At 94, growing her hair long is the extent of her personal choice.
It was just an ice cream sandwich, placed in a bowl and broken up after it had thawed some. My mom had handed it to me, saying as she picked up a magazine, “Here, give your grandmother her dessert. Help your grandmother.”
She deserved the five-minute break; she’d been sitting next to her mother for the past 37 hours. Neither of my parents has left her side in years, whereas my brothers and I have the luxury of going wherever life takes those who aren’t trapped.
When I arrived I found my grandmother and my mom in a very nice hospital room. The staff was largely Catholic-Hispanic, so I knew both felt comfortable and free to exaggerate to their heart’s content. The large window perfectly framed the setting sun, and you couldn’t ask for a better time to look out at it. Which was all I wanted to do.
But my mom had put me on the spot by handing me that bowl. I resented her for it because I’m a selfish person first and an empathetic one second, plus I’d become aware of dueling feelings that had arisen within me. I felt both unworthy of and above this task. I was afraid of an up close look at what age had done to my grandmother, and while I wanted to believe this was normal, my brain defended that fear with pride and conceit.
What would my heart do if she couldn’t keep the food in her mouth? Would our eyes meet if I had to wipe her lips? If so, what would hers say? My fear doesn’t make me an asshole grandson, but failing to rise to the occasion does. Yet negotiating an hour on a prison typewriter with three angry, Black Muslim lifers was easier than this. No lie.
At first, I couldn’t look anywhere but into the bowl. I dug at the chocolate more than necessary, remembering how my dad had once lifted his cancer-ridden father out of bed so it could be changed. I’ve been haunted by the image ever since, angry that life would force my dad to do that and angrier still that such a man as my grandfather was so robbed of his dignity.
As I dug at the bowl, I felt thankful for not having had too much experience in this department: with death, old age, dying people. And I felt a little cheated, too.
My grandmother lives with my parents and dislocated her shoulder, which required surgery. Stabilization pins were successfully placed, but they lost their grasp and popped back out just as her sutures were being bandaged. This second dislocation complicated matters to the extent that she required placement in a post-surgery convalescent environment. She was sentenced to 14 days in death’s waiting room – except she’d merely be passing through, one arm nearly useless, the other in a sling.
She had parole to look forward to, but one night she had trouble breathing, which was a new development. The staff took her to a nearby ER; she was admitted for pulmonary embolisms. Fortunately this particular medical facility was where half my family had been born, so the last time someone had to ask how to find it was 1961.
As the all-hands-on-deck went out to uncles, brothers, and cousins, none of us knew how much this latest setback would affect my grandmother’s will to hang on or how much of a hit her consciousness had taken.
Now, I don’t like being in crowded hospital rooms. I don’t like to find out who among my family or friends has poor hospital manners, treats attending nurses like waitresses, or is unaware of how much space they take up. In fact, anytime, anywhere I dislike people who won’t move their asses out of the way quickly.
Of course nobody’s perfect, so despite my father’s request that no one visit earlier than 4 pm, I showed up at 1. The plan was to get in and get out without having to witness my grandmother’s being overwhelmed or spoken to like a child, and without having to bear witness to that sense of entitlement that seems to come with a family matriarch mid health scare. I wasn’t there 3 minutes before my mom handed me that bowl.
I pulled myself away from the sunset reluctantly: my grandmother could see right through every bad decision I’ve ever made, and the good grandson act I was now playing was obviously phony baloney. It was hard to look at her hands, so blue from surfacing veins. Likewise her skin and thinning hair. I never want to see more of my grandmother than I’m supposed to, not even an exposed kneecap. Whenever they come in to check on her, or when she’s moved into a more comfortable position, I always look away.
The good news is the woman’s brain is sharp. It makes me worry that she’s trapped in there, but she can still be sarcastic and she understands everything everyone is saying. She definitely knows who’s full of it and who isn’t. I was raised by a bunch of Mexicans and a few whites, yet I’m not bilingual. She’s never been happy about that. My grandfather understood why I wanted to run from my heritage when I was younger, but he isn’t here to defend me – not that he would. (La verdad es que soy perezoso.)
No, my only refuge is to be completely straight with my grandmother, to talk to her like she’s a suspicious 13-year-old. Others in my family speak loudly and slowly, close to her face as though she were 6. I don’t know if she thinks that’s annoying as hell and insulting, but I feel like giving her my megaphone so she can get revenge.
It took all my strength to lift that first spoonful to her lips, over which I was immediately and overwhelmingly relieved to see she was in very good control. Her tongue darted out and wiped away any potential residue just as competently as could be. I felt even smaller, even worse in my relief, but relieved I was.
She ate just as consciously and with as much dignity as ever, well aware of my discomfort. I’d never fed her before, and it was probably even harder on her. So there I went again, feeling small and stupid for projecting my need for her to somehow carry herself well. I have a lot to learn.
Since that day, my grandmother’s shoulder has gotten better and she’s been moved to a longer-term facility, where she’ll remain until she goes back to my parents’ house or checks out. Yesterday, my brothers and I held an iPhone up to her face so she could see my parents and they her.
She’d been laughing with us at the antics of her great grandsons and showed herself to be every bit as cognizant and smart as a 94-year-old can. She knows iPhone video conferencing well enough to remember to pause in case there’s a delay or overlap in responses from the other side.
Then my iMom commented on the length of her hair, and it just crushed me to hear the excitement in my grandmother’s voice when she announced she’d decided to let it grow out. This is what’s left? How easily I’m pulled back into resenting the fact that choices like this one – how long to have her hair – represent the extent of her personal freedom.
I have a lot to learn: me, my excuses, and my hot ‘n cold running relationship with humility.