My grandmother at 109
Her heart is old now, and tired. I imagine the physical process of the blood coursing through atria and ventricles, the ageing heart muscle clenching and relaxing, pumping the blood on the long journey through the veins and tributaries of her body. I imagine the beats becoming sluggish, slower, with the constant effort of motion: expand and contract; breathe in and breathe out.
She is 109 years old. Her heart has kept its beat, steady and sure, about four-and-a-half billion times.
When people reach extraordinary ages, we talk in numbers. How many great-great-grandchildren? How many years widowed? How many years without sight or mobility or comprehension? And so my grandmother deserves this too, this talk of numbers, these weighty facts of her existence.
She was born in England in 1907, the same year as W. H. Auden and Katharine Hepburn, as Daphne du Maurier and Laurence Olivier and Frida Kahlo. The year Rudyard Kipling won the Nobel prize for literature. She came to Australia on a boat when she was not yet two years old, three years before the Titanic sank. During her childhood, the structure of the atom was discovered, the Panama Canal was opened, and Amundsen reached the South Pole. After leaving school at 14, she worked in domestic service as a home helper, as a shop assistant, and on the family orchard. She has lived through two World Wars, and experienced the Great Depression in between. She has witnessed political leaders come and go, and the boundaries of countries redrawn. She has seen changes in fashions and styles, developments in technology and business, crises and advances in health. She has literally had more hot dinners than anyone I know.
She married my grandfather in 1933 when she was 26 and he was 39, and they honeymooned in a tent. She bore him six children; one died of pneumonia at six weeks, leaving her breasts engorged and her arms empty. She was also stepmother to my grandfather’s two elder children, who lost their mother to childbirth complications. She now has more than 100 descendants, scattered around the globe. My grandfather died in 1982 at the age of 88, leaving my grandmother a widow for the past 35 years.
The weight of numbers.
She has outlived two of her children and even some of her grandchildren. She stayed in her own home until she was 98. In the nursing home, she played table tennis until she was 105. And she usually won. She is the oldest Queenslander alive today. She doesn’t take any medication.
In recent years, her mind has lost its sharpness. She confuses people and places. Conversations circle around the same few questions: Who are you? Where do you live? Who are your children? Always searching for the same links of belonging. But while today is a blur of forgetting, her childhood past is a vivid recall – the black snake that lived in the rafters of the shed they called home; the cow she kept under a tall house on stumps; swimming in the waterhole at the bottom of Baroona hill in Milton; lying on her kitchen table to watch the silent movies screening at the Rosalie open-air picture theatre. Bathtime once a week, in one tubful of tank water in front of the fire, eldest to youngest. Playing tiggy (some childhood games are timeless). Tennis parties, driving a pony and sulky, relocating her marital home in pieces and rebuilding it board by board.
Each of us has our own specific memories of our grandmother. Many of mine revolve around the warm space of her kitchen: stirring a pot of thickening mint jelly on the stove; collecting armfuls of chokos from the trellises in her greenhouse; her kitchen table laden with cakes; a walk-in pantry, stacked floor to ceiling with bottles of homemade preserves and jams and jellies. I remember feeding the horse that lived in her yard. My hands blackened from the coke chute. Her garden blooming with snowdrops and daffodils; the sweet aroma of jonquils. Christmases exploring the endless surprise of the rooms of her vast house, with older cousins and too many relatives to count. Her perfect, neat cross-stitch and delicate crochet.
In her early 80s, my grandmother visited us in Japan; she was venerated even then with the respect Japanese reserve for the elderly. Hard to believe that was almost 30 years ago. This was her last overseas trip, after travels to Fiji, India, England and New Zealand.
But her days of travelling and table tennis, of fine tapestry and pickling are behind her. Her agility has deserted her, the dexterity of her busy fingers has gone. Now her skin is translucent, paper-thin; it tears easily. Bruises bloom on her limbs. A pressure sore has appeared; a build-up of fluid in one leg.
She refused food yesterday. This is a woman with a notorious sweet tooth and an appetite like a horse, a lady who filched berries off the top of her 109th birthday cake, who would steal other residents’ desserts as soon as they turned their backs.
Her body has begun a slow but inexorable journey towards the end. Her failing eyesight and her wavering voice mark her decline, the frailty of her movements, the weakening of her resolve. Her body now lacks the strength even to hold herself upright.
But it is her heart I picture, its laboured rhythm, its stubborn insistence on beating.
My grandmother clutches the hand of my youngest daughter, separated by a century of years. She clings with a vice-like grip. “Don’t forget me,” she whispers, over and over. “Don’t forget me. I tried my best.” My daughter holds fast.
“Yes, Grandma,” we whisper back. “You did your best. You are a good mother. A good grandmother. We won’t forget you.”
Her grip strong; the relentless pulse of her heart. Her mind determined, even in these final moments, to find meaning and connection.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 13, 2017 as "Weight of numbers". Subscribe here.