It was summer of 2014, seven long years ago. My Grandma had her most debilitating stroke a couple years before then. By this point, Grandma had several nicknames, given to her lovingly by her children who were coordinating and advocating for her care, and by her grandchildren who continued to be delighted by her fighting spirit.
She was known as “The Eagle” when we discussed logistics like running errands together, going to dinners, and getting to doctor’s appointments (“we have The Eagle; we are en route to Applebees”).
She was known as “The Rascal” when she flirted with male nurses, refused to cooperate with medical staff, and when she got cheeky with her kids. She was in the assisted living wing of the senior home near my parents’ house.
Family was in town for my sister’s upcoming wedding, and we had to get Grandma a dress. Commence Operation Fancy Eagle. My mom and her sister, Janny, already decided that they were all going to be wearing matching rainbow sneakers, and hey, rainbow goes with every color so Grandma could wear whatever color she wanted.
We had fewer “good outings” together, where she would be engaged with what we were doing and where she could tolerate what was going on. So we went in knowing that it might not be the easiest of errands, and we wouldn’t know how long she would be able to hang in there. That’s where I, the sole grandkid on this errand, could help pull it together.
As you might imagine at a local Kohl’s, there’s not the most variety for older ladies’ summer dresses. And Grandma was becoming more and more onion-shaped, which I found endearing. But the clothing industry does not prioritize the fashion sense of the onion-shaped, dementia-having, 4’10” grandmas of the world.
Mom and Janny were thumbing through some muted blues and pastel colors on the dress racks. I remember feeling like I wanted to take a risk, to find something that was more eye-catching than what they were perusing through.
I knew Grandma had a flamboyant streak in her; my mom has it, and I have it too. But with Grandma, it was a fleeting opportunity that mostly relied on the luck of your timing, like glimpsing a hummingbird out your back window. Whatever it was that she needed to take that risk for herself, I stumbled into it. I saw a bright coral dress, sparkling at the end of the aisle. The bodice of the dress had lacy flowers and shimmering threads; the skirt of the dress was bunched at the right hip so that the folds flowed and draped diagonally and which also gave it a good twirl.
I remember my mom seeing me look at it and expressing that Grandma might not like it, but I decided to go for it, so I put it in the try-on pile. To her kids’ surprise, she instantly loved it when she put it on. I felt proud of myself, and I felt proud of her. She wanted to feel beautiful and she went for it. Sidenote: yes, I do think my grandkid brownie points helped.
My sister’s wedding was a gorgeous, July day at her house on the lake. Grandma did get quite a few compliments on her dress, which she ate up, as she should. She was in Rascal mood for almost all of the day: the before pictures, the ceremony, and, of course, on the dance floor during the reception, which was also in my sister’s backyard.
Through all her strokes and cognitive declines, music had been a constant source of joy and activation for Grandma. My mom always had a Glenn Miller CD on during the Eagle pickups. Music and dancing had been a big part of how I saw Grandma throughout my life, really. When she told me about how she started dating her first husband, she said she was at a social and he had asked her to dance with him.
She could sing, whistle, and her old house was filled with pictures of her cuttin’ a mean rug with her second husband (who played the accordion!). She loved singing at church, or humming in the later years at the senior home, and the song Danny Boy would make her cry every time. So I knew that if she could hold on til the reception, she was going to have a blast. Plus, my siblings and I are ardent wedding dancers: we feel it’s our duty, as either guests or members of the wedding party, to kick the dance floor off and to keep it going. We sure do know how to dance til we drop when the opportunity arises. What Grandma could resist her grandkids ruling the dance floor and beckoning her to join?
So after I got warmed up and demonstrated my rhythmic prowess to all the onlookers, I grabbed Grandma and brought her with me to the dance floor. While I love dancing, I’m not so good at partner dancing or structured dancing, so I’m sure we looked a hot mess. But I would spin her, and she would spin me. She would get a good shoulder shimmy going while we were holding hands and I would go start doing it too. I think she even later danced with Tommy, one of her sons.
While it was my sister’s wedding, I think a lot of us also saw it as a party for Grandma too, since we really didn’t know how many good days she would have left. We also didn’t have a lot of opportunities to have this much family in one place at the same time. That day was special to me for a lot of reasons, many of which have to do with her.