Photo Credit: Riley Briggs
She is already dead. A walking skeleton. Her skin shows her age instead of hiding it. It hangs, translucent like wrinkled tissue paper, over her body. Purple veins form ridges over her wrists. Craters form in the hollow space beneath her eyes. She doesn’t like to move anymore because when she does, she realizes that she needs to depend on something or someone. She would rather embrace the myth that she is independent, free to move about as she pleases. So she remains chained to the couch.
One day, I go to visit. Through the sliding glass doors. Stopping at the receptionist’s desk to sign in and pick up one of those sticky nametags that have a habit of attracting all of the lint on my sweater. Up the elevator to floor number three. Getting off in front of the jigsaw puzzle that is always a different painting and always half put together. Down the wide, whitewashed hallway. Pausing to push the green square button next to the massive swinging doors that open Looking Glass Hallway. “Who the fuck comes up with these names?” I wonder to myself.
The doors unlock for me. They operate the opposite of other locked doors. Instead of preventing the outside world from getting in, they allow the outsiders to freely come in as they please and harass those that these doors hold prisoner.
I say hello to the nurse pushing a food cart and stop at the third door on the left. I knock and gently push it open. There she is. Sprawled across the bed she’s had since she was a child in Cincinnati. Looking exhausted and cross. And suddenly, it’s like I am seeing myself. The same exact position I was in two weeks earlier, after finishing an Economics exam. The way her legs lay open half hazard to either side, her face half in the pillow, and her eyebrows rose as she releases an exasperated sigh when I enter. Our ages no longer seem so far apart. She is I.
I think I see her thoughts instead of her body for a second. She is finished with this life. She’s taken all she wants from it, and she’s ready to move on. But just like those doors won’t let her out of the hallway, her heart won’t let her out of life. It keeps beating and won’t let her free. Her body holds her captive.
She remembers sitting in a garden in Paris at four years old, but she cannot remember what she had for breakfast this morning. And now I understand why. Her memory is all packed up, ready to go and it’s got all the important stuff. She has lived such a rich life, that there’s no more room for this pointless stuff. But her body isn’t quite out the door yet—it keeps saying “But I don’t want to leave.” Her mind knows better and says, “We’re done with this round of adventures.”
Then, she struggles to roll over and sit up. She hobbles over to the couch, holding onto the table along the way. And she seems old and far away again.
She cooks us hotdogs in a pot, not on the stovetop as my mom typically does. And she gives us the stringy beans. Ew. How can I avoid eating them? I have a feeling my usual stubborn approach of wadding food up in my mouth and refusing to swallow it won’t work with this lady.
She’s a foreign being to me, my Granny. I see her about twice annually, and it is usually with a buffer of strange aunt, quirky uncles, and boisterous cousins. But not tonight. We are visiting Granny during the summer, and my parents are going out for “date night”. Granny is left in charge of my two year old sister and me. Unfortunately, a two year old is not much of a buffer.
Even though she’s clearly seen a number of years, she is so alive and in command. I’m scared of this woman. This human that wakes up with the sunrise, that reads and writes and paints, and she life seems to be at her command. I think I’m frightened of her because she is everything I want to become.
I’m still trying to make a game plan on how to ditch the beans, when she demands, “Eat your vegetables.” My eyes well up with fear, and I begin chewing.
After dinner, we retire to the sunroom where we watch Wheel of Fortune together. During one of the commercials, Granny turns to me and asked, “Do your friends see their grandparents a lot? More than you see me?” I don’t know how to respond. This is uncharted territory, and her voice is soft and unlike the voice that typically slices through the atmosphere.
“I don’t know,” I answer, attempting to avoid her gaze that is currently boring into my soul. Truthfully, I sometimes felt left out during class, when other kids talked about seeing their grandparents on a random weekend or going to grandma’s house after school. “I think they probably do,” she says, looking away. In this moment, I don’t feel so afraid of her anymore.
“I’ve decided to move north,” she announces. My dad corrects her again, “No, Michigan is not north. You’re moving west! To be near us!” The whole family and all her friends are in attendance at her going away party. However, it strikes me how I do not know a single one of her friends. Do I even know this woman?
A girl is talking in my face. She’s loud, really loud. And cheerful. Friendly. Enthusiastic. I’m in high school, being thrown into this sea of nameless people when I can barely remember the names of my own family. I fold my arms and try to shrink inside my sweater while she keeps talking at me.
“She was basically my grandmother,” she says. She means it as a compliment, but it stings. What the hell? Her grandmother? She was more than basically my grandmother. She was the real deal. But the reason her comment hurts so much is because this girl is probably right. Granny sees her more often. This girl is so outgoing and unafraid, and Granny would like that. Shit, this girl is probably a whole lot better of a granddaughter than I’d ever been. I feel nauseous and excuse myself.
I come out of the bathroom to greet my cousin and his toddler daughter. The tiny being seems so content, waddling around in baby snow boots, laughing. As I’m sitting playing with the child, one of Granny’s friends walks over and admires.
“Is that your daughter?” she asks. I’m too stunned to answer. My cousin stutters, “No…my daughter…we’re not…she’s my cousin.”
“You’re my favorite. Don’t tell,” she let’s out a loose, luxurious laugh and leans into the couch. I smile, “I’m only favorite because I tell you the gossip.” She lets out a laugh once again.
“How’d you decide to marry your husband?” I ask her.
“Well, I met him. And eventually I realized that I was only happy when he was around. That, and I couldn’t get rid of him,” she says.
“He was smitten with your beauty,” I smile.
“You’re a politician. Do you know what that means?”
“No,” I answer, even though she’s told me a hundred times before.
“You say things to please people.” She’s correct that I want to make people happy. I know she loves hearing about my parties and boys and such because she can no longer live these things herself. So I tell her about the latest party, leaving out the shattered bottles and beer pong tournament. She reminisces about crawling under the fence after curfew at Sarah Lawrence. I wonder if Granny ever smoked weed?
“You had a heart attack, you have to go to the doctor!” I’m at my wits end.
“No, I hate doctors. They’re all quacks. And I didn’t have a heart attack. I don’t remember any such thing!” Her hands tremble and her face drips with sweat.
“Here, have some water.” I pass her a plastic cup as empathy has smothered my frustration. Besides, I can just pretend it’s a routine checkup when I pick her up tomorrow morning. She’ll forget the argument and her need to be stubborn. I’m scared though, and I think she’s scared too. How does one forget when her heart stops beating, and she stands on the doorstep of death?
But I think her mind has given up for self-preservation. She only cares to remember the independent woman she once was because, surely, she could not survive knowing how helpless she is becoming.
In the morning, I call her and tell her that she has a routine appointment. Then I take her to the office where the doctor asks her how she is feeling.
“Fine, until I saw you,” she growls.
“Well, you had a heart attack a few nights ago. You seem to have recovered quite well though.”
“No, I did not!”
She dies. All of the sudden there’s just this big gaping hole. Only it is not really a hole yet because apparently there’s a lot of shit you have to do when someone dies. While I’m home for the holidays my parents spend hours calling people to essentially say, “Yo, home girl’s dead.” I wonder what happens to the people for whom no one makes these phone calls. Do they just keep existing on paper? But then again, what is existence? I know my grandmother stopped existing in her own life a long time ago. She only existed in our lives, and we were selfish to keep her for ourselves.