It was Saturday, Jan. 18, and I was going home. Just three days before, on Wednesday, I’d had a major, six-hour brain surgery to remove such a large, messy tumor that the neurosurgeon had had to shave the bone around my eye to remove all of it. I’d spent a full day I barely remember in intensive care and then I was up moving around.
While I was happy to be going home, I still felt awful. No matter how surgeons and nurses try to explain and prepare you for how you’ll feel after surgery, it’s hard to be ready for it. I would wake, take a wobbly walk, feel walloped and fall asleep mid-meal. I felt like Wile E Coyote after he walks off a cliff and lands on his head. I knew I would hurt. But I didn’t know it would feel like this.
In addition to the necessity of taking a variety of medications, from anti-seizure to a steroid that prevented brain swelling, it was necessary to stop several times during the drive from the hospital in Columbus to Lima. I needed to get out of the car and walk in an effort to avoid blood clots.
I felt beaten-up and unsteady. But stopping and walking did not bother me. I have been an avid walker for decades. Even during my hospital stay, nurses monitored me walking laps and determinedly clomping up and down stairs.
But by the last stop, I was beyond tired. My husband had chosen an old grocery store in Indian Lake for our last walk before resuming the final leg of the journey.
I had so many memories of spending summers as a child at Indian Lake with my maternal grandparents, LeRoy and Pauline Hire, that they overflowed my brain. I recalled their tiny cottage, a bit shabby and musty, but as precious as gold to my grandparents. I remembered how much they both loved to fish, and relived the peace we’d shared while waiting for the fish to nibble.
Even unpleasant memories — such as the cottage’s awful outhouse at night — made me smile. My grandmother would get up with me in the middle of the night without complaint and wave the flashlight around, making sure the spiders didn’t get me and that I didn’t fall in.
My mind returned to the present. My grandparents, and the cottage where they were so happy, have been gone a long time. I wished I was gone, too. I wanted to disappear. Escape. Not be in my aching head anymore.
God wanted me to keep going. I didn’t know why and growled about it, but I got out of the car and began to walk. Maybe my bruised brain was clinging too tightly to memories of my grandma.
But I imagined her taking my hand and holding it tightly. As if otherwise I might wander away and find mischief. Gram’s voice in my head said, “Come on; let’s get a move on!” I felt her presence and heard her voice telling me to keep going as I walked through the store.
I wanted sweet, soft-spoken sympathy. Instead, I got what I needed: tough, take-charge, no-nonsense Grandma telling me to get moving. I laughed. This was classic Gram and how she lived her life before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s: active, determined, doing for others.
My grandmother worked until she was 80 and her only complaint was that she wasn’t ready to retire. The woman rarely slowed her pace and refused to quit, stubbornly sticking her tongue out at life’s brutal attempts to trip her and keep her down.
Gram never talked to me about how to be tough. Maybe she didn’t even know she was strong: It seems the toughest people are so busy helping others that they’re blind to their own strength.
Yes, life is tough. But so are we. I pray that Gram’s toughness lives on in me, and I can take someone’s hand when they want to quit and say, “Come on, let’s get a move on!”
Dawn Kessinger lives in Lima.