Zach Piatt is a senior journalism major and writes “Dugout Chatter” for The Daily News. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the newspaper.
My three little sisters and I made the trip north from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Bronson, Michigan, after ringing in the new year to visit Great-Grandma for her birthday.
As we turned onto her narrow, winding driveway, I remembered I forgot to bring my pack of cards — Great-Grandma and I played War every time we saw each other. I was disappointed in myself, but I knew she had a spare pack — I gave her one the last time I saw her a few months prior.
She was waiting for us as we got out of the car. We walked over, and the first thing I noticed was her headstone dates still hadn’t been updated. That upset me, but it wasn’t for long. The four of us talked to Great-Grandma for a few minutes, and we shared an embrace. There were no glossy eyes, and the only sniffles were from the cold air — we were all cried out by that point. Besides, this was a happy moment.
Before we left, I knelt beside her, envisioning cards in her hands, and it made me think back to some of our most memorable moments.
6 beats 2
Eight or nine years ago, Great-Grandma had a stroke and was taken to the ICU. My family and I visited her as soon as we could. Only two people were allowed to visit her at a time. Dad and I went first while Mom and my sisters — Maddie, Livi and Sami — stayed in the waiting room.
As we walked in, she was sitting in the bedside chair, refusing to lie in the bed — she was always stubborn like that. After cracking a couple jokes and exchanging “How are yous,” she started sounding off about how she felt fine, and she didn’t know why she was still in the hospital and she just wanted to go home. Her complaints became blurred to me after that as I felt better about her condition on account of her continued stubbornness.
As she and Dad talked for a moment, I began looking at all the machinery in the room. I noticed the heart-rate monitor and how there was an audial beep every time a new mountain appeared in the green line.
After a few seconds, the number on the monitor started to steadily increase, and the beeps became more frequent. It got to a point where I thought to myself, “That’s pretty fast. Something doesn’t seem right.” I was confused for a moment before I realized all the numbers and sounds coming from that monitor were hooked up to Great-Grandma.
She was shaking. Her arm was slightly reaching out. She seemed frozen in time. Dad recalls her saying, “Oh, there I go.”
Before we knew it, a dozen doctors were in the room. They had already lifted her onto the bed by the time one nurse ushered us out. That was when I heard the words I’ll never forget: “Oh no, get the pads.”
Lights were flashing all down the hallway, and I almost started pulling my hair out trying to stop hearing “Code blue” on repeat over the loudspeaker. Already a wreck, I stumbled toward the doors at the end of the hallway.
It was silent on the other side of those doors. People stood along the walls and stared at me with looks of empathy — like I was a lost puppy. They knew. One look at me, and they knew exactly what the echoing “Code blue” meant.
As I slowly turned the corner into the waiting room, hyperventilating, my sisters saw me, and not five seconds passed before they were in a similar condition.
An eternity later, a nurse approached me and said Great-Grandma was awake and wanted to see me. I didn’t want to, but I knew I had to. Teary-eyed, I walked back in. She was in her bed this time. She looked at me and said, “What are you crying for?” I smiled.
That day changed my outlook on life. I watched my great-grandma flatline in front of me, proving just how fragile life can be. I promised myself to cherish every moment with her — and every other loved one — from then on.
Jack beats 10
Six months ago, most of the family met at Great-Grandma’s house in Bronson to help load up her stuff and move it to a nursing home in Fort Wayne. We had been encouraging her to make that move for years, but, in classic Great-Grandma fashion, she wouldn’t let it happen. It wasn’t until parts of her memory started to fade and her physical abilities deteriorated that we were able to override her stubbornness.
She was in the back room in her recliner she could almost never get out of — when in doubt, you always checked there — just a walk around back through a screen door up the few steps next to the farmhouse-style cellar I’m convinced no one has ever entered. Her puzzle books were in that room, and her chair sat right across from her almost-handheld TV that, in recent days, exclusively played old westerns and the Food Network. Years prior, Great-Grandma would also flip to “Oprah” and Chicago Bears games when she could.
