100 Years Old and Saying Goodbye

I went to the VA Nursing home last month, my entire extended family did, to celebrate my Grandmother’s 100th birthday. She’s a “tough old broad” — her words, not mine. She’s in full possession of her faculties, and able to zip around the home faster than anyone.

My grandmother was one of the first women to sign up for The Women’s Army Corps during World War II. “All five of my brothers were doing it, so I wasn’t going to let them go without me.” Her other two sisters stayed behind.

She’s surrounded by other veterans, some even as young as my own dad, all injured, all looking older than they should. They served in different wars, in different branches of the service. Often they’re the last of their family left. The space is well-lit and they’re well cared for. It’s the nicest home I’ve ever been in.

There’s a pool table, even, but very few of the residents can still play. Most are confined to wheelchairs or walkers.

I played against my son, my father and my sister. Besting all three of them.

Grandma decided not to play, “No, Patrick,” she said to me, “I remember you cheating at mini-golf when you were young, and I’m too old for that now.”

The last few years I’ve visited her, she’s rarely had the same roommates or neighbors. She’s been there long enough, too, that she has her own room now. There’s only really one person I recognize seeing more than once there, besides some of the staff. That’s how it is there, though, when people reach the end of their lives. They end.

This 100th birthday celebration, though, it was something. All of her remaining children were there — four of the six she had after she returned from the war at nearly 30 and married my Grandfather—and so were all the Grandchildren who could. The only one missing was my youngest cousin Tommy — he’s in the Army and stationed in Korea—but we were able to Skype him in to blow out the candles.

There were maybe 20 of us cousins? Honestly, I’m not sure the exact number. I’m the oldest by a bit, and I moved west when I finished High School, and more kept coming.

My aunt told me about how, at 17, I had driven up to her house to say goodbye to everyone and she was pregnant with my (now 27 year-old) cousin Jack. Apparently as I drove away, she was waving at me to stop — I remember looking back at her thinking she was just waving normal good-bye waves—her water had just broke, and she wanted me to drive her to the hospital.

But that was well before mobile phones, so I just drove away, blissfuly unaware. I found out about my new cousin weeks later via letter while I was at college.

I’m her first Grandson. The oldest by almost 5 years.

When my parents got divorced in-between second and third grade, my Grandparents came to live with me and my dad. It was a fairly unique situation where my little sister moved out with my mom, and I stayed with my dad. We had an in-laws apartment downstairs and they moved in with us.

I saw my grandmother pretty much everyday of my life; from third grade through until when they moved out my junior year of high school, to get an apartment on their own.

At the party, my cousins would talk about “going to nana’s” and how it felt. But to me, it was always as simple as just walking downstairs, knocking the door while opening it (the perfunctory knock), and going in.

“What’s for dinner?” I’d ask and if it was ever anything I didn’t like (my grandmother was not a great cook and I was a picky eater), I’d be “Okay, cool, I’ll just eat upstairs.”

But every night at 5:10pm there’d be a supper ready. And it would often just be me, my dad, Grandpa and Grandma.

My grandparents were both in the Army and my dad was in the Navy. Dinner on schedule, every night. Clockwork.

I was always closer to my grandfather than my grandmother. He was always the nice one, letting me get away with anything, and she was the disciplinarian.

Grandpa would make me breakfast every morning. And on days when I failed to get up, he’d come up, quiet and calm as can be, not yell, not scold me, but instead simply ask, in a nice and sincere tone “Hey Patrick, you going to school today?”

My grandmother did not come off as nice or kind as my grandfather. I think she was a little tough from her own harder Irish upbringing—the hardness of drinking families and all that—as well as running a house with six rambunctious kids of her own (I have no doubt that nowadays some of my aunts and uncles would have been diagnosed with ADHD or the like).

Even after growing up with her always around, I’m not entirely sure you’d call us “close.” My grandmother often held emotions back and if when I was young I’d cry or be upset, she’d give me a head-shake and a stern, “Come on now, Patrick.” And that’d be that. There wasn’t a ton of hugging.

Her 100th birthday party was in the big room where they normally serve dinner. We were under a little bit of time-pressure, because dinner at a nursing home is not a thing to be messed with. Routine, routine, routine. The VA hospital isn’t that different from the Army, in a lot of respects.

So the staff began kicking us out a few minutes before dinner, and everyone worked their way out into the hallway where wheelchairs were already lining up for dinner service like a slow-moving pack of very old, very tired wolves.

I’m the last one with my grandmother as everyone else starts to filter out.

“When your grandfather died, you said to me ‘I really loved my grandfather,’” she tells me.

I look at her, nodding, because I did, and I’m sure it’s something I said. I did love my grandfather. And I’m sure, at the time, I thought that’d be comforting to her.

She looked at me, with her 100-year-old greenish-blue eyes. Eyes that travelled the world. Eyes that have really seen things. We looked at each other intensely.

“I always wanted you to say,” she tells me, eyes still locked, “I love you grandma.”

I told her I did, of course I did, and hugged her one last time.

“I’m proud of you, Patrick,” she said to me, “and if I don’t ever see you again, I want you to have a wonderful life.”

I put on my sunglasses as I left the nursing home and got in the car, so no one would see me tear up.

My grandmother, 100 years and one day old, with my 13 year old son, her oldest great grand-child.

I often wear plaid shirts. http://patcastaldo.com/