Level 10: Death Rattle

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This is a picture of Gaye before she lost all that weight. She still looks great, though.

Aunt Gaye.

“Did you ever hear about the cow eyes?” Gaye asked after my mom left.

I shook my head.

“Well,” she smiled, remembering, “Mom took a pair of glasses and wrapped them in a beautiful velvet box along with a pair of eyes from a cow grandpa had slaughtered. Then she put a note inside that said here’s looking at you, kid. She sent the package to her sister for her birthday.” Gaye began to giggle, it was an infectious sound.

“What is it with grandma and animal parts?” I shook my head, “She gave Chris a squirrel tail for Christmas, all wrapped up in a silver box.”

“I once received a pig’s ear,” Cindy joined our conversation. “I was horrified!”

“Where do you even get a squirrel tail?” I wondered.

My grandma was a notorious prankster, seizing any opportunity to spread mayhem. Most of her jokes involved body parts of animals. I had never understood the deeper subtleties of gifting chicken feet, but when my grandma told stories of her antics it made her laugh until tears streamed down her face.

“If you wrote grandma’s obituary,” Gaye said seriously, “what would you put in it?”

“I would write that she was the hardest worker I ever met,” I’d always assumed my grandma was perpetual, that she would keep cooking and cleaning forever. That was beginning to look less and less likely. “I would write that the only time I ever saw her take a nap was on her death bed.”

“I’ve only seen her sit down and rest once,” Gaye sipped water from her bottle, then replaced the lid. “She was always doing something.”

“She visited Denver when I was kid,” I leaned back in the hospice chair, “my mom woke up at three in the morning to loud banging sounds in the kitchen. She went downstairs and found grandma scrubbing the cabinet doors. She had already cleaned everything else. The only surfaces in the entire house that weren’t spotless were those doors.” Gaye laughed knowingly, a lilting chuckle like sunlight on strawberries, “It wasn’t even her house,” I shook my head, “and she was on vacation!”

The nurses came in to turn her, stretching a curtain around the bed so her family wouldn’t have to watch. There is no dignity in death, no matter what people say. In the end we are all laid bare with only curtains to hide our shame.

“How long will she last?” I asked.

Gaye shook her head, “I don’t know.”

Cindy has never like my mom. My mom, mostly oblivious, does her best to love her younger sister. Unfortunately, most of my mother's attempts at love are obnoxious and end up pushing people away.

Aunt Cindy.

After the nurses left, Cindy pulled out her Bible, “I am the resurrection and the life,” she read theatrically, “He that believeth in me, yet shall he live…”

Eternal life. The gold at the end of religion’s rainbow. Would my grandma wake up in Heaven? I hoped so, even if it meant my own damnation.

“…and Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life, no man cometh unto the Father, but by me…’”

“She looks worse than when I got here,” Gaye whispered while Cindy read.

“We stopped feeding her,” I looked down at the ground. “I wish we’d done it sooner.”

“…He that raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also quicken our mortal bodies…”

Gaye began to cry, giant drops of spring rain. Even her tears were happy.

“…Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live. He cometh up and is cut down like a flower, and in the midst of life we are in death…”

“Where’s your mom?” Gaye dabbed tears from her eyes, delicately, so as not to smudge her makeup.

“She left,” guilt sat fiery in my stomach, the carcass of my treachery. “She couldn’t sit here and do nothing.” Once again, my mother stood alone. Once again she had been pushed away.

“You have fought the good fight, Mom,” Cindy said through perfect, crystal tears, the kind you could see in dim light, even from the back of a theater. “You’re surrounded by loved ones: Dad, Cindy, Gaye, Dwight, and Nathan. And we are praying for you to be released from your suffering. Go to be with Jesus. He’s waiting for you with Brett.”

“Her limbs are starting to stiffen,” my nose was running again, I wiped it with the back of my hand. Gaye handed me a tissue.

Mark is a nice guy. I'm pretty sure I weirded him out when my grandma was dying, being on prednisone and all.

Pastor Mark.

Pastor Mark stepped quietly into the room. His gray beard and subtle paunch were non-threatening and unobtrusive, like the man himself. “How is she doing?” He asked gently. No one answered, or rather, our silence was the answer.

Mark nodded, threading his way through seated family members until he reached the head of the bed. My grandma’s face was stretched from dehydration. Her breath rasped in violent bursts. “Dear Heavenly Father,” he began.

I lowered my head with the rest of the family, even though I no longer believed in Jesus.

“I ask now that your will be done…” Why was Mark here? Was his prayer a duty, something he did in exchange for money? The affable middle-aged father would, no doubt, still have prayed for my grandma even if she wasn’t a millionaire, but how long would his congregation continue to pay his salary if he stopped visiting their sick and infirm? Need will always taint virtue. We plant seeds, not for the joy of work itself, but so that we might reap a harvest. Our actions are determined by an endless chain of causal necessity. There are no selfless acts. “…In your name we pray, Amen.”

