Monday, June 22, 2009

Connection, Part Two

Late in May 2008, I was in Kelowna with Chris to help my grandmother celebrate her ninetieth birthday. While she still lives in her own place and is mostly able to take care of herself, it's obvious she's deteriorated over time--she doesn't move as quickly, her short-term memory is not the best, she's no longer able to drive (and is dependent on others to get her around), and, with little else to do, she spends a lot of time sleeping (either getting up very late in the morning or napping on the sofa during the day). She's still the same grandmother I have known and loved dearly all these years, but age has had its way with her.

And she knows it. I've reminded her countless times how fortunate she is to be ninety years old, to still have her health, to still be able to get around, to still have her mental capacity, to never have spent a day in the hospital due to illness. I tell her she is an inspiration to all of us--her two daughters (one of whom is my mother), to her five grandchildren, and to her four great grandchildren. Hopefully, we're all fortunate enough to live as long as she has, and to be in the position she's in.

But she's old, and she knows it. She knows she's on a slow but steady downward decline. She knows she'll never be able to drive again, that she'll never have the same mobility she once had. She knows the affects of aging will never go away. She knows she's a shadow of the once vibrant and active spirit she used to be. And she knows, without a doubt, that the good Lord will ask her to join Him again soon.

Last May, my grandmother said something to me that I'll keep for the rest of my life. In relation to Chris and me, and our relative ages (I'm forty-nine and Chris is forty), she said, "These are the best years of your life. Live them fully. You'll never get them back." And, given how much I've felt the creeping of the years lately, the student was ready to hear the teacher. I was grateful for the reminder from someone I respect and love so much.

I remember my grandmother when she was around my age. In the early 1970s, when I was in my early teens, my family lived in Dawson Creek, and I took the bus to Kelowna, where my grandparents lived, to spend three summers with them. In late August, my parents and sister drove down from Dawson Creek, "camped" for a couple of weeks in a large Vanguard trailer in the back yard, and returned with me up north for the next year. (We didn't move to Kelowna until October 1974.)

Spending the summer with my grandparents I see now was a magical experience. I loved Kelowna and the blistering hot weather; the various seasons of fruit (starting with strawberries in late June and progressing through cherries and apricots, until peaches and plums in late August, when we had to return back home); the alone time I had with my grandparents--my grandfather working on construction sites by day and watching "Sanford and Son" and "The Sonny and Cher Show" at night; my grandmother working non-stop in and around the house--grocery shopping, cleaning, cooking, making jam and canning fruit, entertaining non-stop company (mostly her relatives, who lived elsewhere and now had an excuse to visit Kelowna); and spending hours and hours in her yard--watering, weeding, and tending flowers, shrubs, fruit trees, and her vegetable garden.

Sometimes, I drive by that house now, 780 Martin Avenue, the one my grandparents moved to in 1970, the one my grandfather transformed from a small bungalow to a large family home, and I recall with great fondness my times spent there. My grandmother was a lively and generous spirit, and I remember how connected I felt to her when I watched her complete her daily tasks, how we used to talk about anything and laugh continuously, how I admired her and her endless energy. What great memories. What a wonderful time of my life (outside of my life in school, of course).

A couple of years ago, when I went to Kelowna to visit my family again, my grandmother's driver's license taken away from her several years earlier, I got the idea to take her out in my car, to drive her anywhere she wanted to go. More than anything else, I wanted her to experience of the freedom of mobility again, but I also knew it would be great to spend alone time with her. On a warm and sunny day, I opened the moonroof of the car, and we zoomed down the roads in and around Kelowna.

Among the places we visited were Knox Mountain, on the outer perimeter of the city. I drove us all the way to the top. We got out of the car, walked to a panoramic viewpoint of the Okanagan Valley and Kelowna, and I took pictures of my grandmother there, while she sucked apple juice from a small box, the light wind blowing her bleached blonde, wavy hair just like that of a young girl seventy-five years younger. What fun we had that day, just the two of us, connecting again like it was the early '70s--talking, laughing, confiding in each other--feeling fully alive.

The days of staying with my grandparents in Kelowna are long gone, and my grandmother and I are much older people (my grandfather passed away in April 1992). She just turned ninety-one on May 31, and, as I've written before, I'll turn fifty this October.

Where did all the intervening years go? What happened to our lives while we were living it, too busy to pay much attention to the marching of time?

I've witnessed the slow decline in my grandmother over the years. I've seen how time and age have taken her from expanding in the world, to contracting now, as happens naturally enough when one grows much older. I put myself in her shoes at the age I am now, and see how I still have so much ahead of me.

And yet, I see how quickly it will all pass too. People and places and experiences will all come and go. And, if I'm really fortunate, I'll live to be ninety myself, complete with the ability to still get around on my own and to think coherently.

But let there be no mistake that, God willing, I will grow increasingly old, and I will lose some of my capacities, and I may even lose Chris, a thought that is more upsetting to me than any other.

That's why, when I have those moments of utter bliss with him, as I did at Save-On Foods yesterday, when I am one with him and everything around me and the entire universe for that matter, I need to drink that up to the very last drop. But I know for a fact that moments like that are fleeting, and so are circumstances in life.

I don't think you can force these moments. I don't think you can make them happen because you want them to. The only thing you can do is be open to them--because they happen unexpectedly, and because they happen during the most mundane of experiences, like shopping for groceries--and to suck them up completely, like you have the worst thirst imaginable.

The meaning of life is made of moments like these, one succeeding the other, perhaps with days or weeks or months between them. We must not let them go by without firmly placing them in our hearts, to draw on when we are much older, and our lives have taken us down roads we never thought we'd travel.


  1. Ah, the memories! My one remaining grandparent is my 98-year-old grandmother, who still lives in her own house in a small town in Saskatchewan. Her sight is nearly gone, she's starting to repeat herself a bit, and she has a few issues with her health. But her mind is as sharp as ever and she's a wealth of wisdom. She spends her days praying - praying for all of us - her 5 children, 15 grandchildren, 33 great-grandchildren, and I think there are 17 great-greats at the moment. "Mother" (as she is affectionately called by the whole family) tells me that, in prayer, she walks into each one of our homes every day. I can't tell you how I treasure that, knowing my grandmother is praying for me! Thanks for sharing, Rick.

  2. I'm sure you'll agree with me, Wendy, that we are blessed to have the older members of our families still with us.
    I love visiting my grandmother now, and I feel connected more to her today than ever, but to see what age has done to her over the years and what it will likely do to me, in a best case scenario, is both frightening and disheartening. It's too bad we have to get old and die, but that's the way of life. The point is to live life fully while we can because, someday, the quality and intensity of what we enjoy now will be gone.
    Thanks so much for sharing the story about "Mother." She sounds like an amazing human being--an inspiration to the whole family.