I was never going to go to college. To put it simply…I just didn’t want to. It never even entered my mind to take the SATs and I do not remember anyone suggesting I should take them. Although I grew up in the upper echelon of the American middle class, I fell through the cracks. Nobody paid any attention to my education, not at home, not at school. Nor did I.
So, that first year after High School, with no life plan set in place, my parents paid me $200 a week to take care of my 85-year-old grandmother. I was 18. My duties included cleaning her house and bathing her; every single bath included the same dainty exhibition, with her telling me that her one leg – the left one – was her bad leg. Then, with the same dainty yet large liver-spotted hands, she’d hold her left breast, pointed towards me and say “Look how beautiful my breasts are” to which I’d always reply “you got a great set Gram.” And it was true! She had every right to brag.
Other duties included fetching her depression-eraish groceries. I gave her medicine and changed her giant diapers. I administered a shot of insulin twice a day, rotating needle entry points between hip and upper arm, left and right limbs. I received one quick lesson on how to prepare the insulin and needle and everything else, like where to buy head cheese, I figured out as I went along. It was a great job. I got to know my grandmother intimately. You can’t bathe and change the diapers of an adult without unraveling the mystery of who they are, how they shaped your own parent, their child. I learned what it means to be old. The only down side was the diapers. And fearing that I’d find her dead.
I arrived at her home one afternoon and, not seeing her in her living room or kitchen, I called out “Grammom???”… I got no answer. I walked, no, tip-toed through the house, thinking “This is it. Jesus, I’m not prepared for this.” I found her on the porch having her third bout of congestive heart failure sitting in her piss soaked wicker rocking chair, her huge 200 lb body rocking up and down, convulsing violently, her eyes rolled back and her skin green as the tomalley you find inside a lobster.
I stared at my grandmother for one full second. I ran back inside and called 911 on a rotary phone (a rotary phone in an emergency – it’s a lot like having a cat appear out of nowhere and sit on your steering wheel as you try to swerve out-of-the-way of a pile up.) The operator calmly told me to stay on the phone and to pull it over to my grandmother so that I could tell her in detail what was happening. “I’m not going anywhere near her!” I said almost shouting, horrified at the suggestion. ”She is all green and moving up and down like a storm in the ocean. Please just GET SOMEONE HERE NOW!”
I put the ancient black receiver down on the floor of her house which always smelled faintly like urine no matter how well I cleaned it and I ignored the operator’s voice. I could hear her saying “hello?” like the operator at the end of Pink Floyd’s Young Lust. I sat against her bed, which had been moved into her living room, and cried into my knees, I could hear her through the screen door, the rocking chair moving fast, hitting the concrete floor of her porch. This sound told me she was still alive. I sat there, fingering peanut shells that were hidden under her bed, certain I could do nothing to help her and chose instead to protect my mind from a visual memory of the demons that lie inside us, waiting to sneak out and end our short lives.
The police and ambulance showed up minutes later.
The cop, feeling bad for me, quietly told me he’d have to arrest me if I didn’t stop crying. This was just the sort of unfamiliar tenderness, the unexpected kindness from a stranger, that made me cry even more.
At the hospital, they told me that she had been minutes from death this time, that I had saved her. Saved her? I made a phone call and let fear paralyze me instead of waiting with her. Fear and frustration kept me from going anywhere near her – fear because she looked supernatural and exorcist-like, frustration for not being a doctor or nurse – and I felt, quite simply, anger that I’d been duped and entered into a responsibility I wasn’t qualified for. Whether she could hear me or not, regardless of my own limitations, I should have had the humanity to stand by her, soothe her, tell her she would be ok, especially if she was leaving this world for the next. I was a jerk. I was 18 and didn’t know much about tenderness or kindness and sadly from what my Gram told me about her life, neither did she.
Later that day, I found out that my Gram had a visit from my Aunt Joan and her friend Jeanette the day before. They’d been eating peanuts and drinking beer. This may have proved too much on my Gram’s system and thrown her into the green ocean in which I found her rolling violently. All three of them knew better. Beer and peanuts! Aunt Joan was too worried about getting in trouble with the doctors so Jeanette came forward and admitted their little indiscretion. It’s hard to get mad at a 75-year-old woman who befriended your severely schizophrenic, lonely 50-year-old aunt at a diner counter. The image of the three of them sitting on Gram’s porch, on one of those oppressively hot, Jersey, summer days, drinking and shelling nuts in the face of all their loneliness and limitations is, for me, a beautiful one.
That day, my Gram lost enough oxygen to her brain that, for the rest of her life, she needed more help than I could provide. A full-time nurse was hired to care for her. The day before she died a year later, the last thing she said to me – as beautiful as a kiss on the forehead – was “Don’t worry, I know you love me.” These words taught me, that above all else, I must always tell people how I feel about them. There is no greater kindness than affection.
For me, as in much of my life, a life that I never organized or planned, something else – another job for which I had no training or qualifications – was right around the corner.
© Mad Question Asking – 2012 All Rights Reserved