purseMy mom had a mantra whether she realized I was counting the repetition of her words or not. It was variations of “Girls, don’t fight.”

I was the youngest of three daughters by nearly eight years. I was the runt. The entertainer. The least invested in decisions. An only child at times.

My mom got sick the year after my father passed away. During the last 10 years of her life, my sisters, Lauren and Allison, and I grew closer. But a common gripe was that no one would tell me anything, from what was going on with my mom’s health to when my sisters were free to hang out.

“Mom, they treat me like I’m eight years old!” My mom would calm me down and tell me that no one was trying to leave me out.

It reminded me of a movie clip we have (on VHS, of course) of me at two years old in a two-piece bathing suit, chasing a nine-year old Allison who is teasing me by running off with my kiddie pool over her head. What if I’m forever struggling to get time, answers, or my damn kiddie pool, regardless of their intentions?

After my mom passed away, her presence was felt in all of our interactions. We shared what was leftover from her estate and my sisters gave me the money from her condo to buy one of my own. It was a gift of independence and security, one my mom would have stamped with her seal of approval.

We only had a smattering of cousins left and surprisingly, my mom’s strong-like-bull mother, Grandma Esther.

Esther came to live with my mom who had hoped to take care of her as she was getting older. Though it ended up being my mom who needed the caregiving. Watching your child succumb to cancer for years takes a toll. By the time my mom passed away, Esther couldn’t live on her own. We found a nursing home where she could get assistance as needed.

Esther was feisty. She decided that either her time had come or that she was a force to be reckoned with and when crossing the street, she would throw up her arms as if parting the Dead Sea to get cars to stop. When we asked her to be more careful, we hoped she would comply. Later that year, she began getting lost on walks in the neighborhood and we had to find a facility to provide more supervision.

Dementia set in and slowly worsened. My sisters and I took turns visiting, just as we had done with my mom when she was sick. At times, it felt like an insulting round two. Esther went from agreeable to angry in seconds and would take swipes at us and at the staff. When she became consistently less amicable, my sisters and I began doubling up on our visits instead of alternating. Visits drastically improved. I did craft projects with Allison. I built Lego monuments with Lauren. The three of us would visit on holidays and attempt some normalcy of traditions. We brought funny hats and decorations. Our mom would have loved it. Esther wasn’t all that amused. But we tried and it was all we could do to not feel futile in this relationship.

My guilty pleasure in all of this was that visiting Esther was the best way to see my sisters. It’s not that I needed an excuse, but we made her a priority and thus, each other. While we sat with her and searched for moments of the old, spunky, butt-pinching grandma we used to know, we caught up on each others lives and we did a lot of bits.

On lone visits, when I ran out of ways to entertain my grandmother, I found odd ways to pique her interest. I began pulling contents from my purse and doing a show and tell. She just sat and watched. I called this game, “What’s in my purse?”

Last Saturday I met Allison at the nursing home as we do on most weekends. Lauren moved out of town last year, otherwise she would have joined. In fact, we Facetimed her so she could be part of our new two-player version of “What’s in my purse?” Not only did we display our items, we traded them. I got a mascara for a rubber glove. Allison got a purple pen for a mini emory board. And so on. We told Lauren that next week, she should “play at home” and we would make virtual trades over Facetime and then mail her the stuff. She said, “I’m going to have to start collecting some good stuff.” She was ready to load her purse full of fun treats for us. We explained, “No, you can’t stack the results. It just has to be shit in your purse.” It’s fun because it’s random. It’s fun because we’re just naturally the type of people who collect packets of lemon juice, Hello Kitty lip balm and car air fresheners in daily life. This game was a celebration of our collective weirdness. My mom would have played for sure. Esther was in and out of sleep for it. But maybe the at-home game the following week would re-engage her.

I was already excited to play this dumb game. Because over our last swap, we talked about important things like where I might live after I sell my place and not as important things like why Lauren still has a house phone. We even called her on her home phone during our Facetime call just to see her run out of the room and come back saying, “YOU GUYS. Stop it.” So we did it again.

This week, I have been paying special attention to not paying attention what’s going in and out of my purse. I want to be surprised at my own results. Oh the mystery of what treasure I could walk away with on Saturday morning!

Today I received an email from my uncle, Esther’s son, who lives in Florida. The email said that Esther had passed away this morning.

I fell apart.

Not because it wasn’t expected. She was 100 years old. But because I always thought it would be a call from Lauren, the head of our trio. Or from Allison, the middle of our sister sandwich. It was an email, right between an open house alert from Trulia and a drink invite from a friend. It wasn’t supposed to be there. Not after years of trying not to feel hurt when Esther didn’t recognize us or when she tried to kick me or pull my hair. And not after only a few weeks ago, when she finally looked right at me, reached out and put her finger on my nose as if to say, “You have such a small nose”, something she used to tell me when she was still capable of speaking.

To make the hurt worse, I had to be the one to call my sisters and let them know. Lauren is a woman of both action and comfort. She asked me for details and calmed me down. We ended up catching up on a myriad of topics. Allison has meetings all day but I was able to give her the quick word in between them. She said, “I knew. That’s why I went back again Sunday.” I was glad to hear that Esther got more time with the collective “us” before leaving.

We are constantly pulled away from our original family tree by work, new family and other priorities. But Esther really kept us together. Sitting, locally and virtually, with my sisters on Esther’s bed at the nursing home this past Saturday, I thought, “I have never been as close to these two women as I am today.”

I feel devastated that we couldn’t have been there today. But I also feel relieved that Esther is done suffering in a debilitated mental and physical state. And I am grateful for her parting gift- the reconnection to the most special women in my life.

My heart, and my purse, will forever be full.

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