When I was a kid, I lived just outside of Portland, Oregon with my parents and my older brother. My grandma, our nearest relative, lived in Southern California, and would visit us often because my mom was her only child and Steve and I, her only grandchildren.
I clearly remember my brother and I sitting on the back of our green plaid sofa perched under the living room window, excitedly waiting for our dad to pull into the driveway after picking up our grandma from the airport. She would always visit for a week, spending time with us as a family and individually. In 1980, she married and moved with her husband just north of Medford, Oregon and since this was only a few hours away from us, we visited often. Unfortunately, a couple of years later my dad got a job transfer and we moved to Southern California, so the visits weren’t as frequent. Grandma and I would write letters to each other and talk on the phone in between visits, which I loved.
Eight years ago, following the death of her third husband, my grandma went into a nursing home. She had early signs of dementia and was getting frail and needed the help. She also had a guardian who would check in with her weekly and go with her to doctor appointments which my grandma really appreciated. My brother and I went together to visit her when she first moved in to the nursing home, but he had a hard time going back. The place brought up too many memories of our great-grandmother for him. Great-grandma was in a nursing home when we were little because it had become too difficult for our grandma to care for her on her own. My grandma purchased a duplex nearby to live in and would visit her mom daily, bringing us there to visit when we were in town. When we were little, my memory of my great-grandma is riding around in her lap in her wheelchair while we chatted and I loved it. My brother, being a couple of years older than me, only remembers the smell and the noises (residents yelling or moaning, heart monitors beeping) and it seemed to traumatize him. When we visited our grandma in this nursing home, he was happy to see she was safe and well cared for, but he looked like a deer in the headlights at the sounds and smells coming from the hallway. I visited her several times a year, he just wrote letters and cards because he couldn’t bring himself to be in a nursing home again.
I had seen the decline in my grandma’s body and memory over the years and knew she wouldn’t be around much longer. When I visited this past May, I had a feeling it was the last time I’d be making this trip. Although my grandma was in Medford, I always stayed a few miles south in Ashland, a tiny town that felt like home away from home when I visited. I had known for years that there was a bike path you could take from Ashland to Medford, so I decided on this trip that I was going to rent a bike and make the journey to the nursing home to see her.
It was a beautiful, warm, sunny Spring day with blue skies, chirping birds, and new blossoms on every plant. I grabbed my cell phone and a water bottle, rented a 3 speed cruiser bicycle and set out for my adventure. If this was my last visit with my grandma, I wanted it to be an experience to remember.
As soon as I started pedaling, I was flooded with memories of riding bikes EVERYWHERE when I was a kid in Oregon. I could clearly see myself riding my green Schwinn bicycle with a white banana seat, U-shaped handle bars with green and white plastic string pompoms attached to the end of the white rubber handle grips. I learned how to ride a bike on that thing when I was 5 years old, with my dad running behind it, holding me up. I remembered that one day when I looked back and he wasn’t holding on anymore, just standing up the street, happy and clapping. Realizing my dad wasn’t holding on anymore, I crashed into a curb. I didn’t get back on that bike for a week but when I did, I didn’t need help.
I rode along a stream and over a bridge on my rental bike and was flooded with vivid memories of living next to the Willamette River. I would ride my green Schwinn down to the dock with friends, transistor radio adhered to my handlebars with black electrical tape, constantly adjusting the antenna for reception so we could listen to music. We would just wear swimsuits and flip-flops so we could jump in to cool off, then ride around the neighborhood to get dry so our parents wouldn’t know we swam without permission. I remembered taking walks down to the river with my grandma when she visited, holding her hand and talking about fishing in that river, catching salamanders and crawdads, riding bikes with friends, and totally lying that we didn’t go swimming in it without parent supervision when she asked.
As I continued my ride under a bridge and through a valley along the pathway, I saw plants that I only see in Oregon. I remembered going to Outdoor School in 6th grade where we learned all about plants that lived in our region, wildlife and the environment, and how I worked had really hard so I could earn awards in Outdoor School at the end of the week, which I did.
As I neared the nursing home, I was starving and looked at my watch. I had been riding for close to an hour and a half and didn’t even know it. My ride down memory lane made me lose all track of time and just how far this ride really was. I stopped at a local market, grabbed a coconut water and a Clif bar and as I stood outside eating, put the addresses in Google Maps on my phone to see just how far I had ridden. TWENTY MILES. That’s when it hit me just how exhausted I was, both physically and emotionally, and I still hadn’t seen my grandma yet. I rode up to the nursing home door, locked my rental bike on a nearby pole, and went in to visit.
That visit didn’t go as well as I hoped. My grandma had lost most of her memory, and was fading in and out of sleep. I stayed for over an hour, looking at this sleeping woman who had found love and lost it three times (The first husband died while riding a horse who bucked, his loose saddle flipping him underneath the horse who then kicked him in the head when my grandma was 6 months pregnant with my mom. The second husband to brain cancer, the third to severe anemia from a bleeding ulcer.) I sat there looking at the woman who outlived her only child who died in a car accident 20 years earlier, caused by my mom who had been drinking 10 days out of her third rehab center. This woman had tried so hard as a mother and a wife, and had carried on after losing them all. This was also a woman who had earned a Master’s Degree in Education from Occidental College, yet had been unable to write me a letter for several years. Her memory of love, life and education had all left her. The end was near and I was heartbroken. I kissed her on the forehead and went back out to my rented bicycle.
With the memory of taping a radio to my old bike still fresh in my mind, I decided to listen to music on my ride back to Ashland. I hit the play button in the music library on my phone and figured I’d listen to whatever was on it. I turned up the volume (no headphones while riding bikes, kids.) as Journey’s “Escape” album started up. I tucked my phone into my pocket, singing along to every song as I rode the 20 miles back to my hotel.
Three weeks ago, I got a call that my grandma was refusing medication, had stopped eating and was sleeping all the time, meaning she didn’t have much longer. My brother and I immediately booked a trip to go see her. Over the years, I had figured out the fastest way to get to Ashland was to fly from Burbank to Sacramento, rent a car and drive the rest of the way up. I’ve made this trip countless times with Wil, by myself, or with a friend. I knew where every rest stop, every Starbucks, every funky burger stand and every cool sight-seeing spot was along the way. I knew we wouldn’t be making this trip again so we took our time. I showed my brother all of the things I had seen and done when I’d go to see our grandma, never saying anything to him about not making the trip up himself all those years. He had his own reasons and I knew that.
We turned a 5 hour drive into 7 with all of our stops. Steve loved every minute of it, taking pictures along the way. I felt sad for him seeing these things for the first time, while I was seeing them for the last time, but he was cherishing the experience and that’s all that mattered.
Our visit went surprisingly well. Grandma remembered me (after I reminded her who I was) but I had to keep reminding her who my brother was. We talked about our kids (reminding her they are her great-grandkids because she couldn’t remember) and updating her on our lives and how much our spouses wished they could be there as well. She thanked us over and over for coming to visit while exchanging hugs and kisses and telling us she loved us. It was the only time I didn’t look back at her as I walked out of the room, because I didn’t want her to see me crying.
Yesterday afternoon, I got the call I knew would eventually come. My 94 year old grandma had died in her sleep early that morning. She wasn’t suffering, she wasn’t in pain, she just stopped breathing in her sleep, just has her own mother did so long ago at nearly 98 years old. I know death is part of life and honestly, she went in the best way possible. Although it’s sad, I am grateful that I had her in my life as long as I did. The final chapter in her life story is a peaceful one and I couldn’t have asked for a better ending.