90 years of pure class

Breaking news: my grandmother turns 90 this week. 90! That makes her younger than stainless steel but older than nylon and antibiotics.

At 90 she’s still great company, she still lives in her apartment and last year she saved her neighbour from a house fire. Not bad for someone who is the same age as frozen food.

I am the same age as the Rubik’s Cube. By the time I was born my grandmother already had half a century under her belt. (A very classy belt, too. She has always been classy.)

She lived 50 years without even knowing I exist. That puts my egocentrism in its place.

It is difficult watching your loved ones age. My grandfather used to say to me, “I’m starting to totter, Marcel. I don’t like tottering. It makes me grumpy.”

Taffy, as we all called him, was fit and bronzed. He was somewhat of a little battle axe. He broke his neck twice, had a quadruple heart bypass and fell backwards down the stairs to knock a hole in the wall with his head. All with a begrudging sense of humour.

He finally slowed down after his own 90th birthday when his mobility scooter had a traumatic misunderstanding with a van. Life after that was confined to hospital and then a rest home, wedged apart from his wife after more than 60 years of marriage.

On the weekends I would get a call from my grandmother who had wheeled him to the apartment for the day but didn’t have the puff for the return trip. That was my cue to go round and move Taffy from the couch onto the wheelchair then take him several blocks back to the rest home.

The physical intimacy required to lift my grandfather was a rare privilege. Awkward at first, it became familiar and special over time and I miss it. Afterwards I would walk back to Nana’s place and chat with her over a drink, sometimes a beer. (She stayed classy with tea or ginger ale.)

Eventually a stroke robbed Taffy of his speech. I joined him for lunch a few times in the rest home dining room. Tables of old people ate in silence and slow motion.

It gets harder when they can’t talk. It becomes an effort to visit. You don’t take the kids as often because they get bored quickly. You visit slightly less, for a shorter time each time, and each time you feel a little bit worse for being there a little bit less.

It’s ridiculous, topsy-turvy and heart breaking. I’m not sure if modern society has figured out what to do with the infirm elderly. They are real people who have lived real and meaningful lives. Their emotions remain vital and relevant, even if they can no longer get the words out of their heads.

One visit, Taffy nudged his cup of gluggy, lukewarm tea towards me. The drink was thickened to keep him from choking. I know he hated that thickener.

It took a while for him to move the cup, nudge by nudge, around his plate. Then he gave it a final shaky push in my direction as if to say, “Have some tea. Delicious.” When he looked up at me there was a little twinkle in his eye. It was his very slow joke.

My grandmother still has plenty of twinkles in her eye. More twinkles than wrinkles, I’d argue. She’s slowing down a bit; she didn’t want a big birthday bash because it all gets a bit tiring these days.

At least I know she reads the newspaper. Happy 90th birthday, classy Nana. You have always been very loved, and you still are.

coralie and taffy

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 4 April 2014. Reproduced with permission.