The Doc Project·Personal Essay

In a hospital bed, at 97, my grandmother Patricia was still ahead of her time

Author Ivan Coyote has been misgendered many times over the years, but grandma Patricia was always the one who kept up.

Author Ivan Coyote has been misgendered many times over the years, but grandma Patricia always kept up

Ivan Coyote (far left), Sara Lang, and Grandma Patricia, holding Ivan's sister Carrie. (Submitted by Ivan Coyote)

This story was first published in October 2018.

Last year I was home in the Yukon and I went to visit my 97-year-old grandmother in the nursing home where she has been for the last year, since her accident. It had been a few months since I had seen her.

It was the middle of February, about 8 p.m., dark and cold outside. The heat was cranked up inside the nursing home. I was sweating in my unzipped parka as I walked down the maze of hallways, through the dining hall, and into her room.

She  woke up as I sat in the rolling chair next to her bed. "It's you!"

She was asleep, and my heart twisted in my chest at the sight of her. Asleep on her side in her hospital bed, her nightdress pulled up to reveal her unbearably thin and bruised legs and her diaper.

She woke up as I sat in the rolling chair next to her bed. "It's you!" she cried out, with joy and surprise.

"Look at you! My beautiful boy!"

She sat up and patted the mattress beside her withered thighs and pulled her nightdress down a little. I sat beside her. The plastic sheet on the mattress crinkled under us both.

Ivan Coyote and their grandmother in 2016. (Submitted by Ivan Coyote)
"My beautiful, beautiful boy. You're so handsome. You've always been so handsome. I'm so glad you are here."

She reached out a pencil-like arm and pulled my head down to what was left of her once ample chest. She stroked my head and cupped my cheek.

She was never very physically affectionate before, but she's changing, my Uncle Rob had warned me on the phone months ago.

"She's slipping a little mentally, too," he had said. "She is getting confused easily, not recognizing people some days. Don't take it personally if she thinks you're one of the staff or something." 

Does she think I'm Rob, or my dad, or one of her other sons? I wondered, and hugged her back. She felt like she was made of bird bones and tissue.

"My beautiful, beautiful boy," she cooed over and over. Then she looked me right in both eyes, her papery palm still cradling my cheek.

"Is that what I should call you? Do I call you my beautiful grandson, or my granddaughter? I never know with you."

Four Envelopes

In late May of 2017 my Uncle Rob went in to visit grandma Patricia, his mom. She asked him what day it was.

She took a small breath and announced it was going to be her last Saturday on this earth.

"It's Saturday," he told her.

She took a small breath and announced it was going to be her last Saturday on this earth.

"You don't know that," Rob said, but she gave him that look. Her look.

She had a real withering look she could lay on you. It was kind of terrifying, and she remained capable of wielding it far longer than she physically should have been able to. It usually was paired with a frustrated blast of nose breath.

"This is my last Saturday," she repeated. "I feel a … new kind of tired coming over me. There's a girl that works here, her name is Chrystal, she only works weekends, but she's not here today because she's in Las Vegas with her sisters so I won't see her again. Please tell her how much I enjoyed our little chats. Tell her to keep up with her studies. And I need you to do me one last thing."

Rob nodded.

"I need you to go and get me a few things. I need…"

And if I know her, she counted them off visually on her left hand with the first slender finger of her right.

"… Four cards. Four envelopes. Four blank cheques, and my exact bank balance. And a pen."

She shot him that look again.

"A good pen."

So, Rob went downtown to get everything and came back about an hour later. He pulled the little rolling table over and she half sat up in her hospital bed. She divided her remaining money into four exactly equal sums, and wrote four cheques, one for each of her four sons. She tucked each cheque into an envelope and told Rob to make sure they all cashed them right away.

"Don't wait, even a day. Don't let the bank swallow it up in red tape," she told him. She was adamant about this. Then she opened up the first card and wrote: 

Dear Robert,
You were always my favourite son. Don't tell your brothers. 

In the second card she wrote:

Dear Donald,
You were always my favourite son. Don't tell your brothers.

Then:

Dear Fred,
You were always my favourite son…

And so on, four times.

I was in a hotel in Melbourne, Australia, when I got the call. It was the middle of the night. It was my mom. I knew from the sound of her breathing, before she even said a word.

"I'm so sorry to wake you. She had a stroke on Sunday morning and never really woke up again. We didn't call you because we knew you wouldn't make it home anyway, and you two had such a good visit in February," my mom told me.

"Your Uncle Rob wanted me to be sure to tell you she was herself, right up until the very end."


Ivan Coyote. (Sarah Race Photography)
About the Contributor

Ivan Coyote is the award-winning author of twelve books, the creator of four short films, and has released three albums that combine storytelling with music. Ivan is a seasoned stage performer, and over the last twenty-five years has become an audience favourite at storytelling, writer's, film, poetry, and folk music festivals from Anchorage to Australia. Ivan's 12th book, Rebent Sinner, was released in October 2019, by Arsenal Pulp Press. You can find them on Twitter: @ivancoyote.

This documentary was produced by Acey Rowe.

 

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