I’ll Take Cheesecake for the Win

For six weeks I have lived in isolation, shunning the entire world to avoid running into a microscopic virus. But the quarantine hasn’t protected me from the continual outbreak of family drama. It finds me, no matter what kind of mask I hide behind or how much sanitizer I rub into my hands.

My grandmother died about four weeks into this pandemic — not of the virus itself — but of a UTI that got out of hand and caused her 100-year-old body to finally call it quits. She had been ready for death for quite some time, but until three weeks ago, it hadn’t been ready for her. “God must not want me,” she used to speculate.

Given her age, I was expecting her death to occur at any time and had prepared myself for several realistic possibilities, including passing in her sleep, developing pneumonia, or even having a stroke. Imagining every possible scenario in which the death of a loved one might unfold would help lessen its impact, I’d always believed. Car wrecks, cancer, shot in a bank robbery. I refused to be surprised.

But the unpredictable combo of a pandemic and UTI surprised the hell out of me.

It was the UTI that took Nannie, not COVID-19, but the virus did play a small role in her death. Corona made medical staff reluctant to send her to a hospital, so a nurse came to her home to take a urine sample. A backlog of testing dragged out the official diagnosis, which in turn, delayed the prescribing of antibiotics. I’m not sure a speedier diagnosis would have changed the final outcome. As tough as she was, my grandmother had lost interest in battling for her life, which had devolved into treks to and from her bedroom to a maroon fabric lift chair in her tiny den, a dense cup of morning coffee made with four heaping scoops of Folgers instant, and whatever sports were on television. Her whole world was contained to 1,300 square feet — a two-bedroom, one-bath brick rancher that hadn’t seen a style update since the 1950s.

A few months earlier, during a short stay in a hospital, a nurse asked her if she had a DNR on file.

“A what?” my grandmother asked. She’d been hard of hearing for decades, but every other sense had stayed tack sharp.

“If you should stop breathing or your heart stops, do you want us to revive you?” the nurse explained.

“I’m 100 years old. I think I’ve lived long enough,” Nannie said.

In the week before her death, my brother called and texted me daily with updates on how she was doing. We rode the brief roller coaster ride of hope when she seemed to rally and despair when things turned for the worse. The final update came in text form on Tuesday, April 7, at 12:40 p.m. while I was sitting at my dining room table eating lunch.

Nannie has passed.

That three-word text over a bologna sandwich will be a lasting reminder of this pandemic. I hadn’t visited Nannie since corona had deemed it untenable. And now I couldn’t hug my brother, who after taking care of her and being witness to her end of life, deserved so much more than a text saying, I’m so sorry I can’t be there.

I left the table, climbed the ladder into our loft and sat by the window. I cried until the tears were done and my mind tired of dwelling on her death. Staring out at the trees, I watched a squirrel going about its day, zipping across one tree branch and then another like he was dodging traffic on his way to work. Life goes on, I thought. My grandmother had just died, and tomorrow would just be another quarantined day at home. No need to fix casseroles. No need to figure out what to wear to the funeral.

No funeral.

Nannie had reached 100 years of age, born in 1919, somewhere in the middle of the Spanish flu pandemic. She’d lived through World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. She’d had friends who’d died of polio and outlived two husbands and all five of her siblings. Surely that meant she deserved, at the very least, the requisite gathering of relatives and friends, the slide show of photos, and a table full of food. She deserved that pause after death, the whistle stop that acknowledged her life and let loved-ones wave goodbye.

My solitary reflection didn’t seem like enough, but it would have to be. I climbed down from the loft and resumed my day. I had a zoom meeting later with my creative writing class. I debated begging off, but to what end? To waste more of the sole remaining box of tissues in the house? With the drought of paper products, I really couldn’t afford to cry anymore.

Signing into zoom, I remembered when I’d told my grandmother I was taking this class.

“Where is it?” was her first question.

“It’s in Norfolk.”

“Norfolk! You drive all the way to Norfolk? By yourself?”

“It’s not that far. About 35 minutes. The class is great. I’m writing…”

“Oh Shug, I don’t like you driving to Norfolk. Is this on Saturdays?”

“No. It’s on Tuesday evenings.”

“You drive to Norfolk at night?”

