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Holinger: Finding something to remember her by

Published: Friday, June 10, 2011 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, June 10, 2011 1:51 p.m. CDT

When my mother-in-law died, she turned into a bright red cardinal.

Not literally, of course, unless her soul truly took wing, but I doubt any gender-bending metempsychosis took place.

However, since her death the day after her Easter Sunday’s 94th birthday, those flying crimson poppies resurrect her spirit for my wife, Tia, and me.

Some years ago, Alice, aka Grammy, began to suffer from vascular dementia – along with losing her hearing, eyesight and limb use – so we moved her in with us. Because she couldn’t climb stairs, she slept on the family room couch, Tia on a camping mattress next to her on the floor.

I’d learned about dementia when Alzheimer’s overwhelmed my mother, but each confrontation confounds. At Portillo’s one day, Tia went to pick up our order, leaving Grammy to glare at me. She finally spoke, announcing, “You’re the fattest woman I ever saw!”

I never longed for the arrival of a tuna burger more.

When Grammy needed more care than we could provide, she joined the Home Care Advantage’s Batavia assisted living ranch house, where two wonderfully attentive Polish women mothered five or six seniors.

Tia visited nearly every day, but occasionally I’d spell her, arriving around dinnertime; because she could no longer use her arms, I fed her forkful by forkful.

“Still hungry?” I’d ask, half the chicken, mashed potatoes, and peas and carrots gone. “You’ve got a great appetite tonight.”

“Thank you very much. Do you love me?”

“I love you very much.”

“Thank you.”

After supper, we’d sing a few rounds of “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain,” or I’d read poems like “Hickory Dickory Dock,” which she’d often interrupt, inquiring, “What are you talking about?”

The months before her death drew fewer and fewer reactions. However, she still loved holding Chewball, our 25-pound fur muff, in her lap, and, for some reason, the name Gary McCray elicited Pavlovian consistency: “Oh, I love Gary McCray. He’s here all the time.”

In fact, she hadn’t seen Tia’s high school boyfriend for over half a century, but that didn’t stop her imagining Gary, not I, visited and fed her.

Pneumonia wracked Grammy’s lungs a week before she died. When she took her last breath, Tia was holding her hand.

Weeks earlier, Tia asked Grammy for something to remember her by, the same way she thought of her father when seeing robins fill lawns and trees on wheelchair walks once taken around the neighborhood with her mom and Chewball.

On the day she died, Grammy was wearing her cardinal pajamas, reminding Tia of the three backyard cardinal families watched from the cement patio.

A few days after the funeral, waiting for a friend to pick her up, Tia was looking out our front door when a single red cardinal swept over the lawn and perched on the low garden fence. It peered at Tia a few moments, and then, as she called me over, it flew away, as if there only for her.

Or perhaps it was hoping for Gary McCray.

Rick Holinger is a contributor for the Kane County Chronicle. Write to him at editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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