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Goodbye oma

A short story about communication and connection based on the last time I saw my grandmother before she passed away.

Photo of Arjanna van der plas
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The long grey hallway. All doors are closed. Unknown universes behind each of them.

Mum looks through the window of the common room to see if anyone is there. The room is empty. My sister thoughtlessly touches the fake plants on the windowsill while we wait for mum.

The sound of our steps, echoing in the hollow hallway. Step step. Joy. Step step. Worry. Step Step. Anticipation. Step Step.

Nameplates on every door. Who are these people?

Mrs. van der Wege. Mr. van der Sloot. Mrs. Terstege-Willekes. Mrs. Bakker-Keur.

Knock knock.

“Yes?” A crackling voice.

“Oma, it’s so great to see you!” I say.

“Hey…”, my grandmother replies, waking up from her hypnotized staring at the floor. Her body doesn’t move an inch, not even her hands. A cracker with jam is in front of her. Untouched. A cup of tea, lukewarm. Her bony body is covered in a colourful blouse. Her hair is impeccable. Her eyes are empty.

Can I hug her? My dignified grandmother was never very touchy-feely. But she looks so fragile. I’ve read somewhere that elderly people are touched less and less, while regular physical contact leads to higher levels of oxytocin. Which lowers stress hormone levels. Which lowers the blood pressure, boosts one’s mood and increases pain tolerance. Plus being held just gives you that warm fuzzy feeling. I can’t imagine not being touched on a daily basis. I love my husband’s kisses in the morning. The hugs of dear friends and family. People need to be touched and held and cuddled.

I lean over to her wheelchair, and clumsily kiss her cheek.

My mum and my sister grab chairs from the table. We sit.

“I came all the way from the Unites States oma! I am so glad to see you,” I say.

“That’s.. Quite a holiday”, oma utters. “Did you have a good time there?”

Does she not know that I moved? I can’t believe it. My last postcard with a picture of Big Basin is standing right next to her. She must know. She is so smart. Last time I was here, we discussed the pro’s and cons of cyborg technology and what life would have been like if she would have been allowed to go to university. Her body might be giving up, but her brain is still so powerful. It’s just her heart. And she keeps breaking her bones, because she is too stubborn to ask for help. I love that about her. I shouldn’t. She broke her hip and both of her arms three years ago. That is when it started. That is why she is now slowly letting go of life. I don’t want her to let go. I want her to let go.

I look at mum. Mum looks at me, and then at my sister. My sister looks at the floor.

We chat. We’re avoiding oma. She can hardly talk anyway, for some reason her mouth can’t open all the way anymore. She doesn’t want to talk. She sits still, like a living statue. She looks at everybody, nodding at what we say. We say nothing, really.

The ticking of the clock. Only twenty minutes have passed. Twenty-one minutes.

I’ve just seen an amazing documentary about how music is a great way to connect to elderly. I cried when I saw how the eyes of the elderly in the movie would lighten up when listening to familiar songs. Vivid memories long forgotten came up when they heard songs from their young adulthood. The clouds that are permanently blocking their view of the world disappeared for a moment. I want to see that light in my grandmother’s eyes. I know that light is in my grandmother’s eyes. I want to put on Pachelbel and dance with her, wheelchair and all.

“Oma, what kind of music do you like?” I ask. “You used to love Bach right?”

Grandma’s eyes widen. She looks scared.

“What kind of... big question... is that?”

I drop the subject.

My mum rearranges some clothes in grandma’s closet. My sister and I tell each other stories that we’ve already exchanged that morning. We love to chat for hours. We don’t know how to chat anymore. No stories are interesting enough for this moment. Any story will do to break the silence.

I sneeze.

“Is it your hay fever… Arjanna?” oma asks. “I read... that the pollens of the birch tree are all over this week.”"

She knows I suffer from hay fever! She read the newspaper and remembers what she read. Let’s talk about the newspaper. What else was in the newspaper this week? The American elections. Let’s discuss the elections. I know she’ll have an opinion. I wonder what she thinks about having a female president.

My mum closes the closet. A loud bang fills up the small room.

“Mother, it’s almost time for lunch. We should be going. It was lovely to see you.”

Oma nods. But we can’t go. We’ve only been here for forty minutes. We have to discuss how it was to raise my mum. What life was like during World War II. We have to listen to Mozart. Just one song.

We’re leaving.

“Bye grandma, I’m so glad I got to see you.”

I kiss her cheek. I see her old hand, motionless on the elbow rest. I hold her hand. She looks at me. I see the gratitude in her watery eyes. I feel her deep love for me through the soft skin of her hand. We finally connect.

I let go. We walk away. I blow her a kiss. I want to say see you soon. I say goodbye, and try to imprint her expression in my memory.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

When someone you love is dying, you feel a deep need to communicate, to ask 'the last questions', to tell someone how much they mean to you. However, my grandmother was literally 'tired of talking'. How can we inspire people to connect without words, when their relationship is often so strongly based on conversation?

This inspired (1)

I want my dad's soup

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Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Dear Arjanna, thank you for sharing the story of your grandmother. You raise important questions on the role of words. You might want to look at Kim's post which highlights a similar issue of communication (or lack of): https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/end-of-life/research/communication-aid-for-the-dying-and-their-families
I also think you are right to highlight the importance of different senses (touch, sound, etc.) in communicating. You might not have been able to ask the questions you wanted to your grandmother but she did look at you, you saw gratitude in her eyes and felt love through her hands.
In the ideation phase, it'd be great to explore ways of designing spaces, technology, or programs that support different types of communication when words are not an option. You also make an interesting point about different perceptions of tactile communication as you noted that you did not feel comfortable hugging your grandmother. How can we facilitate this type of communication in our societies?

Photo of Arjanna van der plas

Thanks Anne-Laure, Kim's story is very touching and inspiring! 

I like how you highlight the importance of different senses in communicating. That would definitely an important aspect to explore, as touching her hand and looking into her eyes communicated so much more than words.

Another important aspect I realized we should take into account in the design process is the aspect of education. When I was talking to my parents about my frustration/awkwardness about the communication with my grandmother, they expressed that for them it was a no-brainer that even though my grandmother was never so touchy-feely, in this phase of life they would of course hold her hand etc. For me, it was something I had to learn in the process, where they had experienced it before.

Photo of Aaron Wong

Great Share Anne, and  Arjanna (:
I'm loving the inspirations popping up about other ways of communication and connecting. Personally, I love the idea of using music to connect, I still get teary-eyed listening certain music from older generations' songs. Check out other ways of communicating and connecting that other members have posted about: Virtual Experience , Music and Loss , and Sara's Got A Sunbeam . These will become great insights towards solid ideas in the next phase!

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