Grandma Betty

By Christine Stulik

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My mother told me recently that I “laugh just like Grandma Betty.” I take this as a huge compliment, but not because my Grandma’s laugh was particularly musical to anyone’s ears. It was more of a cackle, heard at the Thanksgiving dinner table or at a particularly silly joke I would spin for her. I take it as a compliment because she laughed loud and often.  

Grandma Betty and I got along famously. My father’s mother knew how to dress, throw a party, tap dance, make a conversation with just about anyone, and charm her way into a Trivia Pursuit victory. Throughout my teens and 20s, we talked on the phone as frequently as two best girlfriends do, between Rhode Island and Buffalo and later Chicago to Buffalo when I moved there for school and work. Whether I was filling her in on the latest boy drama, or if she was regaling me about her latest bridge victory, we always had something to talk about. 

When her health took a downhill turn in 2015, I was splitting my time between Chicago and New York, in an awkward phase of life transition, unsure of my next move. I had been working as an actor for the past eight years, and was growing tired of touring shows around the country, eager to grow roots in a new place. My Grandma was still living in Buffalo, and had been planning to move to Rhode Island to be closer to my parents, but opted instead for an assisted living facility in Buffalo closer to her friends and where she could maintain her routine (she had a bridge title to uphold after all). When it came time to prepare her for the move, I was in between jobs, which made me the perfect candidate to take a few days and head up to Buffalo to help Grandma. 

It was early February, and holding steady at -4 degrees when I arrived. Too cold to venture out, we holed up inside and began to sort through her life. Her health made it difficult to focus for long periods, but when she felt up for it, we would go through her clothes, jewelry, boxes of china and memorabilia, and whatever else she had collected over the years. 

The real challenge, however, was that my Grandma was stubborn. And like in so many families, I had inherited that stubbornness from her. She didn’t want to part with much, and wasn’t hearing my pleas (and pushes) for rationality. I grew impatient with her, frustrated that she wasn’t being realistic with what she could fit in the new apartment, and with every negotiation she only dug her heels in more. It all came to a head on the last day, when she didn’t want to separate a dresser and hutch set, despite the measurements indicating she could only fit one in her new bedroom. She claimed we couldn’t donate just one piece, saying no one would take it without the set. I retorted that no one would know it had previously been part of a set, if it was there by itself! She began to cry. 

I stood there in the middle of the room, looking at my sweet Grandma hooked up to oxygen and with tears streaming down her face, and just felt horrible. I had been hearing everything she was saying, but not listening. She didn’t want to move. She didn’t want this change. And she didn’t want to be at the end of her life, shedding all of her possessions and the bottomless well of memories attached to them. What looked like a straightforward and logical move from my perspective was, in fact, incredibly difficult and wrought with emotion. 

“I don’t want to do this.”

 “I know, Grandma.” 

I went and kneeled on the floor with my head on her lap, and we cried together like that for a good 10 minutes. 

The next day, I flew back to New York. As I looked at my handful of boxes in my sublet apartment, I thought of her. I had been back and forth between Chicago and New York so many times, but still hadn’t made the move official. I was scared to start over in a new city. But that’s just it. For me, it would be a start. While for my Grandma, it was an end. Why was I so hesitant when in reality I had my whole life ahead of me? I gave her a ring and told her I loved her, and that I had made it safely back to the city. I was already formulating the plan in my head to take the leap and move permanently, ready to start the next chapter in my life. 

That would be the last time I spoke with her. My father flew up to Buffalo and moved her and all the boxes we had packed into the assisted living home. They shared a meal that night, and the next day she died of a heart attack. Maybe it was the stress or maybe it was just her time, but part of me thinks she looked around, and decided not to start another chapter. She had already filled an entire book with her incredibly rich life, and that’s where she wanted it to end. 

At her funeral, friends from her bridge club came up to me to tell me what a gift I had given my Grandma by spending those last days with her in her home. But I think of it more as a gift she gave to me. Between the packing tape and yes– the tears– we had the rare chance to grow even closer. And in that intimacy, she showed me the importance of listening and being there for someone through a difficult change, no matter what point they are at in their life. It served as the catalyst to bring me to New York, and helped me find my way into this line of work. I am so grateful to have found a role at Seriatim that allows me to truly be there for others during their own life transitions.  

Grandma Betty laughed loud and often. I feel that she’s with me always, but I hear her especially when I throw my head back and let out a good cackle.

Matthew Callahan