By Sonia Greenfield.
Three summers ago I found myself socked into my grandmother’s bed with my infant son sleeping next to me in his Pack-n-Play. The old, dusty air conditioner churned and wept down the slumped front porch, but the room was cool. The groan of this window unit was the only sound, this and the click and scratch of my mechanical pencil as I filled in the book of New York Times crossword puzzles I picked up at the airport in Seattle. All around me I saw the sad accumulation of old age—pill bottles, ointments, stained sweatshirts, and a thick layer of grime—but underneath these mounds, if I dug deep enough, I could find the gold piping and flounce of my grandmother’s stylish years. This is why I felt socked in. Nothing was ever thrown away; it was just buried. The new on top of the old, which was really like the old on top of the less old. And this made my grandmother’s room, her whole house, a bit of a burial ground with nothing more than narrow paths to travel between the heaps of purses, VHS and eight track tapes, old make-up, shoes, costume jewelry, books, newspapers, diabetic snack bars, and so on. There was something about retreating from the emotional to the cerebral, something about shrugging off the weight of lost years, of lost youth, that made me fill each puzzle, turn the page, and start the next one. What’s a seven-letter word for “tremendous” beginning with m? The answer was massive.
I received the call— well, calls— a few days before. My stepfather who lived in the upstairs apartment with my mother found my grandmother unresponsive in her bed, which was the same bed I was, by necessity, sleeping in just a few days later. Even though I spent the last half of my childhood in the second story apartment with my immediate family, there was no room for me, for us, now. I got the call in Seattle from my brother’s cell phone while everyone was gathered in my grandmother’s room at Hudson Valley Hospital, and I was put on the phone with my grandmother, who could not talk or move most of her body, who could not swallow or smile, who could not respond when I began to cry in her ear. I was told, though, that tears ran down her face, and that she bit her lip on one side as I said how sorry I was that I could not help her. Even when you know that the cruel discomforts of old age will be alleviated, when you know that death is inevitable—especially for an eighty-three year old woman who has been in decline for years— it does not mean that when the time comes, a cool stoicism will settle on you. It does not mean you will feel relieved. What’s a six-letter word for “smooth” ending with e? The answer was stroke. My Nana had a massive one in her bed, and my baby and I flew out for what I came to understand was a vigil as we waited out the two long weeks it took her to die. My grandmother’s name was Rose.
It was possible that first week to believe in some sort of rebound, as if, as each day passed, Rose would regain the functions of her body, but we were told that the bleed was major. We dug through every ream of paperwork we could find in her apartment, looking for her living will. When I found it, the instructions were simple: no feeding tube, no resuscitation, no heroic measures, but these instructions also required interpretation. Rose could not swallow, so she could not eat or drink. No feeding tube was clearly stated, but what about an IV? Based on the language and attitude presented, my mother had to assume that an IV was a kind of feeding tube, so no IV. But not just that: it was apparent that there would be no quality of life. Before Rose was transported from Hudson Valley to Calvary in the Bronx, she was detached from her IV. She became a body at sea.
My husband, the ER nurse, says that death is more or less painful, and the more medication you give to alleviate the pain, the more you hasten the exit. The sisterhood of opiates are angels of mercy, but only when administered without fear of spiritual repercussions. In other words, in the plainest language, if you want to keep a dying patient comfortable, you will hurry her to the door. Yet Cavalry was Catholic and would not risk such sin. Mercy must only come at the hands of God. And Rose was a believer. In those tinseled childhood years when the birth of Jesus was more magical than Santa, I remember hanging a Pope John Paul II ornament on her tree. I hope her faith sustained her through the last days; I prayed for it as much as I could with what lingering faith I had left. The small scapular flags were like postage stamps of saints strung on a black cord around her neck, and they let us know that her death had been already blessed by a priest. I wished we could have had her blessed with a bolus of Morphine.
