~ Monday, October 20, 2003 ~
This might be depressing. Then again, it might not.
Here's something I wrote a few weeks ago, before going home to visit my grandmother for a few days. The visit was good, and I got to talk with her a fair bit, which was really nice, especially considering how coherent she hadn't been the afternoon I arrived. I also read most of this story to her, which she seemed to enjoy even through the morphine. She even laughed. I'm so glad I went. Anyway, here's the piece.
My grandmother has been battling cancer for several months now, and yesterday I learned from my mom that the cancer is gaining the upper hand. She sleeps more than she did, she's lost more weight, she's less energetic and more depressed. I wonder if I should fly home sooner than December. I'm afraid the visiting we did with her before I left isn't going to be enough (when is it ever enough?), and I don't want to arrive in time for the funeral. I find myself sad in a way that I'm surprised to find I can handle, am even eager to embrace. It's not that I seek pain, but I'm relieved to find this sadness, this wanting to remember every detail of every interaction we ever had, this wanting to cry instead of to freeze, because I hadn't really felt anything so potent when greeted with the news that the lives of my father's parents, or my mother's aunts, were fading out, and it made me a little afraid that I'd sculpted myself into a cold-hearted machine with no capacity for compassion or tears, which is what seems to be in danger of happening when I protect myself too well from disappointment and get too adept at distracting myself from pain.
There's minimal protection this time. It's not just the thought of my grandmother not being here anymore that makes me feel like disintegrating into bits of dust; it's that I was so sure she wouldn't let go for a while yet. I've been harboring a firm belief that my grandmother is going to recover and live for another decade, at least. This isn't starry-eyed little-girl faith that if I wish hard enough, everything will turn out okay, either. This is really the sort of belief my grandmother inspires in me because of who she is. I've really been thinking she'd persist.
She's always been a tenacious fighter, maybe even more stubborn than I am, but the things to which she chooses to apply that stubbornness make me shake my head in admiration and bafflement. I had called to ask her how she was feeling, just to check in, and without ever blatantly saying as much, she refused to talk about herself, insisting instead on having a perfectly normal and polite conversation. She asked me how I was enjoying the city, my classes, and my housemate, and after several minutes of me talking excitedly about new experiences here, she prepared to make her excuses and end the call. I had called to ask her about herself and instead she deftly let me tell her about myself. There were no complaints about her failing health. Not one. Even when I pressed, "I really want to know how you're doing," she dodged, "I'm sure you're not interested in hearing about me," and when I insisted, "I am, that's why I called," she would say nothing more than, "Well, I don't want to go into detail, but I'm not doing too well." No self-indulgence, even though I wanted to let her share. I wanted to help her somehow, even if it was only by listening. She's 92 and terminally ill, and she can still exhibit more propriety and decorum in conversation than I can. How can she be at once so stubborn and such a lady?
When Maimone and I were little and still needed babysitting, my parents' usual solution was to drive us, teeny suitcases and books and drawing pads in tow, up through the twisty turny hills of Montclair to drop us off at Mama's house ("Mama" was her name, because that's what my mom called her, and we--Maimone, Maya, and I--followed her example) to spend the night.
We had a bell-ringing ritual. Mama's house had two doors. Unlike ours, which had one door in front and one in back, the latter made inaccessible to the general public by means of a wrought iron gate with a padlock, hers had a front door and a side door. Our front door had a doorbell which I have no memory of ever actually hearing. Mama's, however, did work, and it made a glorious "bing-bong" sound. This intrigued me. A real working doorbell! How could we keep from using it when we arrived, even if our presence announced itself with more than requisite volume when the old camel-colored Chrysler Plymouth, and later the yellow Volvo, may they both rest in pieces, pulled into her driveway? No sooner had the emergency brake ground into place than we'd hop out of the car and dash across the front of the house to the front door and the fascinating doorbell. Bing-bong!
But then! An idea! What if Mama went to the door and we *weren't there,* just like that scene in Duck Soup? We snuck-dashed back around the corner to the side door, where Mom was already doing the sensible thing and knocking on the side door, which was the preferred door for regular use anyway, probably because the front door was too nice for family. Sensible, certainly, but that didn't mean the side door would be opened first.
