by Tamuira Reid
I like going back to California. I pack my bag days in advance. Organize plane tickets. Make plans with friends to meet at various restaurants. I am going home.
Home is where my family is. Mom. Sisters. An eccentric artist father who paints pictures in the woods. The Pacific Ocean full of sparkling promise. The ex-boyfriends, strip malls, the “first time” for everything. A taqueria on every corner. A golden retriever on every block. A grandmother who is dying.
I haven't packed my bag yet. I keep looking at it like it might disappear if I stare long enough. Just evaporate into the air. I close my eyes and concentrate. But when I open them, it's still there.
Packing is a process for me, one that I usually enjoy. Underwear and socks go in first, then jeans rolled up like newspaper to allow more room for t-shirts and sweaters. Pills, tampax, earplugs, sunglasses. ID. Pictures to prove my life is good in New York. Pictures to prove I am not depressed.
The bag stares at me from the closet. I turn up the radio and lay on my back.
Jet Blue. Row 16. Seat A. Is that aisle or window? In front of or behind the wing? Are in-flight movies still only $5?
She says she's scared to sleep, that what if she fell asleep forever? I don't want her to shut her eyes anymore.
California will be warm. Blue skies and a light, salty breeze. Bonfires on the beach. Kids still tearing down streets on skateboards. 72 degrees. Light winds.
I have to be at JFK in two hours. Maybe the lines will wrap around the terminal like reels of gauze and I won't get to board. “Sorry Miss Reid, but your plane has left.” Elvis has left the building.
I roll my jeans and unroll them. Stack all my underwear. Restack. Smoke another cigarette and turn the radio off.
I'll try to make it till you get here.
None of my socks match. Row 16. There's a big yellow stain on my favorite t-shirt, the one I spilled a fried egg on and forgot to wash. I should call a friend to tell her I'm coming home. See if she wants to meet me for coffee. See if her life is so much better than mine.
I pray for another day.
The cabin is full. The woman sitting next to me has a warm, worn face. A pretty gold cross dangles over the valley of her throat.
I'm greeted by hoots and hollers when I walk through the door.
Grandma puts down her book and staggers very slowly over to where I stand. Feet, mine, refusing to move.
“You're shape has changed,” she says, lifting up my arms and twirling me around to get a better look.
I smile. “I've been stressed.”
“Yes, well, your shape has definitely changed.”
This is her way of telling me I've lost weight. I nod in agreement but leave out the part about the food poisoning I got last week, how I may have puked one of my lungs out. It's the trauma diet. Shedding pounds due to sudden and violent bouts of illness, being recently dumped, or experiencing excessive amounts of stress and worry. Looks like my mother is on it, too.
“Yeah, your butt looks smaller,” mom tells me, clearing the plates from the dinner I just missed.
“No, you're boobs look bigger, though,” my sisters chime, almost in unison.
The hospice nurse, twenty-three year-old with gentle hands and a baby in her belly, is busy laying out grandma's nightie. It's a sexy, light blue ensemble with a see-through bodice and satin ribbon edging.
“I have a nice new black one,” she whispers in my ear, leaning over the table. And I laugh with her, grab for her hand.
And I hold that hand for the first time since I was a child. Grandma wasn't ever very affectionate. Well-meaning but not affectionate. She is proper and proud. A real lady. There's a hint of royalty about her, a certain grace. She is the Princess Di of Oakdale, California, a small rodeo town in the middle of nowhere.
I remember the lavish, elegant parties at her home when I was a kid. Caviar. Champagne. Live music. Tea lights and gardenias floating in the swimming pool. I'd hide behind the couch and watch the long-limbed ladies and men with waxy moustaches and Cuban cigars talking and dancing in wild circles around me. This was no longer Oakdale. No one here was small town. Everyone has been transformed into socialites and movie stars, important people with important stories to tell. No, not Oakdale. Grandma's house became Paris or Berlin or Venice, and she was exotic and perfect. An escape world she had created for herself. One without children and obligations and deadlines to drag her down.
Now she wears diapers and breathes through a tube in her nose at night. Food doesn't go down as easily and telephone conversations are kept short. Nurses and family and the occasional friend remind her that something real is happening, the inevitable process of the inevitable is beginning.
Sometimes she sits there, staring out the living room window. Silent. She's slowly sipping on a warm glass of brandy, her feet stuffed into a pair of pink fluffy slippers. I know her mind is going somewhere else. I can hear her remembering. The pages flipping, the big band music playing in the background of her mind, the snapshots of lovers and friends and missed opportunities melting onto her subconscious like a photograph lit by flame.
She has had five heart attacks in the past two weeks. Each one sets of the defibrillator, sending a jolt of electricity to her heart, shocking it into beating again. It keeps things ticking. Keeps her living.
“I want it out.”
