This personal essay was published in District Lines 4, 2017, by Politics and Prose Bookstore. Permission received to post it here, as November approaches, and this piece really belongs in the fall.
I do not know when she will leave us. Before we came back to her house this morning the resident at Sibley Hospital in Washington said death was imminent, but I’ve seen her like this many times before, curled up like a snail in her bed, knees to her chest, eyes tightly shut, pretending to sleep, her poodle guarding her.
I leave her upstairs to rest and go down to the kitchen with its French doors that look out onto the enclosed stone yard. It is the last days of June. It is ninety degrees outside and the ginger cat is under the patio table in the shade, listening to the birds, too hot to pursue them. He lasts five minutes in the heat and comes up the steps, luxuriating in his heft, all Emperor. I let him in and give him a bowl of defrosted shrimp from Whole Foods. I know that’s the sort of thing she does, feeding the animals treats. She sneaks the dog jam sandwiches with extra butter. Those she loves are anointed in butter. Her daughter stocks the top shelf of the refrigerator door with slabs of Irish Kerrygold. Before we moved in together, my now husband spent a week with her between rental apartments. The first morning he came down to a big greasy breakfast, “Oh, you don’t have to make me breakfast,” he said to her. She said, “It’s not for you darling, it’s for my poodle.”
When I hear her footfalls above me I go to the stairs to make sure she is all right. I try not to bother her. Now the dementia is getting worse, she wants family near her constantly and I am just a close friend. Her daughter, who she lives with, is her favorite but she is away on a much-needed vacation in Africa. Her grandson is visiting from California and has taken her daughter’s place.
She grew up in Minnesota and spent most of her adult life in the Bay area. She turned ninety last November, and my husband adapted one of her favorite songs, ‘The Lady is a Tramp’ – he sang, “she left California for this glorified swamp.” She can’t remember we were there. I met her in 2004, my first Thanksgiving in Washington. I had arrived from Mumbai, where I grew up. She’s a friend of my husband’s family but we are all a bunch of strays here and we’ve ended up spending recent Christmas holidays together. I do not like to take too many liberties with her. Too helpful and she gets angry. Or maybe it is better that I am not family, for she is mostly civil with me when I keep a distance. With family it is hard to set boundaries and fights can be vicious.
She is standing at the top of the stairs, leaning over the banister. She says, “I want to cut off the blood.” She yells for scissors. Her grandson brings them upstairs but I ask him to wait since she is pointing to her stomach. For a moment I think she is attached to the memory of when she gave birth in her hometown of San Francisco and they had to cut the umbilical cord that tied her to her babies. How silly I am. She just wants to cut off her diaper.
I change her diaper as she stands beside her bed. Then I slide her gown off her shoulders so I can put her in a fresh pair of pajamas. Her mastectomy took one breast, the other looks out of place, puzzled to still be there. Her ninety-year old body could be made of stone, it has no supple contours, and everything is set and hard, unbendable. Metal-like. She must weigh eighty pounds at best and her body is gnarled, but there is nothing to look away from. Old bodies should not be judged. They are. That’s all.
I want her to know that she still has dignity even though I am helping her change. She is a proud woman. She was a beauty, Miss Minneapolis, exquisitely dressed, with intelligent blue eyes that could see through all bullshit. She hates help. She is nasty to gardeners and housekeepers. She’s said in the past, on hands and knees, scrubbing her floors, “I come from a long line of Irish washer women.” So imagine her now, movie star looks, Chanel suit, eighty-eight years old, yes, that’s right, scrubbing her floors.
Some time ago, when the gardener was over she complained about him to my husband who mimics her well, “I asked the man, once he finished with that noisy thing of his, very sweetly I said to him, sir, sir, look at all these tiny leaves that are still on the ground, don’t you want to rake those up? Do you know what this person told me? He told me that he didn’t have a rake. Not even in his truck. So I told him: you’re no gardener, you’re just a mower and a blower.”
As I change her, the dog wraps his black body between her legs and growls softly at me. He is nervous I may harm her. I say to her, “It’s for me. You’re letting me help you for me, because it’s nice to feel needed.” This softens her in a way I haven’t seen before. Her gratitude is sweet and she stops fighting, agreeing to sip her water. This is a big deal. She likes vodka. She likes white wine. She used to say, “Darling, no one ever drank water or exercised where I come from.”
When the dog sees how happy she is he licks my legs. I do not like my legs licked so profusely but I let him do it.
When she is tucked back in bed and I am inquiring about her next meal, she says, as if pleasantly surprised by her hunger, “I should fill this belly, shouldn’t I?”
“How about a BLT?” I say.
“Oh yes, darling,” she agrees.
The house fills up with the smell of bacon. I cut it into small bite sized pieces. Then I take the thinnest slice of tomato, a tender part of the lettuce and press it together between two slices of soft buttered potato bread so it is flat, easy to chew with her dentures. She lifts the squares delicately into her mouth.
The last time I coaxed her to eat was four days ago in the hospital; she had been brought in for dehydration and for refusing to eat for days. The BLT worked then too. I said, “Do you remember, when I was so sick from being pregnant, how you cooked me a pork chop and it was the first meal I ate in three months? Now it’s your turn.” She couldn’t remember, “Really?” she said, but she liked the story and polished off the BLT and a brownie between sips of black coffee.
At the hospital she was disoriented. She tore the IV out of her arm in the middle of the night and ignored the awful hospital food tray. At home she likes the TV on all the time, but the TV didn’t work and she thought she was in an odd shaped apartment, “Which no one will buy. They will have to tear down the whole building soon. No one would want to live in a place where the walls are so ugly.” A moment later she thought we were in a car dealership. Then she announced, “This Church has too many rooms.” As if on cue, a woman stopped by to ask if she wanted Holy Communion. It was a Filipina accent she couldn’t understand so I told her what she was there for. “Yes,” she said, her orange Irish bob perking up at the question. “Big wafer or small,” she was asked. “Small,” I suggested, and she agreed, this time a lady. Earlier that day she had yelled at me to take her pills and “stuff them up my asshole”.
At home she is content and her short-term memory seems better. Today I read her the first page of my novel and she kept bringing it up through the day. Yesterday, at the hospital, she was mad at me for coming to visit her, “Who are you?” she asked, giving me a dirty look as I quietly worked in a corner. She hasn’t recognized me for over a year now.
“It doesn’t matter who I am,” I said to her, “but I’d like to stay anyway if that’s okay with you?”
Now, as she eats a cinnamon swirl in the bed she shares with her daughter, I think of my grandmother, Armaity. She died seven years ago in Mumbai, on a June day quite like this one. I lived much of my life with her until I moved to America. She loved cats too. It would be nice to spend one more meal with her. We’ve got so much love to give and we are still figuring that part out—how to love better—and we keep losing people before we have mastered the art of it.
Afterword: My friend died shortly after I wrote this, in November, just before her ninety-first birthday. November is the month of my grandmother’s birthday too.
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About District Lines: The fourth edition of the popular P&P anthology of work by local writers and artists testifies to the city’s diverse social and cultural range; as we know, there’s much more than politics going on here. Featuring both written and visual arts, from fiction, poetry, and essays to photography and drawings, this collection is a vivid kaleidoscope of District life.