The last time I saw my grandmother alive, I knew she wasn’t going to recognize me. I had a cotton mask over my nose and mouth for most of the visit, and if she couldn’t speak without taking sputtered pauses and turning red, I anticipated I would be another nameless, compassionate figure to her. I sat next to her in her favorite rocking chair, pulled one of the loops over my ear, and let the mask dangle from the other like a half-hearted flag. I saw vague remembrance in her blue eyes, and pictured the charred gears in her mind working to remember my familiar face—which, in many ways, is her face as well. I wanted to smile, because she would want me to smile. I said hello, and she quietly said it back. The small smile on her face was one I had seen for years; as a child I once wondered if she ever frowned.
I had to pull the mask back over my face, and she stared at me afterwards. “Lemons,” she said, staring at the pattern on the fabric and straining under the word. “Lemons in your mouth.” I turned away so she wouldn’t see the relieved tears fog my glasses: even if she couldn’t recognize me, at least she could recognize the fruit she had cooked with for decades, the shape of the candies she’d kept a stash of hidden in the pantry, the color she always said I looked best in.
Her favorite caretaker was working that day, and asked my parents if she could take pictures of all of us together. I don’t think we knew how to say no—please, no more reminders of what will happen—and she was so kind, we all decided on our own not to object. The only one I saw was of my mother sitting at the foot of my grandmother’s hospital bed, a cup of water in her hand and an unanswered question leaving her mouth. I’m in the bottom right corner, my glasses in my lap and my head in my hands.
My grandfather died on July 7, 2019. A year and three weeks before my grandmother, in the exact same spot: a hospital bed wedged between a bookshelf and their living room couch. By the time he came home to die, he had spent nearly three months in the hospital, and something inside my grandmother had shattered. She began walking in the 110-degree Phoenix heat in a blue sweater and wool leggings to see him at the hospital, and my mother began to spend more time driving around looking for her than sitting at my grandfather’s bedside. My grandmother became more aggressive than she’d ever been in her life, arguing with nurses about her husband’s treatment and claiming my mother was trying to keep her from him.
We were given the only explanation for his rapid deterioration about five weeks before his death: aspiration pneumonia. Everything he’d consumed for at least three months had not become nutrients for his body, but instead fluid in his lungs. When my mother called me to tell me, I pictured the scene in Titanic where Jack is handcuffed to a pipe in the master-at-arms’ office while the water begins to flow into the ship. He was operated on to drain the fluid, and I tried to imagine a happy ending: the ocean slipping back out into itself, the ship rising again and making it to New York.
A few days after his operation, I was getting ready to clock out of work when I received a text from my mother:
Have I got a story to tell you. Call me. I love you.
I dialed as I walked home. “What happened?” I immediately asked.
Your grandma kidnapped your grandpa from the hospital.”
I heard my sandals scuff against the sidewalk as I stopped in my tracks. “She what?”
She walked to the hospital, helped him out of his bed and into a wheelchair, then got him on the bus and took him back to the retirement community. One of the nurses went to go check on her and found him lying in their bedroom.”
All that time, I had been craning my neck and walking in circles looking for a bench. It felt like that moment in every TV drama where somebody hears shocking news: Are you sitting down for this? When I finally could sit down, I was breathless. “But how did she—”
“I have no fucking clue,” my mother said, answering before I could finish. “I’d sue the hospital if I had the energy.”
On a bench outside the Rec Center at Boise State, staring at a plot of daffodils until they became a haze of yellow, I realized my grandmother was gone. Still alive, but no longer present in the way she had been my whole life.
Before she was gone, she was the most alive person I’ve ever known. She walked three miles every morning, wherever she was in the world. After finding a chocolate chip cookie recipe that yielded 36 cookies, she swore she’d always make it yield 9 cookies the size of my hand. She read Ulysses every summer and wore the same Oscar de la Renta perfume for decades. She’d say, “I’m just going to put some lipstick on, so I don’t scare the horses” before leaving the house. She called any object she couldn’t remember the name of a twanger. When I was 14, she asked me what a dildo was after reading it in a book, and after I (very sheepishly) told her, she laughed and said, “Why, that’s the best thing I’ve ever heard!” For a week afterwards, she would sneak up behind me and whisper dildo in my ear.
