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as seen on phillyBurbs.com

"Hi sweetheart," my grandmother said to me, as if nothing was really wrong.

Her stroke-affected lip is curled up to the left with paralysis, creating an Elvis-like sneer.

The skin around her face is so taut now with dehydration that at first we - myself and my parents - walk immediately out of her room, failing to recognize her, even though they just saw her in the hospital emergency room last week.

But there was something about the eyes - those blue/grey, pleading eyes - that said, "Yes, it's me."

So when we began searching other rooms for her on the floor of this rehabilitation hospital in Camden yesterday, I literally had to stop and say, "I think that was her."

A final check with a floor nurse proved my hunch right. But it wasn't until she spoke, a hoarse phlegmy whisper, that I think any of us really believed it.

"Hi sweetheart," my grandmother said to me, as if nothing was really wrong.

As if she was not withered to half the woman I knew her to be. As if her now frail arms, which clutched me to her bosom so many times in my youth, were not black and blue from the repeated poking and prodding of needles.

A few minutes later, I can't help but laugh as she jokes that she can't wait to get out of here and take a trip to a casino.

"You want to play some slots," I said teasingly.

"No, I like blackjack," she mouths. "And poker."

Me too, I tell her. I didn't have the heart to say that's where I was last week when she was first wheeled into the ICU.

At 87, she is now perhaps my oldest living relative.

I say perhaps because feuds on both sides of the family, most of which pre-date my birth, keep me from knowing all my distant relatives.  The family tree is so confusing to me that an hour earlier I was showing my father how to use genealogical software to track it - my birthday gift to him.

The relationship with her side of the family has been strained at best since I saw my mother like this nearly 20 years ago. I was a college freshman as cancer ate away at her then, first robbing her of her voice. Yet, I can still recall my mom pushing her mom away from her in a final hospital room argument between them.

Ten years later, my dad's mom broke her hip and later succumbed to pneumonia in another hospital room. Like this one, it was much too warm. And I remember hearing her rattle off the names of my brother's cats before I nodded off. I woke up to hear her arguing about - of all things - child-molesting priests. A few days later she was gone.

These thoughts are swirling now in my head as my lone-surviving grandmother starts franticly pushing the call-button for the nurse. She has to go to the bathroom. My step-mom slips out to find a nurse or an aide to help. When one arrives a few minutes later, we excuse ourselves to the hallway to give them privacy.

The nurse helped her into a wheelchair and pushed her out to see us before what I'm sure was an arduous task of helping her relieve herself. My grandmother smiles at us, almost oblivious to the catheter and bag near her ankle that are now filled with urine.

"I hate the indignity that comes with age," I tell my stepmom.

Ten minutes later, my grandmother is back in bed. She looks tired now, exhausted from the exertion. I tell her were going to let her rest and kiss her forehead.

"Don't worry," she says, adding my uncle will be here soon to visit her.

Dave Ralis' Pave The Grass column appears on Mondays. You can send him an e-mail at  or call him at 215-269-5051. To read his previous columns, click here.

March 1, 2004