Sitting Beside You

“It’s positive,” I whispered as loudly as I dared, after running back into the spare bedroom.  I stretched out my hand to show my husband the first positive pregnancy test we had ever seen.  

“Really?!” he said.

“I don’t even know what compelled me to take one tonight,” I laughed. “But for some reason I couldn’t come to bed without checking.”  

That very evening we had arrived at my mother’s house, moving back to my home province after four years spent in Alberta.  The previous two months had been a flurry of packing, selling our house in Calgary, good-bye-ing with our friends and colleagues, and driving 5,000 km across the country.  Conceiving had lost top spot on my list of priorities in the whirlwind of the past few weeks.  We had been trying diligently, to no avail, to get pregnant for two and a half years.  And having been married for six years, I was beginning to give up hope that it would ever happen.  

“It’s as if God is saying, ‘Welcome home!  This is MY time for this to happen!’ isn’t it?” I reflected, beaming from this unexpected turn of events and this thrilling homecoming gift.  “We need to keep this to ourselves though.  At least until after I see a doctor and get some sort of confirmation.”

We went to a walk-in clinic the very next day.  I was indeed pregnant.  And I knew the first person I wanted to share this news with — my grandmother.  She lived about an hour’s drive away, a mere stone’s throw compared to the 50 hours that had separated us for the past four years. 

On my way to see her, I had to pass the house she had so abruptly been forced to leave a few years earlier.  A lump formed in my throat.  There was the bird bath in the garden.  There was the front door where she would greet me, smiling.  There was the low kitchen window where her rocking chair sat.  My heart wanted to turn down that driveway even though my head knew to keep going.  I continued down the highway, memories trailing after me, and made my way to the senior’s facility she now called home.  

The written instructions by the front door explained how to press the buzzer and pull the latch simultaneously, safety precautions designed to keep would-be escapees from bolting.  Can’t say I’d blame them, I thought.  Despite the kindness of staff, this was a sad place, a place where generations had come to die.  

As I entered the common room just inside the door, I was reminded of visiting my grandmother’s mother when I was a very little girl.  My great-grandmother came to live here after a stroke imprisoned her in her own body.  I remember sitting on the edge of her bed, a little girl of four years old in a yellow and white dress, my hair in two French braids.  All she could do was smile and caress my arm.  She had lost the ability to communicate with words.  Even then the thought horrified me — to live without words?  How terrible.  

Then I remembered my grandfather’s room.  He had been down the hall in the other direction, in the men’s wing of the building.  A stroke had landed him in this place too, and my grandmother had been forced to live alone in the home I had passed on the highway, their dream home they had built for retirement but only enjoyed for a short time together.  In a twist of irony, my grandfather’s stroke had rendered him a much more amiable partner, mellowing his temper and critical personality; yet he had ended up here and she there.  Gram and I visited him here all through my teen years until he passed away at the beginning of my second year of university.  

Now, here I stood once again in this place, a twenty-seven year old mother-to-be.  Residents were sitting all around in this open room with its vaulted ceiling.  Some were in wheel chairs, wrapped in colourful homemade afghans.  Some sat on couches.  Some were shuffling with walkers across the faded, tiled floor.  At the far end of the room a TV blared, rotating between soap operas and game shows, depending on the time of day.

Then I spotted Gram.  She was one of the residents that had been wheeled down for a bit of an afternoon reprieve from her tiny room.  That lump formed in my throat again.  How could this be my Gram?  Her whole appearance was so withered.  I had been living far away for the last four years, and so much had changed in her world in that time.  When I left the Island she was a healthy, strong, tall woman living in her own home, baking biscuits in her own kitchen, scrubbing her own floors, going to Bingo with her friends.  One morning she felt tired and nauseous and decided to lie down on her bed for a bit.  It was there my uncle had found her and called the ambulance.  Her aorta had ruptured.  She was rushed to a neighbouring province for emergency surgery.  How she ever survived it is a miracle.  The whole ordeal had left her drastically altered.  But at least she could still speak.  She had always feared the possibility of becoming like her mother in her final years.  Thankfully she had been spared that dreaded outcome.  But her sturdy frame was now thin and frail, her usually round cheeks so narrowed.  To me, she looked like an entirely different woman.  

“Hi, Gram.”  I bent down to kiss her sunken cheek and sat in the chair next to her.  Suddenly I remembered what she always used to ask me when she rocked me in her lap.  “What will you do when you’re too big to sit on my knee?” she would say.  “Well, Gram, I guess I’ll just have to sit aside ya.”  It never worried me like it seemed to worry her.  She always laughed as she told this story over and over again.  She got the biggest kick out of my childish pragmatism.  

