My grandmother died a year ago today. I stood by a hospital bed alone a leap year ago and they turned off the machine and her heart stopped beating and her mouth went slack. I started on a trip around the sun then that hasn’t been pretty and at times has been absolutely horrifying.
My internet is down in my house tonight which is probably a good thing because I’m forced to write like I used to, in Word and words, without interruptions and tweets and twitters and pings and blips and whatever the hell else occupies my time these days although it shouldn’t. I’m coming to the conclusion that I’m a semi-early adopter who’s getting tired. I’m learning to depend on things I shouldn’t for things that don’t satisfy me and I don’t know what the hell that’s about.
Anyway, I digress. My grandmother died. My mother was riding in a car up the highway, not there when it happened, and no one else – NO ONE ELSE – was there except for me, which really in so many ways was the worst case scenario for all three of us. I can’t explain that adequately – the reasons for me being there alone – without a lot of depressing and in some cases just factual backstory and that’s not really part of this scenario anyway. It’s just the way it turned out.
I had left the hospital not an hour before, because I had to get out or I was afraid that I would scream or say something terrible out loud that I was only thinking. She was off the wall and so agitated and couldn’t be calmed, not by me anyway.
“Where’s your motha, where’s your motha?” she kept saying in the strange old Maryland dialect that you just don’t hear that much anymore. “Where is she? Where is she? Can this bed go down? I want the bed to go down. No no not like that, I just want to lay down.”
And I couldn’t keep the bed in the right position. I was told not to put it all the way down but what do you do when someone repeatedly asks for something? The inclination is to give it to them, yes? In my world it is, anyway, and I just didn’t know what to do with not being able to do that. I didn’t know this was what death looked like, the nurse who clearly didn’t know either said she was fine so to me it was just another hellish afternoon in a hospital.
“Where’s your motha? Where’s your motha? Is she still on vacation? Oh I’m so sorry you’re here all by yourself for this. I’m so sorry you’re alone. You are an angel, a brown-eyed angel.”
Actually what I was was a pissed off, frustrated, totally uncomfortable spawn of satan in my heart. That was all I was and all I could bring myself to be. Someone had brought her a Milky Way. It sat by her bed in the intermediate care, her heart apparently failing in retrospect as it had threatened to do for so many years and yet every time she’d pop back up like that clown punching bag we had when I was a kid.
The same nurse came in a bit before I left and asked me if she’d always been like this? If this was her personality or something else more unusual? And I didn’t really know what to say, except sure, maybe a Xanax would help. They gave her a cup of coffee and a Xanax. The nurse aide – tall, big, African-American, resolute in her nurse aiding - was much more helpful than I was at that point. She offered her sugar for her coffee and my grandmother said, “You don’t think I’m sweet enough?” and cackled like she did, so really, this is what death looks like? How in the hell could you tell?
So I left. And my mom called sobbing from somewhere on 95, telling me to go back, that it was a grave situation, just 20 minutes after I’d run the five minutes back to the house to let my dog out and sought some weird kind of peace from vacuuming that I can promise you I haven’t since. By the time I got back the same apparently completely unskilled nurse was there to tell me they’d moved her to intensive and two minutes later I was standing there looking at her vacant, milky eyes, crying and saying “Is she gone?” like a medical show cliché and knowing she really had been before I got back, that what they do for you so you won’t completely lose your shit really is sometimes just a formality, just like ER, except maybe they won’t get to have the part where they go have sex in a closet. Maybe.
I sat with her dead in the intensive care room for the three hours it took my mother to get back. My aunt by marriage on my dad’s side came up at that point and sat with me. The nurses brought a phone in and I laid it on the bed and called the people I had to call, fielded a call from a ridiculous distant not-relative that gave the whole thing just enough Montel Williams-style flair to totally disgust me, and tried to get ahold of a priest with the help of my sister in California and the Internet.
