Awake from a nap in her favorite chair, my grandmother ran her fingers through her wavy white hair, looked out her window at the English Channel, and asked me what I would wish for if I had just one wish.
She often asks this, and I always answer the same way because it will make her happy — “To have Granddad back” — which usually gets her reminiscing about him. But on that day a few months ago, she shook her head, then said with a sigh: “Richard, we had our innings. Good innings. Make a wish for yourself, dear.”
I wish I knew we could have been like this sooner.
For decades I had the same kind of grandmother many people have: a money-filled birthday card in the mail; a phone call on Christmas; a pleasant little song and dance so polite and practiced that it became like the way people say “Bless you” after sneezes.
Then, about a decade ago, she began to lose her hearing precipitously. The phone calls got harder. And I noticed that if I asked what she had for lunch, she might say, “Oh, the weather has been lovely today.” So accustomed to the family’s same few questions, she seemed to recycle the same handful of answers.
Our time together was diminished. She was diminished.
This is called “grayspeak” or “elderspeak,” a shift in the way we address elders that treats them less like sages and more like toddlers or pets. We say things like, “Today was rainy. Did you see the rain?” and “Was your dinner yummy?”
It’s a bogus, tedious and stupid way to interact, so I fought it. I started to show up for her more, in person, despite her living in Dover, England, and me in New York City.
During my visits, I started throwing her curveballs: What did you do with your first-ever paycheck? What did you think about when you were hiding in caves during the war? What was the best invention of your lifetime?
Her answers: Buying electricity for her parents’ house so she wouldn’t have to scrape candle wax off the stairs. Eating oranges. Running water (with microwaves a close second). More than answers, they were springboards into unexpected conversations.
Our deepening relationship has been a bit of a happy accident. Many folks get to know their parents as real people later in life, but I, gay and estranged from my parents, redirected that energy toward my grandmother.
My grandmother isn’t just old. She survived being kidnapped in Ireland. She was bombed into homelessness three times during the war, living on the front lines along the white cliffs of Dover. She met Queen Elizabeth II when Elizabeth was still a princess. At 20, my grandmother walked herself through the snow to birth her first children, twins, on Christmas Day. She is now blind and arthritic yet still knits blankets for the local hospital’s premature babies. Even at 93, she buys books to keep up with her French.
In our newfound closeness, she also became much funnier. Peering at the pile of chocolate sprinkles at the bottom of her coffee, I said, “What’s going on? I thought you didn’t take sugar?”
“Chocolate isn’t sugar, dear,” she said. “It’s flavor.”
After recovering from emergency surgery earlier this year, she said, “I’ve never been so lazy!”
“You’re not lazy,” I said. “You’re recovering.”
“You’re the expert,” she said. “What’s it like?”
“What’s what like?”
“Laziness, dear,” she said. “You have more experience than I do.”
“I did fly all the way over here!”
“Did you do the flying?” she said with an impish grin.
One day after I made us coffee, I asked her: “What’s the secret to being successful in your 90s?”
“Just try, dear. So many people are old at 60. They just want to sit all day. You won’t make it to 90 like that. You have to try.”
“Try walking,” she said. “Try gardening. Try cooking. Trying doesn’t require a lot of trying. Just try a little. Like, with this coffee you’ve made us. I know you tried.”
Another time we saw four coveted apple turnovers at the grocery after days of them being sold out. I got us two. She told me to get all four. When I said we should leave the other two for other people, she said “Two are for us now. And the other two are for whoever we find ourselves to be tomorrow.”
Being with her is a ridiculous amount of fun. I have met her friends, and she has met my special someone (“You’ve gone for younger!” she said of him — he’s 50 to my 44. “Isn’t he handsome?” I asked. “Yes, so much more than you!” she said with a laugh.)
We waltz to Vera Lynn, build gingerbread houses, wear Korean face masks. She watches me do arduous jigsaw puzzles and then, after putting in the final piece, celebrates how “we” completed it. I got her a bird-covered blouse at a charity shop, and she got me a bear onesie.
When I was a child — maybe 5, small enough that my siblings and I slept sardine-style in the same bed — she would pop her head in during bedtime and ask if anyone needed the toilet. This was my cue to announce that I had a big poo to do. Then I would sneak downstairs with her, and we would watch “The Paul Daniels Magic Show.”
Maybe she knew I was gay before I came out to her, but she wanted me to believe in wonder and magic regardless. If wisdom is knowledge plus time, she embodies wisdom’s next evolution: kindness.
“Age,” she told me once, “is just another bother attempting to convince you of the impossible in a world absolutely blooming with possibilities.”
In her 60s, she climbed Snowden, Britain’s tallest peak. In her 70s, she survived the death of her only daughter. In her 80s, she lost her husband of 67 years, my grandfather. This year, she had emergency surgery, and the doctors asked if they could write about her in a medical journal because her condition was so rare. Even her illnesses are exceptional.
Her sense of possibility has been revolutionary for me. I have found friends — great, intimate friends — in unexpected places: four-hour dinners with my former schoolteachers; a holiday window tour across Manhattan with my friend’s alone-on-Thanksgiving mother; special-effects texting with my 11-year-old nephew.
It may be true that the world is blooming with possibilities, but even possibility has limits. Before too long I will need to adjust to having the same kind of grandmother many other people have in a different way: She’ll be gone.
I will be gutted. But I won’t cry for the lack of birthday cards in my future. I’ll mourn the openness and fullness and wholeness. My life will feel so closed and empty and partial. Yet even in such moments, her wisdom prevails, which is to be “mizzy,” because “saying ‘miserable’ is too miserable.”
The best part of refusing grayspeak and unlocking the rainbow of insights that follows is that now I know — with certainty, pride, and all my heart — that she is unlike anyone else. I hope that if I make it to her age, I might look upon a faraway hill — a surprise Napoleonic fort — and climb it (she was 85 then). Or embrace the novelty of a first-ever milkshake (at 87). In her 90s, she has developed a habit of keeping a drawer full of candy bars in the fridge. When I asked her why, she shrugged her response: “They’re better cold, dear.”
During an argument about her stealing my outfit when we found ourselves wearing something similar, I accused her of stealing hearts, too. “Kindness wins hearts, Richard. I don’t bother with stealing.” After a lecture on how amazing bread is, I asked what her favorite food is, and her answer was quick: “Butter. That’s why you get the bread in the first place.”
Not long ago, when she found a bubble-gum pink cashmere sweater for one pound in a charity shop, she said she wanted to be buried in it. When I gasped, she said, “Oh, I shouldn’t have said that. I’m going to be cremated. Not buried. What a shame to burn such lovely clothing.”
From a relationship of polite predictability, we now have a deeply loving kinship where neither of us knows what comes next — except for what we know comes next for everyone.
What comes first, though, is spending this Christmas together. No card or phone call will do. We are each other’s best gift.