Grandma and Gene
MY STEP-GRANDFATHER, GENE, WAS DYING. He lay unconscious in his room on the mechanical bed on loan from the hospital, at least fifty pounds lighter than the last time I’d seen him, which had been too long ago. After months of chemotherapy and radiation for his cancer, the doctors had announced that it was in his brain. He was bald, skinny, pale, ravished equally by his treatments and his disease. There was nothing left to do for him, as I heard whispered again and again.
The most recent letter from my grandma had been short and to the point. Dearest Melissa, It has been so long since we heard from you. Gene’s cancer was all gone but then they found it in his brain and they had to take out his bladder. I’ve been with him at the hospital for two weeks. We’re just praying for a miracle. Hope you’re OK. Grandma.
Gene was Bea’s second husband. My “real” grandpa, a small, wiry man who got mean when he drank, had left his family decades ago when, as Grandma’s lore would state it, he went off with a whore. The marriage, which had resulted in three children, was later annulled so Gene and Grandma could marry in the Catholic Church.
I was a teenager when my father told me that my grandmother, while seven months pregnant with her third child, went to find her wandering husband and the whore. Grandma attacked the woman and beat her up, my father said with apparent pride, adding details like hair pulling to make me laugh and say “no way!”
“She’s a tough ol’ gal,” my father would say.
How he knew about the episode, I don’t know. Maybe she told him about it. Maybe his father did, giving his son one of the few gifts he ever did: respect for his mother. Maybe she took him along. Hell, maybe he’d imagined the whole thing.
When my father’s father died, he’d had cancer and a stroke or two, and toward the end, he couldn’t speak or move half his body. He went to a rest home because his second wife, a woman with white-blonde hair who wore color-coordinated pant suits and lots of gold rings, “couldn’t handle him.” Whether or not she was the woman my grandma had battled all those years ago, it seemed to me that she might as well have been as real-grandpa lay unconscious on the twin-sized rest home bed making loud, angry-sounding noises.
My father’s father didn’t live long there, and not long after he died, my grandma said to me, “you know, to hear about him dyin’, it’s just like readin’ about some old man dyin’ in the newspaper. It don’t make no difference to me.”
I hadn’t asked her how she’d felt about it. I hadn’t brought it up at all. I wondered whether the emotion buried under that ancient annulment was glee, relief, or despair. I wonder whether she was thinking about how good of care she would’ve taken of him, had he wanted her to.
When I arrived at Grandma and Gene’s house, I was immediately ushered into the bedroom to see the shocking sight of Gene. I hugged my Grandmother. She seemed not to want me to and quickly broke the embrace. “He sure looks different, don’t he?”
An entourage of women – Gene’s sisters -- attended to him while their husbands stood outside, smoking, as Gene would’ve been had cancer not been killing him. “It’s happening,” the women whispered audibly. “His head is so hot.” They exchanged knowing nods. “The doctor said his nails would do that. His hands are still warm.”
They were watching for the death signs, using various indicators to determine how alive Gene still was. They hovered about discussing the man’s progress with horrible objectivity as they casually administered his morphine.
One sister had a dubious medical background of some kind. Her face bore an uncanny resemblance to Gene’s, and it was odd seeing his bedridden, flaccid face re-animated. My grandmother pulled me aside, whispering frantically in the face of the sister’s confident busyness. “She’s just doing that to show off. She don’t know nothin’ about no nursin’ and if she’d just get away from him…”
The sisters poured out their uncomplicated affection, rubbing Gene’s forehead, holding his hand, sitting by his bed, talking to him like some people speak to pets or babies, as if they expect them to answer back. “Watcha need, hmmm? Are you OK? Does it hurt, hmmmm?”
Their fraudulent competence pricked my grandmother’s more poignant pain. Gene was no longer hers even before that first hamburger and milkshake (her specialty) eaten alone, or the first episode of Grand Ol’ Opry with no one else to look at and share a nod that they think it’s funny, too.
Their hands lingered comfortably on their brother as Grandma sat in a chair placed at the foot of the bed, looking on like a forced queen. I remembered a random fact I’d read once about how, when people die, their hearing is the last sense to go. I hoped it wasn’t true.
The sisters took turns wiping the mucus out of Gene’s mouth with Kleenexes and using a loud, motorized machine provided by the hospital to suck the fluid off his lungs. They put morphine inside his bottom lip, anxiously, getting up abruptly and glad for something to do when someone wondered aloud if it was time again.
Gene barely moved, but from time to time he would suddenly lift his right arm over his face and moan like a skeleton trying to fend off death, or some drug-induced hallucination, or women’s voices.
