The sound of hundreds of screaming voices rises up, filling the enormous room. The darkness is cast aside by the swish of moving stage lights and it smells of hot sweat, stale beer and leather. A huge man with no hair and eight earrings plows into me, dumping his Budweiser down my shirt. He attempts to wipe it off, but is intercepted by my fist. My wheelchair-bound grandmother is yelling at dancing fans to “move!”
This was last Saturday night at an Alan Jackson concert in Glens Falls, N.Y. with my dying 85-year old “Gammie,” my mother, who was questioning her sanity, and too many drunk, hardcore Americans wearing cowboy hats.
How did I get here?
My Gammie has suffered through a life tougher than most. She left her abusive marriage years ago and raised four young children alone, always working several jobs and still barely making enough to survive.
She never remarried or even dated again; she had lost her faith in love. She never travelled or went on adventures. Her bucket-list remains unfilled, and now there is no time left to complete it.
My Gammie’s body is betraying her. She can no longer walk, see with both eyes or live without 24-hour care.
That’s why I wanted to help her check off at least one of her life goals; to meet country singer Alan Jackson.
So I set out to accomplish this. I wanted to show Gammie that not every dream of hers had been forgotten.
I sent out countless emails to various Facebook pages, fan websites and forum boards. Finally, I got a response. And suddenly the dream seemed close enough to touch.
The thought of Gammie meeting him made my heart quiver. Maybe he would hold her hand, or sign her shirt with a personal message. Maybe he would tell her how beautiful she looked, despite her dissolving health. Maybe he would bring to life a small part of her that had faded with each passing year.
I wanted all of these things for her, because she missed out on so much happiness that life has to offer.
So I waited for the email that would explain the details of the meeting that night. And I kept waiting. By Saturday afternoon my inbox remained empty and a solid ball of panic nestled itself deep in my belly. It told me that the brief hope I had for Gammie had vanished, and I could feel sadness for her spread through my body, all the way to my fingertips.
But I pushed those feelings aside, and vowed to still make the night enjoyable.
We had dinner at some bustling Mexican restaurant that had a buckin’ bronco out front and was decorated with hundreds of Christmas lights inside. We made a scene shoving the heavy wooden table around so her wheelchair to fit, spilling the pitcher of water and knocking off the salt shaker. My mother had maybe one too many mango margaritas while she argued with Gammie about why she should order something more substantial than onion rings from the appetizer menu.
“You’re going to be hungry in an hour,” mom said, using the same tone she uses with my 5-year old sister when all she wants to eat are peanut M&M’s. “And I am not spending $10 on a boiled hotdog once we get there, so eat something real.”
My Gammie huffed and mom ended up ordering for her. Chicken taco salad in “one of those crunchy, greasy shells!” Gammie shouted to our poor waitress before she could walk away.
We finished dinner and made our way to the Civic Center, already bursting with people even though we were more than an hour early.
After wrangling the wheelchair out of the Toyota and getting Gammie into it, the next task was getting her down the hill we had parked on.
Gravity can do drastic things to heavy wheelchairs on a steep decline.
I was the driver, and as we made our way down the hill I realized this was an adventure all by itself.
“Hold on Gammie, we’re about to make quite the entrance I’m afraid.”
I was using all of my bodyweight to keep that thing from rolling out of control, but it started to pull me faster anyway. Suddenly, my mom is behind me, her hands grasping my belt. We must have looked ridiculous; Gammie sitting in her chair, totally unaware that we are gradually picking up speed, an absent minded grin on her face, me holding on to the handles and leaning as far back as possible, silently praying that my sweaty hands don’t slip, and mom just stretching out my new belt, giggling that somewhere out there she had a large dose of good karma coming back to her soon.
But we did make it inside without real harm, even after driving poor Gammie into several doorframes.
The first thing she said when we found our seats; “You must have waited too long to buy the tickets, Beth. But I guess beggars can’t be choosers.”
My poor mom had actually spent a fortune on these ground floor seats, and we had an excellent view of the stage. She gave me a slightly deflated look then simply shrugged the comment off.
Gammie mostly complained while the opening band played. I mostly people-watched. There was a middle aged, barefoot couple who could not stop straddling each other, despite the fact that they were in public. And then there was a woman dressed from hat to heel in white who apparently thought bringing her newborn son to a concert was completely normal.
While looking around, I noticed the security staff guarding the entrance to the back of the stage. My mother picked up on this as well and suggested that I go flirt with them for a cause. When I protested, I got the response: “Bryanna Leigh, your grandmother is old and sick. You WILL be a good granddaughter and go flirt with those security guys in order to get backstage.”
I sighed, walked over and gave it my best shot.
But all I got were four phone numbers, a few free beers and an offer to share a soft pretzel.
Not exactly what I had been after.
When the concert started, the excitement is contagious. The only person who stayed quiet throughout, other than the occasional demand to get out of her way, was my Gammie. She simply sat in her chair, her good foot tapping the sticky concrete floor, her head bobbing to the beat, a content smile on her weathered face.
My mom and I sat beside her that night, silently sharing the same experience, the same emotions.
Three generations of quirky, almond-loving, blue-eyed Rickstad women were creating an adventure together, and that was the most important part of the night.
On the drive home, I sat in the back, my ears ringing from the noise, my head resting on the cold window. Sleep shifted in and out of me, lulled by the rhythm of the car and the Alan Jackson CD playing low. As I was about to slip into darkness, I heard my grandmother’s voice, a soft hum.
“Thank you, Beth. I sometimes feel that you and Bryanna are the only ones who still care. Tonight meant the world to me. I’m glad I could share it with you.”
She reached over, and clutched my mother’s hand. My mother returned the gesture, gently squeezing her wrinkled, arthritic fingers.
“I’m glad too, mom. I’m glad too.”
Hearing that private, intimate exchange of words put my heart at ease. I smiled to myself and let sleep take me.