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The most important thing I did last week was fix my grandmother's television.
My grandfather died a few weeks ago, and my 92-year-old Oma lives alone now in their little apartment. I visit her on Thursday mornings.
I asked her the week after Opa died what she missed most about him. "His care," she said. She's discovered messages he left her, such as a note tucked into his Bible, and these leave her weeping with gratitude and grief.
I wondered what would become of Opa's chair, the green leather recliner in the corner of the living room that he always occupied. But Oma's taken it over, and when she did she discovered that he had taped to the table beside it a list of her favourite shows and their channels: The Price is Right, Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune. He used to control the remote, and he knew she'd need help when he wasn't there to do it.
I grew up in Burnaby, a few blocks from my grandparents, and visited often with my sisters. Their home had several particular draws. My grandfather was a baker, and there were always Dutch pastries on offer: speculaas cookies, custard-filled tompoezen, or cream horns. Their front walk had five coins embedded in the concrete; we wore our fingernails down trying to dislodge them. And best of all: They had a television.
Watching The Flintstones with them, I loved the sight of Opa leaning forward on the couch with his forearms on his knees, staring intently at the screen and chuckling appreciatively at the antics of a cartoon character.
Since he'd died, though, the TV had been unco-operative, and despite the best efforts of a stream of visiting grandchildren, Oma had gone three weeks without the shows that were a staple in their daily routine.
I was visiting last week, and I dutifully played with the remote. The television flickered on. Oma cheered. I turned it off so we could visit. A minute later, with a sense of foreboding, I tried the remote again. The TV refused to work. With more fiddling, button-pushing and twisting of wires it came to life again. Oma actually shouted, "Leave it! Don't turn it off! Just keep it on!"
She settled back in the chair, and I went to pack up Opa's clothes in the bedroom.
Their bedroom had been a hallowed place my entire life, understood to be supremely private and off limits to exploring grandchildren. And there I was, alone in the sanctuary: a small bedroom in builder's beige with a double bed covered in an orange-and-brown crocheted afghan. Photos of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were tucked into the mirror frame and propped up on the dresser. At the foot of the bed stood a wardrobe with Opa's clothes: two suit jackets, a few pairs of pants and a handful of plaid shirts.
As kids, we thought our grandparents were fantastically rich. They travelled to Australia once, and sent a separate postcard to each grandchild. They returned with a suitcase full of tea towels and kangaroo brooches. They slipped bills into birthday cards.
Oma always came in the door with exclamations, arms outstretched, jewellery flashing. She wore a bracelet with a dime-sized, head-shaped charm for each grandchild dangling from it, engraved with our names – 15 in all. On special occasions she and Opa took the entire family out for Chinese food. It wasn't until my adult life that I realized I had mistaken generosity for wealth.
So there I was, folding Opa's pants, removing lapel pins from suit jackets and checking his shirt pockets. In my mind, my grandfather was large, much bigger than myself, but when I tried on his belt it didn't wrap around my waist twice, as I'd expected. Lining up the creases in his pants, I was struck by how short the legs were. Shorter than mine.
As I stood there trying to make sense of this impossibility, I could hear Oma in the next room contentedly murmuring, "Ja, ja, ja," as contestants shouted over each other and bells rang.
With a living set of grandparents, I'd automatically identified as a grandchild, third rung down in the family, until my late 30s. As we gathered around Opa's grave last month, I suddenly noticed my dad's white beard, and my aunt's tired eyes; I watched my kids run exuberantly across the lawn with my cousins' kids; I saw Oma resting against her walker. In front of my eyes, we were all promoted one generation. I was undeniably middle-aged.
When I had packed Opa's entire wardrobe into three Safeway bags and returned to the living room, Oma looked peaceful, the happiest I'd seen her in a month. I realized she was never going to risk turning the TV off again. I showed her how the mute button worked. "For when you need to go to bed," I said. She kissed me goodbye. I showed myself out.
And that is how, in a very full week of treating patients, attending meetings, making decisions and caring for my children, the most important work I did involved turning on a TV game show.
Martina Scholtens lives in North Vancouver.