I never got to tell her about the class. The conversation finally ended with her look of disappointment that I would risk my very life and limb to drive across dangerous bridges and through dark tunnels for a writing class.

“Don’t you already know how to write?”

My grandmother was a purveyor of histrionics. If it was a mole hill, she could whip it into a mountain in short order. No matter how inconsequential the issue, she would take it under her wing, polish it smooth in her worry tumbler and be ready to show it off at the first opportunity.

“He looks like Jesus,” she’d say with a sad shake of her head whenever my brother entered a room. His hair fell several inches below his shoulders, a style he’d worn for as long as I could remember. She would lean over and ask whoever sat beside her, “Don’t you think he looks like Jesus? I don’t know why he doesn’t cut his hair.”

Over the years, her fixation provided levity for family get-togethers as we all pondered why he never cut it. Maybe he kept his 70's locks just to aggravate her. Maybe he was going for that “son of God” look. Maybe he was Jesus. Whenever he walked into the room, we waited for Nannie’s inevitable reaction.

“Don’t you think he looks like Jesus?”

She never disappointed.

Truth was, my brother never cared what anyone thought. He liked his hair long, so he kept it long. End of story. But that particular mole hill was much more entertaining as a mountain, so we left it alone to grow as tall as it liked.

Nannie was never one to leave unsaid things that didn’t need saying. She always spoke her mind, even when it left hurt feelings in her wake. And she rarely apologized for her honesty, which she applied liberally and always with the appropriate gravitas.

“You eat too much. You’re going to kill yourself,” she told my father every time she talked to him. When I suggested she stop beleaguering the point, which only made him eat more from the stress of her disapproval, she gave me a stern look with her retort.

“It’s not nagging when it’s the truth.”

She continued to speak that truth to my father because, while the first 999 times of telling him he was fat hadn’t worked, the 1000th time just might.

What made the badgering bearable, for me at least, was that I knew she loved all of us beyond measure, despite our shortcomings that plucked her nerves. She had her own way of showing it — her constant worrying, the twinkle in her eyes when you walked through her door, and in the small gifts of money she tucked into everyone’s birthday cards. As for nagging my father, Nannie was genuinely concerned for his health and terrified she would outlive her only son. For the rest of us, I think she wanted us to live up to the best possible versions of ourselves. And, if I’m honest, to one-up her older sister Elsie in their ongoing “look what my offspring did better than yours” competition.

Nannie and her siblings had not grown up with money, but Elsie had married into wealth and had a real flare for flaunting her own children and grandchildren’s financial and personal successes and crediting them as her own. Nannie called Elsie “high-minded” and they feuded often over things like the cost of pants. Spending $300 was ludicrous, Nannie thought. Spending $30 was disgraceful, Elsie thought. They would end up not speaking to each other for days. Nannie didn’t realize it, or just refused to see that she was doing the same thing to her son and grandchildren.

Sometimes when I popped by her house after work she would ask, “Is that what you wore to work today?”

“Yes.”

“Oh.”

She never said I was unable to dress myself, but occasionally she would send me back to her bedroom closet to find a piece of clothing she wanted me to take home. I’d return to the den with a blouse or jacket, purchase tag still dangling from the cuff. She’d swear she’d bought it for herself but didn’t like how it fit. I’d never had the balls to call her on this Elsie-like behavior, but my brother pointed it out to her on several occasions. She vehemently denied it. She was nothing like Elsie.

A few Christmases ago I won the coveted best granddaughter award for making a cheesecake from scratch. After arriving home following dinner at my house, Nannie called me.

“That cheesecake you made, how did you make it?”

“Well, I mixed cream cheese, eggs and other ingredients and baked it. Why? Do you want the recipe?”

“No. Elsie said her granddaughter made a cheesecake too, but she didn’t bake it.”

“Well, there are some no-bake recipes for cheesecake,” I said.

“But you baked yours, right?”

“Yes…”

“That’s what I told Elsie. That you made yours from scratch and baked it.”

She immediately hung up the phone with me to call Elsie back. Nannie was taking the win on this one. I didn’t offer many opportunities to put a check in the win column, so she had to grab them where she could.

Later in life her focus shifted to her great-grandchildren. Any unwise decisions made on their parts were subject to repeated analysis and inquiry. My son, for example, did not have an acceptable answer for what he planned to do after college and with the entirety of his life.

