When I was a little girl, my parents would take my sisters and me to see my great-grandmother at the Greeneville home.  We called her Gram, but her name was Laura – I was named after her.  She was 88 years older than I, but that did not stop my six-year-old self from scrambling up on her lap and kissing her papery cheek.  Her face had deep lines that I tried to stretch out with my fingers.  I asked my mother once about those deep lines, and she said that everyone gets lines when they get old, but that people get different kinds of lines.  “See how Gram’s lines make it look like she is always smiling?” she said to me.  “That’s because when she was young, she always smiled.  If you always frown, you get frown lines, but if you smile all the time, you get beautiful smile lines like Gram.”  My sister Amy would grab one handle of Gram’s wheelchair while I would reach up to grab the other, and we would race crookedly down the hall, bumping into walls and doorways, while Gram just laughed and said she liked to be chauffeured by her great-grandaughters.  We could sit and chatter to Gram about pre-school while my parents spoke with her nurses, and we felt as at home in the nursing home as we did at my grandparents’ house, with our coloring books and crayons scattered about the floor and our pictures on the dresser next to her hospital bed.

I was thinking about those visits we made over fifteen years ago as I pulled up to the Johnstown Nursing Facility in my boyfriend’s convertible.  It had been three years since I had seen my grandmother – Gram’s daughter.  She couldn’t visit us in Chicago since her Parkinson’s disease had taken her ability to walk.  I was in medical school and couldn’t come to Pennsylvania with the rest of my family when they visited.  I had sent her letters, and pictures of my college graduation.  She couldn’t write back; a stroke had made her unable to speak or write.

Now I was in Pittsburg, doing a month-long school rotation at Presbyterian Hospital, forty miles from Johnstown, where my grandmother lived.  I had promised my mother I would visit; my grandmother had a few good friends who were still well enough to come and see her, but I knew her days must be long and lonely.  She could not read or talk on the phone.  She could not even change the channel on the television.

I parked and entered through the large glass doors.  The large front room held a sofa and several large cushioned chairs.  All were empty.  Several wheelchairs faced the glass doors, their occupants sitting silently, slouched forward with bent backs, grasping the arms of the chairs with gnarled hands, eyes and mouths half-open.

Past the front room was the nurses’ station; I asked for Dorothy Klein’s room and was directed down the hall.  I walked pst several doors, and then turned to enter her room.

Her bed was closest to the window, I walked past her unblinking, wide-eyed roommate to where she was lying.  Her large watery eyes turned when I greeted her, while the rest of her remained unmoving beneath the rough blanket.  She had always been so slim and petite, but her body now looked bloated, her face pale and round.  She could not eat anymore; her ability to coordinate her swallowing was gone, and she couldn’t prevent the food from entering her lungs.  The nurses poured cans of Ensure into a tube that pierced her stomach through the dry, brittle skin.  But her wrists were still so tiny, I could completely encircle each one with my thumb and index finger.

I sat down in the chair beside her bed.  I wasn’t sure what to say.

“I drove from Pittsburgh,” I began hesitatingly.  “My boyfriend, Vic, he’s a surgery resident – let me borrow his car.  I’m visiting him and working at the hospital.  It’s my last year of medical school.”  She just watched me as I spoke.  Her mouth moved slightly, but she made no sound.  I made myself hold her hand, which she clasped tightly.  It seemed that her hands were the only part of her that had any strength left.  It made me wince.

I doubt I stayed more than fifteen minutes.  I couldn’t tell if she knew who I was. Eventually my uncertain monologue trailed off.  I looked at her face.  The smile lines I remembered my Gram having weren’t there; her expression showed only sadness, maybe fear.  The nurses, I knew, gave her sedatives, because she often seemed anxious.  Her lips were cracked over her baby-smooth gums.  They trembled slightly.

Loosening her grip on one hand with the other, I glanced at the door.  I said good-bye then hurried toward it, my steps quickening as I walked the hall and passed the nurses’ station, until I was in the parking lot and now running.  I slammed the car door and sat with my hands on the steering wheel.  For five minutes I sat studying the smooth skin on my hands, the tan line where my watch was on my wrist.

Then I turned the rear-view mirror down and looked at my face, with my grandmother’s cheekbones and clear skin, un-lined and smooth.  I turned the key in the ignition and drove away.

Laura Long, Class of 2003