No, Mama knew how to play. Off she'd amble to the front door, saying loudly to herself, "Now, who could that be?" The eruption of giggles from outside and around the corner was completely inaudible to her. We couldn't resist peeking around the corner when we heard the deadbolt click opened. Out her head poked. "Well! It's Mr. Nobody!" At this point we'd add our rapid knocks to Mom's on the side door, and off Mama would go to answer this other call, *leaving the front door opened*. So of course, we'd dash off again, around the corner, being careful to duck when we went by the kitchen window, to sneak into her house through the unattended front door and magically appear inside without her actually inviting us in. Oh, the delicious glee! We'd fooled her! It was made even more delicious by the knowledge that Mama knew exactly what was going on, and was letting us play, even *wanted* us to play, and wanted to play with us. We knew this, and delighted in it, and yet we managed to ignore it. Such is the privilege of being a child.
By the way, this game had several variations, which is probably what gave it such longevity. Sometimes we'd dash back and forth from one door to the other, never actually entering, but just enjoying forcing Mama to conclude that there was an endless parade of Messrs. Nobody that night. Other times, one of us would run back and forth from door to door, from knock to doorbell, while the other one would "sneak" inside and begin to silently walk around directly behind Mama, shadowing and parodying her every step while she ambled about in utter confusion. Sometimes we'd both shadow her, single file, her, then Maimone, then me, while she wandered from room to room soliloquising about what a mystery it was about that pesky Mr. Nobody. This would, of course, be crowned by us suddenly revealing ourselves at a choice moment. "Well!!" she'd explode with surprise. "Where did *you* come from?"
Visiting Mama's house was like candy. She used to teach kindergarten, so she had plenty of materials for little-kid activities already sitting around the house. There were songs and games and poems, but I remember the craft projects best--cards or decorations for holidays made with dusty and faded construction paper, green plastic strawberry baskets, yarn, Elmer's glue, and those miniature scissors with green rubber handles and rounded tips that only cut after a gargantuan amount of coaxing, but at least they wouldn't put an eye out. Cutting was always particularly hard for Maimone, because we could never find the lefty scissors, but he never let me do the cutting for him, even though I'd have been happy to help.
Anyway, he didn't care much for the crafts. He was more interested in the Hunter's Turkey and soup Mama used to serve us for dinner. Cooking was never really a big thing for my mom--she sews, instead--so having professional-style food outside of a restaurant was always a special occasion for Maimone, Maya, and me. Not only was there yummy dinner, though; there were also those forbidden delectables, Pepperidge Farm cookies (usually Milano or Lido) for dessert. No more than two, unless of course Maimone or I managed to sneak into the kitchen after bedtime and silently lift the cookies out of the cabinet and bring them back to the bedroom, where we'd marvel at our own bravery in having a third or fourth.
Sometimes, after dinner, if it was still light, we went on catwalks--no, not little ledges on which we danced too sexily for our shirts, but ambulatory searches for felines. These walks would take us up and down Chambers Drive and onto some of the nearby streets in search of neighborhood cats. Mama didn't like cats much (she said it gave her goosebumps when they rubbed up against her leg), but she took us on them anyway because she knew how much we liked them. Besides, she liked to walk. The area was more of an ivy and eucalyptus wilderness interrupted by houses and roads than it was houses and roads interrupted by plantlife, so there was a fair bit of fauna around. Speaking of fauna, if we were lucky, we'd see a deer or two, which was a huge thrill for me, because I never saw deer except for during summer vacations at Tahoe and at Mama's house, and I figured deer and I had a special bond or something.
If the weather didn't permit catwalks, we'd play inside. Maimone loved the records we played on the turntable in the living room even more than he loved the catwalks. Mama had The Gay Parisienne, Peter and the Wolf, and The Nutcracker Suite, all of which we played endlessly. We danced across the immense round green rug on her living room floor, running and leaping around like Baryshnikov (or I would be Gelsey Kirkland, if I was feeling girly...which I often wasn't) and very nearly jumping high enough to touch the iron bells hanging from the middle of her ceiling. She didn't want us to jump up and touch the bells to make them ring, because the landing that invariably followed would make the record skip. Sometimes she'd take the unit of bells down from its metal hook and let us ring the bells without having to jump, which was nice for me because then I could actually touch them for once, but it also completely defeated the purpose. The dancing during the Russian Dance was the point. The music gave us special jumping powers (it gave Maimone special jumping powers, anyway) and we could soar higher than ever then, and every so often his greatest efforts would be rewarded with a faint tinkle.
