In the nursing home they are teaching her how to walk again. She can go down the hallway with a walker and the physiotherapist. She doesn’t tell us this, of course, she can’t remember our names but she is always very happy to see us. She knows we are good people. The stroke and the meds keep her emotions close to the surface. For 90 yrs she was the hardest woman you’d ever want to meet and now she tears up every time we come or go. I feel so free to talk to her, though. I feel that our relationship is really improving. Every week I tell her about my new job and I love seeing how happy she is for me. I bask in her pleasure. We have the deepest relationship we’ve ever had. Some days I ask if she knows my name and most days she doesn’t. One day she called me “Flossy Cheese” and my mom laughed at me. I got upset and Grandma waved me away with an irritated expression.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” she said.
After I couldn’t email P anymore, after we lost our perfect bubble, I turned to my grandmother in the hospice. She is dying, it is true, but she is made of stronger stuff and so it is taking a long time. It is awful, it is decay and it is everybody’s worst nightmare. Decay has never scared me and every second week I go out to the old converted school building with its wide hallways and perfectly manicured lawns and try and feed her some lunch, the way we used to have lunch together when she was really alive. By this stage she knows I am a friendly face but that is about it. I tell her my name every time and she will argue with me that I am not who I say I am. She always said she loved me, though, so that is unconditional, right? And ultimately that is all anyone is looking for.
It is so macabre that I have fallen in love with this limbo world between life and death. I have gotten to know some of the residents, especially those that can’t talk. I have mourned them sincerely when they died.
The resident that pesters my grandmother the most is a young woman, probably my age, who received a massive head injury when she was thrown out of a moving car. She is wheelchair-bound with a thick speech impediment now. It causes her to choose two key words and repeat them over and over until she is understood. Usually it is, “I love you, love you, love you…” moaning like a dog if one could speak. Her name is Cassandra.
In her previous life she sold her body for drugs and when the men had “used her up” they pushed her out of a moving car. The nurse said she was lucky that cop found her, he was sitting a coffee shop and thought she was a blanket. But that story doesn’t make sense. There would have been a struggle, a sudden braking and then a screeching of tires; the cop should have instinctively known it was not a blanket being thrown out. I wonder if Cassandra thinks she is lucky that the cop found her when he did.
Over the years I have become very good at understanding Cassandra. Cassandra has two children, a girl and a boy and tells me that is the perfect combination; she is very firm that I should have a girl and a boy, too. I think that kind of compassion is very compelling. Despite this my grandmother still calls her “the Boy:” I try to explain to her the truth in the same way I try to convince her of my name but I always fail in the exact same way.
After I shoo Cassandra away, after my grandmother refuses every morsel of food on her plate because it is her last vestige of control, and after she loses her temper, for lack of coherent conversational material I lean close to my grandmother, in a way I never did when she was really alive and I whisper what is really going on in my life. Nothing to scare her of course. Her milky blue eyes belie a sharpness. I would never be surprised if she got up one day, flipped us all the bird and marched out of there. I do this to ease the burden on my heart, in the same way that I had tapped into the darkness to P. Before he became bigger than life. Before he began ignoring me. It’s awful waiting for the phone to ring. Knowing that it never will. Knowing that it won’t be what you want when it does.
I have never expected anyone to understand. That is why I whisper to someone who can’t repeat it. Someone who always says, “I love you, too” when I am finished. I know that I am looking for love. I know that it makes me feels better about myself to be there among those who are not entirely whole. And I know that is probably why my grandmother made us all swear that we would never visit here there: so she didn’t become the crutch for our failures or the reason why we never risked anything.
Reader's Note: After 8 years in the nursing home, my grandmother died at the age of 99 of complications of pneumonia on 5 JULY 2011. We were very close my whole life and everytime I approach a closed door to open it, I think of her and wonder if she will be on the other side.