“I have something exciting to tell you,” I said, settling in beside her.  “I wanted you to be the first to know.  I’m expecting!”  

The touch of a familiar coy grin flickered across her face.  She hadn’t completely lost that.  “I know,” she hoarsely replied, sounding so matter of fact.  “And it’s twins.”  Her blue eyes could still faintly twinkle too, and my heart grabbed these glimmers of recognition and held them tightly.

“What?!” I asked incredulously.  “What do you mean, ‘you know’?  I can’t surprise you at all.”  

Apparently she had been telling the nurses at the care home that I was expecting before I even knew I was.  In the state her stroke had left her in, I sometimes wondered if she confused thoughts from her waking and sleeping hours.  I later discovered that one evening while a young, pregnant nurse was helping her get settled for the night, Gram put her slender wrinkled fingers on the nurse’s bulging belly and whispered, “Let’s say a prayer for Erin.”  

Oh, Gram, how did you know?!  I’ll never know how you knew.  Perhaps you were just getting closer to the other side where things are so much plainer, where past and present and future all bleed into one glorious reality of eternity.  

“If it’s a boy, I’m going to name him Alec.  You know, after your brother who died as a young man.  And if it’s a girl, her name will be Clara, just like you.”  

Two months later the call came on a Sunday evening.  I knew when I heard my father’s voice on the other end of the line that Gram was gone.  She would never meet her namesake.  I wore a black maternity dress as I stood in the receiving line at her wake, simultaneously receiving condolences and congratulations from myriads of people who remembered me from my childhood days and marvelled that Gram’s little Erin was all grown up and starting a family of her own.  I carried that baby for another six months after Gram’s funeral, eventually meeting her on a stormy day the following March.  Thankfully, Gram was wrong about the whole twins thing.  I gave birth to one beautiful baby girl, Clara.

So many times since becoming a mother I have wished that my children could have known my Gram, that they could have been rocked on her sturdy knee, that they could have enjoyed her biscuits and homemade blackcurrant jam, that they could have felt her warm hugs and wet kisses on their own cheeks, that they could have been on the receiving end of one of her playful grins and seen her pale blue eyes twinkle right at them.  I think about the joy they would have brought to her.  I think about the love she would have lavished on them, about how much I benefited from her lavish love.  So much more than a grandmother, she was my rock through a stormy childhood, her house my refuge.  I spent a lot of time with her, especially during my parents’ divorce, and then nearly every weekend of my childhood after that.

My Gram had a simple faith.  She trusted God and talked to Him daily, especially in the years she lived alone.  She was not a religious woman though.  And she was certainly no saint.  She smoked and sometimes drank to excess (or maybe it was just that a little went a long way with her).  She liked her soap operas and romance novels.  But, in my eyes, none of that can ever undo the foundation of love she laid for me.  As I think about how she embodied peace and acceptance and unconditional love, these words of Jesus echo in my thoughts: “A good person produces good things from his storeroom of good” (Matthew 12:35, CSB).  Like any of us, Gram’s storeroom was likely a mixed bag, but she must have had a lot of good piled in there when I think about all the things she brought out of her heart to give to me. 

To think that she and I used to laugh over what I’d do when I was too big to sit on her knee.  Even my four children are beyond ever fitting in her lap now.  The real question I should have been asking, that in my childish innocence I never thought to ask, was, “What will I do when I can’t even sit beside her anymore?”  I sit with only memories of her now.  But there are others who sit by me — eating meals, doing school lessons, reading stories, saying bedtime prayers.  Thanks to Gram I have some beautiful inherited treasures in my own storeroom to share with those who have now grown too big for my knee.  And I treasure these days I have beside them.

The above story was my submission to the Island Literary Awards this year. I have been meaning to share it here on the blog ever since. I wrote it while taking one of Leslie Leyland Fields’ online writing classes. And, whatd’ya know…she’s offering another one starting next week, October 16th! If you’re even remotely interested in crafting your memories into meaningful stories, perhaps to pass on to your children and grandchildren, check out this FREE class! You will be so glad you did!

Not sure I’ve done many multi-media posts, but here is a song I wrote for my Gram after her stroke while I was living in Alberta and feeling very far away. We played it at her funeral. Obviously the same themes have been on my heart a long time when it comes to my Gram and the love we shared…the story echoes this song from almost 20 years ago.

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