One night years ago, the long table filled with the remnants of dessert and wine glasses filled to varying heights, a group of us (also of varying heights) were playing a version of the question game.
You know the question game.
Colorful boxes of cards with questions on ethics and morality, preferences and wishes, dreams.
If you could have dinner with three people, living or dead…
What topic can put you to sleep more quickly than any other?
When was the last time you laughed until you cried?
That last one was easy. Some other question, asked about five minutes before, had prompted a story… and some responses… and soon we were snorting and choking and holding our bellies as laughter filled the house and spilled from our eyes.
Question games, by design, get you talking well past the actual answer. In fact, I’m not so sure our family has ever managed to get through more than ten cards… like, ever.
Some questions stay with me long after the cards are put away.
Some answers stay too.
That night, a question was asked: “In your own not-so-humble opinion, what is your most likable quality?”
I remember the feeling of my brain going blank.
I couldn’t answer it.
I had nothing.
And then, panicking, I tried to come up with an acceptable – if not so well thought out – answer before it was my turn to respond.
Every single one I thought of seemed too haughty, or too small.
I tried to remember any and every compliment I’d ever received.
‘My empathy’ sounded a little cocky. ‘My handwriting’ didn’t feel like an actual quality.
And then Granny – quietly but with confidence – said, “I think I’m a really good friend.”
You all know how much I loved (love) Granny.
In that moment, I also really admired her ability to come up with an answer, and to share it with the class without hesitation.
That said, the woman was flat out delusional.
Hang on, people. I’ve only written about 334 words. Have I ever been this brief? (Answer: No.) Don’t saddle your dragons just yet. Read on.
Of course I did not say she was delusional.
Like, out loud.
I actually said something akin to, ‘That’s a really cool trait to be proud of’ – because it is.
Like, it really is.
But here was the thing.
At that moment, I was way too close to the most minute element of a full picture – I’m talking pixels… maybe just one – to agree with her.
The one pixel:
For a couple of years, I’d been fielding a series of calls and e-mails and letters from one of Granny’s long-time friends, one of her best. This woman, her husband, Granny, and Grampa had been friends for decades. They’d travelled together (all four, and sometimes just then two women), visited each others’ homes (including ours), met for dinner… all the things.
This woman had lost her husband right about the time that Grampa (The Old Yankee Man) had begun to show troubling signs that his own time here might be limited. With all this happening, Granny all but dropped out of this woman’s life.
After sending a card, expressing her sorrow at her friend’s loss of her husband, and talking once or twice over the phone, Granny just… faded away.
Over some months, Grampa got worse (it was a horrible time), and then went into the hospital, and then he was gone from this world.
Over time, I would see the letters from Granny’s friend (I recognized the handwriting and return address on the envelopes). At first, the cards and/or letters came every month or so, then every few. Early on, I’d ask after her friend, wondering how she was doing, what she was up to. Eventually, noticing Granny seemed uncomfortable coming up with answers (or the once prolific stories featuring this particular friend), I stopped.
It bothered me, like really bothered me.
My rationale – my judgement – went something like this:
This woman, Granny’s friend, reached out when she needed support in her own grief.
Granny couldn’t – or wouldn’t – give her that.
Granny needed support in her grief (and pre-grief, and before that when things with Grampa were hinky).
For whatever reason, she couldn’t – or wouldn’t – accept it from her friend.
It made sense to me that they would be such great supports for one another (and, clearly, my assessment was sound… you know, according to me).
For sure, that opinion was formed as I was barely treading water… in the throes of 24/7 caregiving that had been ebbing and flowing for years… first with Grampa, and then Granny. The weight of being a person’s everyday medical, physical, and emotional ‘go to’ can be crushing. My last nerves had begun to cry mercy.
That being true, when Granny responded to, “.. what is your most likable quality?” with “I think I’m a really good friend”, I did what I’d been doing for a long time; I met her where she was, and supported her. But in this case, my brain farted.