“It hurts. And it's fake like. I don't want fake life. “
The defibrillator was removed the next day.
A team of around-the-clock nurses see to it that her life is stretched until the last possible second. That she rises in the morning and gets to bed at night. That she is fed on schedule, bathed and dressed.
“It's operation “Save Grandma” and my mother is at the helm.
I've never seen her work so hard at anything. She will not give up. She will not let her mother down. She plans every meal down to the last morsel. Makes sure television shows are taped in case grandma accidentally doses off halfway through. Lies down next to her at night until she falls asleep, reading to her from Good Housekeeping andLadies Home Journal.
We take her for walks around the “campus”, taking turns pushing her wheelchair. She says I am the best driver; not too slow that other residents might gawk at her condition, not too fast that she misses what's going on.
O'Conner Woods, a retirement community, is the place where wealthy aging men and women live in condos and small apartments, “bungalows' they're called. There are planned social events around the clock, a weight room that never gets used, and a dining room that boasts duck in wine sauce on Sunday nights.
We push her up and down paved streets and driveways lined with neatly trimmed hedges. She stops to visit old friends, catch-up on gossip, flash her dimpled smile at would be suitors.
The garden is usually our last stop. Individual name plaques stand in front of brightly colored roses. My grandma spots hers – pink and open to the sky. She gasps a little when she realizes someone has replaced her name with their own.
“Norma Rae,” she says in a quiet voice.
“Can she take your name off like that?”
Grandma laughs, folding her hands in her lap. “Probably thought I was dead.”
When mom and I are alone later that night, me in the tub and her sitting on the pot, we'll talk and assess.
“She's going you know.”
“Won't be long.”
“No. Won't be long.”
We sit there in silence for a while, watching grandma through the crack of the door, parked at the dining room table, struggling to swallow the mound of pills in front of her. Heart pills. Thyroid pills. Blood pressure pills. Sleeping pills. Sleep.
“We should be mashing those up, putting them in apple sauce or something. Easier to go down that way.”
“Yeah. Mash ‘em up.”
This has been the extent of our conversations lately. We've learned to create a certain dialect of defense, a way of speaking from a distance. Our mother-daughter talks center around the new hospice nurse's habit of eating all the Oreos or recent technological advances in science or who just killed-off of All My Children. But how are you doing? I want to ask. Your mother is dying. You know how much she loves you, right? But I just watch the water drain from the tub instead.
She shows me these pictures, black and white but more yellow than anything else. She shows me these pictures, full of beautiful men and women, perhaps as a testament to her own life. As if to say, “I was young once, too. Had so many dreams then.”
I can hear the absence of breath between each breath, the quiet sputtering of lungs too tired to keep a more constant rhythm. I study her face, partially illuminated by the outside light. She looks peaceful but I know she is not; her body is going to a place her mind is not ready to go.
“This one,” she picks up a small print, tinted amber with age. “This was my wedding day. Boy, that was a long time ago.” She smiles the smile of a woman still in love after all these years. After children. Illness. Death. “I sure am looking forward to seeing him again.”
My grandfather passed away in the early nineties, after a series of seizures left him comatose. It was my grandma's decision to pull the plug and when they did, she cried heavy tears over his silent chest but never regretted her decision.
She placed his picture, the big framed one of him in Hawaii, plastic lei around his neck, on the shelf in the closet. She'd say hello and good morning to him as she picked out her clothes and sometimes he'd visit her there, his pot-bellied ghost blowing through her dresses like a soft wind.
“So am I going to see you soon, sweetie?”
“I don't know, mom. I mean, guess it depends, right?” There's sarcasm in my voice and it takes even me by surprise. She rolls down the driver's side window and we both breathe in the sweet air coming off the cherry orchards surrounding us. It's a two-hour drive to the San Francisco airport and I can't wait to get away from all of this. To slip into a Manhattan cab and go, go, go until the faces of my family are blank and far away, their shapes and sounds moving into the darkness of memory. Like they didn't happen. Like a phone call received in the middle of the night.
We stop talking, keeping our eyes glued to the dotted line in front of us.
I don't look at anyone as I slide out from the front pew and head towards the back exit of the chapel, my uncle still giving his eulogy.
I pull out a cigarette and sit down on the steps, looking out in front of me at the maze of tables and chairs all covered in immaculate white linen. Soon they will be filled with friends and relatives and screaming children, fighting over cucumber sandwiches and miniature egg rolls.
I wasn't there when she died. “It was peaceful” seems to be the consensus. Mom held her hand, with her until the last minute, until the moment she charged out of this life and into the next.
“What did she say? I mean, don't they say something before they go?”
“No. She looked around at us one last time and then she closed her eyes and went. She just went.”
Even in that last moment, the grandest of all exits, she didn't say the words mother needed to hear. She held onto them. Forever.