“They’re putting I.V.s back in her?” I asked, taking another bite of the Chron’s-friendly lunch my sister had prepared.
“Yes,” she was sitting on the couch across from me, an uncomfortable thing in my mother’s holistic basement.
“So mom was right?” I clinked my fork on the plate contemplatively, wondering if it could be true.
“Maybe,” my sister shrugged, “sometimes dying people rally.”
The previous day the family gathered in the hall outside my grandma’s room, bracing for the worst.
“How long do you think this will take?” Cindy asked my mother.
My mom shook her head, “It could be hours. It could be months.”
“The doctor said it would not be months,” Cindy switched her purse from one hand to the other.
“The doctor isn’t god,” my mom had been a nurse for most of her life, “I’ve seen people linger for years.”
“Is that humane?” I asked. “The doctor said he could give grandma drugs.”
“I decided in nursing school to choose life,” my mother’s voice was strong and confident, this wasn’t the first time she had had this conversation, “I could have worked in an abortion clinic, I could have helped my patients die…” she was a necromancer, willing to do whatever it took to prolong life.
“What does Dad want?” Asked Cindy, my grandma’s loving daughter, hungry for the kill.
“I won’t let them euthanize my mom,” my mom replied, not looking at her sister.
“She’s going to die anyway,” I put my arm around her. Like my aunt, I believed there was a noble way to die, and another which was less-so.
“We don’t know that,” my mother’s words carried the weight of a thousand hopeless patients brought back from the brink.
“The doctors know that,” Cindy pressed, “the doctors said that.”
“The doctors aren’t god,” my mother dismissed the physicians and their Exalted Medicine. Life was too complex, it could not be predicted. There were ancient mysteries and elder gods, and it was to them she appealed, it was in them she believed. She began walking down the hall, leaving me standing next to my aunt.
“I would want drugs,” Cindy said quietly, under her breath.
“Me too,” I whispered back, but it was no use. I had spent my life trying to convince my mother of various things. It couldn’t be done. Once her mind was made up, there was nothing anyone could do.
My grandpa emerged from the bathroom, towing his oxygen tank behind him.
“Are you ready?” Cindy held out her hand. My grandpa took it, and together they made their way towards my grandma’s hospital bed.
My grandpa was the oldest kid I had ever met, an innocent man, without malice or guile. He held his daughter’s hand like a six-year-old, happy to be led, his white socks visible beneath the hem of the khakis he had outgrown. His oxygen tank resembled a backpack full of books, as if he was on his way to his first day of school.
• • •
The next afternoon, in my mother’s basement, my sister ate another bite of the meal she had prepared for us. “Mom was talking about aunt Cindy this morning. Apparently she and grandpa are running around doing errands, canceling credit cards, returning hundreds of dollars worth of towels.”
“Towels?” I asked.
“Grandma recently bought hundreds of dollars worth of towels,” my sister laughed, “And grandpa wanted to get a haircut.”
“I hope it’s a buzz cut,” I said. My grandpa had always sported the same haircut — short on the sides, longer on top. He parted it on the right and made sure his cowlick stayed down with a pat of gel. Once, in a fit of unabashed leniency, my grandma allowed him to go to the barber all by himself.
“And how should I get it cut?” My grandpa asked, washing his work-worn hands in the mud sink.
“However you want,” my grandma snapped, “I don’t have time to do everything for you today.” She was ironing the shirt she had picked out for him. They were going to a wedding and she still had three potluck dishes to finish before they could leave.
So my grandpa climbed into the family airplane and flew to Dickinson where he sat down in the barber’s chair, “What’ll it be?” Asked the mustachioed coiffeur.
“A buzz cut,” my grandpa replied. It was his favorite hairstyle, the same one he had worn as a member of the United States Army.
Ten minutes later he left the barber and flew back to the ranch, mounting the wooden stairs of his tiny house with a bounce in his step. It had been a long time since he felt so handsome.
“What have you done!?” My grandma gasped when she saw him.
“What you told me to,” my grandpa replied, confused by her reaction.
“I told you to get a haircut, not a scalping,” my grandma’s cheeks shone red with embarrassment. What would the other women think when she walked into church with a bald husband?
She didn’t talk to my grandpa for the rest of the day, and for the rest of his life he was never allowed to get another buzzcut.
“Why do you want him to get a buzzcut?” My sister asked.
“I want him to follow his heart,” I said seriously.
My sister ignored my comment, chalking it up to prednisone and steroid madness, “Have you talked to anyone at the hospital?”
“Mom. I told her that I don’t like how Cindy is leading grandpa around like a whipped puppy. I think she’s going to try and steal his money or poison him so she gets her inheritance more quickly.”
“I think she has enough money,” my sister scolded my delusion.
“Then why ignore grandma and grandpa for 15 years and only come around once they struck oil? Money changes people.”
