This morning the phone rang. It was one of my uncles. I don't hear from my mom's brothers except in times of crises. I knew what the phone call was about. As did my sister who received a similar call and immediately assumed the worst.
My 87 year old grandmother, Shirley Jeanne Perchert Walker, passed away last night.
Over the last year my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimers, moved into a full time care facility, had three major surgeries (broken femur, blood infection and colon resection) and we all knew we were losing her both mentally and physically.
My grandmother was born in 1923 in Cooperstown, North Dakota to Hanna and Albert Perchert. She had two older brothers: Dale and Albert Jr (Bud) (both deceased when I was in my teens and early 20's). Copperstown was a very, very small Norwegian farming community where she claimed being related to half the town. She grew up on a farm through the Great Depression where as she put it, they didn't have much, but they had food. They did better than much of the rest of the US during this time. My great grandmother had three younger children later - Charles (Chucky), Naomi and Bonnie - all of whom are still living.
While my grandmother was in high school she also taught school and once graduated she went to teach full time "until she found a husband". About that time, my great grandparents decided to give up the farming life and took the younger three children to the Bay area. My uncle Dale took over the farm and remained close with my grandmother. Uncle Bud moved to California and I am in contact with his daughter Mickey on a somewhat regular basis. The younger siblings I only knew in passing. I got to know Chucky when we lived in Reno and he lived and worked nearby.
After a year or so of teaching high school my grandmother decided to enroll in the Army Nurse Cadet program and she was sent to Spokane, WA for her training at Deaconess Hospital.
As I grew older my grandmother would tell me how they were "the wild bunch" at Deaconess and how she and her roommate had one of the only rooms with a window and they used to sneak their girlfriends in and out of the room to meet the soldiers stationed at the base up near Spokane.
My grandmother spent time in LaGrande, OR doing her nurses training as well. She was nearing the day to be shipped overseas when the announcement came that the war was over.
My grandmother packed up and moved to Seattle, WA where she worked in a hospital. She took up flirting with an ambulance driver who relieved the elevator operator for his lunch. My grandmother tells of making excuses to ride up and down the elevator to be with the man who was nearly 15 years her senior.
The story between Seattle to Casper, WY is foggy. She at one point admitted to me that she left Seattle for Casper when she was pregnant (unmarried) and didn't know what to do. The man she had met in the elevator wasn't sure what he wanted to do and was not supportive of the pregnancy. She up and left and arrived in Casper, WY and moved in with a girl she knew from nurses training, started working at the local hospital and started attending the Seventh Day Adventist church.
A few months Eugene Lemuel Walker showed up. There was a wedding. And a few months later my uncle David was born.
My grandfather was born in backwoods Arkansas to a native American woman named Rose Hawk in the early part of the century. He managed to attend school through the second grade.
He had done odd jobs throughout his life to this point and decided that he would attend barber school. The school requested his transcript and he lied, telling them the school burnt down. He went to barber school, opened a barber shop in downtown Casper where he worked as long as his health allowed him. During the last 10 years of his life he was largely confined to the house and struggled with heart and lung problems and not to mention diabetes. He passed away in 1985.
Jeanne and Eugene had four children; David, Michael, Barbara and Robert. It was a volatile family life with alcoholism and lots of yelling. My grandparents had warm, but hard hearts. I used to play Yahtzee with my grandmother, we would sit at the kitchen table and she had this old yellow plastic cup she would roll her dice with. And she would shake and shake that cup. Then my grandfather would start yelling, "think you need to roll those God-damned any louder?" And my grandmother would grin. And her next turn she would shake them even louder and longer. Then my grandfather would start cussing under his breath. When someone bought my grandmother a padded dice cup it was supposed to heal the marriage.
My Yahtzee experiences I expect were only the tip of the iceburg with their 40-some year marriage, but said so much about those 40 years.
My grandmother worked nights as a nurse at the hospital and my grandfather was a barber.
In 1972 her first grandchild was born. That would be me.
I spent days with my grandmother while my mom attended the community college to get her AA degree. My grandmother and I were fast friends. Best of buddies. I spent loads of time at her house growing up. We had all our holidays together. She was my Bonka.
