the morning began modestly enough. i got to my mom’s house later than i was supposed to and when i walked in, there my grandmother sat at her usual seat at the dining room table.
“hey, mama. we’re late so we gotta move fast, okay?” my mother had an appointment with her eye doctor to determine whether or not she’d need another cornea transplant, bringing her to a grand total of 4. we were going to drop my grandmother off at the adult care center at a church about three miles from our home, a short drive away. i did the driving since my mother is not yet clear to drive, thanks to her eye problems.
i bustled about the house, using the bathroom, pouring myself a drink of water, quickly looking to see what was on Investigation Discovery. moving ahead, i went out to pull the car out of the driveway and in front of the house so that my grandmother could get in easily. on my way back up the steps, i heard my mother yell, but thought no more of it than i did the robins prattling on in the tree across the street. mornings are trying times, a test of how many times you can repeat yourself before you’re gritting your teeth and thinking of giving up and going back to bed. we often have to shout to get granny to pay attention to us, partly because she doesn’t hear well, mostly (i think) because she has little interest in being bossed around by her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. so, my mother shouting caused me no alarm until i stepped in the front door to see my mother laying in the middle of the floor, eyes closed, resting peacefully.
“what in the world??” i asked. my 20-year-old niece was on the couch giggling in her pajamas, my mother standing over my grandmother saying, “for god’s sake, what are you doing?”
i panicked. she had taken a nasty tumble at the care center just three days before and she kept a sore back and a bump on the back of her noggin as souvenirs. recent months have seen a deterioration in her mobility; her gait is just a bit more stooped, and her balance is off. “what happened?” i asked, fearing the beginning of a trend that could disrupt all our routines. my mother stood with her hands on her hips, looking down and shaking her head. “did she fall?” i asked my niece.
“no,” she said in between laughing gasps, “she gave up.”
apparently my grandmother, in the midst of my mother trying to coordinate her movements well enough to get her out of the front door (“okay, mama, let’s go, wait, put your shoe on all the way so you don’t fall, okay, grab your walker, not your cane, mama, your walker, MAMA please pay attention to me, i need you to grab your walker, no, not me, your walker, mama, let go of my shirt and hold on to your walker, wait, wait okay forget the walker, just walk towards the door, i’ve got you, mama, i got you, let go of my shirt, mama, mama!”) when in the middle of trying to follow her instructions, she sat down. let her muscles go and just sat down, right in the middle of the floor, then reclined when my mother let her go.
i pulled her upright and looked at her. “mama, you gonna stay down there all day?”
“uh huh,” she said, shaking her head in the affirmative and chuckling just a bit.
it was a morning that gave us a choice: be angry and upset at the near-fall that could very well be indicative of a growing problem with either her morale or her physical strength, or laugh. collectively, we chose to laugh. with my mother’s pending eye surgery, we had enough to fret about.
—- —- —-
we took chestnut street from the west end of the city from the east, and when we crossed the intersection at 26th street or so, i began telling my mother about the motorcycle accident i saw there the day before. a man was showing out on his bike when he lost control in the middle of a wheelie, spinning out and hitting the ground in a ball of dust and limbs and motorcycle parts. i haven’t been party to many accidents or emergencies, and since panic is my default emotion, i hopped right to it. i threw the car i park, hit my hazard lights and jumped out, closing the door behind me. seeing that everything and everyone was okay, i walked back to the car, worrying that i had locked my keys inside.
my mother, as she often does, told me what i should have done instead: turn the car completely off, take the key out of the ignition, lock the doors. she was right, of course, and i’d told myself the same as i hopped back in the car and drove off after the accident. i’d reacted without thinking logically, and i assured her that next time — if there was to be a next time — i’d be sure to stay calm and in control.
that next time came about 10 minutes later in the church parking lot. i sat in the car piddling around on my phone while my mother walked my grandmother along the side of someone’s car and a row of bushes. in the middle of tweeting about how my granny had had her second fall in a handful of days, i noticed my grandmother slump in my mother’s arms, nearly falling down into the bushes beside her.
frantically, i walked myself through the getting-out-of-the-car-in-an-emergency procedure, shaking and cursing the whole time. put car in park; remove key from ignition, lock doors, get out, shut door. i ran to them, and by the time i reached them another woman around my mother’s age had my grandmother around her waist, helping my mother hoist her up. i knelt in front of my grandmother, whose face and eyes were cast downward. i called out to her, taking her face in my hands, stroking her face. i took a moment to realize that this was not her typical lazy delay; she was unresponsive, chin glued to her chest, eyes wide and frozen in an unseeing stare.
“something is wrong,” i said, watching a thin rope of saliva dance from her poked-out bottom lip. “she’s not responding to me.”
“i know,” said my mother, “keep trying, see if you can get her to come to.” i gave her a few light raps on the side of her face, kept calling out to her. i didn’t panic until i noticed a tear clinging to her right eye, flirting with the bridge of her nose. was she hurting? was she in pain and unable to tell us? was she sad that this was happening and frustrated with fighting to make it stop?
was i watching my grandmother die?
i looked into the gray clouds pooling in her eyes and felt cold noticing how much they looked like the brown trout eyes stuck in the heads of my mother’s catches, dull, plastic. then, in a flash, they were clear and moving again. i spoke louder. she kept her eyes on me, but said nothing.
“call 911, tracy. we’ve got her.”
dialing, i remembered the one other time in my life i had to call 911. i was a kid and my grandmother had just learned that her second grandchild had committed suicide in as many months. a heart patience, she got too worked up, struggled to breathe, and fainted. my mother sent me to the phone and all i could do was blurt out my grandmother needs help!
this time i kept a calm tongue, but my mind was a cage of rioting magpies. there is no delicate way to say that i have thought about my grandmother’s death, and not always with sadness. she will go, i have thought, quietly, and we will mourn quietly and will slip quietly back into the lives we knew before she became old and ill and that will be that. it will be over. but with it here in my lap, inches from my face, my heart was anything but quiet. what will we do without her? it chanted as it tried to claw its way out of my chest. what will we do? what will we do?
the paramedics arrived and by the time they were done checking her vital signs — all of which were fine — my grandmother was cussing at being fussed over and asking for coffee, as if she’d never left.
we decided to take my grandmother with us to my mom’s eye doctor, where she and i would wait in the car while she went in and got checked out. for us, who lust for spontaneity in guilty fantasies, who remember freedom as a reckless old lover, my grandmother’s presence on this trip hung heavy in the air. there will soon be a time when we won’t be able to transport her, to risk her seizing (that’s what happened in the parking lot, and perhaps that morning, too) and falling and breaking a hip or worse. one day we won’t be able to leave her at the church while we condense a week’s worth of errands into a few hours. soon she won’t be able to walk at all, and we’ll have something more to feel resentful and guilty over.
this getting old thing is a war of living versus living happily.
on the car ride to the eye doctor, my mother made calls to various doctors and sitters for my grandmother, trying to find someone who may be able to help us understand my grandmother’s seizures and what to do about them. when she spelled out her name to be included in messages, she began with “‘V’ as in ‘victor.”
i pray that she is right.
—- —- —-
as we pulled out of the church parking lot, i told my mother that i remembered to turn off the car before i got out to save the day.
“you forgot to lock all the doors” she said. “my wallet was on the seat; someone could have stolen it.”
in a feared corner of my heart, i feel certain i’ll get this emergency thing down soon enough.