I’ve had a hard time pulling together this post. Two months ago, we spent a week in the Naples/Fort Myers area of Florida. It was a poignant trip on several accounts: we celebrated Jeff's grandmother's 85th birthday with his entire family and also got a chance to visit with and say our final farewell to my grandmother, who will be leaving us very soon.
The birthday celebration for Jeff’s grandmother in Fort Myers was a happy occasion. She is a warm presence in our lives, and to watch her take advantage of these later years and derive such joy from her ever-growing family inspires us.
I look at his grandmother and think these things: without her, my caring mother-in-law would not exist, and without my mother-in-law, my incredible husband would not exist, and without my husband, my beautiful daughters would not exist. I’ve only known this woman for seven years, and yet she has profoundly influenced my life; without her living just as she did, my little family would not exist. This idea leaves my head spinning with gratitude for her.
Below: Growing up, my family made an annual spring break pilgrimage to this Naples beach to visit my grandparents and soak up the sun. If you've lived in a Minnesota-like climate, you know how precious such a trip is in the middle of the long, long winter. It was surreal to watch my girls play here, right in front of my grandparents' home of 30 years.
The memories of my final visits to my grandma in Naples are bittersweet. They stick in my throat, and I'm having trouble finding the words to make sense of them. Here is what I have parsed out so far:
It is a strange thing—watching someone you love slowly recede into dementia until she is all but gone, though still alive. As I write this, it has been more than a week since Grandma has eaten and her breathing is changing. I am waiting for the call from my mom that she has gone. I imagine my grandpa up there waiting impatiently for her (this impatience is one of several things I inherited from him). "Come on, Ruthie," I can almost hear him say. "You're late!" After 71 years of marriage, a year apart is far too long.
I remember, as a child in school, being asked to name my hero. It was always Grandma. But it occurred to me as I sat with her that perhaps I had never told her. So I leaned over and whispered in her ear, "You've always been my hero, Grandma." She smiled and whispered an enthusiastic, "Thank you!" as she fell asleep. I hope somehow, for even the briefest of moments, those words sunk in.
The girls and Jeff came with me to visit Grandma three times. We were fortunate to catch some of the last glimpses of her—a moment here, a few seconds or minutes there. She was the most lucid at our last visit as a family. How she loved to see the girls play by her bedside in their bright, retro swimsuits! Nora was talking non-stop, and Grandma laughed and said, “I’m just trying to decipher her version of the English language.” I think it was the only full sentence I heard her put together during our visits, and it was so Grandma.
Our trip overlapped with an aunt and cousin to whom I am very close. On my last visit to Grandma, I picked up my cousin and we met my aunt at Grandma's place. When Grandma fell asleep, we took a walk together. We cried and hugged and laughed. We remembered. And we talked about the future. How surreal to think that Grandma has been such a monumental part of our past but will not physically be a part of our future.
I want to share more with you about this wonderful person, Ruth Leslie Bean, but it’s too hard right now. I’m waiting by the phone. I’m praying. And I’m feeling grateful that my daughters have had the good fortune to know three of their great-grandmothers.
Below: Thanks to Bridget for taking this photo of Grandma and me. I will treasure it.
Below: Porpoise just south of Doctors Pass. I wonder how many of them we've seen at this very spot over the years.
Below: Grandma enjoyed watching the girls walk by her window on the way to this pond in search of turtles and alligators.
Below; Grandma's neighbor, who provided the girls with endless entertainment.
Below: The girls were quite taken with shell collecting.
Below: Cricket decked out for a birthday celebration.
Below: Sunset on final approach. I've been looking at this photo a lot these days.
I'm Julia Soplop, writer and photographer. I believe there is something profound in bearing witness to moments of joy and pain in others’ lives. My husband, three girls and I live outside of Chapel Hill, NC. You can read more about me here.