Right after I turned 16, she told me she was writing a memoir about growing up on a potato farm in Northern Maine under the pen name Charlotte McCreedy. She let me read a chapter about deciding to run away at seven after her older sister threatened to tell their parents she had stolen a dime out of their bedroom. She ran straight down the road until she was burning and breathless. Eventually, a neighbor passed by on a tractor and offered to ride her back to the farm.
“Your uncle was a writer, your mom is a writer,” she told me, “and you’re a writer. All these writers in the family, I think I should be one too.”
She had to know she was the reason we all became writers. I keep telling myself that: she had to, she had to.
I was given a week off work to be with my family after the kidnapping. The last time I had seen my grandparents had been for the holidays: I had to remind myself to slow down so I wouldn’t leave them behind on walks, and the lifelong tremors in both their hands were more pronounced, but they seemed much of the same to me. Standing in their empty living room after I arrived, I remembered how my grandfather had moved from one corner of the room to the other quickly and effortlessly, collecting used wrapping paper in his arms and smiling. Nearly six months later, a walker he had refused to use was catching light and dust next to my grandmother’s rocking chair.
I had offered to spend my first night there with my grandmother, and the next day my mother would drive back up from her house. “But if she wants to take a walk in the morning to the hospital, will you please go with her?” my mother asked before leaving.
At five the next morning, I woke up to find my grandmother slowly tying her walking shoes. I had already put mine on. “Could I join you?” I asked.
She smiled. “Of course. I was going to try and go see your grandfather.”
The only other person out before the sun was a man walking a Collie, who waved and said, “Hello, Sally!” to my grandmother. She waved back, but her eyes were vacant. “Do you know who that is?” she asked me.
I don’t know why I followed her lead to the hospital. Maybe there was a part of my brain still holding onto the comfort of who my grandmother was before she started forgetting. Maybe I just had no idea how to get to the hospital on foot. We walked behind the dining hall, through the employee parking lot, past the trailer-sized dumpsters that collected every residents’ trash. The hospital was in sight, but behind a barbed wire fence and the city canal.
“Grandma, I don’t see a way we can get to the hospital from here,” I finally said.
She turned and looked at me as if I had asked her what color the sky was. “Well, we’ll just hop the fence.”
I looked at the serrated teeth braided into the top of the fence, and the skin on my legs hardened into goosebumps. “We can’t do that.”
“What do you suggest, then?” she snapped at me.
My grandmother had never taken on a harsh tone with me in my life. In that moment, I felt tears prick at my eyes and my bottom lip fatten, like I was a child again. I took a deep breath and forced the tears to dissolve. “Why don’t we just get some breakfast, and then we’ll go visit Grandpa after Mom gets here?”
When we walked into the dining hall, she tugged on my shirt and whispered in my ear, “I haven’t seen your grandfather in a while. Where is he?”
The day campus shut down because of the pandemic, I was already packing for a flight back to Phoenix to visit my family. My nine-day roundtrip visit suddenly became a one-way surrounded by question marks. As I stuffed more clothes and books into my suitcase, I wondered how long it would be until I was back in Boise. I placed an Idaho postcard I had been meaning to send my grandmother in a history textbook before zipping it shut. On the flight, I thought about that postcard to keep myself from panicking about the virus that had shut all of our lives down and could be floating in the air I was breathing in and out—an aerial shot of the Snake River winding through gray-green mountains. I pictured myself handing it to her and saying, Special delivery!
