I don’t know what killed it, and I’m not smart enough to figure out how to fix it, so this is my acknowledgement that everything has gone to Hell.
I despise hospitals, although I am grateful for their existence. I hate the sterility and plastic and bare ugliness, punctuated by gaudy bits of colour: the red-faded-pink upholstery on the visitor’s chair, the obligatory, generic landscape print on the wall, the screen written and rewritten over with the green and the yellow lines and (watch this most closely) the pulsing red line, measuring life, as if it were so straightforward.
I thought we walked into the wrong room. I thought my father had made a mistake, and walked into the room of a stranger, a frail, sea-grey old woman. I saw her only a month ago, a little more frail, but still strong, still warm and living. Not like this. My brain lurched and reformatted, and as I looked closer I began to see the things I knew well, the features I’ve loved since I was a baby. Same face, but different skin–how translucent and pale!; same eyes, almost, but a little more milky; same lips, but thin and fading–had I ever seen her without lipstick before?
She was sleeping, so we waited. My mind didn’t play over the past, but peered into the future: into the long, grey days of waiting. Weeks? Months? Only days? Her memory is failing her more often than not, and now her own body has turned against her. When she eats or drinks, her esophagus closes, her lungs fill, and she will asphyxiate. Not today, but someday. It is certain, as certain as doctors ever will ever allow.
I remember the time I thought I was drowning and couldn’t breathe. I remember the way the water filled my ears and mouth and nose, and I sucked in death in reflexive panic.
Please, please, let her die without terror.
She woke up, and looked at us, recognizing her son and her granddaughter. I forced my thoughts to the present and smiled at her.
“I had a dream,” she whispered, “but it was a good dream, not another nightmare.” She won’t tell us what it was.
I took her hand and squeezed it, and cursed my inability to speak from my soul, instead making small talk with variations on the same set of declaratives we always resort to when words aren’t enough: it happened so suddenly; it was so unexpected; you’re getting better, though.
Get well soon. Get well soon. Get well soon.
The cliche becomes a mantra we repeat, hoping it will come true.
I sat for hours, watching her sleep, watching the lines on the monitor drawn and erased and drawn again, making small talk when she woke up, and plying her with water, with warmth, with comfort–all were refused.
We talked about the jobs she had when my father and his brother and sister were growing up. We talked about the houses they lived in and the struggles they had. My grandfather was a teacher, and he wasn’t paid much, but, Grandma said with a sigh, it was what he wanted so we had to make do. She worked as a secretary to accountants, she said she made a good wage, but then amended that to add “for a woman”. Her young adult life was spent in that strange time of upheaval when women were expected to be doting mothers, domestic mules, and hold down a job that paid them a fraction of what male colleagues were paid. But she made it work, somehow, and held together her family and her marriage until her youngest son was in college.
We talked about the horse she had as a child, a mare named Lady. She told me stories about the time she tried to teach her usually sweet and willing mare to jump, and how Lady had objected and, planting her feet, had sent her rider tumbling over her ears. She lived in poverty on a ranch in Oregon, an orphan by age eleven, raised by her uncle and grandmother in the throes of the Great Depression. She told me that the tiny house they lived in was actually a cleaned-out chicken coop, but she didn’t know that until she was an adult. She said that everyone worked, even the children, to try and keep the ranch going. Even her little mare Lady had to do the work of a draft horse.
They had to save and reuse and make do with everything, and oh, how she saved. Their house, that my father and aunt are trying to get ready to sell, is filled to bursting with things spanning decades–centuries, even–and just when it seems the end is in sight, the shop out back is discovered to have a loft packed with boxes of memories: my step-grandfathers blues and whites from his career in the Navy, my father’s Boy Scout badges and high school year books and scholastic awards, books of poetry now over a century old that my great-grandmother gave my great-grandfather, a three-strand pearl necklace that belonged to my great-great-great-great-grandmother, and every card and letter ever received for Birthdays or Christmas or Thank-Yous.
My (step-)grandfather comes in, and so does a Social Worker and they talk practicalities with my father. Grandma is sleeping again, but she wakes up every now and again and I wonder how much she hears and understands as a committee (however benevolent) discusses her
life and death as if she were a very sick pet. The plan says, “Do Not Resuscitate”–she doesn’t want to linger, artificially kept alive while her brain and body decay. My Grandpa agrees to this, but we all know the moment she stops breathing, he’ll call 911 and we’ll repeat the same process, ad infinitum, until finally the machines aren’t enough to play God anymore. I don’t say it, but I want her to stay, I want more time to hear the stories I should have been asking for my whole life. I want more time to hold her hand and kiss her cheek and call her Grandma, and hear her call me “Miss Megan”. But she is tired, and I am selfish to ask.
When I finally leave (long after my father and grandfather had to go), I tell her I love her, and she says it back in a voice that is barely more than a murmur. I walk out of the room and down the hall, and I can’t bring myself to look back. I hope she is sleeping, and I hope someone is there when she wakes.
I am currently taking a poetry class for the Summer quarter which has caused me more anxiety than any other class I’ve taken in recent years. Poetry is so personal – not private, per se, but intimate and sensitive. To offer up writing for critique takes some measure of courage, and I am even more vulnerable with my poetry than any other type of writing. The gravity and self-aggrandisement involved inevitably open it up for criticism: too silly, too vain, exaggerated, overrated, overwrought, unnecessary, foolish. This is what I am spending my time agonising over: a little bit much, not quite good enough, but all I have to give.
What I am Made of
I am made of the high desert hills of Idaho and the mountain spring water of a community well. I am made of the splinters that came from toddling barefoot on the unfinished floors of the house my father built, overlooking the valley. I am made of the steel grey sky punctuated by two eagles soaring and shrieking above me on the wind of a summer storm. I am made of the knowledge of mortality my first pet, a rabbit called Minnie, taught me. She delighted my senses with her satiny fur and quivering nose, and she ate her first litter, leaving only one, a hairless stillborn, that I found dried in placenta to the bottom of the chicken wire cage. My mother said it was nothing, but I knew. I am made of the heat of the Boise summers, when our car had no air conditioning, and the six of us, my brothers and I, waited in the grocery store parking lot, hoping our parents would return with a soda to cool our parched tongues. They didn’t. When I was old enough, I fled the vicious heat, and the town that was too small to hide in, and the house my father built that gave me nightmares. I went West, to the cool, green shores of the Puget Sound, hoping the trees and the rain would be a sufficient salve for my soul. I am made of the loneliness of that first year when I knew no one and rain came not from the sky but from my heart and I thought there was nothing left for me in the world. I am made of the joy of rebuilding my life and making a home with a man that I love and his sweet little daughter who I call my own.