One Foot in Heaven
She sat in Grandma's easy chair, hugging her knees to her chest. Rays of sunlight spread over the floor in front of her, but she was lost in dark thoughts. "I don't want to be here," an inner voice repeated over and over. Her girl scout troop was caroling at the mall, which was where she'd rather be at this moment. However, Mom and Dad insisted. It was important to spent time with Grandma and Grandpa, instead. "They need us, Holly," Mom said.
"I know they need us," the inner voice spoke, "I just don't want to be here." The truth was: she really loved her grandparents. If Grandma were better, she'd rather be with her than any old scout troop, even at the mall. Ever since Grandma started not being herself, however, Holly started not wanting to visit. It was tough seeing someone you loved who didn't even remember who you were. Early on, it was okay, for Grandma's forgetfulness was covered by her cheerful nature. "Of course, you're my granddaughter," she'd say when reminded, "you're such a pretty girl." Nowadays, though, Grandma was lost in some foreign world. She didn't even look at you, just stared at the ceiling. "I don't want to be here," Holly's inner voice said.
An old, weathered hand gently placed itself on her shoulder.
"A penny for your thoughts, Holly."
"Hi, Grandpa," she replied with a weak smile.
"Not much fun here, is it," he said. "Let's say you and I go for a doughnut and some hot chocolate. I need to get out of this house. How about you?"
"You read my mind, Grandpa," she said, "I'll tell Mom and Dad."
"Already did, sweetheart. Let's go."
Driving down the road, both were quiet. Then Holly spoke up. "Grandpa, how do you do it? I get depressed just thinking about Grandma. But, then, I can do something else: go to school, be with my friends. I can stop thinking about her. You're with her all the time, though. Doesn't it get you down?"
"Sure it does, Holly. I do try to get away when I can. I have friends, also, though not as many as I used to. A problem with growing old is that your friends start dying on you. I still have some, even some younger, newer ones who come over and take care of Grandma so I can get away. But, you're right, it does get me down, too."
"How do you handle it, Grandpa? It seems so hopeless. Grandma is not going to get any better, that's what Dad said. He said she's sort of fading away before our eyes. I want the old Grandma back, the one who baked the best Christmas cookies ever, who buried your face in her breast in a big hug. I miss her so much."
"I do, too, Holly. More than you can imagine. I miss her tender words, as well as her angry ones. She could cut me with comments sharper than any knife. Crazy that I'd long for her quick temper, isn't it? You remind me of her."
Holly blushed and looked out the window. "Grandpa, what is there to look forward to? She'll only get worse. Does she even hear us anymore? Last Christmas she at least had a smile on her face when we opened presents. She was like a little kid. I'm not looking forward to this year. I feel guilty for saying so, but I don't want to spend Christmas with her. She's like a stranger. I feel so uncomfortable around her." Holly fell quiet, afraid of her own words.
They arrived at the doughnut shop, and soon were facing each other over steaming mugs of hot chocolate. Holly only picked at her doughnut, however. "It's okay to feel that way," Grandpa said. "I do sometimes, myself. I try hard to remember her the way she was, which is easier for me than you. I've known her for longer than you. There are moments when I see a glimmer of her old self, but those moments come less and less. I don't really know this woman anymore. I'm not giving up, though. I have hope."
"What do you mean: hope?" Holly replied. "She's not going to get better." "I know," he responded. "My hope isn't based on her getting better, at least not in this life. You're only now coming to understand that life is more than what you're going through right now. At my age, I'm very aware that I won't be around for all that much longer. Your Grandma will die one day, and so will I."
A tear ran down Holly's cheek at those words. "I have to look ahead," he went on. "I look at you and see Grandma as a teenager. Life goes on. Some of my hope rests in you. I'm excited about the person you are becoming. In a way, Grandma lives on in you. Don't think too hard about that, however. It's not a weight you have to carry around, though some people see it as a burden. You are her and my legacy, one way in which we touch the future, long after we have passed away. No disease can wipe that away, at least I hope not. Alzheimers may have felled the tree that your grandmother was, but from her stump comes a new shoot: you."
Holly dunked her doughnut in the hot chocolate.
"Did you and Grandma come here much?" she asked.
"All the time," he answered. "How do you think I became so fat?"
"You're not fat, Grandpa."
"Sure, and Santa is really a skinny guy. You need glasses more than I do." They laughed together, then Holly went on.
"You said 'some' or your hope is in me."
"You're a pretty sharp young woman. I did indeed. Can you figure where I would go on from there?"
"Well, yeah, something about God and what Dad calls the 'great by and by, pie in the sky.' I don't think he thinks too much of it."
"I think you're right," Grandpa replied. "However, Grandma's illness has shaken some of what he used to understand. Once upon a time, your father and I could get into a pretty good argument. He couldn't accept much of what we taught him growing up. He was an angry young man. Protested the war in Vietnam, burned his draft card, got arrested."
"Are we talking about the same man? I can't imagine Dad doing stuff like that. He's so ... quiet and conservative."
"Well, believe it, Holly. You have seen pictures of his long hair, haven't you?"
"Yes, he looked so silly."
"Those would have been fighting words at one time, young lady. Still, we loved him, and he loved us. Actually, he and I weren't that far apart. I didn't go off to war when I was a young man, either. I believed that Jesus had a better way. Still do. In spite of all the terrible things that have happened this century, I have hope that God's Way will prevail. My refusal to fight was based in this hope. I think your Dad's was based in anger."
"I don't understand this 'hope,' Grandpa. When I think about Grandma, I just get angry. Maybe I'm angry with God for allowing her to get like this."
"I get angry, too," Grandpa confessed. "Only, anger isn't the last word. Anger only gets me so far, then it loses steam. Hope, on the other hand, is a long-term power. The Bible says it is something the Holy Spirit plants in us, like a tree that grows and grows, one that is there for more than a season. I believe that your Grandmother is in God's hands - all that she ever was, is now, or will be. God will not let her go, even when death comes. Call it a 'sweet by and by.' I believe in God's tomorrow. Something new is coming. God is making it happen. You are a part of God's future, but there is so much more than you or I can see. God is at work at something much bigger and better. Maybe Grandma can see it. Perhaps that's where she's looking when we think her mind is gone. Maybe she already has one foot in heaven. She just can't tell us."
"I'd like to believe that, Grandpa. Is that what hope is: imagining another possibility when things look pretty bad?"
"You have wisdom beyond your years, Holly. Again, you remind me so much of your Grandmother. Listen, we'd better head back home before your folks start imagining something bad happening to us."
In the car, Holly spoke up again. "I'm still not sure about Christmas with Grandma. It's supposed to be such a happy time, but it still makes me sad, even imagining Grandma in a better place."
"Me, too!" replied Grandpa. "If it helps, though, remember that this holiday has often been celebrated in desperate times and places. Christmas is the story about how, when things were pretty rough in this world, God was at work on a new possibility. He gave his very own to the world, a child of 'hope.' Christmas is about hope. And I, for one, am not about to forget it."
"Me neither, Grandpa," Holly said as the car pulled in the driveway. "Me, neither."
©1996 Peter L. Haynes