The time before the last time I saw my husband’s grandmother, known by the family as Poppie, we took the kids swimming. She’d had a stroke and was feeling off-kilter, both physically and memory-wise.
My husband and his grandfather stayed behind to look at some watches (Papa was a watchmaker before he retired) and Poppie and I took the kids to the retirement home’s indoor pool, which they had all to themselves. After the four-hour drive to St. Louis, the kids had plenty of steam to blow off.
It was hard to keep conversation going with Poppie, as it was hard to hear each other. I cringed at the shrill screeches and laughter filling the large, echoing room, wishing my kids would calm down and act more civilized. They played on the edge of fun, that high-energy place where the shrieks could at any moment topple one way or the other — becoming tears or laughter and then switch back on a dime.
Poppie watched them, until she turned to me and said, “Emily, do you mind if I go swimming? They’re having so much fun, I think I’ll join them. I haven’t been swimming in a long time.”
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After we got home, she called me to tell me how great my kids were and how much she enjoyed seeing them play. She laughed that they knew “just how far they could push each other, then they’d stop at the last moment.”
I don’t know what it takes to find the good in ornery behavior. Wisdom, kindness and certainly a fun-loving spirit.
Several weeks ago, our family loaded into the van to travel to St. Louis to say goodbye to Poppie. She’d suffered a heart “event” and was quite weak. We worried she wouldn’t make it until we could get there, but she unexpectedly improved for a while.
We reached the hospital just as the staff was preparing to move her from ICU into a regular room.
“Ohhh, hello!” she bubbled, thrilled as always to see us, even as she lay in ICU.
“Cooper, and ... uh .... Emily ... I mean, no ... Sylvia!”
We stayed for a moment, then left so the crew could load her up to move. As we left the ICU unit, my daughter whispered, “Mom, she called me by your name.”
“Oh, that’s easy to do,” I responded, hoping Sylvia’s feelings weren’t hurt. “We all do that sometimes.”
Sylvie squinted at me. “Do you think she might be kind of confused because she’s sick?”
I nodded, wondering why I hadn’t just said that in the first place.
Over the next few days, she got even better. She joked and laughed and made us all feel loved. From her hospital bed, she made us all feel special. She asked questions, wanting to know about every little thing we did.
After spending a couple of days with family, stopping into her hospital room to visit whenever we could, we said goodbye.
I told the kids that they needed to know that they were probably saying goodbye for the last time. Maybe that’s a lot to lay on the heart of a child, but telling them seemed like the right thing to do. The sadness reared as anger in my son, and I watched him struggle to squelch his sadness. Sylvia was quiet. But Poppie was pleasant and loving, just as usual.
She knew, I’m sure, that it was our last goodbye. She made it as easy as possible to say goodbye, all smiles. But I noticed she omitted the “We’ll see you soon!”
Sometimes we’re given a gift — a last hurrah in the pool, a rally in health before our loved ones slip away, a last chance to say goodbye.
As we left, Sylvia said, “Mom, Poppie is amazing. She’s so happy — even when she knows she’s so sick.” We both agreed that we hoped we could be like that someday.
Marthetta Parnell passed away Sept. 28, 2014.
Overland Park mom and freelancer Emily Parnell writes weekly.