Today my grandmother turns 90. This is an amazing achievement in many more ways than one.
First, it is an achievement in the obvious way. 90. Ten years short of a century. And she’s still walking, talking, knows my name (and her own), and is as ornery as ever. How awesome is that? My grandfather didn’t make it past 71. She’s had sisters and brothers who passed away long before 90. Of the ten children her mother had, she is the second oldest. The only other sibling of hers that is still here with us is her very youngest brother. I call them “the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.” I have a very odd sense of humor.
Second, it’s an achievement because up until today my grandmother has been swearing up and down that she would die at 89. Her mother, my great-grandmother, died when she was 89, and my grandma didn’t think she’d outlast her mother. When she first said this, ten years ago, I asked her if she could consult her genetic oracle to tell me whether she would die ON her 89th birthday, mid-year, or the day before she turned 90. After all, I told her, I have vacations and things to plan, and I needed a more precise date.
She probably should have swatted at me, but I think she was recovering from a diabetic coma at the time. Of course, that was only the third time she almost succeeded in killing herself by hiding her medical symptoms, so she might have been conserving her strength.
So third, the reason this is an achievement is because of the many ways she has cheated death over the past, oh, I don’t know, 25 years.
The first time she was rescued from the teetering brink between here and eternity was when I was 19 and dating my husband who was a medical student. He had just brought home his doctor’s kit, and he was so very eager to try it out that he deafened me with his otoscope by pushing wax ALL the way against my eardrum. A few peroxide applications to my ear and some awful crackling noises later and I could ALMOST hear things not-as-if I was in a tunnel. I decided to see if we could find him a guinea pig that wasn’t me, and my grandmother saw him with his stethoscope and sphygmomanometer and said, “Hey! Come over and take MY blood pressure.” So there he went, all full of joy and pride. He put the sleeve around my grandmother’s arm, put the stethoscope in his ears and against her arm, and started pumping that little bulb. And then he stopped. His eyes got wide. He shook his head.
“What?” my grandmother asked.
He shook his head again and blinked. “I must be doing something wrong,” he said. “I’m going to do it again.” So he did. He did the listening, and the pumping, and the releasing, and the listening. This time his hand started to shake.
“What?!” I asked.
“I’ve gotta be doing this wrong,” he said. He got up and went into the kitchen to get my mom, who was a nurse. “Could you come out here for a minute and . . . . . . ” I couldn’t hear everything he said, but I heard my mom say, “Oh. Yeah. Really? I’m sure it’s not . . . okay. I’m coming.”
She came out of the kitchen drying her hands on a dishtowel, sat down in his chair, and started doing the blood pressure pumpy thing. Her eyes, like his, got wide. She blinked. She looked at my grandmother.
“What?!” my grandmother asked.
“Mom,” my mother said, “Normal blood pressure is usually around 120 over 80. Your blood pressure is 250 over 175. That’s . . . really high, ma. I think I need to call a doctor.”
Fortunately it was only 4:00pm on a Friday, and my mom knew some people, so she got through to a doctor fairly quickly. He wrote my grandmother a prescription for a fast-acting blood pressure medication called Klonodine. She went on it in 1990, and has taken it religiously ever since, because if she misses even a dose she would rebound through the roof and probably stroke out.
While my mom was on the phone calling doctors, my grandmother had moved to her reclining chair. I sat with her a moment. “You know,” she said, “it’s funny. I have been having headaches.”
“Really,” I said. “Did you tell mom? Did you think maybe you should see a doctor?”
“No,” my grandmother said. “I haven’t seen a doctor since your mother was born. I don’t intend to start now.”
This was, again, when I was 18. Eight-teen. My mother had me when she was 25. My grandmother hadn’t seen a doctor in 43 years. FORTY-THREE YEARS. Now, I don’t know about you, but I see a doctor every flipping year. And more than one doctor. I see my GP for an annual exam and any other time I feel sick. I see my GYN for my annual woman thingy. I see a dermatologist to check me for skin cancer. I see an eye doctor for my eyeglass prescription. I see an ENT when I have ear or serious sinus trouble. I see a breast surgeon to keep my lumps and bumps in check. I think I see at least one doctor each month–and I don’t mean socially. I mean in his/her office, getting something or other done to make sure I’m keeping myself as well as the average 40 year old woman can.
