about the sterile hospital room — assembled there to witness my grandmother sinking closer to death each moment, each of us solemnly awaiting the inevitable.
“Grandmother, how are you?” I said, road-weary from an eight-hour drive. She mumbled something unintelligible. I held her hand loosely. I think she recognized me. I wasn’t prepared for what I was seeing. Grandmother’s arms were swollen like too-full hot water bottles and were hues of deep brown and purple. The doctor said her heart had swollen across her chest. She spoke in gibberish. She sewed imaginarily into the air as if she had returned to some far earlier time when made clothes for her children and quilts for the bed.
“She’s a tough woman,” the doctor said, “to hold on as long as she has.” They stopped feeding her intravenously because her veins were too brittle to accept an IV needle, yet her strong body fought instinctively to survive. Farm women have to be strong. We wait.
Relationships with distant cousins were rekindled during the week, brothers and sisters caught up on the latest events of significance in our lives as we took turns trying to stay awake in uncomfortable vinyl chairs in the tiny hospital room. It is in moments of pre-dawn in situations as these that the mind and soul oscillate from the absurd to the sublime: now laughing giddily (enough to warrant scolding glances from the nurses in the nearby station) at the telling of a story from the past, re-told for the one thousandth time; now there is silence, fighting the invasion of sleep, the sound of a heart monitor drones in the background, silence echoes.
Grandmother in deep, silent, peaceful sleep.
My mind whirls, emotions soar: fright — when I look into the face of my dying grandmother and see there the face of my own mother; humility — at the graciousness of a grand god who allows you a good long life then gently transforms you to a different place when your worn out body has outlived its usefulness. And you consider what irony is life’s cycle: how you enter this world wholly dependent on caregivers to satisfy your most basic needs and leave the world in much the same manner. And you’re forced to examine, in fact, take a good close look at your own mortality. Death comes, no vain image in a mirror can deny it. I think of Tolstoy’s Ivan Illych, the story of one man’s anguished confrontation with mortality, “My God! My God! I’m dying… No, I don’t want to….” And I think of Ecclesiastes, “For every thing there is a season.”
Morning comes and in the lobby of the hospital plays my four-year-old niece Haley, the angel with the long blonde hair and the juice-stained lips, so full of life, whose memory of her great-grandmother will be faint at best. To her the hallways of the hospital must seem enormous; to me they have shrunk to unbelievable smallness since the days of my own childhood when I was a patient here myself.
In the lobby of the hospital I also see Reverend Trellis Mayhall, pastor of Free Waters Baptist Church, where in the summer of 1975 I sat faithfully in the first pew each occasion the church doors opened, a young boy starved for answers to life’s great questions. We talk small talk briefly, I and this man who so long ago baptized me in the name of The Father, The Son and The Holy Ghost. Maybe he is taken aback by my earring and unshaven face (he had thought I would be a preacher) and maybe I am viewing him through the eyes of an adult for the first time. He seems different. Not holy. Whatever the reasons, we have very little to say to each other.
On September 29, my grandmother, Essie Wilson Stowe, died at the age of 89.
I will remember: lazy Summer afternoons at Grandmother’s house sprawled on the front porch swing, the rickety, rhythmic sounds made by the rusty chain which suspended me in mid-air lulling me to sleep as adults talked in hushed tones inside, my belly swollen from too many green apples and red plums from the trees in the back yard; hunting colored eggs on Easter Sunday and running, racing freely, wildly on sawdust floors down long chicken houses with my cousin Mark who usually won because he was a year older and a good foot taller; Sunday dinners in the middle of the day: fried chicken and red-eye gravy and new potatoes in the spring and sweet corn in the fall and black-eyed peas and cornbread and sweet tea… cold bacon on the stove left over from breakfast and homemade apple pies…I’ll remember outdated pictures of grandchildren strewn on the walls throughout the house and cats, always cats, nameless untamed cats who roamed the farm, cats that Grandmother fed scraps to and kept stray dogs from with the swat of a broom…I’ll remember catching lightning bugs with my sisters as day faded to night and keeping them captive in quart mason jars that Grandmother would find underneath her kitchen sink — she would punch air holes in the lid with a sharp knife and the intermittent incandescence would provide a natural night light for the bedroom all night long…I’ll remember the old barn where I searched for treasures among the tractor parts and old broken bicycles, more often than not finding an angry swarm of hornets instead…I’ll remember spending the night at Grandmother’s house, lying restlessly awake in still black plaintive dark, a screech owl screaming across the hollow and my imagination soaring, listening to the thump-thump of my heart pounding, certain the light of day would reveal the brutal murder of one of the widow women who lived close-by and being grateful at the coming of dawn; the smell of old quilts and tobacco and coal burning; giving Grandmother chocolate candies on Mother’s Day and how she would pretend to be surprised then share them with everyone…I’ll remember how strong Grandmother was when Granddaddy passed away a few years earlier. He sure loved all you grandchildren, she said when I hugged her neck as she lay down to sleep the day he died… I know, I said… And I’ll remember her gentleness, a gentleness inherited by my mother and my mother’s daughters.
I will choose to remember Grandmother not with swollen arms and a feeble mind but as the smiling, waving, embodiment of the Old South farm wife, legacy of a much simpler period of time, forever gone, a link to my ancestry and as the strong and gentle matriarch of the farm where she presided her entire life, up on the ridge where my mother drew her first breath and where my father would come to steal a glimpse of my mother’s beauty when their love was young, and where I chased lightning bugs with my sisters. It is here, in the gentle rural south of my childhood, this elemental place of safety and innocence and carefree boyhood wonder that I so long to return.