It all started when she accused me, in so many words, of stealing a box of wheat pennies. She told me that “whoever stole my pennies is going to be haunted for the rest of their lives,” and that she put a curse on “that person.”
My favorite was when she said, “he will never sleep well after what he did to me.” She gave the person a gender. I was the only male who had access to her room.
My grandma was so sure that I had stolen her pennies, the level of certainty was mind-boggling. We all have little instances where we are so certain that somebody did something against us based on facts and history and whatnot … but to be so certain that a member of your family stole something without any discernable proof was cause for concern.
I always kind of admired my fowl-mouthed Italian Grandma for being so certain in her actions. She always possessed this level of certainty that bordered on pathological, but this, this was different.
Something had changed.
She was threatening me, yelling at me, accusing me of the unthinkable. She was accusing me, the favorite of the family, the grandchild who could do no wrong, her own personal Knight in Shining Armor of stealing.
I was angry. I hated her.
I didn’t know what was happening.
I would wake up in the morning and I listen for familiar sounds: birds chirping and cuckooing outside my bedroom window, the howling spring winds coming off the Hudson River that rattle the telephone wires, the gravelly hum of cars driving up and down the street. Those sounds comforted me.
That and Nat King Cole.
That’s how I knew grandma was alive.
Every morning, when she would wake up, she would shuffle downstairs, put on her CD player, and blast Nat King Cole while making herself a bowl of oatmeal.
Lately, everything was different. The mornings grew quiet. No sounds of grandma stirring at all; no sounds of stubby feet shuffling to the bathroom we share on the 3rd floor of our house, no grunting or growling in disgust at everything and anything, no Nat King Cole or Michael Bublé.
I would walk by her bedroom door and listen to make sure she was still breathing.
The Price is Right. Drew Carey. She’s alive, I thought. Maybe.
Sometimes it noon would creep in and she hadn’t emerged yet from her bedroom. I finally knock on her door.
“You alive?” I’d ask.
“Yous can’t wait for me to die, huh?” she’d say, her gums flapping in the wind.
“Oh stop, I get worried that I haven’t heard you,” I’d say as I opened the door.
Her head was always so plastered to the pillow, like she’s become a part of it. Her face smushed from laying down all night and she’d resemble a shar pei puppy with all the buttery rolls and wrinkles.
She was spending more and more time in bed. If she had her way, she probably would have stayed in bed all day.
I asked to use her car — mine was in the shop again – to go to the gym. She couldn’t drive anymore. Or at least, we didn’t want her to drive anymore.
I would pinch her cheeks; she liked that recently. She was becoming slightly less mean, more malleable, more apathetic.
I always told her that I would take her to WalMart, her favorite store. She used to go there at least three times a week, back when she could drive herself. Now she relied on me. That was deal. The family would give me her car if I took care of her and was her professional chauffer. That was always the plan anyway: Grandma had decided when she bought her car in 2006 that it would one day become mine if I wanted it.
She never banked on it happening this way.
I always convinced her to hop on an electric shopping cart, because she couldn’t hobble around Wally World anymore. Every time she got on, she’d act like she’d never been on one before, and when she pressed down on the handle, it would jerk forward and come to a crashing halt when she would inevitably get too nervous.
Stop and go. Stop and go.
One inch forward. Stagnation.
Reverse. Back up. Jerk forward.
That was her life now.
“Yous just wanna see me dead,” she’d say without fail when I would snicker at her inability to drive properly.
“No, Gram, I just want to not be in WalMart any longer than I need to be.” #PeopleofWalmart.com.
After a few minutes of her nearly running down small children and bashing into the electric doors, she would get a handle on it. Somewhat. It was great when she stopped to check out the candy aisle and did it so short that the guy behind her slammed into her.
It was like watching a geriatric version of Mario Kart.
As we shopped, she had a “list” to check off, something we’d allow her because it preserved a sense of normalcy:
- Toilet paper
- Almond Joys
- New broom
When we reached the cleaning products aisle, I showed her the options.
“Are you crazy?! I ain’t paying no ten dollars for a broom! I’m going to the dollar store. Fuckers.”
“Ok. We’ll go to the dollar store.” We continued on. Every time we rounded the corner into a new aisle, a look of sheer panic washed over her, and she apologized to passersby, saying she’d never been on one of these “things” before.
She always said, “I hope nobody sees me in this thing and thinks I’m old.”
To which I would reply, “Well, I doubt they’ll think you’re 20!”
“Maybe 30…” She smiled.
“Or 84…?” I retorted.
Then she’d stop the scooter and gaze up at me and say, “You’re a fuck.”
My mom was in the kitchen on the phone.
She turned to me and said: “Grandma missed her bus home from Foxwood.”
She was on the phone with a nice woman, Ella. She put her hand to the mouthpiece, covering it, and said “She’s lucky I was upstairs, because I wasn’t going to answer the phone. All I heard was the some woman on the answering machine going: please call me, it’s about your mother. And I was like ‘ah fuck! she had a heart attack and now I have to drive all the way up to Foxwood!'”