And my grandmother had seen NOT ONE doctor in 43 years. Insurance companies should make her a shrine. They really were the greatest generation. Didn’t they ever need an antibiotic, for God’s sake?
But, yeah, that plan of “not starting to see a doctor now” when her blood pressure was about to cause a massive stroke in her brain? No. That didn’t happen. She started seeing the doctor regularly. And she hated it.
But still, she hid things. About ten years later, in 2000, she was getting ready for cataract surgery because her eyes had gotten so cloudy she could no longer even read large print books, and reading was a major joy of her life. They had to do an EKG to pre-op her for the surgery. The nurse putting the leads on her chest felt a strange . . . something . . . and asked about it. “Yes,” my grandmother said, “they’ve been there for awhile. I’ve decided not to tell anyone about them. I’m not going to live forever, and I just want to keep it to myself.”
“Ma’am,” the nurse said, “I can’t NOT tell the doctor about this. That is a substantial lump.” And that is how we learned that my grandmother had not one, but TWO breast lumps, each the size of about an orange. Surgery revealed they were both cancerous, but that they were different kinds of cancer. None of the cancerous cells spread to her lymph nodes. They had stayed entirely contained in her breast tissue. She had been trying to commit suicide by cancer, but was foiled by her desire to have her eyes fixed so she could read a book.
Are you getting now the cause of that snarky comment about her regularly scheduled death? I’m not heartless. I love her. My grandmother raised me, fed me, clothed me, played games with me, walked me to school, and gave me all the love she possibly had. Still–the comments about knowing when she was going to die: She. Deserved. Snark.
Again, we had that conversation about her scheduled demise right after she’d returned from a hospital visit where they’d diagnosed her with geriatric diabetes. No one in her family had ever had diabetes. It just wasn’t in her history. So when she started acting lethargic she told all of us she thought she had the flu. And yes, I know. Why did we listen? WHY? After the last two things, why did we think she was self-aware enough to self-diagnose? I don’t know. I really don’t. I do remember I was pregnant with my first child–not Boo; I miscarried one before her–so I was a little out of it . .. but still. Alarm bells should have rung in my head.
Thinking she had the flu we decided we had best to hydrate her. With Gatorade. She said she was feeling nauseated, so we gave her some Coca-Cola to settle her stomach. Then the call came in from the blood test the doctor had run two days earlier: her blood sugar, on that test, was clocked at 800. Normal is 100. By the time she got to the hospital her blood glucose was at 1200, and she was losing consciousness. Yes, it’s called a diabetic coma. She was almost in one.
BUT, they managed to pull her out of that, too. And within a few days her blood sugar had stabilized and she was back home, predicting her end-game.
Which, to my everlasting joy, still has not come. Between then and now (let’s say about 8 years) she’s had a bajillion other things to deal with, the most serious being a nasty case of polynephritis (kidney infection) that came from an undetected and undiagnosed urinary tract infection that spread all the way up to her kidneys before she thought to tell anyone about it. “I just thought I threw out my back bending over to pick up some leaves,” she explained.
“YOU. ARE. 84. YEARS. OLD,” I gritted through my teeth. “YOU. ARE. NO. LONGER. GOING. TO. BE. DIAGNOSING. YOURSELF.”
“Well, dear, you know, I’m 84. I only have five years left.”
“THE 89 THING AGAIN?!!! GAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!”
And at 85 she only had 4 years left; at 86: 3, at a 87: 2, at 88:1, and now, at 89 . . . . . hahahahahaahahahahahahaaa! We can’t predict! Because she made it! She made it she made it she made it she made it!!! 90, baby. THE BIG 9-0. God bless her, her doctors, my mother (her own personal nurse) and her amazing genetics.
I only hope I got at least half of her survive-insane-medical-condition genes. Because, by God, I WILL uncover my illnesses and if I can mange to uncover them BEFORE they reach critical condition, maybe I can bounce back even faster. But find them I will. How could I not? I have more doctors looking over my body in a year than she had in almost half-a-century.
Happy birthday, grandma. I love you more than words can say. Here’s to you, modern medicine, and your awesome genes. I’m gonna put 90 candles on your cake, and light up every one. And I’m going to take an extra amount of pleasure with that 90th. HA!