“Has he figured out what he wants to do yet?”

“No,” I would tell her, “but he will.”

“He really likes that politics stuff,” she’d say with a smirk that looked like she’d just smelled sour milk. She could not fathom what he would do with a degree in political science.

“Do you think he might go to law school?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“That’s what he should do. He should go to law school. Do you think he’ll go to William and Mary so he can stay close to home?”

She would continue her interrogation, desperate to wrap his life into a nice neat package before she died. When I got home after one of those conversations, my brother called me. “So, I hear Liam is going to law school.”

I laughed in his ear. “Well, that’s not exactly what I said.”

“I figured,” my brother answered.

I begged my son to lie to her, to just tell her what she wanted to hear. “But Mom, she’s likely to outlive my lie,” he said.

I rolled my eyes. “True.”

When you weren’t the target of her insightful reality checks, a conversation with her was delightful, because you never knew what would come out of her mouth. And often, her dry wit emerged among all her truth-telling.

“It was the cigarettes that killed my Daddy,” she declared one afternoon, sitting in her easy chair as she ruminated on family members who hadn’t listened to her incessant pleas to stop smoking.

“How old were you when he died,” I asked her.

“Oh, gosh, Shug, I was pretty young. I was probably in my 60s.” When I laughed, she looked at me with a sly smile. “What? You don’t think 60s is young?”

She always made me laugh, whether she intended to or not.

“You know, your momma was a wonderful woman,” she’d often told me in the years since my Mom had passed away. Even though my mother never quite stood up to Nannie’s scrutiny when she was alive, once she died, she’d been elected to sainthood.

“Yes, she was,” I agreed. “And I bet she’s in heaven right now playing scrabble with her niece, Claudia.”

Nannie shook her head. “No.”

“What do you mean, No?”

“When you die and go to heaven, you won’t be able to recognize anyone. You won’t know your family.”

I let that sink in for a second before I responded. “Why not?”

“Because you are just a shell. Your momma wouldn’t be able to recognize Claudia.”

“Who told you that? Did you hear that in church?”

“I don’t remember, but I know we won’t recognize each other once we get to heaven.”

“How could anyone possibly know that?” I said, baffled and smiling at the same time.

“Well, I don’t know, but that’s the way it is.”

I wasn’t sure where I stood on what happened after you died, and really preferred to imagine that somehow, some way, we’d be reunited with our loved ones who’d escaped this life quicker than the rest of us. No one knew for sure, so why not pick the outcome you liked?

Dead, gone and buried? That was too boring.

Dead and now a ghost randomly flicking lights on and off to scare the living? That was more interesting but would likely get monotonous after a few decades.

Dead and awaiting a decision on heaven or hell? That offered a measure of suspense, but the scale usually tipped too far toward hell for my liking.

Dead and being reunited with loved ones was my choice.

Dead and left to wander alone among other, unrecognizable dead people was Nannie’s. That was her truth and she was sticking to it.

Once, in the hospital for a hernia repair, Nannie told the doctor standing by her bed that she needed to get home and questioned why he wasn’t discharging her that day.

“You eager to get home to watch the debates?” he asked.

“Yeah. You know Trump is running for president,” she said to him.

“Yes, I know,” the doctor said.

I winced, realizing I had no idea what her political stance was and couldn’t even begin to guess how this conversation would go. The pause before my grandmother’s response was uncomfortably long, and I knew what came next would not be sugar coated for the doctor or anyone else in the room. She finally let loose with her reply with the timing of a professional comedian.

“You know he’s an idiot, right?”

The room erupted in laughter and all my tension flew out the window.

This is what I loved about my grandmother. She never let other people’s thoughts dictate her own. And if what she said offended you, she didn’t care, or simply didn’t notice. She was just speaking the truth as she knew it and never felt stymied by the drama it sometimes unleashed.

I decided that even though I was socially distanced from everyone who shared in my grief over her death, coronavirus wouldn’t keep me from celebrating her life. I would just have to find new ways to do it — like relishing how much she would have hated my quarantine outfit of leggings, t-shirt, and orange COVID mask. I can hear her now…

“Is that what you are wearing to the grocery store?”

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