It was not a good day, and it led to a not-good week and a month that ended rapidly, thank God. The months since then have seemed to be entirely about someone else, most of the time, but I know and in spite of all wisdom that says I should not admit it that they have mostly been about her. My grandmother and I had some problems. Or, I should say, I had some problems with her, and they didn’t exactly glow bright and shiny on those last two days of her life that, as it turned out I would spend with her. I won’t go into much of it here because of my mother, and only my mother, I should be clear. Maybe someday when I’m an old woman all sun-leathery on some east coast beach I’ll tell it all, but maybe I won’t. Maybe by then I won’t care. Maybe I’ll have filed it away by then like last year’s taxes and I’ll just be satisfied with a bloody Mary and my faded indignation, the kind that really looks bad on paper.
I don’t know. I don’t know shit about the future and often times I know much less than I think I should about the past. Just one day last September I was driving down a road I know really well and an assisted living facility called me and told me to go to a hospital I also know really well because my grandmother was there and I went there looking for the wrong one. I tore into the place looking for my dad’s mom, the one for whom it was not out of the question that they’d call me. And when I got there and didn’t find her I panicked and thought I was at the wrong hospital and went outside and called my mother and she told me that no, it was the other grandmother and the right hospital and so I went back inside and it all went downhill from there. And I’ve also filed this away as the main reason I get unspeakably angry when people assume that single people with no children have no idea what family responsibility means. I know it’s hard, but I’ll take a year with a two-year old hopped up on Red Bull over two days in a hospital with a sick old person.
I sat there and tried to say the right things those two days. I tried not to be pissed off that this was happening to me – TO ME, and yeah, go ahead and judge, feel free, I have a million times over-and because I was having to try not to be pissed off I felt guilty and because I felt guilty I was just a mess. I felt sorry for myself that I was alone and single although that really has nothing to do with it on its face and my dog (who would break my heart again by dying almost six months later) was old and I was just trying to do this ONE thing, this going to school thing and here it was the second week, and the day to go to the online newsroom and I couldn’t go and oh FUCK really? REALLY GOD? Because I am one of those people who calls upon God in those moments. But it’s not like it’s the only time. There are other times. I’m thankful too. I know what a gratitude prayer is and also a prayer of supplication and I consider my car a makeshift confessional and I don’t need a priest thank you very much, Catholic school here, lots of it, so I know where to find him and I don’t consider myself that much of a fair-weather God caller, I really don’t.
It was awkward to sit with her there, in the emergency room and in her room upstairs later, and that made it painful because I really am one of the more empathetic and compassionate people I know. I could maybe feel your sadness from way over there and in most cases I want to take it on and fix it. There were all of these feelings, I had all of these FEELINGS and I hated them, I wanted to believe all of the things she said then and I couldn’t. I wanted to feel good, like this was where I was supposed to be because this was my family member who needed me and who woudn’t feel good about helping in that case?
I wanted to feel like I felt 25 years ago. I wanted to go back to being a fat little kid who toddled around the Safeway with her believing she was one of the best people who ever lived, while I threw trash like Ho-Hos and Soap Opera Digest and onion dip in the cart and she’d buy it because the only thing she liked more than drama was junk food too and we’d take it all home and settle in for the Love Boat and Fantasy Island and I’d tear through that crap not LIKE a fat kid likes onion dip but AS a fat kid who liked onion dip. There’s a difference, jokey jokesters.
We were friends then. I didn’t know anything and didn’t challenge anything and I had no idea what would happen to us 25 years out, in the ER, where it was so different, where I was an overweight woman with a schedule and a car payment and some time in therapy where not a little of the chit-chat had involved her.
(I don’t go IN that Safeway if I don’t have to, and I’ve only had to once in the past 15 years. I don’t even like to drive by it. So it was kind of interesting this summer when I actually did go back to a little bit of therapy to work through this nightmare that the office was right across the street from that damned grocery store.)
