Cold rain drops sting the back of his neck as he rushes from his car to the store entrance. He darts straight to the frozen section and makes the call, hoping she’s still lucid.
“I’m here,” he says when she picks up. “You ready?”
So hard to gauge one word. He continues anyway.
“Here we go! Peanut butter crunch…vanilla bean….chocolate toffee swirl….strawberry banana float..”
He places that one in the basket. On and on he goes, slowly naming each flavor down the entire ice cream display case. At the aisle’s end, he’s got five pints and immeasurable happiness that she chose them herself.
“Oh!” the cashier says, noting the young man’s wedding ring, “when is she due?”
The lady motions to the lone pints of ice cream and gives him a knowing smile.
“When is she due?” she says.
“Oh,” he says, “soon.”
“Uh huh! Yep!” she says. “I knew that. See, you can tell a lot about people from groceries. You could call me a food psychologist, I guess. Hey, a foodologist! HAHA! You know?”
“Yeah, sure. That’s great,” he says, fake laughing and offering his money to move her along.
He pays and hurries out, leaving the cashier and a customer still chuckling.
Suddenly he’s angry, furious at circumstance. He smashes his foot into a puddle, muddy muck splashing up his shoe and pant leg. How perfect, the contrast between the dirty and clean legs.
“Before and after,” he says.
Tears arrive as he loads his bag into the car, taking him by surprise again. He refuses them, clawing at his eyes with cold, shaky fingers.
He hurries back to the house, tired of his life’s only two speeds lately – hurry and wait, hurry and wait. It’s exhausting.
The moment he steps inside her home and hears her cries he feels guilty for having left, even for just an hour. He scoops a bit of the strawberry banana stuff into a cup and puts the rest of the flavors in the freezer. Before going to her room, he sits at the kitchen table where he happily ate stacks and stacks of pancakes over the years.
Sitting quietly in the familiar chair, he calms down and tries to reclaim himself, shoving all the bad feelings aside until he can be alone with them later .
Smiling again, he walks lightly into her bedroom and measures the caretaker’s face for worry or relief.
“She’s restless,” the lady says and steps out.
“Hi grandma,” he says. “Here, have some strawberry, your favorite. Remember?”
“Who are you?”
Still not used to that sting, he backs up a little.
Sadness twists his smile but he stands patiently at her bedside, waiting…waiting for something he can’t explain. When he feels it, he sits beside her very carefully. The arms that used to embrace him so warmly stay under the covers now.
“It’s me, Rick, your grandson Ricky…right?”
“Right,” she says flatly, looking out the window.
He offers her a spoonful of ice cream.
“Just a small bite,” the caretaker says from the doorway, “they choke easily.”
They. This is not “they”, this is his grandmother, not some stranger on a medical brochure. He can barely control his frustration. He wants the caretaker to leave but needs her to stay; wants to toss the useless medication out but still hopes they’ll work.
Suddenly his grandma turns to him and opens her mouth for the ice cream. He feeds her little spoonfuls in silence, hoping for a reaction, a smile…..nothing. In desperation, he loads a piece of strawberry on the next bite. She swirls it around and sits up straighter. Her eyes actually focus on him, he thinks. Do they? Does she see him? He leans in closer.
“Grandma?” he whispers.
She winks. She definitely winks! She takes his hand and holds it to her cheek. He drops the spoon on the blanket and it bounces to the floor.
“Grandma! It’s Ricky! …It’s me…Can you hear me?……I love you.”
He tries to squeeze everything into this one moment but the portal closes and she fades away again, turning over in bed.
He walks out, handing the cup of melted ice cream to the caretaker.
“You’re a good boy, Rick,” she says, “a good grandson. I think she knows you’re here, even if she can’t tell you.”
He tries to stand tall but again the tears betray him. He wipes them off his face with angry little flicks.
“You must try to change your expectations,” she says, “I know it’s hard. You see her here, your mind sees her right here, but your heart knows better. You must listen to your heart now and help her transition. Think of footprints, footprints in the snow. She is here physically but -”
“My grandmother is not a goddamn footprint!” he shouts. “What the hell do you mean?” he says, knowing exactly what she means. “I have to go. I’ll be back…I gotta go.”
He charges down the drive and along the sidewalk, the newly fallen snow crunching under his feet. In his car with the radio blasting, he finally exhales and speeds off towards familiarity. Behind him, in front of his grandmother’s house, a mother walks with her young son in hand. The little boy delights in jumping from one big footprint in the snow to the other.
Note: This story was inspired by something I saw at the store yesterday. I found it so tender to watch and first assumed a young husband was fetching tons of ice cream for his pregnant wife, perhaps. But the way he spoke so slowly into the phone made me imagine something tragic. Let’s hope that is not the case for him, or any of you reading. But if it is, you are not alone. I’ve been there and you can emerge from the horror with your good memories and loving intentions more secure than ever.