While visiting my grandmother last year, I wrote the following. Although it began as just a blurted out entry in my journal, I decided to share my thoughts with her in this written form, although we generally tend to keep our conversations on a far less invasive level, and her response has been amazing. We've been able to talk about things we had never discussed before — her childhood, fears, mortality — though the medium of email and words. When we write notes to each other, I believe that our thoughts become poetry. When we speak, our meanings have too often been lost in each other's translations.
June 20, 2010My grandmother and I speak in code across the Atlantic ocean of her kitchen table. We no longer use the one in the dining room. It feels too formal, and draws attention to the fact that there are only two of us sitting, justifying the pause by eating. Her eyes are uncharacteristically wet tonight, the heat of summer is taking its toll on her ever-dwindling group of friends. And Betty Jelinek, who taught me how to sew over twenty years ago, died in her sleep last night.
My gram is worrying for her neighbor Joe, whose wife was taken away in an ambulance this morning for a 5-day respite stay at the hospital before she is finally to be placed in a nursing home. Joe can no longer care for her — the sleepless nights, incontinent days, the shell of a woman he has dedicated his life to loving. Their boys, both older than me and men on every day other than this one, stood with pathetically idle hands shoved in pockets this morning as the EMTs wheeled her tiny body, strapped tightly and efficiently onto a garishly blue and white gurney, into the paramedic van's cavernous belly. As she slipped, devoid of any movement, into the ambulance's steel maw, the boys clenched their strong teeth, the one with the long hair shifting his weight from side to side; looking straight ahead, while the older boy stared straight ahead, immobile.
We are in the kitchen watching this scene unfold through the large bay windows that we usually watch birds through; my grandfather used to make birdhouses in his basement workshop, and since he died Joe has kept them full through the winter. My gram tells me not to feed the birds during the summer, though, it makes them lazy, and they'll forget to migrate south. I don't know what to do with my hands, they feel awkwardly heavy and useless. I begin to make a huge pot of chicken soup that I can freeze in small, portion sized containers. We'll make the soup bland, low sodium. Later she'll drop off pint sized Tupperware next door, even though she thinks that gentiles may not really like matzo balls.
She looks at me, eyes still piercing, but the fog is rolling in and we both know it but say nothing. She talks about the deaths of others, people too removed for their names to choke in our throats, but we are speaking in tongues about my grandfather, who died in a nursing home after we could no longer restrain him when his dementia-riddled mind gave orders that his body could no longer carry out, and he began falling. I say to her that we should all be so lucky as to have people around us that won't let us die, speaking about the familial urge so many of us feel to prolong the lives of our loved ones with modern medicine's invasive advances. We are talking about my own decade-long near-death experience, the prayers she whispered while I sought salvation in every substance I could find.
And when we cannot look at each other, when our placemats become radios and the silence is heavy with Morse transmissions of thought and labored breathing and one quiet cough. We are talking about my mother, about how we were both touching her when her rattling, wet rasps for air finally stopped and she wasn't in pain any more but we wanted her to be because everything seemed to be left unsaid to a woman that we both loved and weren't sure we had ever liked. But across a little kitchen table that I know like the back of my hand, there are no secrets lurking in this quiet. Just code.
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