She probably lost count of how many family members walked in and out of that room that day. I couldn’t blame her, we were all there — me, Mom, Dad, Maddie, Livi, Sami, Aunt Tammy, Uncle Dave, Emily, Grandpa, Brenda, Rick, the twins and big Cousin Adam. She was also confused why everyone was there in the first place, moreso why we were hauling away her stuff, even though we told her multiple times leading up to it.
Twice in the span of a couple hours she asked me if I was still writing for my school paper. That was the hardest part about that day.
When we finally got everything packed up and convinced Great-Grandma that what was happening was real, it was time to load her up as well. I remember watching Grandpa roll her to the car in her wheelchair, but the next two minutes or so make up the blurriest memory I have from that day.
The next thing I knew, Great-Grandma was in the car, and all 6-foot-a-lot of Adam was kneeling beside the passenger door with her pale, fragile hand in his bear paw, crying. She had passed out. She was back within seconds, but it shook Adam — one of the most rock-solid people I’ve ever met — to a state I hadn’t seen him, and I knew exactly what he was going through.
We all hugged Great-Grandma and waved as Grandpa backed her out of the driveway to head to Fort Wayne. The rest of us weren’t far behind.
Aunt Tammy and Emily stayed with Great-Grandma at Grandpa’s house while everyone else went down the road to unload her stuff. As I pulled into the nursing home, we got a call that Great-Grandma needed help off the toilet seat. I’ve never pulled out of a parking lot so fast.
I threw open the door, paused for a moment as everyone just smiled at me and marched to the bathroom. I could barely look at Great-Grandma, not because her pants were at her ankles, but because it smelled like someone lit a match in a manure field.
She raised her head from her hands enough to gingerly say, “Hi.” She couldn’t tell me enough times how embarrassed she was, and I told her there wasn’t anything I’d rather be doing in that moment than helping her off the toilet seat. To that, she said, “Well, not many men can say they’ve done that.” Classic Great-Grandma — also one of the most quick-witted people I’ve ever known.
That was easily my favorite memory with her, and I’m glad I treated it the way I did. Tomorrow is never guaranteed, and this time, that was the case.
Queen beats Jack
Just over four months ago, Dad called me. I knew what it was.
I had been preparing for this ever since I walked out of that ICU room as a middle-schooler. Every moment after that found a special place in my heart, and while I hadn’t dealt with death before, I was ready for it.
Great-Grandma was gone.
I went for a drive that night. I picked up some McDonald’s on the way back to the house — we always got McDonald’s when we visited Great-Grandma. She always got a frappe.
Her funeral was four days later back in Bronson, and there we all were again. We usually only see the whole family twice a year, but Great-Grandma had a way of bringing people together.
I was afraid to see her. I didn’t know what to expect. The only thing I knew was I was going to give her a new deck of cards I bought before the trip.
When I finally psyched myself up enough to have my moment with her, I couldn’t say anything. There was so much I wanted to tell her, but, for once in my life, I was speechless. I tucked the deck of cards into her casket, smiled at her and walked away.
It was a moving ceremony — I had my eyes closed for most of it, Maddie’s hand in my left, one of the twin’s in my right. I got one last chance to talk to her face on the way out, but all I could muster was a soft, crackly “I love you.” That’s all I really needed to say.
I’m proud of many things I’ve done in my life, but one of my greatest honors to this point was helping carry Great-Grandma to her final resting place.
By the time we got her there, things had already started to feel normal again. We cracked some jokes, said goodbye in our own ways and turned right out of the narrow, winding driveway toward the park — the same place we hold our annual family reunion — to have lunch. It’s what Great-Grandma would have wanted us to do as a family.
Life is unexpected. A 6 may beat a 2, a Jack may beat a 10 and a Queen may beat a Jack, but love trumps all.
Contact Zach Piatt with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @zachpiatt13.