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6

When Grandma Comes Home, We Will

In the morning, eyes woken, warmed yogurt on my tongue, a spoon firm in my fingers, I marvelled at how alive I was. On a bed in the next room, my grandfather dressed slowly, pulling long pants over his legs. Often I came across him standing before an open closet, struggling to remember what he was looking for. But for the visit to the hospital he insisted on wearing ironed trousers, a button down shirt. His fingers shook. The more frail he was, the more proud I felt of my youth, as if it was a quality I had cultivated.

In the hospital, a lift attendant took a look at my grandfather and asked, Patient?

No, we said. Here to see his wife.

I took my grandpa’s shoes off while he sat in an administrator’s chair we borrowed. Where my hands touched his ankles, flakes of skin rubbed off.

We came into a room with fourteen beds where my grandma lay in one, her stomach rising and falling from the air the ventilator pushed into her, her cheeks sunken because they had removed her dentures, a machine above her head sounding three tones. She was still in a room with the living. An old man lay in another bed, his diaper exposed, and a middle-aged man drank water from a cup a nurse held to him. Car crash, I thought, he would be out of here soon.

Outside the ICU a note taped to the wall said not to touch the patient or the bed, but my grandpa asked in his low voice, a voice of gardening and birding, if he could touch her. He raised an arm over the railing and touched with the tips of his crooked fingers her arm, below the nook of the elbow where, from a week of syringes, her skin had bruised the color of storm clouds. Before we turned away, I circled--wanting, inexplicably, for nobody to notice what I was doing--from the foot of the bed, where I had been standing, closer to her chest. I wanted to touch her too. I still believed she was sleeping, or sedated. What I touched was a blanket on her chest, and I was afraid to apply any pressure, because she looked like she was in a place of fragile shelter, where anything, the fall of a leaf, a misplaced palm, could open a rift.

A nurse asked us to wait nearby, they wanted to do an x-ray.

X-ray, my father repeated, in a way which indicated it was no use. It annoyed me. Why was he giving up? She was still being treated. They were drawing blue curtains around her and rolling an x-ray machine over her bed. It must be for her kidneys, which were beginning to malfunction.

We sat my grandpa in the administrator’s chair once more. The chair had wheels. The administrator stood, talking on the phone. My grandpa was crying, my father was crying, and I became aware, looking at the nurses’ bored faces, that I was crying.

The scene is over, and it is time to move out of the room, back to the corridor of waiting relatives, where cell phones rang, revealing embarrassing things about their owners, and other funny things happened. I overheard a man, who had dashed out of the elevator and approached two women, ask after the health of someone.

They replied. “Expired,” they said.

“So he’s fine?” the man said. He had not heard. It happens to everyone, we don’t hear, and we make a wild guess at what it is that the other person has said.

“Expired,” they repeated.

But on this page it is possible to remain in the room with my grandma, living. So I will. At that time I was working, vaguely, on a story about a man who learns that his daughter has died, and it was a kind of serious-minded flattery of myself as an artist that I undertook when I observed the environment. In my mind I gathered the sheets of paper taped to a pillar in the middle of the room with codes for different emergencies; I saw a door, ajar; I noted the ledger in which a nurse wrote the name of a patient who was to be moved to a general room. I collected details, believing that this attentiveness set me apart from the sick ones, the caretakers, all the people who were unable to see the ethnographic wealth of this place. It was a kind of good fortune that took me there.

But I must have known that my grandma was not really in the room. There was a stern but kind guard at the door to the ICU who enforced the removal of shoes and entering of one guest at a time. But he let all three of us in, so he must have known, too. A few hours later, when my father and I returned from the pharmacy with two full bags of packaged syringes and asthma medicines--supplies the doctor had told us to buy--I stood outside the ICU door while my father went in. When the door swung open, I caught a glimpse of my father standing at the administrator’s desk. He saw me and shook his head.

Eventually they returned the unused medicines. But at that moment, my father came out empty handed. I don’t remember what he said--maybe he said it is over, maybe he said it is the end, or maybe he said mother has died. There were only the two of us, and I was peripherally aware of the corridor of waiting relatives watching us cry. We were everything they dreaded, but I felt too that there was a touch of fascination about the whole thing. Our relative had died. We were now in a region of affairs nobody else knew. It made me feel special, more special than the sickest person in the hospital.

In that moment, with my father sitting on a red plastic chair, holding me while he cried like a child, I felt a suspicion that this was a spectacle for me. A newly discovered territory from which I could mine knowledge. My mind returned to the story I was writing, which aspired to deal intimately with the death of a child, but I did not know death, let alone the death of a child. This was the closest I was. I thought, what does this feel like? How to write this moment?

My father phoned my mother. He wandered away down the corridor, talking on the phone. When he came back, I held him and we cried some more. He no longer needed to sit. Why did we draw a chair for him, make him sit, the first time? He would not faint, or collapse.

He cried from grief, I imagined, but I cried like an instinct which offered no shades of emotion. It was simply what my body did.

What I told no one is that I cried from guilt, too. She was in the hospital for a week before she died, but I did not visit her. My mother or father visited every day, and she told them that she wanted to come home, that she was cold, that she did not like the place. But who likes a hospital? She had not treated her asthma properly for decades, I told my mother in anger. She went out to a winter fair where, agitated by thousands of feet, red earth swirled in the air. Sometimes she stopped taking her medicine because it was too complicated--cutting open a little vial, plugging it into a machine, pouring exactly five drops of water in the machine, breathing deeply the fumes generated--she said she did not need such expensive medicines any more. Serves her right, I said to my mother, now she has to be in a hospital. And I did not go to see her, my grandmother, who lay for a week in a hospital bed, her face shrivelled, her dentures resting in a dish of water in, strangely, my room. When I was a child I would laugh at how her face collapsed when she took her dentures out. And she would protest, saying, you don’t know, you don’t know. When I was young, I used to be beautiful.


























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