The day Bert turned 31 – it was a Monday morning – he got a phone call that his grandmother slipped and fell badly in the retirement home, and that they had sent her to hospital by ambulance. When Bert arrived at the hospital, the doctors told him she had suffered from a severe stroke. She did not recognize him any more at the hospital, and died 3 days later.
The funeral was beautiful and only few people shed a tear. She had led an interesting life, witnessed 2 world wars: one broke out when she had just turned four, the other war started when her only daughter was five. She had one older sister, but for some reason they hadn’t spoken in decades. The sister came to the funeral, but also there her lips remained stiff. Grandma’s older and younger brother both had died a very long time ago.
Her husband had been taken prisoner of war in 1940, and came back home one year later. They both had changed so much that they felt like strangers meeting for the first time, just minutes after their happy reunion. But love is strong, the traumatizing experiences and the different ways of coping with austerity got bridged, and they became a happy couple again.
They built a house together and gave their daughter an education. The husband smoked a lot and worked as a welder. When he turned 55, he got severe breathing problems and got diagnosed with an emphysema. He would stay home from then on till he died of lung cancer 10 years later. Her daughter became a multilingual secretary, with a beautiful career in front of her. Grandmother looked after the first born daughter, but when Bert announced himself, his mother decided to stay home for the kids.
When grandma’s husband died, she got a dog to take care off, and wanted to travel. She travelled to Lourdes, and to Austria where her husband had worked for the Germans. And she went to Spain and Switzerland.
But she continued the life she had always known, without central heating or a bathroom, and a toilet outside that chilled her bottom till minus 15 in winter.
She kept rabbits for meat and sold the skins. She also maintained a large garden with orchard, nearly an acre wide. She was a strong woman.
She went to church every day of the year, and twice on Sundays or Christmas. During the long winter evenings her daughter, or her granddaughter, or Bert came to visit. But many evenings she spent alone, with her dog and her colour tv. She prayed rosaries by the dozen. And now and then the holy virgin visited her in her dreams.
When her daughter got diagnosed with cancer, and died 2 years later, grandma had a very difficult time. She said it was not natural to survive your child, and she prayed more rosaries than any monk, locked up in his cell, ever did.
At the blessed age of seventy nine, she started dementing slowly. Although she remained physically fit and continued working in her garden and raising her rabbits. She often recognized Bert as her younger brother, Albert, and sometimes he found her crying for no reason at all. And then she once said that she saw her own mind deteriorate, and that she sometimes had no idea how and why she was doing what she was doing, and that seeing yourself go mental is very, very painful.
Before his mother had died, Bert visited grandma twice a week, but after that, he tried to come every day. He often helped in the orchard, or with the potatoes. She often called him names because he was very naughty, even past the age of twenty, but in fact they had lots of fun together and kept each other in that very special place in the heart.
One day, while Bert was travelling, grandma fell while walking her dog on the street. She broke her hip, and they brought her to hospital. Out of her usual environment, she got confused and angry with those people who did not understand her. They had to tie her to her bed, but she managed to escape, and even walked home, 8 kilometres, with a cast from to toe to hip on her left side. That was the last time she saw home, just for 20 minutes.
Somehow, she calmed down the following weeks and spent the rest of her days in a retirement home. Bert with his girlfriend, his sister with her kids, and Bert’s father, all kept visiting her, different days a week, at least once a week. Christmas and Easter she went for a visit, an afternoon or an evening, celebrating with the family that she barely recognized. Bringing her back to the retirement home however, brought her to tears each time. Bert felt guilty when that happened.
After she died Bert felt guilty for not having visited enough, and for not having hugged her enough. But one night, he saw her in his dream. She had this wonderful and radiating smile on her face. Bert determined that she was very happy wherever she was, and that he had done enough.