My grandmother was never one to smooth things over. She didn't hide her feelings or thoughts. And many people were hurt from this. Many family members. My grandmother told me one day, "people try to pretend like it isn't true, but your first is always your favorite. My first child was my favorite and my first grandchild was my favorite." She didn't have to say this, we all knew it was true, unfortunately. She tuned out with my little sister and her oldest son could do no wrong, but the other three struggled to live up despite one going to medical school and one becoming a small business owner of a contract research lab doing research for the giant firms. In this regard, I feel sorry for my grandmother, because she failed to look beyond her feelings to discover the beauty of the other children and adults in the family. I worked so hard to make up for her shortcomings with my sister, but I was hiding nothing from her.
I find it interesting that my sister was the one that was really thoroughly left on the sidelines with regards to my grandmother, but in the last year, my sister is the one who saw her most as she went to the home and visited her regularly in every hospital. I want to say I would have done the same thing in her shoes... but I admit I have not taken those steps with my father's mom.
My grandmother was a bull in the china shop. She was an excellent nurse and retired a few years after my grandfather died. She held her achievements as a nurse close to her heart. One of her favorite possessions, which is now in my possession, was her years of service pins from the hospital. When the hospital started putting computers at the stations, she switched from nursing to serving as a Pink Lady and she was incredibly proud of her volunteer service and built her hours of service with pride.
My grandmother took my sister and I on our first plane ride when I was in the 4th grade and my sister in 1st grade to North Dakota to meet her extended family. When I was 13, she took us to Disneyland. And when we moved to Colorado she drove the 4 hours up and back on I-25 regularly to be there for every major event.
My grandmother was one of my biggest advocates. When I was a little girl I said that I wanted to be a nurse when I grew up, she replied, "no, you don't want to be a nurse, you will be a doctor". When I decided to go to grad school instead of medical school she was not happy with me.
She lived in her home (in one of the worst parts of Casper, which I should also blog about how they bought this home) until she was 85 years old. Two years ago we convinced her to go and live with David in Denver, he needed her as his health was declining. Everyone hoped it would be to their mutual benefit. As she lived there, David started realizing how poor off she really was. Her mental capacity was declining rapidly and as a consequence of this her finances needed serious interference.
Shortly thereafter she was diagnosed with mild Alzheimers about the same time my mother was diagnosed with liver cancer. This became a very difficult time for the both of them. My mom still harbored a lot of animosity that had never played out between she and my grandmother and tried to balance it with the fact that she was fighting for her life and still felt that she needed her mom to be there. My grandmother started having animosity because my mom wasn't there, she wasn't the one stepping up to help care for her and in her Alzheimers state, was not realizing that there were other things at play here. A liftime of difficult communication was coming to head.
My grandmother was eventually moved from my uncles house when he finally admitted he could not care for her, into an assisted living home where she had her own apartment. This was short lived when it was realized by the assisted living personnel that she needed substantially more than they could offer her, particularly after she broke her leg. She was moved into nursing home and quickly forgot about thoughts of going home.
We all went up to Casper and cleaned out her house - ok, some more than others cleaned - I went up and went through items taking a few boxfuls of things. The house sold a few months later.
Her health started rapidly declining, but she spoke regularly about how she loved the home, how good to her the staff was, and such. This was amazing to me, I never thought she would be happy with such a living situation. What angels.
Last week I received an e-mail from my uncle indicating that once again she was in the hospital and had undergone emergency surgery to remove a portion of her colon that had died. I spoke to her on the phone and it was so difficult to understand her, but her regular humor was still there.
I decided to make plans to go see her in the next 6-8 weeks, once she got out of the hospital. Unfortunately that wasn't to be. The last time I saw her was the day the kids, AB and I went to see her before celebrating my mom's life. We explained the situation that she had passed away and I held her tiny bony frame as she sobbed that it should have been her. Then as typical with Alzheimers patients, the minute lunch was mentioned she was off on a new topic and quickly forgot. Then during lunch she asked, "so how is your mother doing?"
I have many many funny and happy stories of my grandmother. She was one of my biggest fans and me one of hers. While I am sad that she has departed, I am happy that it was quiet, in her sleep, that she was lucky enough to have 87 years under her belt, had lived through so many fantastic times and accomplished so much for a woman in her lifetime (attaining her bachelor's degree in science). Living without memories is no way to live. She is truly in a better place now.