“Amen,” her family repeated.

Pastor Mark opened his eyes, but kept his hands folded. “The two of you have been through so much together,” he turned to my grandpa.

My grandpa is in the Cowboy Hall of Fame because he ran one of the oldest cattle brands in North Dakota and helped heal the wounds between the white man and the red.

Grandpa Alick.

“Sixty-five years,” the sad rancher replied. “They passed in the blink of an eye.”

“You should write a book.”

“I don’t know how to write a book,” my grandpa sighed. He had graduated with an 8th grade education, then spent his life riding horses and raising cattle. Now, in his old age, he read voraciously, devouring books about the Old West or Christian missionaries in China.

“You should have someone write a book for you,” Mark pressed, “It should start with the Rabbit Adventure.” Everyone in the room began to laugh.

“I love that story!” Cindy said, and each of us nodded.

My grandpa sat there, exhausted and annoyed, knowing that once the topic had been broached, the room wouldn’t rest until he told the story again. “I trapped mice in the grainery,” he began without preamble, “my father paid me a penny a tail, for each mouse I killed…” His voice was strong and raspy, his mind clear and focused. He didn’t use filler words, or pause to think of what to say next. He wasn’t a writer. He was a storyteller. The magic was in the act. For the thousandth time he beat the rabbit until it could no longer move. For the thousandth time his tiny hands gripped the tender throat, squeezing until he felt its heart stop beating. “…and mother dried out the hind legs and used them as brushes to calcimine the house.” He finished softly. Blood and agony. Triumph and joy. It was all in how you told the story.

“I’m so sad,” Gaye whispered as my grandpa launched into a new story, the one about the turtle in WWII. She reached down and grabbed a jar of pickles from a bag. Whole cloves of garlic and faded sprigs of dill floated in murky vinegar. They were my grandma’s pickles. Every summer she grew cucumbers, then canned countless jars to be opened the rest of the year. “Here,” Gaye handed me one of the stunted vegetables.

I held it up, looking at the tiny bumps that covered its surface. The crispy vegetable exploded in my mouth. Everyone loved my grandma’s pickles, everyone but me. They looked delicious, floating in their mason jars, but something about the flavor had always been wrong.

“Aren’t they good?” Gaye bit into another pickle, her acrylic nails gripping it delicately.

“The best,” I lied. I had been lying about those pickles since I was a kid, pretending that they were delicious. Now it didn’t matter. This was the last jar.

The adopted daughter of my uncle Dwight and Aunt Gaye.

Cousin Nina.

“How’s Nina?” Asked Cindy. My youngest cousin hadn’t been to hospice since she and Gaye first arrived.

“She doesn’t want to come,” Gaye answered. “It’s too sad for her.”

Everyone thought I was brave because I used to be a fisherman, but really I was a coward. I lied about pickles and smiled at Cindy, pretending to enjoy her caustic Bible verses. I lowered my head when Pastor Mark prayed, and sat in an air conditioned room while my grandma fell to pieces.I was afraid of what people might think if I left hospice. Nina was courageous. She stayed home because she felt like staying home.

My phone rang, it was my mom.

“How’s grandma?” The wounded beast lurked lonesome in the distance, bellowing her pain from afar.

“Dying.” I replied. I was mad at her for running, mad at her for being wrong. Look! Grandma is alive. I knew it all along!

“Has anyone given her water?”

On top of the nightstand lay a syringe full of water, untouched since David refilled it the previous night. “I don’t know,” I replied.

“Does she look thirsty?”

I looked at the shriveled husk with skin the color of sand, “Yes.”

“Give her some water,” my mom’s voice was miserable. “Just a little to wet her throat.”


“Thanks, honey. I’ll come back to hospice soon.”

I hung up the phone and walked over to the nightstand, then squirted half the water into the trashcan. If my mom saw it she would think I had done as she asked.

“Cindy and I are going home, Mom,” my grandpa leaned over the bed, saying goodbye for the last time. “We’ll eat some supper, rest a bit, then come back in the morning.”

“I’m so glad you’re here, dear boy.” Cindy hugged me dramatically; it was the kind of gesture humans make. Awkwardly, I hugged her back, wondering what Nina would do if someone she didn’t like pretended to be human.

“I should take off as well,” Pastor Mark gathered his Bible and sunglasses.

Dwight, Gaye, and I stayed behind. There was no longer any need to defend my grandma from nurses, but it seemed wrong to leave her alone.

