A mild stroke of genius
by You Have My Word
It’s been years since I thought of her, but today – maybe it was the mince pie I had after breakfast that reminded me – I can’t shake her from clinging to my mind: Grandma. She was beautiful. When you’d look at her, you’d never see her age – the wrinkles were there for sure, but she was just Grandma. She had a fighter spirit to be reckoned with, but she was gentle in the delivery of her words, the way she moved, how she saw the world and interacted with it.
She made the best mince pies I’ve ever tasted. Even when she got sick that first time, she made sure she was out of hospital in time to bake enough mince pies for the entire family (much to the doctor’s advice against that notion – he deemed it “stupid”. He’d obviously never tasted her mince pies). I couldn’t have been older than eight or nine years old when she came to visit us that Christmas with a face that was not her own – the first stroke had left its damage and although we tried to hide our surprise, our feeling of betrayal could not be kept a secret. How could it be, that one stroke could hurt our Grandma so much?
I got a new bike for Christmas that year. I’d bought Grandma a new woolen hat. She had taken me to the mall a few months earlier like we did every Saturday- we caught the early bus together and stopped at our usual spot. We’d come here for ice-cream each week – I always had chocolate, Grandma always just wanted vanilla. “Try a different flavour, Grandma!” I’d always say. She wouldn’t budge, and that was fine because she was Grandma and that was what she wanted and that was OK. It was early May when she’d seen the hat, on one of our usual outings, and I swore to myself then and there that I would get it for her. I saved for weeks! But finally, I got it.
I was more excited about giving Grandma that woolen hat on Christmas than I was about mince pies, or presents, or trees, or sweets that year. I knew she was sick – very sick – and this may be the last hat she’d get. It was… but that’s not important. I was giving her the hat she loved and that was the least I could do. Mom always used to say that Grandma had gone away for a while, when she was in hospital. I knew all along where she was, but I’d humour mom into thinking I didn’t know. And each time “Grandma went away” I knew that it was one less mince pie I’d eat, one less trip to get ice-cream, one less talk with the wisest woman I knew.
The year after that Christmas was not an easy one for any of us. Grandma got significantly worse and none of us could do anything. She remained cheerful, however, and she never complained. She would do what she could by herself and didn’t dare just sit back and wait to die. Even to this day, I can’t quite figure out how she kept it together for so long, when her mind was falling apart. Each stroke gave her one less fighting chance. Each stroke made her look a little more tired. Each stroke reminded us to appreciate Grandma right now – and not just for her mince pies.
As my Grandma’s illness progressed, the strokes became more frequent and she became more frail. After she’d “been away” and come back, I always used to ask her “What happened Grandma?” She would answer simply and sweetly, “Just a mild stroke, boy. Nothing too serious at all.” We knew it was all too serious to be taken lightly. But I’d say, “A mild stroke of what, Grandma?” Knowing full well what her response would be: “A mild stroke of Genius, boy! That’s what.” That’s how it went for weeks and weeks and we’d count the days and hope for more and curse the hours in waiting rooms and rejoice when she’d be let out early.
In those last few months, this decisive denial was the little game we’d play. It helped us ignore the obvious – she didn’t have much time – and encourage us to keep hold of a reality we didn’t want to lose. Every day with her from the moment that first stroke took its toll, was a blessing. There were things to be said, but we brushed them aside just so we wouldn’t have to face the horror of losing such a sweet soul. It was August the following year, and we had no idea she’d be gone so soon. Looking back now, I wish I’d kept track of time more than the state of her mind. An overcast day she passed away – like the sky was mourning the loss of her smile. That last stroke was her exit and no one was there to see the last dance.
That week was a flurry of arrangements for funerals and flowers and wills and belongings – right down to making sure there’d be mince pies on the day of the ceremony. And there were – hundreds of them! The day we went to bury her, the sun shone with more brilliance than I’d ever seen it shine in my short nine years – what a glorious day! It was as if nature was standing to salute her beautiful, refreshing life. I couldn’t have been happier and more at peace. She was there, in the laughter, in the family, in the smells and sights and sounds – she was there. Ill never forget her, and that afternoon as I turned away from her grave there was a steady gust of wind. If you listened carefully enough it said, “A mild stroke of Genius, boy! That’s what.”