I wish I could say that this year has been transformative in utterly good ways. I wish I could say that I’d been nice at her funeral to people I don’t like. I wish that a month and a half after she died I didn’t get into a ridiculous conversation with my ex-boyfriend after a bottle of wine and tell him in language completely the opposite of what was in my heart that I never wanted to speak to him again, broken as I was on the rocks of my life wherein nothing was working and taking it out on him seemed like something that would heal me in that moment but it didn’t and in fact made things worse. I wish I could say I’ve forgiven.
I did sort of do one thing right, or at least in a way that didn't make me feel terrible. When we were kids she’d torture us with a singing voice that fit into that category of singing for the Lord in spite of her abilities because it was so terrible. And although she’d long since stopped going to church she sang three songs that all involved Jesus - “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” “Jesus Loves Me” and the third and most horrifying, “The Old Rugged Cross.” I insisted that it be played at her funeral, over the protestations of a nice Episcopal priest who may be seeking a more jazzy vibe in her church, I don’t know. I hung back from my parents and my mother’s siblings and my sister, and I stayed alone behind her as they rolled her in. I was still pissed off and sadder and more uncomfortable than I’ve ever been, but I wore a red blouse instead of just black and I sang that song and that was that. I really tried to call it even.
My mother and her brother were over at my grandmother’s house a day or so after she died. I was sitting at the table and I looked up at the top of the server, as she called it, a huge China closet on top of a chest of drawers, essentially. There were several photos up there, most of my cousin and his several kids, with a couple of me and my sister and our other cousin thrown in.
I saw a guy I didn’t recognize in a terrible orange Lucite frame shaped like the number 1 thrown in among the photos of all of us, and I asked my mother who that was, the guy in the number 1 frame? I don’t know, she said, maybe someone’s kid in the neighborhood from over the years, as my grandmother’s photo albums were crammed with literally hundreds of birth announcements and photos of birthdays, school years, weddings and graduations of her kids’ friends and the people who had come and gone from the neighborhood over the almost 70 years she lived in that house. It wasn’t unusual to see strange faces in the albums.
I got up and took the frame down and sat down with it to study it closer. It was the random paper picture that came with the frame. She had never taken it out or used it for anyone else.
“It isn’t anyone we know. It’s just the picture that came in the frame.”
My mother and her brother cracked up. They are both extremely loud.
“HAHAHAHAHA,” he bellowed. “She probably didn’t even know it wasn’t real! She probably felt bad cause she didn’t remember who he was and she kept him up there anyway. HAHAHAHAHA. She probably felt bad and left him up there with all of you guys.”
I looked down at him. An attractive young man, requisite senior picture, black suit, grayish background, hopeful, graduating stock photo smile, in an orange Lucite frame shaped like a number one.
“This is Cousin Number One,” I said. “He can stand for all of the random people who came in and out of here over the years. It was always someone. Might as well be him.”
My grandmother collected people. Some of them I liked, some of them I didn't. It's an odd tendency, this way of gathering in just as a matter of course. You end up with people who have nowhere else to go - people in some cases who no one else can really stand. As many times as I thought it was nice, I had lots of times where it was like, wow, who are you?
My mother’s brother took the pictures of his son and grandkids down from the top of the server. My mother took the ones of my sister and me. I stuck Cousin Number One in my purse. The symbolism was almost too much to take, but I wasn’t leaving him there.
I took him to her funeral a couple of days later, and in a move that further cemented my sister’s perceptions of me as teetering on the brink of weirdly eccentric and not just blithely neurotic, I took him out of my purse during the service and put him on the hymnal rack, an orange plastic number one guy staring straight at me from the back of the pew.
Strange, yeah, a little. I'm a strange girl at times. But looking at him kept me from completely losing it during the service and when I had to get up on the altar and read, I was pretty much okay and this was a room that I really did not want to lose it in.
He sat there, smiling, just like he did on the shelf at CVS or Michael’s or wherever someone bought that dreadful frame. He sits there today in my mother’s China closet, in with the dishes and the figurines, behind the mini-altar of photos of my grandmother that she put together for her after she died. He's a little bit towards the back, not so obvious in the shadows in the closet.
I like knowing he’s there. He’s everyone, or he could be. And he is not me.