Grandma missed the bus once before and she had to use all of her casino points to charter a limousine to take her home, and she ranted and raved for days, months, years about the “fucks” who left her and how they were just trying to “get one over on her.”
When she got off the phone I asked, “So what happened?”
“She had to go the bathroom, and told the driver to wait for her, but when she came back, the bus had left. That’s when Ella called and said ‘your mother’s quite a feisty woman!'”
“So now what? We’re driving to Foxwood?”
“No, she’s going to get a bus to New Rochelle, and that’s where we’ll pick her up.”
When we got to NewRo, we pulled up to the bus stop and saw grandma with her cane hobbling across the street. She looked like a lost puppy, worried sick. Almost innocent, like a newborn baby. She was on the arm of a nice black woman who was helping her cross the street.
“Gram,” I said, hopping out of the car to her aid.
“That’s my grandson,” she whimpered to the woman. I open the car door for her, and she chucks her purse and gambling bag in the car, like a raging bullet. She begins to crawl in like a bear, her hind legs rigidly straight, and her bum out like Winnie The Pooh.
Once she was safe inside my mom’s car, the next words out of her mouth were: “THOSE F*CKS LEFT ME! Yous don’t know, yous don’t know what I’ve been through. F*CK!”
I tried not to laugh, but the snaggle-toothed grin, where her lower jaw extended out over the rest of her face, and her tiny narrowed eyes had me nearly rolling on the asphalt.
She started to scream: “I CAN’T FUCKIN’ BELIEVE IT! I’m so fuckin’ aggrivadit and I don’t have my FUCKIN’ blood pressure medicine. Theys want me to have a heart attack!”
My mom had her hand on her head, which rested against the window, like oh-dear-God-here-we-go-again.
“Gram, what happened?” I asked.
“I had to use the toilet, and when I got out, the FUCK! was gone! I missed him by ten minutes! Then I hadda get on the other bus to bring me here, and the fuckin’ bus driver was an Asian and was like ‘you no come on heah, you pay me twenty-fo dollah’,” she said, doing her best racist immitation of an Asian woman.”And then when we got here I says, ‘I hope my daughter didn’t forget about me,’ because I didn’t see yous guys. Then when I saw Steven’s face it was like I saw Heaven!”
“Me too, Gram. When I saw your face, the heavens open up to me.”
She laughed. “But yous don’t know what I been through. Yous just don’t know.” She repeated the story at least four or fives times, asking us if we knew what had happened. And then she told us about the nice ‘colored’ woman who helped her cross the street.
It had become a regular routine to take grandma out for lunch and a movie.
She never remembered the movie, but she enjoyed it in the moment.
First, we’d hit up Panera bread for a little lunch; I got her a bowl of macaroni and cheese (her favorite), and a Panini. She would rave about the mac and cheese and tell me stories of how she used to make it with her mother when she was younger. I mouthed the words along with her, since it was the same story every week.
That day, we headed to the movie theatre for an afternoon showing of “True Grit,” which I had already seen, but knew she’d love since she was always plopped down on the couch watching old westerns on TCM.
While I waited in line to buy the tickets, she went inside to use the bathroom. I always forced her to go to the bathroom, otherwise she was likely to have an accident. A big accident. An unmentionable type of accident. (Now, reader, this is what we like to call “foreshadowing” in literature.) After purchasing our tickets I walked inside to find G-Money plopped down on a bench outside of the Ladies Room.
“Did you go to the bathroom, Gram?” I asked.
“NO!” she said, rather loudly.
“Get in the bathroom right now!”
“Shut up, willya! I don’t hafta go,” she exclaimed.
“Eh, shut up, ya prick.”
Ok. Fine. I couldn’t force an 84 year old woman into the bathroom without looking like either:
- An abusive grandson or
- A raper of the elderly.
As we sat and watched the previews, she would ask, “What the hell is this? Is this the movie?”
“No, Gram. this is a preview.”
“Oh. What the hell are we seeing?”
“Is it good?”
Repeat x 10 until the movie began.
As Maddy Ross narrated how her father was shot, which set up the film, and grandma grabbed my hand. I looked over to her and she had a panic-stricken look across her face. She scooted up in her seat and looked as if she was having a heart attack.
“Gram, what’s wrong?!”
“I’m shitting! It’s coming out! Oh dear!”
“Are you KIDDING?!”
“No! Oh my lord! I’m shitting!!”
I helped her out of her chair and an explosion of smell smacks me upside the head. We shuffled down the aisle and across the hall to the bathroom.
I waited outside, and all I could hear was, “Steven! Are you there?”
“Yeah, Gram…how is it?”
“Oh, it’s bad! There’s shit everywhere! I need new pants!”