I was not charged with wiping mucus or sucking fluid or administering morphine, and I sat by my grandmother, equally acquiescent to the sisters’ will.
My pregnant mother married my father in 1966. They lived with Grandma for a while, and when they moved out, they didn’t move far, just down the street. One day my grandmother pulled my mother aside and had a talk with her about how, just because a man and a woman are married, that didn’t mean the woman had to be immodest. I imagined this happening at the height of cut-offs and halter-top season. Or maybe my grandmother had seen some disconcerting lingerie in the laundry. I don’t know, but my mother told me that my grandmother said that neither of her husbands had ever seen her nude.
I marveled at the thought of the woman beside me, pregnant, all that passion directed at the assault of her inevitable replacement.
Gene and Grandma were always warm toward each other, lively and full of jokes, and the older and less active they became, the less they understood about the world and the less frequently I visited them, the more they seemed to be performing for me instead of talking to me.
“MISSY!” Gene would yell suddenly during a conversational lull, making me jump slightly. “Did I tell you what those crazy guys at the plant did at my retirement party?”
Those crazy guys at the plant had performed some lengthy and detailed practical joke that ended with Gene’s using a sledgehammer to smash a package with unknown contents. After the smashing, it was revealed that the package contained an alarm clock, which Gene wouldn’t be needing any more, since he was retiring. Most of Gene’s stories involved some gag such as this. His entertainments where wholesome and simple. He made me wooden cats in his backyard shop, and Grandma still bought me things that were sky blue, because that was my favorite color when I was twelve.
Gene liked to tell you which of the few U.S. states he hadn’t been to yet, and his good humor and interest in the world always made these unseen places seem inconsequential and small. They took their vacations in their camper trailer, maintaining their blue-collar self-sufficiency, telling you about the setting up, the breaking down, what they cooked and how they took showers. My grandmother said she didn’t like hotel rooms because she was afraid they would catch on fire and she wouldn’t know how to get out. What I think is that she couldn’t imagine what she’d do with herself on a day that didn’t begin with making Gene’s breakfast.
Months before Gene died, when he was bald and pale but still “gonna beat this thing,” he and Grandma told me about the most recent time they’d rushed him to the hospital. They told the story together the way they always told stories, as if they were recounting their last vacation, Gene leading the way and Grandma filling in the missing details. Gene had been in the shower. Something went wrong, and he suddenly found himself lying on his back in the bathroom floor. As he told the story, he made a startling KABLAM noise to describe the fall. “I put my shorts on, and then I called Grandma to come help me,” he said.
She sat in her chair and looked at him, giving him the limelight like people do for those they love, nodding slightly as if to say yes, you’re telling it right.
He died. My grandmother lives alone and offers to cook you a hamburger when you visit. Still, enough time goes by between my visits to notice decline… a walking cane one visit and a walker the next, more repeating of the same stories, talk that only makes sense in the world she has entered more completely between every too-infrequent visit. She keeps her nails done beautifully in clear polish, but she hides her hands, ashamed of their dark patches and wrinkles when her picture is inevitably taken, everyone knowing it might be the last time they see her.
People laugh indulgently and not unkindly at the repetitions, as if she were dead already or just a child, as if she can’t hear them or understand. When they do this, I remember Grandma’s favorite joke. (Why did the chicken cross the road? To show the possum that it could be done.) I remember her ancient grudges. And I remember Gene. The not unkind laughter makes me cringe as I wonder if her lack of memory for facts is offset by some increased awareness of feeling, as it seems to be in the moments when she is least, or maybe most, like herself, making weirdly accurate, unfiltered statements about someone’s weight, or big nose, or mistakes.
The last time I saw her, she talked of her first husband, my grandfather. He wasn’t no good to me. He sure treated me mean.
She wilted visibly at her own words, closing her eyes and rubbing her forehead with the pads of her fingertips. Past and present seemed to hold little difference for her, and I could see her as a young mother, pregnant, sitting at her kitchen table with her head in her hand, drinking coffee in the middle of the night and waiting for her husband to come home, sick of useless praying.
“But you didn’t put up with that, Grandma, did you?” I said, putting a spin on my voice that I hoped would make the place I was trying to take her irresistible. “You got you a good one, didn’t you? Gene was sure good, wasn’t he?”
She was easily manipulated by the admiring respect for her toughness that my grandfather had given my father, and my father had given me, through a story. Her body straightened some. She grinned. She looked me in the eye and said, “Yeah honey, I sure did. Gene sure was good.”
Gabriel Goes Home