If our leaping and dancing became too much for the poor old records and we started to "raise a ruckus", Mama would send us downstairs to the rumpus room (which I thought was the ruckus room), which has a tile-on-cement floor covered with another round rug. This rug, unlike the plush, green, cushioned one that lived upstairs, was red and thin and scratchy. If you jumped from the tile onto the rug and landed with too much forward momentum, the rug would slide along and out from under your feet, throwing you off balance. Still, it would serve for a little while, and the adjoining rooms always provided plenty of diversion. Next to the rumpus room were the workshop and the study once used by my grandfather, who died before I was born. His study was still filled with his letters, photographic slides, hats, and exotic pipe collection, and his worshop was still cluttered with tools and projects. Above all I remember staring for long moments at the plasticine clay head that looked emaciated and tortured and made you want to look away and yet keep staring.
Then there was the Unfinished Area, our secret indoor playground consisting of a splintery wooden staircase and a loop of rope that once served as a clothesline, but which we impressed into our service as a zipline--we practiced zipping across it a la Indiana Jones by holding onto part of the clothesline and jumping from the third or fourth (or fifth, if we were very daring) stair to the earth below and ahead, which was difficult, because the wheels on either end of the clothesline (clothesloop?) were rather rusty and didn't turn very easily. It required technique and finesse to jump off the side of the staircase and actually coax the line to go forward with us, instead of just dropping straight down (pitiful) or giving ourselves a rope burn (painful). Beyond the main section of the unfinished area was even more wilderness: there were soft dark hills of dryish earth with endless exploration potential, concealing dusty chests, mysterious pipes, and spiders.
Sooner or later, the hardness of the rumpus room floor and the lack of audible music and warm dinner smells would bring us back upstairs, where soon it would be time for bed, which meant the introduction of another entire set of covert games. There were clothes hanging in the closet begging to be included in a game of dress-up, particularly the long delicate nightgowns which I wasn't to touch but always did, being careful to fold them and replace them exactly as they were, and yet Mama always knew. How did she always know? Once we were changed into our own nightclothes--pajamas for the summer or fleece, overall-like one-piece sleepers for the winter--we'd brush our teeth, using the tiny light-blue plastic teacup to rinse. Meanwhile, the bed in what was to serve as our bedroom would be converted. This room used to be my mother's, but through an intricate ritual, the one twin bed in it would be made fit for two. After removing the fascinating pillows (some of which were, by the way, excellent material for pillow fights (which is to say, they were strictly off-limits)) from the bedspread, and then removing the bedspread itself, the mattress would be pulled off and laid on the floor alongside the boxsprings. The mattress would then be covered with half of the blankets, and the remaining blankets would be laid on the box springs. One bed for each of us. We traded off, though, because the options were unequal. The boxsprings were the more desirable choice, because that half was taller and bouncier. For most of the nights, the first hour or so after official bedtime was spent bouncing on the beds. I should mention, I guess, that bouncing on the bed was forbidden, and Mama had sharp hearing for a long time, but she also tended to be a little lenient if we didn't bounce too hard. In this, too, she was known to play along.
Who's bouncing in there?
Nobody? Then what did I hear?
I don't know...
You don't know, eh? Well, it must have been a mouse. A big mouse.
If we grew too loud and careless, and ominous footsteps approached the bedroom door, we'd zoomdive under the (now hopelessly rumpled) blankets and snore very loudly (and rather breathlessly, which only made it sillier) until danger had passed. Then we'd whisper hysterical comments to each other and revel in the agony of trying not to laugh too loudly, until we finally dropped off to sleep.
~ prattled by Miriam at 1:59 p.m. [+]
* * *