My brother’s request was simple, his tone firm: We were going out for dinner. I couldn’t recall the last time I ate a full meal, let alone left the house. I hadn’t been to my own home—a six-hour drive north—in weeks. Deadlines passed unnoticed, my precarious writing career in peril.
Everything rested on a fulcrum, the pulse of a 77-year-old woman in a dark room. And that was all that mattered; I was either inside that room, or just outside it.
“I don’t know if I’m doing a good job,” I confessed as my grandmother and I watched the hospice nurse pack up her bags.
“She says she’s not in pain,” they repeated. “She’s just dying.”
“She’s a liar,” I insisted, because that’s the kind of thing I now said about my grandma. She’d made the same observation about me 25 years ago, when I swore I had practiced my flashcards. We felt justified in our lies, rooted in fear. I was afraid I would never learn my times tables, and it would ruin my life. My grandma was scared of morphine, and what it had done to her six months earlier.
“I’ll get another nurse,” I promised as I stroked her legs, working for a smile. “It is both unjust and unnatural,” I mockingly complained, “that a grandmother’s legs should be so much longer and lovelier than her only female heir.” She turned her glassy eyes away from the ceiling that now transfixed her, day and night, and shifted them onto me.
“You’re a good girl,” she said, and asked me to turn the lights off on my way out.
Six months earlier, we’d been in a similar scene, though she had played my part against a different backdrop. Instead of being home, we were at the hospital. She was in charge of my grandfather’s health, but she’d spent her days avoiding the room until the doctors, exasperated by my failed attempts, summoned her with authority. By the time she arrived, I was desperate for a moment outside, to feel the sun on my skin, to be reminded that life was warm, but I never left. When grandma finally shuffled in, walking far slower than she was capable of, I dutifully stood behind her as she sat, stiff backed in a chair, her eyes darting from the bed she dared not approach to the door she so desperately wanted to pass through.
All the while, my grandfather thrashed about in his bed, half-crazed from a cocktail of morphine and nutrients dripping into his veins. I left her to hold his right hand, my brother’s fingers firmly entwined with his left. Lung cancer had taken nearly everything, but determination was a surprisingly formidable stand-in for strength; he wanted that IV out of his arm. I didn’t even know he’d called his father “Pa” until I heard him screaming it for hours on end, loud and clear. He didn’t want to get left behind.
Visitors stayed no more than a couple of minutes, unsure of where to stand, and what to do. They would quickly regret approaching the bed and inch towards me, their hands finding mine. They didn’t make it in time, they would say, equal parts confession and accusation, as if that was the sum total of my experience. As if all I saw there wouldn’t preclude the very closure they felt denied.
My grandfather spent that entire, horrific week in an unrelenting state of torment, humiliation, and delirium. Just once, as I was restraining him, my small body bruising his dying one, did his lips find my forehead, a place they once frequented. His body relaxed as my tears soaked his face, and even though I knew there was no getting better, even though I snapped at anyone who dared suggest such a thing, I felt hope well up inside me. I freed his hands, for just a moment, and he used them to unroll the sleeves of my blazer, a look he detested, just one last time.
“Do you want to start the process?” a soft-spoken hospice nurse asked us, yet again. The doctors disagreed on much, but they’d all told grandma she needed to make a decision. The nutrients that dripped into one vein neutralized the morphine going into another.
“He’s half-dying,” a less reticent nurse told me in the hallway, her fingers digging into my arms. When I walked grandma out an hour later, I cast my eyes downward, avoiding eye contact. I couldn’t look at their faces, aghast, as she left him for yet another night of it.
She’d made me her health proxy earlier that week, handing her 30-year-old granddaughter a signed form that bypassed her only child and elder grandchild.
“I don’t want to suffer,” she told me, but she didn’t stop her husband’s nutrients for three more days. He was gone within hours.
“I wish I was dead,” she told me a month later, my bags finally packed, a taxi idling downstairs. When I returned just a week later, she refused to look at the inconclusive blood test I found in a pile of unopened mail. Two months later, she told her doctor to call me directly. She didn’t need to hear the details anymore.
It was probably Leukemia. They couldn’t be sure, but her blood count was fatal.
“You wouldn’t survive this,” the doctor said to me, and I believed him. I wasn’t sure I could survive any of it.
“How soon can you travel south,” he asked as I stared at bags, still packed and by the door, where I’d abandoned them at the first sight of my dog. I’d been home for less than a day. He gave me the number for hospice, but I already had it. I’d programmed into my phone the first time around.
After an hour-long dinner, my brother and I returned to a macabre scene. Grandma was spookishly animated, her head whirling about, her eyes focused on nothing. A mound of soiled bed sheets were piled on the ground as a nurse struggled to push and pull a fresh sheet underneath her. She was being rotated left and right, and when I caught a glimpse of her back, I saw half of the bedsore dressing limply hanging off, exposing the shallow, pinkish crater I knew well enough to notice it bore a new, yellowish hue around it.
“Take me out,” she begged.
“Anywhere,” I said, trying to steady myself as the ground began to sway underneath me.
It took all three of us to lift her languid body into a wheelchair. We made it as far as the living room before she cried for us to stop. I hadn’t seen her underneath such bright lights, but there, in the hallway, it was impossible to deny that her skin looked distinctly grey, almost completely translucent. By then, I could recognize the signs, even if I wouldn’t admit to them.
“I want to go back,” she cried. Me, too, I thought, but there was none of that to be had, so we wheeled her into the bedroom, where we spent the next harrowing minutes maneuvering her slippery body onto the bed. Grandma burrito, I used to exclaim to her delight, tucking the sheets underneath the sides of her body, pretending to restrain her so I could kiss the underside of her chin. I loved to feel the vibration in her throat as she giggled, to glance up at her beautiful face, smile wide and eyes shining. But these days, she liked to lay on top of the sheets, her body hot and swelling, and that was fine by us. It made it easier to stay on top of diaper changes.
“You’re a good girl,” she repeated, among semi-articulated sentences full of muddled memories. I was shooed towards my own bed at midnight, only to have my door opened at 4:45 a.m. So many nights of interruptions taught me sleep fully clothed, ready to help the nurse shift grandma towards the head of the bed. She kept slinking away.
“Hi, Gram,” I said with all the brightness I could muster. I paused in the doorway, allowing my eyes to adjust. That’s when I noticed the room was so bright. All the light were on, the shutters open, the smell of damp grass seeping in through the windows. And there was that noise; her small, well-behaved Maltese was whining so loudly in the corner.
“Are you awake?” I looked behind me. Moving a limp body was a job for two at least, but the nurse hadn’t followed me. “Grandma,” I called, a little louder each time, my hands gripping the doorframe.
Grandma. Grandma. Grandma, I repeated, until I felt a hand on my back, gently steering me towards the bed. I was at her side for just a moment, or maybe much longer, before the realization started to wash over me, before I understood that it was time to make the phone calls, to write the obituary and the eulogy and pack away the outfit she had chosen, and photos I promised to tuck in the casket. I leaned on the mattress and lowered my face just a bit, close enough to see what the nurse, who had done her best to clean up, couldn’t yet wash away. I hoped I would never be so lucky again.
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Alexis Coe is a columnist at The Awl and The Toast, and she’s contributed to the Atlantic, the Paris Review, and many others. Her first book, Alice+Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, will be published later this year. Follow her.