“Before Nina and I left home to come here, I noticed that my petunias weren’t doing so hot,” Gaye handed one of my grandma’s pickles to Dwight. “I picked up the phone to call Mom and ask her if they’d got that bug again, but then I realized…” she put the lid back on the jar and held it sadly in her hands.

“Next time you can call me,” I put one hand on her shoulder.

“Do you know about petunias?”


Gaye smiled. “I was scared that she was going to live,” she put her hand on mine. “I didn’t want her to live.”

“Life is precious until it’s not,” I put my head on her shoulder. “We should have taken her license,” I remembered all the times I had helped my grandma back down the driveway, guarding the battered mailbox from another collision. “She couldn’t even back down the driveway.” It seemed so obvious now. “We’re lucky she only killed herself.”

“This family,” Gaye shook her head. “Cindy says I wash the lettuce wrong.”


“She says I have to wash the lettuce the way that Mom used to wash the lettuce in order to honor her.”

“That money grubbing wench,” my eyes narrowed to angry slits.

“I gave grandpa porridge in the morning and she got mad at me for giving it to him in the wrong bowl. Cindy says that I need to honor her mother by doing things just like she used to.” Gaye rolled her eyes. “And then David starts in on me about all this stuff…” she stopped short, realizing she had said too much.

“What stuff?” Had Agent Snuffleupagus appeared to Gaye? Was there a second Big Bird on Sesame Street?

“Stuff I can’t talk about.”

“David is insane,” I said seriously.

“I know more about him than his wife does,” she hedged, scared to dive it.

“He said the same to me!” I stood up out of my chair. The moment of truth had finally arrived.

“He tells me that he’s all kinds of an agent and stuff,” the beans began spilling.

“Well I’ve been recording everything he says,” I pulled my MP3 recorder out from under my shirt, “because I’m a madman too.”

Gaye pulled her chin back into her neck, surprised by this sudden turn, “Oh gosh, am I being recorded?”

“If you’re talking to me, you’re being recorded,” I said as if it were obvious, as if every nephew did that sort of thing, “I’ve recorded David saying all kinds of crazy nonsense about going to Afghanistan and turning the Hubble telescope—”

“—What do you use that for?” Gaye pointed at the device, still confused. “Please don’t put me in your book.”

“You’re in the book,” I assured her. “Everyone is in the book!” I gestured at the hospice room, taking in the city, and the world in the process. The plan was to write thousands of pages about a single summer, detailing every conversation, trip to the bathroom, and meal— Ulysses for the postmodern era. “I’m recording everything so I can write about it later.”

“Well,” Gaye didn’t know how to respond. My mother was a witch, Bryan was an asshole, her nephew was delusional, David needed to be committed, Cindy was evil, and her mother-in-law refused to die. “I hope it’s a good book.”

“Once this fire has been quelled,” I pointed at grandma, “the family is going to have to address the fact that David is a lunatic.” I put the MP3 recorder back beneath my shirt. “He believes that he’s a super spy. That’s a problem. Who knows where it could lead? I shut up about grandma’s driving, but I’m not going to shut up about David.”

My uncle Dwight drives fast and eats multiple plates of food at every meal. I used to idolize him and try to do the same. Turns out I have a small stomach and would rather leave early than break the speed limit.

Uncle Dwight.

Dwight sat in a chair next his wife, the weight of a thousand worlds pressing down on his shoulders.

“Is David a spy?” Gaye turned to her husband.

“I…” The Youngest faltered, not knowing what to say, “I suspected…” he had always looked up to his brother, learning from his experience. It had never been his place to question. Now his mother was dying and his sibling was crazy. “…there might be something to what you’re saying.”

“We’re not sweeping this under the rug,” Gaye pressed. “Not this time.”

“I’m not sweeping,” Dwight snapped, his usual calm flickering for a fraction of a second. It was the only time I’d seen him angry.

This is the Magic card I was thinking of when I wrote this chapter’s descriptions of my mom. I'm not saying she looks like a gigantic frog, only that her soul is large and unstoppable. Everything on the card is perfect, especially the italicized flavor text at the bottom. My mom is a beast.

My mom.

“How’s she doing?” The Behemoth appeared, standing on hind legs at the edge of the circle, scared to be rejected from the warmth of the fire. It’s OK, you can come closer. We promise not to bite. Tentatively she crept closer, her savage wounds healing despite the ferocity with which she had been struck.

“She’s doing about like that,” Gaye pointed at the bed. “Come on in and sit down.”

My mother sagged into a chair, her makeup streaked where tears had run down her face. Noelle followed close behind, carrying The Baby Hannah in her arms. The five of us talked late into the night.

• • •

“Wake up, honey,” my mother shook my shoulder. I opened my eyes, disoriented. When had I fallen asleep? “Grandma is about to pass.”