About a month after that particular question game, Granny was gone.
She wasn’t hospitalized, her doctors hadn’t mentioned that we ought to prepare.
It felt, as it often does, far too soon (and way too fast).
In the days that followed the First Awful Day I consulted Granny’s address book. My heart soft and cracked open, I drank in her recognizable script… each person’s name, address, and phone number… small notes in the margins, peppered with Granny’s nursing shorthand. The fact that there wasn’t a single e-mail address among them made me smile.
I started making the calls to her friends, in the alphabetical order of the address book…
The same way we each wrote out our Christmas cards.
Some days, I could only manage two or three calls before my heart needed to rest. Typing in the phone number for the friend who’d stuck around, even as Granny stepped away, was especially hard.
When she picked up, I told her who I was, and said I was calling ‘about June’. I heard a gasp… a choked off, “Oh!”
Then a trembling voice asked, “When?”
I told her, and I followed that up with words that had begun to feel rehearsed. Realizing this made me even sadder.
But then, somewhere in the midst of two women missing another… something magical happened.
More words yielded fewer tears.
Those words became sentences and those became stories.
I listened, and listened.
Granny’s friend told me of their days working together in the VA*, she a fiery upstart – having come in as a nurse after being an officer in the Navy… thinking all ought to bow down to the seniority she didn’t have as a ‘civilian’. Granny was her boss, the nurse supervisor… then Nurse Manager… then Assistant Chief of Psychiatry.
“She always looked out for me,” her friend said. “I was a pain in the ass, a royal pain in the ass. She protected me from the other nurses, from some of the docs. Hell, she protected me from myself! And I didn’t always like that!” She laughed. I laughed.
It felt so good to laugh with her.
She recapped trips they took, how Granny was so great at going with the flow. She talked about herself, saying she was a ‘spoiled rotten only child’ and that Granny put up with all her antics, including her tendency to pout and send dishes back to the kitchens at restaurants.
She said she looked up to Granny… and was a little bit jealous of her family, how close we all were.
“I always knew I was far too selfish to have kids,” she said, wistfully.
She wanted me to know that she wasn’t trying to be a pain, when she contacted Granny over and over again, and then reached out to me. She was just trying to be a good friend.
Just trying to be a good friend.
She was being a good friend (I told her so).
And I’d realized, along all of her sentences and stories, that Granny had also been a good friend.
In all those days and years before, Granny had been a very good friend to a person who was not – in her own words – easy going (or, for that matter, easy period!).
Granny told her the truth when her friend needed to hear it, and loved and stuck by her when she acted bratty and slightly unloveable (again, according to her).
And when Granny was in the weeds, all tucked into herself and those of us immediately around her…
This friend showed up.
Not demanding, just giving… checking in, and checking on Granny.
And this friend didn’t give up or complain about not hearing back, because Granny had been a friend to her for so long.
A very good friend.
I did what I do.
I took the period – the one I’d dropped at the end of Granny’s and this woman’s relationship story years before – and I moved it.
I moved it right to the end of that phone call.
And, suddenly, Granny was absolutely right in that question game long ago.
She was a good friend, which is a very likable quality indeed.
And I… had been a myopic dummy.
I gave my past self a little grace, knowing that – any time we are under a great deal of stress – those dang periods can become really, really heavy. They’re easy to drop early, before we have a chance to understand context (or the big picture). We can get a little judge-y (even a little cranky) when that happens.
I suppose patience requires me to settle in and accept my lack of omniscience.
That conversation, with Granny’s friend, was a gift. It was a reminder to me that how we punctuate the stories we tell ourselves is a pretty big contributor to happiness (it always has been to mine).
When I ended that call, more than five years ago now, I wondered if Granny had anything to do with that particular reminder, at that particular moment.
I remember closing my eyes, sitting with that idea for a minute…
And felt my heart began to sing.
Thanks for readin’.
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