Last September, my grandmother thought she was signed up for a life sentence when she moved to an "assisted-living facility" -- code-speak for the last stop before a nursing home and death.
A stroke, a heart attack, a bleeding breast with no explanation. Then the loss of her peripheral eyesight meant no more driving and selling the home where she had lived as a widow for 20 years. These health problems didn't develop over a long time; they turned up just after she turned 80: On her birthday, she thanked God for her health and family, and a few days later, she had a stroke.
My mother and her siblings worked swiftly to reintegrate my grandmother's life: the best option was this new home, a short distance from where her old home stood. She moved in with other elderly folks. They, too, had fading health and could no longer care for themselves independently. Before the stroke, my grandmother was accustomed to living alone, with the freedom to move around spontaneously, so this move shook her. She would cry often, and without warning. "Do you know what it's like to lose all your freedom at my age?" she'd ask. No one could answer.
This was the first time I saw her cry -- ever. A woman of solid faith, she was hardly miffed by challenges. She had raised four children with a hard-drinking husband and through prayer she found what seemed like unshakable solace. She could be found laughing about life's absurdities before feeling sorry for herself -- the latter a behaviour she didn't condone. After the move, she looked sallow and grey from her heart troubles, including a broken heart about the life she felt she had lost.
When I first visited her at her new home, I found she was in a much better state than many of the other residents. At the doorway, some greeted you asleep alone on couches, their faces awash in the pallor that results from seeing no sunlight.
Others wandered the halls propped up with canes or motorized walkers. Some of these men and women looked so lost you wanted to bring them home just so they could feel found. My grandmother was still mobile and much more spry than many of her contemporaries. I thought she didn't belong, she thought she didn't belong, and I left frustrated by the dearth of alternatives.
Then, unexpectedly, she found a crush at her new home. A handsome elderly man (who lost his wife 20 years ago) was fawning over her. He'd get nervous and quiet in her presence, invite her to sit with him at breakfast, ask her to go for coffee. She'd play hard to get: "I don't drink coffee in the afternoon."
At choir practice one afternoon, he pushed her into a group of his family members and they questioned her to see if she were a suitable candidate for their dad. Another day, standing with him in front of the elevator, she said he got so flustered, he didn't even remember to press the button. The reborn flirt in her quipped, "We won't get anywhere unless one of us presses that button!"
These innocent exchanges excite her and make her laugh. "Too bad I didn't meet him earlier," she says. Although she thinks a love affair at 80 is implausible, she is giddy with possibility.
One night recently on the phone, she laughed through our entire conversation. She said she met some great ladies, and all they do is joke together. "We're like sorority girls. I'm living the college days I missed out on."
One new resident, who's 87, asked where the cute guys are. Another accompanied my grandma to serenade "87" at her doorway with a love song -- to no response. The next morning they asked "87" why she didn't answer. She said, "I couldn't hear anything!" They laughed about the delicacy and futility of old age.
Over the phone, my grandmother realized out loud: "If I had stayed in my house alone after the stroke, I would never have had so many laughs!" Oh, the unexpected possibilities of the "assisted living facility!" It has been proven that we survive when we have something to look forward to, something we want to live for.
Recently, I joked that her love life is better than mine. She responded with sage advice: "You never know what can happen," she said, "Even tomorrow! Things you'd never expect."
She didn't expect her health to suddenly decline after 80 healthy years, nor did she expect to find a new beginning at a place where she thought she would find an end. After a marriage, the birth of children and grandchildren, the deaths of siblings and spouses, and the ups and downs of health and sickness -- she found ribald jokes, new romance, and laughter in the place she least expected it.
Julia Belluz lives in Toronto.