At this point, the stench of diarrhea travelled out of the bathroom and into the hallway of the movie theater. I knew I had to go back into True Grit (the theater still smelled a bit), grab our stuff, which we had left in a mad dash for the toilet, and go to WalMart to buy her a new pair of pants.
When I return with a new pair of pants, I checked to see if the coast is clear, ran in, and slipped them underneath the stall she was crouching in. That’s when I saw the smear on the floor by her feet. She had her boots off next to her, which were decorated with her lunch. Her socks were off and all I could see were her dangling feet.
The smell made me faint, so I walk out. A tall voluptuous black woman was walking in. She stopped at the door to make sure she had entered the right bathroom. The look on her face screamed, “PERVERT”, but I assured her that my ailing grandmother was sick in a stall.
She walked inside, and all I heard is, “Steven, are you still there?! Oh Steven! I can’t believe this is happening to me!” Then she started to scream, “Lord, why is this is happening to me!”
Then I heard the black woman, “Honey, you can come back in and take care of her.”
“I don’t want to flush the toilet…” she wailed. “There’s so much in here…”
I handed her piles of wet paper towels underneath the stall so she could clean off her legs and her feet and her boots, and she plopped them into the toilet.
She put on her new pants, and pushed her old ones under the floor. They’re soaked to the bone with excrement, and I felt like I’d fallen into a baby’s diaper.
When she finally shuffled out of the stall, I took a look around: feces smeared on the floor, streaks all over the toilet bowl, and a mountain of toilet paper and paper towels piled high above the seat of the brown-splattered bowl.
“I hate to leave it like that, oh lord why is this happening to me. FUCK!!!!” she hisses. Her face was bright red.
I tell her that she has to shower when she gets home, and she says, “Of course!”
When we got home she had forgotten all about what happened at the movie theater and when I DEMANDED she shower, she said, “Go to hell, I don’t need to shower ya bastard!”
She was becoming more and more despondent in daily interactions.
Gone were the days of the spirited argument for the sake of arguing.
She just wanted to rest.
That didn’t stop her, however, from waking in the middle of the night and wandering around the house. She would shuffle down the stairs and move around the kitchen. Sometimes she would go up and down the stairs three, four, five times a night, forgetting that she had just gone downstairs.
She was waking up earlier than she usually did, and me and my mom had to start listening for her as early 5am, because she would be downstairs making cereal with raw egg whites (I always kept liquid egg whites for healthy omelets and the container resembles that of a milk carton) or she would start to make oatmeal and forget that the oven was on.
She was aging and quickly.
Gone were the days when she was wrinkle-free; her flaw-free complexion was changing with the seasons and she was looking weathered.
That was when we discovered her irregular heartbeat. The new meds she was one were quickening her heartbeat, keeping her awake, causing her to feel a fundamental change in her body.
The difference was that now she couldn’t vocalize her pain.
I spent most of the nights with her in the hospital, praying with her, for her. I wasn’t even sure where I stood with God, but I tried to reason with him, barter with him, beg him not to take her, not yet.
We’d spend hours recanting her famous meatball recipe, and I’d ask her to sing for me because she had the most beautiful voice, like Rosemary Clooney. She even had a recording contract once upon a different lifetime.
When she was released to the hospital, they sent her to a nursing home. I followed closely behind her in my car, ready to take her hand when she was wheeled to her new home.
The corridors were filled with cripples and invalids, a portrait of neglected souls. Some paced back and forth, muttering small nothings to nobody. Some were mentally paralyzed, frozen in chairs, unable to say anything at all. All of them were old, very old, almost caricatures of the old crones and creepy old men you’d expect to find in bone-chilling Brothers Grimm fairytales, the ones that haunt small children and make them fear the aging process.
They were all lost souls in hospital gowns and fuzzy robes, and I felt my grandma squeeze my hand as they wheeled her into her new room.
She had tears in her eyes. “Promise me you won’t leave me?” she begged.
By the end of that day, my mom had check her out and brought her home.
Grandma was now residing in the living room, with a gate at the staircase so she couldn’t climb back up to her old room. My mom and aunts had decided that she deserved to live out the rest of her life at home, surrounded by people and things that felt familiar to her.
We hired an aide to help her, to clean her, change her diapers.
Like a baby, she needed round-the-clock care, a constant grannysitter.
She still knew who I was, but was beginning to forget everyone else not in her immediate world. I was the only grandchild she could still call by name.
It’s been over five years, and she just celebrated her 87th birthday this past month. She no longer knows me by name, just by feeling. When I go over my mom’s to visit her, she smiles because she knows I’m someone important.
I often think back to how it all started, with those damn pennies, and think: what happens when you no longer fit into the life you spent years crafting? What happens when memories, names, feelings, inclinations all disappear? What happens when the very foundation of who we are is gone?
Who are we?
Who is she?
The woman with the best meatballs outside of Italy, the best singing voice, the loudest laugh and the truck driver mouth?