I asked S. about the finger once, the misshapen right forefinger of her grandmother’s hand that ended just barely past the third joint whose skin stretched smoothly and seamlessly around the enlarged finger.
“I think she was born with it” S. told me. The finger nestled within her hands when they lay peacefully in her lap on our visits and emerged to expertly unwrap foil from the chocolates proffered each time, extracted from countless stashes in drawers and cabinets. I periodically find them in my pockets, red and gold and purple foil-wrapped packages of Grandma’s abundant love manifested in cocoa butter and sugar.
“I was…sugar water..others… outside playing” she speaks with effort. This month everything has radically changed. These visits aren’t so much an easy source of delight in an ever-present source of love in the world. S’s grandmother becomes confused and fearful, in need of reassurance. Today is one of her better days though her speech still comes more slowly than before and she looks inward as often as she looks outward.
“Grandma! Tell me about your mother! You like to talk about your mom!” S. hollers close to her ear. Sometimes it is not clear: did she not hear, or is she adhering to her own cosmically-attuned inner agenda? Today she periodically, for unknown reasons, says “Vodka!” and looks at us sternly. Earlier in our visit S. described a recent trip with beloved friends and colleagues. Her grandmother listened carefully and then responded, very clearly, “Joyride.”
“Yes, Grandma. It was.” S. said. Grandma has lived a good life with love in her heart for ninety-six years, so it makes sense that she can cut right to the heart of the matter. Though the vodka declarations remain mysterious.
”Did your mother have a sweet tooth too?” I gently yell in her other ear. She wakes from her reverie and a story rolls off of her tongue.
“I was…sugar water…others…playing outside.” She looks down at her finger.
“You were stirring?” I ask.
“Yes, I was stirring. In those days, if you wanted candy, you had to make it. I was watching them play out the window and my finger slipped in- at first they thought I would lose the finger. But they saved it. The doctor lived at the bottom of the hill, so I just ran down the hill, and my sisters told my mother, so she was running right behind me. The doctor cleaned it up and at first they didn’t know if they could save it. I went every day after school.”
“Grandma, I didn’t know that” S. says. We are all looking at her finger now.
“I always used to hide it after that. Then Lisa told me it was my special finger, my baby finger. She told me that every time she came, and now I don’t hide it.”
She begins again. “I had a little girlfriend who had a little boyfriend- a boy who was her friend, five, and he told her to lay her finger down on the ground, so she did, and he chopped it off with an axe. That was worse, it was her thumb, and then she thought that no one would ever love her. But we both had people come into our lives.” Another pause, as she listens inwardly, diffuses, and then re-focuses, right on us. “Maybe this is why you came today. So I can tell you this story and you can know you are loved.” S., who has been manfully fending off tears for several minutes, both laughs and tears up and I do as well. I laugh like this when children unknowingly speak remarkable truths and I try to explain to them that I am not laughing at them, I laugh because of how true it is.
“Holy laughter. That’s what it’s called. Tears and laughter at the same time. It’s good. Sometimes at funerals, you have holy laughter.” At the word funeral S. has to look away. I still have some distance, some reserve. As much as I love her she is not my family. I have not known her my whole life. This does not mean she cannot instantly disarm me, even from this supposed ground of safety. “It’s good you came into her life” she tells me. “You came into her life, and you also came into my life.” She looks right at me. Never underestimate the power of a ninety-pound ninety-six year old grandmother in a wheelchair. Holy laughter, I feel you.
“Grandma!” S. says. Our knees are almost touching, S. and I in chairs and her grandmother in the wheelchair.
“May the circle. Be unbroken” she says with effort again, and then clearly, firmly even: “I had a home and now it is gone, and Jesus is my home, and I hope he takes me home soon.” She speaks assuredly and kindly and now S. has to actually stand up and go examine the phone really closely and cry for a minute because it hurts too much to think about saying goodbye to your favorite person in the world. The phone rings, her daughter checking in, and in a confusion of phone cord and oxygen tube and hospital beeper cord and wheelchair rolling we hug and say goodbye for now.
S. and I leave and I appreciate that we have some time on the road between hospital and home. I don’t see old people very much. I don’t hear these stories anymore. At school we have a book called “Grandmother’s Stories.” The book contains stories of all varieties that are framed by the grandmother telling them. Probably some of the young children in my class still hear true grandmother’s stories, but it is not only the very young who need to hear them. How are we supposed to know how to live when we are not informed by the people among us who can offer us stories framed by almost one hundred years of life experience? I grew up hearing my grandmother’s stories, told first by her, and then by her children. They were told at her table, over tea and cake, told over our heads, then to us, and now by us. I tell them to the children at my table. I tell my grandmother’s stories of her grandmother.
A sweet tooth, a pot of sugar water, a missing fingertip; a desperate run down the hill, mother trailing after; the rescuing of her finger in later years by her granddaughter, who trims her nails and paints them a different color each time. How we hold each other, how we save each other, how we tell the story.