I turned my head left and stared at the wall, then back to the right. I was in my sister’s old room in Grand Junction. None of this had been a dream. “How do they know?”

“They know.”

Writers are supposed to have experiences. Jessica Brown’s dead mom told me that.

“What do you want to do after high school?” She asked one day. Back then, the question felt like an attack, like I was deficient for not having an answer.

“I want to be a writer,” I replied. It wasn’t true; or it was true, but only in the way that fat people want to lose weight. It would be nice, but who has the time?

“Writers need experiences,” Jessica Brown’s mom said sagely. Normally, when I told adults that I wanted to be a writer, they told me to go to college. “That way you can teach if the writing thing doesn’t work out.” But Jessica Brown’s mom was sick. The fucking doctors had done tests and figured out that she was dying and now she sat around in dark rooms with the windows drawn and tried to be brave for her kids. “You need to travel,” she continued. “You need to see the world. You can only write about things you know.”

She was right, of course. Writers need experiences. It’s good for them. I thought about this as my mom and I drove across town towards hospice. I had once read a comic book about Oscar Wilde. The British courts sentenced him to hard labor because he was a sodomite and while imprisoned he contracted pneumonia. Before he died, Oscar Wilde began to death rattle. It had something to do with his lungs, apparently lots of people death rattled before they died. That scene had always struck me. In the comic, the room was lit by a candle and then right before the end, a noise escaped Wilde’s lips that forever haunted his friends. I had always found that interesting. It was the kind of thing you could put in a book. So I drove across town figuring that at the very least, I would get to hear my grandma die.

“Call hospice and tell them to have a nurse waiting at the front door,” my mom screeched around another corner.

“Why?” There was no way I was going to call hospice and tell them to have a nurse waiting at the door.

“They lock the entrance at night and I don’t want to wait outside.”

My mother wasn’t a writer. Still, she was scared to miss the end. It was a common emotion. We place too much emphasis on beginnings and endings. It’s the middle that matters most. Nina understood that. She stayed home and slept because she knew that the important part was already over.

I pretended to dial my phone and pretended to listen to it ring, “Hi,” I said to an imaginary nurse, “I’m part of Dvirnak family,” I paused to let the imaginary nurse respond, “We’re headed to hospice and were wondering if you could have a nurse outside waiting to let us in.” Again I waited for the ghost on the line to respond. “We should be there in five minutes—”

“Three minutes,” my mom pressed the accelerator and sped through a yellow light.

“Make that three minutes,” I adjusted my imaginary request. “Thank you very much.”

When we arrived there was no one waiting at the entrance, but the door was unlocked so it didn’t matter. We walked past bookshelves full of Art Nouveau pottery, past the room where the crazy old lady was yelling for help, down the hall with paintings of nature, and into the room where my grandma was dying. Dwight and Gaye were there, sitting and watching with quiet reverence.

My grandma looked like a mumbling skeleton, her eyes open, her head bent at a terrible angle. The rasping gasps of the previous days had been replaced by a terrible calm. It’s when you stop fighting, that’s how the nurses know you’re about to die.

Cindy, my grandpa, and pastor Mark arrived a short time later, distributing themselves around the room in a final, stately composition. Dwight pressed play on a worship C.D. Cindy’s Bible remained unopened. Pastor Mark said another prayer. We waited for the end.

Around four in the morning my legs began to twitch. Crohn’s disease can sometimes give you restless legs. If you haven’t been eating right or something is stressing you out, your legs start moving and you can’t stop them. You just sit there with your feet kicking and your eyes wanting to close and the nurse coming in every once in a while to see if it’s over, but your grandma keeps not dying and Nina is the only one brave enough to stay home, and you’re sitting in this goddamn chair wishing you could go back to bed but you don’t because Jessica Brown’s dead mom told you that writers need experiences and you want to hear the death rattle, but then you start to cry and your skinny arms are trembling and your legs are twitching and the scene is like something out of a Rockwell painting except sad and confusing and even the pan flute worship music is somehow appropriate, but eventually it gets to be too much and you blurt out, “I can’t do this.” And your face is covered in snot and boogers and your eyes won’t stop crying and you can’t tell if that’s because you’re really sad or really tired, but you want to go home so you say, “I want to go home.” But you’ve never made more than $28,000 in a single year so everyone treats you like some kid who doesn’t know what he wants to do after high school and your fucking mom won’t give you the fucking keys so Gaye drives and on the way she says, “I hope Mom is dead before I get back,” and the climb up the stairs leaves your head spinning so you spit on the floor and punch the wall and then you’re banging your head against the door, but the pain is bigger inside than outside so you stumble towards the room where your sister used to sleep and pull the blankets over your head and hope to find oblivion.

And somewhere in the night your grandma dies, but you’re not there to see what it means.

to be continued

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