Meanwhile, Rose couldn’t say if she was cold, so we drew up her sheets. On the television we flicked between the Yankees and a re-run of Family Feud. Which was right? Once, as we came and talked her through this slow dying, she gestured towards her mouth, yet we could only wet it. She was free of most tubes, but the catheter bag at the side of her bed grew dark and perilous. I couldn’t bear to look at it. The rosary was stuck on an Our Father, her hand curled around it, her nail polish weeks old. Beyond the window, the Bronx glared at us, the summer sun mocking that hospice room with something like cheer, and it was then that I saw her father’s face in her own.
In that vertiginous moment of being pulled back in time too quickly, with such force, I found myself again at age six in a dress with ribbons, the family gathered at the Boniello house on McKinley for Palm Sunday lunch with pasta and good Italian bread, Rose and all her brothers and sisters still in the prime of their late forties, Great Grandpa Boniello so old and so much of the old world, his English funneled through a thick Neapolitan accent. But then the film strip was yanked forward again, back to the present tense, to Rose’s face in a kind of repose. I saw something of the generational that day, a handing on of suffering. Will I see my grandmother’s face in my mother’s on her deathbed? Will my son see his grandmother’s face in mine as he sits vigil over me? What’s a five letter word for Successor to Pope John X? Ends in I? Leo VI. Christ, I thought, my puzzle nearly undone by the trickery of roman numerals.
Memories cannot be orderly. When I was eleven, my grandfather died in bed next to my grandmother. She was in her fifties but never remarried or even really dated. Not long after his death, we took the train down to Manhattan and went to Broadway shows. Me both the lucky and unlucky recipient of the tickets that would have been his. I loved him as a father. I would spend nights with my widowed grandmother— I don’t remember when— and in the mornings I would climb in bed with her where she would run her fingers through my very long hair. I was her shopping companion, though the chance she would embarrass me was always present; she was likely to bicker with the checkers over prices, over just about anything, really. She would make me tea, served in Tupperware tumblers, the tannins slicked down with too much milk and sugar. When I spoke with her about a family member’s breakdown, she was taken by surprise by her own grief, and so I was doubly stricken. When my grandfather would argue with her in the Cadillac on the way home from church, me riding atop the arm-rest in the backseat, she would respond by humming, and the more he would try to bicker, the louder became her song.
When I left New York for San Francisco in 1994, she was still matching her shoes to her bags, she was still driving, and though I was gone, my brother took over as her companion. But then when he struck out into the world, my sister and mother finally took over in those last years. They would shop for her, do her laundry, take her to appointments, and, finally, even bathe her. She hated how aging robbed her of dignity. It made her angry.
I have two pictures of her holding my son, her great grandson. You can see stains on the chair she spent most of her time in, a scatter of newspapers and mail is pressed up against the wall, the table next to the chair is a city of bottles: salves, rubs, pain killers, supplements, eye drops, and Pepto Bismol. I simultaneously hated and was grateful for how far gone I was from the decline. Each year I came to visit, there was less of the woman I knew— as if she were dissolving slowly— but then I would board my plane back to the West Coast and leave all the sadness in rear-view, locked behind the wooden door with the glass window with the broken blinds, the one you have to walk around to from the front of the house, the place where I was sleeping with my baby waiting, waiting, waiting. I would listen to the messages from her friends with the Catholic Daughters of America record on her answering machine, but I wouldn’t pick-up.
In the hospital, I couldn’t be alone in the room with her. I wanted to ask if this was what she wanted, if she was afraid of dying, if she was ready to test her faith, but I couldn’t ask because, for the first part of the dying, she was able to answer questions with a blink or slight nod. And I was afraid of her answers. I didn’t know what to say. What’s a seven-letter word for “Hitchcock Classic” starting with T and ending with S? The Birds. Sneaky. That’s two words. She was afraid of them. Birds, that is. As a child, she was swarmed by them, and that fear held on for eighty years. Memories are not orderly: I conjure a red-headed girl in a Depression-era dress devoid of ribbons, her arms swirling over her head, the birds shrieking. But I was never there.
