My grandmother sat on the couch and listened to her friend complain about her daughter-in-law. My grandmother had heard the story before and every so often, as her friend went on and on, my grandmother would roll her eyes. At the end of the story, her friend slapped her hands on her thighs and said, “Okay, I think we’re gonna go.”
“So, go,” my grandmother said.
“So, go?” her friend said.
“I said goodbye to your husband 20 minutes ago, when I went to the bathroom,” my grandmother said.
Her friend stood up and scoffed and then left.
“Finally,” my grandmother said, and then turned to me. “She said they were leaving 20 minutes ago.”
My grandmother’s always been blunt but never mean. But that changed about five months ago when her husband died, and her health began to fail. No one was surprised about her health. She’ll be 96 next week. Still, while her 98-year old husband was alive, my grandmother’s thin frame managed to hold itself together, as if her health problems were waiting in the wings. As soon as her husband died, the ailments rushed in, like when Wile E. Coyote’s chasing Road Runner, and he runs off a cliff, but he remains suspended in mid-air until he realizes there’s no ground underneath him. It’s only then that he plummets to the ground.
But it’s not just my grandmother’s health. She’s become downright ornery. Until now, the meanest thing I’d ever heard of her doing was to give my mother a verbal lashing on her fifth birthday, because my mother greeted her aunt by saying, “Where’s my birthday present?” But my grandmother is now depressed, she is living in my aunt’s house with a live-in nurse, and when she’s not falling asleep on the couch, she’s snappish. The other day, she said to my mother, “Get me a glass of water, with ice in it.”
My mother says she took the glass and said, “MayI have a glass of water.”
“Give me back my glass. I’ll get it myself,” my grandmother said. She then turned to her nurse, Pat, and said, “Get me a glass of ice water.”
She then ignored my mother until she left.
My grandmother enjoys the company of her nurse, Pat, but she complains about her, too.
“She gives me black cooking,” my grandmother said. “She’s going to make me chitlins and grits.”
“You’ve never even had black cooking,” my mother said.
Not surprisingly, as my grandmother’s health has taken a downturn, so has her appearance. She’s lost 20 pounds and now weighs about 97 pounds. Her arms look like chicken wings after all the meat’s been eaten off. Her face looks hollow. Even her signature wigs, which she’s been wearing for fifty years because she once gave herself a home permanent and burnt her hair off, have been looking sickly. It didn’t help that when she was in rehab, she slept in one of the wigs for three weeks because she feared if the nurses knew she was wearing one, they would confiscate it. She wouldn’t even shower for fear her hairpiece would be found out.
“Of course they knew it was a wig. After three weeks, it looked like a rat on her head!” my mother said.
We decided to make a pilgrimage to Florida with our four-and-a-half month old son, Eddie, driving all the way down I-95 from New Jersey to Coral Springs, because we thought it might cheer her up – at least for a couple of minutes. I thought if she saw my son’s big gummy grin, she, too, might smile. I also wanted to make sure Eddie met her and that I saw her one last time, just in case she didn’t make it through the summer.
Our visit did cheer her up, for the several hours we were there. She was more animated and awake when she held Eddie, though after a while, she grew tired and feared she would drop him so she handed him back to me.
“Why is it so dark in here?” my grandmother asked. “He keeps it so dark here,” she said, referring to my uncle.
“Mom, if you think it’s dark in here, your place is going to feel like a mausoleum,” my uncle said.
My grandmother didn’t respond. She closed her eyes and started to fall asleep, until my aunt tried to bring a chair over so she could sit near my grandmother and the baby, and she inadvertently nudged an end table next to my grandmother’s arm. My grandmother’s eyes sprang open.
“You’re pushing the table! There’s water on it!” she said.
“You’re right, mom,” my aunt said, and returned the end table to its original position.
It’s hard to cheer someone up when you can understand why they’re depressed. At 95, my grandmother has lost her husband, and nearly all her friends. Her condo complex, which used to be filled with retirees from the Northeast who would have dinners and dances, is now filled with Jamaicans who are half her age. And now her body is beginning to betray her.
We passed a sign on the way down to Florida that said, “Lonely? Depressed? Jesus is still the answer.” I thought, “Still?” And if Jesus really is the answer, then to whom do Jews like my grandmother turn? Mighty Mouse?
As we were leaving, my mother and my aunt were making plans for my grandmother to return to her condo. She’d gone from the hospital to rehab and then to my aunt’s house, first to recuperate and then an extra few weeks while a leak in the ceiling of her condo is being repaired. In all, she’s been gone from her house for several months. While she’ll be returning with a live-in nurse, I’m sure that going home will bring her husband’s absence back to the surface. Everything she does will be followed by the thought that she’s doing it without her husband, Bob, a man with whom she’d been since she was 18. She’ll have breakfast at the kitchen table, without Bob. She’ll watch television in the living room, without Bob. And she’ll get into bed at night, without Bob.
There’s a scale in my grandmother’s bedroom that checks her vital signs and sends the information directly to her doctor. Every morning when she turns it on, the machine says, “Good morning. Time to get up.” It instructs her to step on the scale. It registers her weight and then tells her to sit down on the bed and place the blood pressure cuff on her left arm above the elbow. “Tighten the cuff. And now wait,” the robotic voice says. The blood pressure cuff inflates, and she’s then told to put the metal clip on her middle finger in order to take her pulse. When all the tests have been completed, the machine says, ‘Thank you. Have a nice day.” Without Bob.