The retirement community deemed my mother and me caregivers. Every week for four months, we pulled up to the gate house, stuck our foreheads out the window to have our temperatures checked, and then drove half a mile down the street to my grandmother’s house. I cooked dinner and tried to keep her from feeding her portions to her dog. I watched movies we had already seen countless times together—Love Actually, Little Miss Sunshine, Julie & Julia, The Devil Wears Prada—and patiently searched for recognition in her eyes. After she went to sleep every night, my mother and I would sit on the back porch and whisper about whether we thought she was doing better or worse. There were days where the mischievous twinkle in her eye would return and she’d crack jokes. There were days where she would ask where my grandfather was, and we would have to gently repeat the story of his death to her. There were the worst days, where she would not only ask where my grandfather was, but where her son, who passed away in 2008, had gone. “He hasn’t called in so long,” she’d say. “Is he upset with me?”
I had to relearn how to interact with a woman I had known my whole life, and my guilt dragged behind me. If I ever snapped at her, a wave of disgust with myself immediately hit me. When I apologized to her after these moments, she would look at me quizzically and laugh. “What do you have to be sorry for?”
On the first day of July—six days before the first anniversary of my grandfather’s death—my mother and I pulled up in front of my grandmother’s cottage. We were dreading the anniversary, and the unpredictability of how the week’s visit would go.
“Maybe it will be better than last week,” I said.
When we walked through the front door, we found my grandmother lying on the floor. The caregiver we were about to switch out with was kneeling next to her, trying to wiggle an arm between the rug and her shoulders. She was staring at the skylight above her with glassy eyes.
None of us were strong enough to pick her up on our own, and when we tried to work together her body seemed to lock itself into an unruly weight. When I threw my back out and almost collapsed next to her, my mother called the retirement community’s medical center and asked if they could send their strongest nurse.
It took three weeks for the rest of her body to fail. She never walked again after her fall, and began writhing in pain that she couldn’t pinpoint. The strong nurse came back to carry her out of her bedroom and into the hospital bed a local hospice center had moved into the living room. My mother and stepfather stayed with her the whole time, and I stayed behind to take care of my sister and the house. I kept myself up at night wondering if my grandmother would be dead by the time I woke up. I spoke to my bedroom wall and pretended she would hear everything I said to it. I told her I loved her. I told her I loved her. I told her I loved her.
I wasn’t shaking with dread the morning she died. My heart rate, which had quickened to the point of being able to physically feel my heart’s weight in my body, seemed normal. The peace was welcome, but eerie. As I started to sit up, I heard a clatter downstairs. The kitchen sink was switched on. I could smell the Pine Sol all the way up the stairs. I remembered the night before, when my mother had promised that when my grandmother did pass on, she would drive home immediately to tell us.
I stood at the brink of the stairs, the denial already setting in: as long as you stay up here, she’s still alive. The knowing was too strong, though. When I finally walked downstairs, I heard the turning and clicking of a mop against the dining room floor. My mother had always used cleaning a distraction, keeping her hands busy to ignore the wildfire in her brain. She had her back turned, but I could see the muscles in her biceps trembling as she pushed the mop.
“Mom,” I said, collapsing under the word.
When we began packing and cleaning out her house, I found a copy of a journal I had been published in on the nightstand next to her bed. It had been my mother’s idea to bring it and show it to her, because the poem mentions how when my grandmother had been a child, she’d thought Diphtheria would be a beautiful name for her someday-daughter.
“What if she doesn’t remember telling us that story and she gets upset with me?” I had asked.
“She would never be upset about that,” my mother promised.
I hid in the laundry room after giving the journal to my grandmother, my poem marked with a torn yellow Post-It note. I didn’t want to watch while she read, but a part of me couldn’t resist holding my ear against the swinging door, waiting for her reaction.
“My, that’s lovely,” she finally said. I could almost hear the smile on her face. “I had totally forgotten about that, but I remember now.”
I already had tears rolling down my face, crushed between my skin and the door when she asked, “Where did she learn to write like that?”
Lyd Havens lives in Boise, Idaho. Their work has previously been published in Ploughshares, The Shallow Ends, and Foglifter, among others. Their chapbook, Namesake & a Half, will be published in May 2021 by Game Over Books.