The inevitable collection of calls came in, this time as I slept in Rose’s bed. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but somehow I was. After so long it had seemed as though she would remain suspended in that liminal space forever, and I was caught off-guard at how easily the tears sprang up, but I’m not sure that I was weeping for her. After all, she had spent the last five years of her life barely able to walk and looking for some remedy for the discomforts of aging. Every day, it seemed, some special order arrived in the mail in the hopes that it would making the end years of aging less painful. Even after she passed, the packages continued to arrive, and I would do my best to stack them neatly on her radiator.
My grief was complicated. It was tied to my loss of faith and the feeling that all of her suffering at the behest of her Catholicism was not going to reunite her, at long last, to my grandfather who was gone for so many years, nor would it reunite her to her mother, dead too young, and the one brother who died as a small child. The one she described over coffee at her sister’s house— the tailored perfection of his small suit on the day of his wake. And so I found myself saying, I’m sorry to her missing presence in her home and to the God I wanted to have faith in, though most of my faith had been lost to me years ago, chipped away by each mass casualty and unnecessary loss of human life. I wept I’m sorry to the grandfather I hoped to see again in some afterlife that I couldn’t believe in.
My grandmother had photos on her dresser so thick with dust that it resembled moss. One of the photos was my fourth grade school picture, which was taken when the trend was to have a half-profile image floating above and to the right of the smiling profile shot below, as if I were my own guardian angel. It was also the year when I had cut off the long childhood locks and wore the winged-back feathering made so popular by Farrah Fawcett. I cried then and said goodbye not just to Rose but to the childhood a grandparent’s presence allows access to. Now I was adrift in adulthood, severed from that girl on the bureau with the 70s haircut, each memory disappearing down the rabbit hole of advancing time. So I waved a sad goodbye to all I knew when Rose still lived: her, standing for herself, but also standing, somehow, for my youth. It was as if each piece of her costume jewelry held a small moment in its heart— maybe a trip for lemon Italian ice in the back of another Cadillac; maybe a game of War played with cards at my Aunt Annie’s house, me up too late, my arms aching with growing pains; maybe a trip to the cemetery with palms clutched in my hands to be left for Rose’s mother— and now it was all to be carted off to Goodwill, no longer accessible to my imagination even if it all really was. I was sure I was losing more than Rose.
My last images of her were not after death. She is held in my mind on that deathbed in Calvary. I had to fly back to Seattle two days before her services because my job was on the line, and I had already been gone nearly three weeks. I could not see her put to rest, but I was able to tell her goodbye with her soul still in her body, though who can say if a soul is ever set free, if it even exists. Faith can seem like a gorgeous, gossamer thing or like a glitch on the retina; when you try to look at it, it floats out of eyesight.
I have been back since and went in the dead of winter to the veteran’s cemetery where she again rests next to my grandfather. His name was Norman. She always slept on her side of the bed all the years after his death. Sometimes when you visit a grave, a formal feeling comes: Emily Dickenson’s then the letting go, but it wasn’t so on that bitter day in January. I thanked the flat, bronze plates in the slushy grass for something resembling a normal childhood, then I wiped my tears and snot, and watched a flag being folded nearby as another family said goodbye. Back in the car again, going north again, it looked as if some of the trees were burned, but it was just shade contrast against trunks by a cold, bright sun. Yet that’s how we share a neck of the woods with our kin: Now and then in our intimacy we’re cast into the gloom of someone else’s undoing. What is a four-letter word for “ointment”? The answer is Balm, which can be anything that heals pain, I guess.
Sonia Greenfield is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer who calls Los Angeles home where she lives with my husband, son, and feral dog. Her poetry has appeared in a variety of publications including The Massachusetts Review, The Antioch Review, Rattle, and the 2010 Best American Poetry, and her chapbook, Circus Gravitas, is available from Finishing Line Press. Her latest piece of fiction can be found in PANK online, and her latest essays can be found on Role Reboot. Sonia teaches writing at USC.