I wrote this several years ago. My grandfather was a man who was embarrassed by praise, no matter how well-deserved. Jesus took him home exactly one year ago today, so I decided to edit and post it now as a memorial.
If Grandma was at home, you could be sure she was on the phone with someone. We were used to walking in to her kitchen to find her chatting with someone, a cup of coffee by her side.
“Oh, I have to let you go, honey,” she said one normal afternoon. “My grandkids are here!” There was a pause. She laughed. “Well, me too! Call me any time!”
My mom asked who she had been talking to.
“A wrong number,” Grandma answered. “She said that she had more fun talking to me than the person she actually meant to call.”
I couldn’t have come up with a more perfect illustration of my grandmother if I tried.
If she’d been “out and about”, we knew there would be a bag of goodies for us. She was always wiping away big red lipstick kisses off our faces and offering us lemon drops or mints from the seemingly bottomless purse called the “Poppins bag”.
When we slept over at my grandparents house, my sisters and I would wake up to the smell of toast and coffee and the high clear sound of Grandma whistling hymns in the kitchen. She would sit down at the table in one of her fuzzy housecoats with her cup of coffee and watch us eat cereal and toast with red plum jam. And she would smile at Papa when he came home from playing golf.
Papa and Grandma married in 1951 at Shaw Air Force Base. Papa entered the Air Force when it was still part of the Army in World War II. He had a degree in aeronautical engineering, a fact I was unaware of until college. He was never someone who talked a lot and never about himself. He let Grandma do that. He made us root beer floats and egg and cheese sandwiches to enjoy while we watched Nickelodeon or Disney Channel movies. He played golf, counted the offering money at church, and followed Grandma to the Air Force base for shopping expeditions. They came to every one of our recitals, shows, and parties, arms always loaded with presents. I took for granted that they were happy and healthy. They were Grandma and Papa. They would always be there.
After a routine colonoscopy found a tumor, Grandma needed surgery. It was a simple procedure, and she wouldn’t need chemotherapy or radiation. But the surgery changed my grandma. Her memory had been slipping for years, but when she came out of the anesthesia, it was more pronounced. She was easily scared or angered, and she seemed confused all the time. As months passed my quick-witted Grandma began slurring her words and dropping off into silence mid-sentence. She forgot how to drive the car. Her balance deteriorated until she wouldn’t walk. She called me by my mother’s name. The grandma I knew faded to a shadow of her charming self, like a photograph left out in the sun.
Papa finally had to move her into a nursing home just a few streets away from the home they had shared since his retirement from the military. I visited Grandma in her room early one morning, but Papa was already there. On the hospital-style table sat two cups of coffee. Papa was reading the paper. Grandma was sleeping. She barely stirred while I visited, so I talked to Papa. I told him funny stories about work and the weird people I’d encountered on my commute on the train. Grandma’s coffee went cold. I kissed her cheek and told her I loved her. When I left Papa was still sitting next to her, coffee in hand.
Every morning Papa would visit her, pouring two cups of coffee until she couldn’t drink hers anymore. Sometimes she knew he was there. Occasionally she would smile or give him a kiss in a moment of lucidity. She always seemed to know him long after her other memories had faded. It was a soul-tie that even tangled proteins could not cut. He never gave up coming because she couldn’t talk. He stayed at her side, holding on to memories and the small pieces of love she could give. Because when you’ve loved someone for fifty-seven years, you do not need grand gestures, flowers, cards, or even words.
That is why when someone asks me what love is, I think of two cups of coffee.