The price is right

The most important thing I did last week was fix my grandmother's television.

My grandfather died a few weeks ago, and Oma (92) lives alone now in their little apartment. She's made a few discoveries of messages he left her, like a note tucked into his Bible, and these leave her weeping with gratitude and grief. I visit her on Thursday mornings, and asked her the week after Opa died what she missed most about him. "His care," she said simply. 

We wondered what would become of Opa's chair, the reclining green leather fixture in the corner of the living room, where he always sat. But Oma's taken it over, and when she did she discovered that he had taped to the table next to it a list of her favourite shows and their channels: The Price is Right, Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune. He controlled the remote, and he knew she'd need help when he wasn't there to do it. 

credit: Grace Humphries Illustration

credit: Grace Humphries Illustration

Since he died, though, the television had been uncooperative, and despite the best efforts of a stream of visiting grandchildren, she 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. More fiddling and buttons and twisting of wires and 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 here 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. A photo of myself at age 8, with sisters and cousins in braids and bright dresses, above the bed. My sister's kindergarten picture tucked into the frame of the mirror. Wedding pictures of children and grandchildren on the dresser. And 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. It wasn't until my adult life that I realized I had mistaken generosity for wealth.

So there I was, folding his pants, removing lapel pins from suit jackets, and checking his shirt pockets. In my mind my grandfather was tall, expansive, so much bigger than myself, but lining up the creases in his pants I was struck by how short the legs were. I tried on his belt, and it didn't wrap around my waist three times as I'd expected. 

And while I stood there having these childhood illusions smashed, I could hear Oma in the next room contentedly murmuring, "Ja, ja, ja," as contestants shouted over each other and bells rang.

When I had packed his entire wardrobe into three Safeway bags and returned to the living room, she looked peaceful, the happiest I'd seen her in a month. I realized she was never going to risk turning the TV off ever again. I showed her how the mute button worked. "For when you need to go to bed," I said. She kissed me good-bye. I showed myself out.

And that is how, in a very full week of patients and meetings and decisions and children, the most important work I did involved a game show.