A year from yesterday, I sat quiet with my grandmother on the couch in her living room. It was before the nurses were there around the clock. Before she was bedridden; yet she was still so frail that I couldn’t bear to take my eyes off of her. It already pained me that I’d have to leave in 2 days and return to work. I had been coming down to SoCal from SF in one-to-two week increments since September to help care for grandma, and to give my mom respite from the backbreaking work of 24/7 elder care.
Grandma and I mostly humphed at the TV, or laughed at a particularly funny commercial. MSNBC managed to stay fixed on the screen, except when Judge Mathis came on at two o’clock. I had been there for 7 days, and as my return home drew closer, I took to holding her hand sometimes as we watched. I was grateful for my recent fascination for Black hair YouTube videos, because of this, I would braid her hair, and even give her a shampoo and blow dry during my visits. All, of course, while watching the boob tube.
Television has been a theme in my life for so long and that has become really apparent to me during this pandemic because I find myself actively avoiding TV. Not because I don’t enjoy the occasional show, or movie. I love lots of shows and movies! Recently, I realized that in my family television was often the axis of human connection. We gathered around screens to celebrate, to entertain, to learn, to laugh. Some of my sweetest memories of spending time with Grandma are of watching the Golden Girls and hearing her roars of laughter after Sofia said anything! (I would move heaven and earth to hear that laugh again…) We laughed so much, and that laughter made me feel loved, safe and like I belonged.
But Grandma also liked to go outside, she hated being cooped up in the house. She spent hours gardening. When I was a kid, and mom would drop me off for the weekend, Grandma and I would hit the town early, in her green Cadillac, and spend all day fetching ingredients for Sunday dinner. Though our time on the couch was precious, she would still send me out to play with other kids, to ride my bike, go to the track with Grandpa, to vacation bible school, sometimes she’d even have me tag along with her to visit the sick. “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” she’d say.
When I arrived at the house last November I had planned to stay one week, but extended it for another week when I saw how frail Grandma was getting. I made her an appointment with her GP so that he could assess her health. A few weeks prior to my visit, I had also bought her a walker on Amazon, with a front basket for her mini oxygen machine, hoping that it would give her more independence to get around. When I arrived that Saturday, I found it in the basement with the tags attached. I figured it would end up in the pile of gifts from years past that were “too fancy for Grandma” (her words, not mine). But after a few days there, I noticed that she kept trying to go outside. Due to her condition, that was absolutely not a good idea. She had a respiratory illness and dementia, a scary combo if she got out of the house without anyone knowing. We hid the keys and I even installed this loud-ass alarm with a motion sensor that would go off if she managed to leave her room. My mom was glad to have me in the adjacent room whenever that sucker went off so she could get a full night’s sleep.
I wasn’t sure how we were going to get grandma to her doctor’s appointment, but I was determined to give her the chance to try out her new walker to see what was possible. On the morning of her appointment, mom and I got her ready. Then I slid her little (but heavy as hell) oxygen tank into the front pocket of the walker, arranged the tubes so that they would not get in her way, or get pinched while she walked, and led her down the front porch ramp to the car. She smiled really big and exclaimed: wellnow — this thing is cool. As I drove I caught glimpses of her in the backseat, smiling and looking up at the sky during the trip to the doctor, and as I took the long way back home. He placed her into hospice that day. When we got home, grandma was all smiles for a while and we all laughed about her getting a good clip with the walker, almost too quick for us to keep up. That was the last time she got to go outside before she died.
I learned to love going outside from my grandmother, Sylvina Porter, daughter of Selener Jacobs. And from that introduction I fell in love with nature, especially trees and kaleidoscope skies. Since January, I have started baking again as a process for my grief and because she taught me to love that too. I try to get into nature whenever I can, though this year it’s been particularly tough. And I hope to go on some hikes with Outdoor Afro, when it’s safe again. My grandmother wasn’t perfect — she didn’t really like that I am queer, and would probably guffaw at the idea of me becoming a Jew. She did love that Rachel Maddow, so maybe she wasn’t as intolerant as I think.
When my grandmother died on January 9, 2020 I realized that living the life I want is completely up to me. There is no one, no thing and no time to wait for. Every choice is complex, some are fucked up and some are impossible — but they are mine. One of my first actions for self care was to turn away from the television and other screens. Not all the time, but when I know I’m just finding a place on the couch, or spending hours on FaceBook, because I assume that’s the only way to connect, I am learning to make a different choice. One that’s still about connection and based in unconditional love. The choice that I have been afraid to make in my life many times. I choose me. Right now, that means finding ways to connect that align with my need for movement, stimulating conversation, time in nature, spiritual bonding; even shared silence.
When I recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for my Grandmother in January 2021, I plan to do it outside, somewhere green and pretty where she would have liked to sit, eat tea cakes, look up at the sky, and laugh.