When Grief Takes the Long Route
My parents aren’t doing well. They are flies on fly tape, struggling to break free of poor health and old age but just becoming weaker and more exhausted with each fight. At this point every unknown number with a 352 area code causes my heart to stall. Another fall alert notification. A frustrated EMT. A home attendant quitting. A doctor that wishes they could. I call the house line back and no one picks up because when my mother falls she rarely has the forethought to do it with the phone in her hand. So she waits in Florida, and I wait in New York, for the next call. For that call. In my experience the stepping stones that precede death are placed in chaotic measure. Death appears to be nothing more than a visit from a neighbor that you forgot lived around the corner. It’s the waiting that kills you. Peeking in the oven before the pie is done baking.
We anticipated my grandmother’s death for years. She had a habit of doing things the hard way and that well worn neurological groove followed her to the end. She was sand slipping through our fingers. Impossibly tiny grains that seemed insignificant until you noticed that the weight was gone and your cupped hands were empty. It’s impractical to say goodbye to a person that is retreating slowly. She lasted six days without food or water after the stroke that rendered her still. The end was less a crescendo and more like a janitor coming to clean up after the movie had ended. Spilled popcorn, empty sodas, and a mother and daughter that won’t leave until the credits finish. As if there’s some virtue in staying after the story had ended.
My mother had just finished putting keys in the little dish by the front door when my grandmother’s phone rang. A stranger from the nursing home said she was dead. They said it was common that people pass after their family leave for the day. That apparently no one wants an audience while dying. We took the elevator back down to the nursing home. Six floors to descend into a reality where she was fully gone. My mother cried and I held her. Haggard breaths sneaked past sobs. Our emotions which so rarely align manifested in identical grief. The shameful gratitude that it was finally over, matched with the devastating reality that it was finally over. For a few seconds in that elevator we were alone and more together than we’ve ever been. Apparently the grieving don’t like an audience either.
At the nursing home my mother took her rings and I found a mint green mohair cardigan with her name embroidered on the tag like a toddler. Her hands knitted that cardigan, back when she had effortless dexterity and physical presence that was at times intimidating. Until it was reduced. To what? A pot simmering for far too long on the stove, bits sticking to the bottom, burning to the point where there’s no difference between the smell of death and dying. Sometimes the body just doesn’t know when to quit.
After my grandmother’s death my mother’s mobility was stolen in bits and pieces. I don’t know if the two events are linked but emotionally they feel like cousins. The doctors call it ataxia but in my experience it can more plainly be described as repeat burglarizing of the mind and body. With every fall it steals a little more confidence, a little more strength, a little more hope. Eight years after we held each other up in that elevator my mother can no longer stand or even conceive of holding my child. For years I tried to keep the robbers at bay. Buying elastic shoe laces for her sneakers so she could put them on herself. Making frozen meals so they could eat well. Writing his pill schedule on the dry erase board so that he wouldn’t have to ask. My mother has refused help at every step and my father has forgotten that I offered it. The elastic shoelaces atrophy in my sock drawer back home while she insists on wearing the same gold leather house slippers that she’s fallen in dozens of times. At night my father takes out his hearing aid and can’t hear her screaming. When I stopped traveling to Florida on a monthly basis due to factors both outside my control and deeply in my best interest they worsened and the robberies have been more frequent ever since.
My sister and I consider what options are available to our parents- her father, my mother. She reminds me yet again of how long my grandmother survived without any measure of life. As if I’ve forgotten, when in fact the memory of that horrid ending and awareness of shared genetics loiter daily in my mind. I can hear my maternal ancestors snapping their fingers at me, “Hurry up and live while you still can.”
Our father wants to move into assisted living and my mother refuses to. She is 10 years younger than him and she knows all too well that if she goes in she’ll never come out. He won’t go without her and so they’ve reached an impasse. Racing towards mutual destruction with a white knuckled grip on their rollators and a slew of home attendants at their hip. My sister suggests we start clearing out the attic and my mother refuses. Her stubbornness permeates cellular walls. She says we’ll just have to deal with it all after she dies. I’m frustrated but I also can’t blame her. She has so little left to remind her of who she was. A collection of pig figurines, garage sale glassware, bootleg DVDs, and photo albums that are too heavy for her to open. She says she feels normal if she just doesn’t move at all. An actress sitting on stage frozen just before the curtain rises. A life reduced to set dressing.
They are trapped in that house. It kept them safe until it didn’t, and then another trip to the hospital. This time a longer one, pneumonia and Covid-19. Six weeks in the hospital and rehab. He lost 15 pounds and all of his meals are blended now. He says a hamburger milkshake actually tastes pretty good. Simultaneously, my own tiny family contracted Covid-19 as we crested the peak of Omicron in New York. I know we either got it from school or daycare but it really felt as if the virus traveled through those FaceTime and insisted on making it plainly clear how intertwined our lives still are. In quarantine with my husband and toddler whom I love more than anything but also fantasize about going on reality TV to escape. How nice it would be to go on a date with a stranger in Iceland. How nice it would be to not watch my parents die slowly. Stuck inside I trim the split ends of my hair on audio only zoom calls flailing wilding to stop the dead from spreading. Before you ask the question of how my parents are doing, ask yourself if you can hold space for me during the answer.
I remember how my mother braided my hair. All the times she insisted on doing it, too hard, too tight, but also just perfect. How much I hated it then and how much I crave it at this very moment. It would an act of revolution to have maternal love run their fingers through my hair. To hold her hand and not be afraid to squeeze it. They shake constantly now. She can’t type or sign her name. I’m free to write whatever I want to online but I also know there won’t be a birthday card in the mail come September. That penmanship that I could never aspire to has evaporated. My sadness is plaited tight to my skull, the baby hairs stinging.