Eat Half: Thoughts About My Grandma

by Rachel Creager Ireland

The veil is supposed to be thin this time of year, the memories come strong. Today I performed a ritual honoring the dead, my ancestors, and my Grandma has been in my thoughts. She’s the one I got my name from, Rachel Bicknell Creager. It was always easy to remember her age, because she was born in 1900, so her age was the same as the year. She made the best chocolate chip cookies, and she gave the best hugs. She was sometimes stern, a good Baptist, who once said fondly to me, “You’re a pretty girl. But pretty is as pretty does.” I didn’t even know what that meant.

Once my sister Melora and I for some reason wanted her to write us a poem. I think we were putting poems to music that day. We handed her a piece of paper and a pen, and she hesitated. We didn’t think it ought to be hard, to write a poem on demand. After a moment of thought, she began to write. “I wandered lonely as a cloud . . .” It didn’t take us long to discover that the poem fit well with the song Greensleeves. It wasn’t until I went to college that I realized that that poem hadn’t been authored by my grandmother.

By the time I was in my 20s, she had been long widowed, and had stubbornly, capriciously, resisted the attempts of her grown children to convince her to move near any of them. She would rather live alone in the house in the country that she and her husband had built in the 50s, in the town where she’d lived all her adult life, where her roots were. Eventually one day she packed a suitcase and drove herself to the local nursing home and moved in, and called everyone later to tell them.

Seems like it took me a couple years before I managed to visit her there.  Southern Indiana wasn’t near or on the way to anyplace I might ever have reason to go, other than to visit my Grandma. I didn’t have a car, and I was chronically underemployed, busy struggling to get by. Eventually, though, my parents decided to go see her, and came to Illinois to pick me up. I believe it was Mother’s Day, 1991.

It was a typical nursing home visit, which had always been unbearably depressing to me. I couldn’t see why anyone would want to live that way, what would make their last days worth living. The winding down of life looked to me, at that time, like a tragic, hopeless diminuendo. My parents had dragged me to nursing homes as a child, to visit my grandpa, and to play music together for the residents. Everything about nursing home life seemed a hateful compromise.

Grandma was very pleased to see us, especially my Dad. It meant a lot to her that he had come to see her on Mother’s Day. She kept saying she was tired, though, and we came at lunch time, when a nurse was cajoling her into eating. “I don’t want to eat, I’m tired,” she kept saying. I felt sad for her. There had been an issue regarding her living will, which stated that she didn’t want any kind of resuscitation, but the state of Indiana no longer recognized such a preference. If she didn’t eat at least half of her meals, the nursing home would be required to insert a feeding tube.

“Will you eat half?” the nurse asked.

“I’m tired.” When the nurse wasn’t looking, Grandma spit food into her napkin.

The nurse pretended not to notice. She let Grandma get away with eating what looked like quite a bit less than half the hearty meal on the tray, but got her to eat half the ice cream. I felt sorry for anyone who would have to do her job, but, interestingly, she didn’t seem to mind. In fact, she was quite pleasant, and not fakey. She told us she really enjoyed Grandma, and at one point I even saw her share a long, loving look with her. The nurse had a beautiful, full smile. “Will you eat half?”

How could she do this job, loving her patients, knowing they were pretty much all going to die, sooner or later? It was new to me, the idea that someone could find genuine satisfaction from any facet of being in a nursing home. This was a person who had no connection to Grandma other than that she probably wiped Grandma’s behind, and gave her baths, while I was too busy partying and avoiding work to pay her more than the rarest visit, the woman who gave birth to my father. It was humbling to see such love in the eyes of the nurse.

That was the last time I saw Grandma, and the only time I ever met that nurse, whose name I didn’t bother to register. It was a beautiful moment, and today it occurred to me that I probably never spoke of it with another person. The only others present were my mom and dad, who are both gone now. But I still remember, today, when the veil is thin. I am grateful to the anonymous nurse for opening her heart to bring love to my grandma’s last days.