There aren’t many worse things I can think of than getting old, except not having the chance to get old, maybe. But even that sometimes seems like a better alternative once people reach a certain place in their lives. And as I watch my grandparents deteriorate in front of me, I think a lot about the lasts. Because as their minds and bodies fail them, it’s hard and sad to realize that there are so many things that will never be the same again, for them and for me. So I think about the last time they said or did something and I wonder, will we ever experience that again? Or was that it?
I could blame this on the doctors who are always saying “six more months...” and “one last Christmas...” and “this summer is it...” but the truth is, I’ve been around death and the dying my entire life, so I’ve thought about these things always and often. Probably more than would be considered normal. Probably enough to be considered morbid.
I could also blame it on the fact that I work with children. Adults can get so caught up in the firsts, first smiles, first words, first steps, that we don’t think about the lasts often. But I do. I think about the lasts for children. I wonder about the last time they will crawl. And the last time they will drink from a sippy cup. And the last time they will ask for a hug from you because it can fix their world.
I could blame it on all the things in my life that ended so abruptly and left me wide-eyed and in shock. My parents separation when I was five, my father’s unexpected and deadly heart attack, friends that suddenly moved away. You might say that I formed a habit of looking back on the lasts in life. The last Christmas we spent together, all in the same house. The last Duke game I watched with my dad. The last time I snuggled up next to a particularly handsome boy before he left me at the end of the summer for bigger and better things.
I think about the lasts.
The other day, my grandfather told the new caregiver that he didn’t mind her being around as long as she didn’t try to take his keys. He couldn’t stand by as someone told him he couldn’t drive. When he says things like this, it breaks my heart a little bit and makes me laugh at the same time. Because, really grandaddy? You cannot see. You cannot hear. You can barely walk. Sometimes, you think that branch hanging from the tree outside is a goat standing in our yard, and sometimes you see the tall grass at the top of the hill swaying and you swear there are people standing up there, spying on you. Driving a motor vehicle? Out of the question. And I know it’s tough, this loss of independence. And I know the word tough is the biggest understatement of the century.
As I’m having this one-sided conversation in my head, I start wondering. I wonder when the last time he drove was. And I wonder where he went. I’m sure it was somewhere my grandmother ordered him to go. The drug store? Grocery shopping? McDonalds for a chicken sandwich and some apple pies? I wonder how long it took him to get into the car. It takes about three minutes just for him to fall into the passenger seat, so I’m sure getting ready to drive, the folding of legs under the steering column, finding and buckling of the seatbelt, searching for the ignition, it was probably an exhausting length of time. I wonder if he swerved as he drove toward his destination. I wonder if he slid into the wrong lane at some point, causing some other poor soul’s heart to leap a little. I wonder if they yelled at him, cursed at him, shouted gramps-get-off-the-road-you-old-bastard like I sometimes do when I’m behind the anonymous curtain that is my windshield. Did he remember where he was going the entire time, or did he get a little lost, like the time he went out for groceries and I found him driving up and down a new street on the other side of town three hours later? And did he know, somewhere deep inside, that this would be the last time he would sit behind the wheel of a car? Or did he hope for one more chance, even though driving now scared him, did he want one more taste of what life was like before? I wonder.
About all the smallest things, I wonder.
I think about all our trips to the old Hyco house, and I wonder about the last time we took the boat out on the lake. Was it just a short little trip before lunch? Did we have time to pull out the skis and knee board? Did we park near the power plant and jump from the edge of the boat into that warm water, and did he jump in with us? Or was he already too old, too fragile by that point?
When was the last time he made love to my grandmother? I hope they were already creaky and wrinkled, ancient and still wanting each other. I wonder if they were careful not to hurt each other, gentle and aware, like they were young again. I wonder if he held her a little closer, if he kissed her a little more deeply, if it even crossed his mind that this would be their last rendezvous.
The last time he mowed his own yard before my mother took over. The last day he lived without depending on a hundred different little pills to keep him breathing and moving. When was the last time he danced down the hallway like he always used to do? The last time he took a long flight of stairs? The last time he walked any distance at all without stumbling? I wonder what the last coherent and meaningful sentence he said was, or maybe, hopefully, what it will be. I think about the last time he will say my name, the last time he will recognize my face. And I wonder, will I know? Will I recognize the significance of this seemingly mundane occurrence? Will I know to treasure it, to thank God for one last time? Or will it slip by, unnoticed?
Will it leave me wondering, like every single other last did?