Two weeks ago, almost to the date, my 84-year-old grandmother tested positive for COVID-19. She had been ill for 10 days, and after multiple tests for COVID-19 and other illnesses all came back negative, she finally tested positive after a nurse insisted on retesting her. Less than five days later, she passed away.
Right now, I want to focus on the life my grandmother lived and remember her for who she was to me: my Grandma Lois Burg, born July 6, 1936.
Like many grandparents, Grandma loved to spoil her grandkids. Every time she visited our family, she’d pick up a half gallon — or on occasion, a full gallon — of chocolate milk for us. Chocolate milk was something our family rarely purchased, so we knew when Grandma came to visit, it meant a special treat.
When I was 10, my parents agreed to purchase a puppy at my pleading. Sonny, a white fluff ball of a bichon/cocker spaniel mix, became — very much so — my dog. Upon our first family trip he couldn’t come with us, Grandma took care of him. He took to her so much that after that trip he knew the sound of her dark red Chevy S10 truck when she pulled in. If Sonny was my dog first, he was Grandma’s dog second. And oh, how he loved that time with her.
Grandma was one of those people that paid attention to when you said you liked something, and would make every effort to buy things for you she thought you’d like, sometimes going mistakenly overboard.
One of the funniest moments about that quality of my Grandma came when my dad had nonchalantly stated he liked cream soda. He didn’t mean he loved it, just that he liked it every once in a while, but all my grandmother heard was “I love cream soda.” On her next trip to visit us, she brought him six 12-packs of cream sodas. We laughed every time we’d go out to the porch to grab something to drink and those 12-pack boxes sat there. I think we made it through maybe one of those boxes before giving the rest away.
Every Thanksgiving, I curl up to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on NBC. My favorite performances are from the Broadway shows, but my most favorite each year is the performance by the Rockettes. So when the Rockettes brought their Christmas show on tour to Minneapolis, she plunked down the hefty amount of cash so we could go see the show. She later found an old Time Magazine from the 1950s featuring The Rockettes and sent it to me.
Grandma loved a fun car. While she had her Chevy S10, she also owned an old maroon convertible. I don’t even remember what make or model it was, but I remember thinking it was so cool Grandma had a convertible. On my 10th birthday, Grandma visited, and lent my parents her convertible for the day so we could use it as the car we drove to my birthday party location. It was me, two of my friends, and the wind in our hair in the backseat. And I thought to myself, “How cool is this?” I still think that.
When I was a teen, our family was visiting my grandmother and family. My mom and I had to go out shopping for a dress to wear to a wedding. As with many teenagers, my idea of the dresses I wanted did not align with the dresses my mom wanted for me. It was proving impossible to find anything that fit well and I liked, and that my mom also approved of. I think we found a dress, but I came home angry and crying. (I’d imagine my mom did, as well.) As I stomped through the door, I started venting to Grandma and burst into another round of sobs. She held me, and I can remember her saying: “She just wants what’s best for you. She’s trying to help you.” With any other person, that would’ve angered me even more, but somehow it helped calm me down.
Grandma loved traveling both domestically and internationally but had a special place in her heart for Lake Superior. Anytime she was by or on that icy cold but crystal clear water, she was content. That love — for both adventure and Lake Superior — is something she shared with me.
In 2009, she had a stroke that caused her to become nonverbal. Since then, time with Grandma consisted of me regaling to her my latest adventures, and often misadventures, or just holding her hand while watching the Hallmark Channel’s endless cheesy movies or the British sitcom “Keeping Up Appearances.” Sometimes it meant breaking her out of the nursing home to enjoy the community’s festive events, whether the homecoming parade, the Christmas lighted parade and tree lighting ceremony, or a night of music by the city band in which my sister played her saxophone. In the her last months, my time with her included picking up a DQ Blizzard (with permission from the nursing staff) and a bouquet of flowers with me to our outside socially distant visits.
Grandma was a spitfire who was sharp as a tack through her later years and a prankster who kept the nurses on their toes — which is probably why they loved her so much. The residents all had spots around a dinner table. A lady at my grandmother’s table was put on a dietary restriction of just a half a glass of water per meal, a decision she was not happy about and would verbalize to everyone around her. After weeks of complaints, the residents around the table were growing annoyed. Finally, the day came where this particular resident was to get a full glass of water. My grandmother was seated to the table early on that day, and seeing the full glass of water, she took it and poured a little more water into everyone else’s cup, bringing the water glass back down to about half full. You can imagine everyone around the table chuckling, and later, the resident’s horror when she found the glass. “I’m supposed to have a full glass today,” she made sure to tell the dietary aid, who was confused given the glass was full just moments earlier. One of the nurses saw Grandma’s sly grin and quickly figured out what happened. The resident got her full glass of water that day, but not after the residents at the table, the nurses, and the dietary aid staff got a good laugh.
The nursing staff served and cared for my Grandma like she was their own. And it wasn’t just the staff who loved on her. Nicole, her hairdresser, glammed Grandma up and spoiled her every time she went to go get her locks trimmed. Grandma loved to get all dolled up by Nicole, who truly looked forward to when my grandmother sat in her chair.
And while there are many who loved my Grandma in her last years of life, I want to take this moment to honor my mother, who has faithfully visited her mother in the nursing home at least six days a week, often seven, for the last 11 1/2 years, helping her brush her teeth or change clothes. She and my father both have been the epitome of sacrifice and grace, of loving and caring for her in her old age.
To Grandma Burg, I’ll love you forever. Thank you for the time you spent with me. For playing “bowl heads” and reading to me as a young child, for spoiling me with DQ ice cream cakes or chocolate milk, for coming to dance competitions and music performances, the trips to the ballet, and dinners out while in college… for simply loving me and spending time with me. Every moment I spent with you, I cherish. And I will miss you immensely.
To those reading this — this column isn’t intended to be political. It isn’t intended to further fuel our divide over how to handle this pandemic. But I do want to remind everyone that so far 247,000 lives just in the U.S. have been claimed because of this virus. And each of those lives is a loved one who will no longer be sitting at the dinner table during Thanksgiving or around the tree opening presents on Christmas morning, not just this year but for every year to come. Let’s not forget that while we healthily debate how to move forward as a country. And remember that each day with loved ones is not a given. Sit with them, even if socially distanced. Hug them if you can. Send them cards, flowers, gifts, photos. Call them. Especially the elderly in care facilities, who are so often forgotten.