The first thing is, it takes toughness. A certain edge. And you wouldn’t necessarily think edge if you’d seen my Grama Alice towards the end of her life. With her wrinkly smile, long hair in four, neat buns, and a colorful, homespun cardigan, she looked just like an archetype. But if you heard her speak—a flight of pleasantries spiked with pointed social commentary—you’d realize that she was actually mad as hell. Mad about having spent a half-century in relative solitude. Mad about having stood in the rain at so many funerals. Mad, most of all, about the way our society slights the elderly by overlooking them, and pushing them to the margins. “It’s a crock of shit, Gaets,” is how she’d put it.
That’s exactly how she put it when recalling her final visit with her dear friend Anne, who’d suffered a series of catastrophes at 98, and wound up in a nursing home. Don’t even get Grama started on nursing homes. If she did Yelp reviews, “crock of shit” would seem generous. But Grama didn’t do Yelp reviews. She didn’t even do cable. She just clung furiously to the red brick rancher where she lived and died alone.
It sort of goes without saying, but if you’re aiming to wrestle loneliness, you first need to find yourself good and lonely. If you really want to do it right, spend the first half of your life living some cozy, mid-century American dream. That way, when you awake, loneliness will really have some teeth.
Grama Alice was the daughter of the Lucas County coroner in the days of prohibition, when booze flowed across Lake Erie to Detroit and Toledo. As a kid, she crossed police lines with her father, and spent time in the company of Yonnie Licavoli, who would wind up getting life for four counts of conspiracy.
Alice went into nursing, married a physician, and settled down in the tony Toledo suburb of Ottawa Hills, where she would raise two kids and attend the sort of luncheons and New Year’s bashes that were photographed for the society pages.
And then, in 1969, her husband died suddenly while the kids were away at college, and Alice’s life fractured. The house she and my grandfather raised on a corner lot in 1950 became a cracked watch.
I’m not exaggerating. Imagine stepping into her mid-century kitchen, and over to the green, laminate countertop, and opening the drawer beside the fridge. Inside, you’ll see two rolls of aluminum foil—one bought last week, and one from the 1960s.
Alice spent her retirement volunteering on the palliative care unit at St. V’s where, according to their records, she logged 5,568 hours between ages 70 and 94. It wasn’t until she got mugged in the parking garage that she accepted a handicapped permit so she could park closer to the door. One by one, the names of old friends disappeared from her social calendar. The months between our visits grew longer.
By the time my mom, Uncle Johnny and I converged on Grama’s doctor’s office during her final spring, we’d had time to consider the mass already. I remember a long silence as all eyes fixed on the X-ray haze. I remember Dr. Bates leaning forward on his stool and asking Alice, “What do you think of all this?” I remember more silence, then Grama answering finally—definitively—“Would it be OK if we just pretend we never saw it?” And to the credit of all assembled, that was nearly the last mention of “it.”
Officer Bob of the Ottawa Hills Police was the last person to see Grama alive. You wouldn’t have noticed, on that fateful evening, that some curtains were open that should not have been. But Officer Bob noticed as his cruiser rolled past, and he stopped by the house, and he tucked Alice in.
Officer Bob, a yardman named Russ, and my cousin George, who delivered the groceries and would linger for coffee, were the last of the “good guys” left standing with Alice in the end. She printed their names in a notebook under funeral arrangements, making sure my uncle would include them in her eulogy. They were her guardian angels, her long-term care insurance.
Ninety-nine years is a heck of a life. Part of me will always hurt to think of those last 47—of all that loneliness between visits. But a few months before Grama died, I called her to say that her latest great-granddaughter had arrived, and that her name was Yasmine Alice. “Say that again, Gaets?” she said, doubting her reception. “Alice, Grama. Her middle name is Alice.” And then some really beautiful silence.
I’d call that a win.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Photo of author’s Grama’s living room provided by author.