We’re swimming through mud. My husband Bill aches and falls up stairs. My daughter Annie forgets to eat; I eat too much. My heart hurts, a physical ache. Death has come to our family.
My 89-year-old father-in-law has just had a major heart attack. Now he pulls invisible threads from the air and babbles in a convalescent home, and four blocks away, in a small, airy room on the ninth floor of Kaiser Hospital, my Grandmother Tillie’s kidneys are starting to fail. It’s December 2006, and Grandma Tillie is “moribund,” a word as deathly and glacial as it sounds, as relentless as labor, rhythmic as time. Despite my difficult times with her, or perhaps because of them and the lack of good resolution between us, I am destroyed with grief.
In Tillie’s death room in the hospital, they’ve pasted signs: “The Pain is Almost Over.” “We Love You Tillie.” “All Of These People Love Tillie: . . . ” (and my name is listed there among the others).
My cousin brings her red fall leaves. “They’re the kind you like, and if you open your eyes you can see them,” she says. After a long moment Tillie, without opening her eyes says softly, “I can think about them.”
I am not there for this. I am home, paralyzed by past decisions; I am in the convalescent home singing to my father-in-law. “Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me…” Three small earthquakes rattle a couple of miles from where we live, a cold sore deforms my upper lip. It’s Christmas time and I’m ho ho holding on, ready for the heavy weight inches above my head to slam and flatten.
I am at the convalescent home with my father-in-law, I am not with my grandmother. Too many other family members around. Individually, I love them so much. When we are together, I morph into somebody I don’t recognize, or I hold on to my shape and feel, as they brush against me, how bristly I am. Either way, a part of me sticks to them with every encounter and as I leave, pull away, chunks of my flesh stay with them.
But it’s more than this: “Do you want to go to the hospital?” Bill asks. Do I have the right to visit Tillie’s death bed? Years ago we fought and distanced ourselves.
Six years ago Tillie was hospitalized, and Bill and I showed up to visit. “What are YOU doing here?” my grandmother asked.
I stood stunned, “I . . . I . . . ”
“She’s come to visit you, Mom,” my aunt said.
“Oh. I thought you lived very far away,” she said.
“I can’t go,” I tell Bill.
My mother calls. “Not many people are there right now.”
“What room? I can’t promise I’ll go,” I say. But the phone is clutched between my shoulder and ear, and I’m putting on my shoes as we speak.
We’re alone together. She lies, eyes closed, on her back. She is so beautiful, extraordinary, formidable — no clavicle ever again like hers, the swoop of her neck, the notch on her brow, that nose, the smooth arch of her nose that I will never again see, her pearly skin, her hair.
“You are so unbelievably beautiful,” I tell her.
So much trouble and pain between us but I don’t need for anything to be different, I just need this moment, ten minutes. That’s all. I don’t want melodrama. I want to say goodbye the right way, unaware of the sound of my voice saying it. How to say it so it’s nothing but real?
“It’s Ericka. I’ve come to say thank you, for everything. For my whole life. I love you. I love you so much.”
I loved her as much as I’ve ever loved anybody on the planet. I still do.
She moves, stirs, shifts her hand towards me. Doesn’t open her eyes. A sigh, and she relaxes.
It’s all okay. Done. Goodbye. So much sorrow, washing through and over, soft waves.
“Have a good journey, smooth sailing. Smooth sailing,” I say. “God speed,” I want to say, but we don’t believe in God.
Grief and relief run freely through me. I search for her hand. I kiss her on the forehead. “Goodbye,” I say.
I spend the evening crying, cooking oxtails using the old family recipe she taught me.
Annie insists on going with us to the convalescent home to visit my father-in-law, stands thin-shouldered and sad at the side of his bed as he claws space and shouts. He tries to get up, yells. Babbles. “Rest, Jerry,” I say. “We’re here.”
“Are you okay?” I ask her afterwards. “Was it scary?”
“It felt scarier not going,” she says.
My father takes Annie to see Tillie. She shows me the snapshots they took on her cell phone: Tillie, eyes shut, mouth ajar. Annie, smiling, posing next to her, their faces close together on the pillow. My Annie, conceived almost fifteen years ago on my Grandmother’s eightieth birthday.
Despite her Alzheimer’s, Tillie can still read; in those times when she opens her eyes, she reads the signs on the wall out loud over and over. “The Pain is Almost Over. The Pain is Almost Over.” She can no longer turn herself over.
My father walks into the tiny, airy hospital room they’ve given her to die in. He wears his hat. My grandmother opens her eyes, raises one finger and points at it, reminding. A gentleman removes his hat in a lady’s presence. My father takes off his hat.
“Do you want to go to the hospital?” Bill asks.
“I really want to see Grandma Tillie again,” Annie says.
“I’m not sure that can happen,” I tell her. I’m a wreck, fraught. I can’t write. I drag my sorry ass to the convalescent home, to the grocery store. I sit hunched for hours over Sudoku puzzles, flattened. So this is grief, this distant place — standing on an ice floe in a disappearing field of ice. I can’t move, can’t walk, can’t shower. My heart is choked and aching. I can’t write. I cry for hours, sheets of ice crack and fall off the glacier of my heart. I’m grieving for her, for me, for us, for what went wrong, for what I’ve lost, for what she gave me: everything.
Her voice — defiant — rises inside me.
“Damn them all, Ericka, do not silence yourself. Do not let anybody silence you. Write, damn you. Tell it like it is, Sister.” I catch a feel of her cool hand on mine, and I convulse over, nauseous with sobs.
On New Year’s Eve day we go to the hospital, Bill, Annie, and I. My grandmother lies sleeping a drugged sleep, gaunt royalty under a blue patchwork quilt, her neck draped with a soft purple scarf over her hospital gown. I touch her shoulder. Annie holds her hand. A short half hour, then it’s time to go.
“Goodbye, Darling,” I whisper in her ear. “Rest well.”
January 14, 1912 – January 1, 2007