After my grandparents became wealthy, I made it a point to treat them no differently than I had when they were poor. The rest of the cousins, uncles and aunts suddenly started visiting, showering them with gifts on birthdays and Christmas. I kept my distance, eating Sunday brunch with them exactly as often as before, which was rarely. We had never been close, my grandparents and I, and I wasn’t going to let money change that.
“I need to feed Hannah,” my sister said, “then we’ll go and visit everyone at the hospital. Maybe being around the rest of the family will calm you down,” she rubbed her forehead. “How did I get so sleepy?” She bent down and put her plate of food to one side. “You know when you’re so tired that you just want to pass out?”
“No,” I joked. It had been months since I’d been able to sleep without marijuana cake. “Wouldn’t it be crazy if grandma pulled through?”
The previous day we entered my grandma’s hospital room, spreading out somberly. My mom went to the side of the bed, reaching down and grabbing my grandma’s fingers. They were gnarled and bent, with bulbous joints, a badge of honor, proof she had worked hard her entire life. The fans and beeps had gone quiet, replaced by an angelic silence. She lay in bed, prettier than before, the massive tube removed from her throat. Her breath came in labored, phlegmy growls, stopping and starting erratically.
“Is this a death rattle?” I asked, terrified that we were witnessing the end.
“No,” my mother assured me. My grandma was a worn piece of leather, as tough as they came. Her death rattle would come, but not for a while. We stood there, watching and listening, talking together, trying not to cry.
• • •
The next day, in my mother’s basement, my sister laid down on the floor, “It feels like I’m melting,” she covered her eyes with one hand, trying to block out the light. “I’m really dizzy,” her voice was breathy and quiet, “I feel like I’m going to pass out.”
I set my plate down, nervous something serious was wrong, “Can I do anything?”
“My brain isn’t working,” she tried to explain.
A fear crept over me. What was happening? What should I do? “Maybe you’re just tired.” I offered. She was nursing an infant and her grandma was dying. It was enough to wear anyone out.
“Something is pulling me into the ground,” my sister tried to look at me, but her eyes were rolling in her head, each one wandering in different directions.
“Let’s go upstairs,” I said, “that way, if you fall asleep, it’ll be in the same room with Hannah.”
“I don’t know how to walk,” my sister closed her eyes. She tried to lift her body but fell back onto the floor.
I went to her, petting one arm with my hand, wondering how long to wait before calling the paramedics. My sister mumbled quietly to herself, her voice lost in a pillow. My heart was pounding in my chest. Was I about to lose her too?
“My mouth feels like cotton,” she murmured.
“I’ll get you some water,” I began to stand.
“I don’t remember how to drink,” her fingers pawed clumsily at invisible lights flickering before her eyes, “I’m so hungry.”
“I’m calling 911,” I reached into my pocket for my phone. Then, something occurred to me, “Did you eat cake?”
For months I had been using marijuana cake to counteract the insomnia caused by prednisone. When I arrived in Grand Junction, I put the cake in the refrigerator and warned my mother and uncle not to eat any, but I hadn’t told my sister.
She lay there, trying to remember, lost in a swirling fog, “Oh no,” she said at last, the words faint and whispered.
“How much?” I began to laugh, fear evaporating as I realized what had happened.
“All of it.” She moaned, her leg twitching as she tried to roll over.
I cackled maniacally, leaping around the room, slapping my hands on the ground like a crazy gorilla, “You’re high as fuck!” I shouted triumphantly, relief replacing fear. My sister, who had only sipped alcohol and never did drugs; my sister, who played in the worship band at church; my sister who was practically perfect in every way, had accidentally gotten higher than the moon.
“No,” she tried to lift her head off the pillow, but lost her balance and collapsed back onto the floor, “I can’t be high. I have a baby.”
The cake she’d eaten was was about the size of a brownie, filled with raspberry and topped with crumbles. An eighth of the confection was enough to send me into a drug-induced coma for six hours, and my sister had eaten seven times that amount, enough for an entire week.
“What am I going to do?” She tried again to raise herself from where she had toppled.
“You’re going to be high for a long time,” I stated the obvious.
“Mom told me to eat it,” my sister said, exasperated, but lack of intent absolved nothing, “mom said it was grandma’s.”
I burst out laughing, “I showed it to her the night I arrived in Junction. I said she could have as much as she wanted, but that it would put her on her ass. Didn’t you see me eat a piece the other night?”
“This is awful,” my perfect, virginal sister groaned.
“It’s just starting,” I continued to laugh, unsympathetic, just like they’d taught us in Big Brother School.
“This is something out of a movie,” she sobbed. But it wasn’t. If you put this scene in a film, people would call foul. There was no way a super Christian who went to church every Sunday, who was nursing her infant daughter, who had never done drugs, would accidentally eat a slice of her crazy brother’s pot cake. It was too unbelievable.
I called my drug dealer, the guy who sold me the cake. I asked him if it was OK for my sister to breast feed. He said it would be fine, but he was a drug dealer and believed that marijuana was no different than medicine.
“How do we get her not-high faster?” I asked, watching my sister groan and flail about. She rebuked the THC in the name of Jesus, then thanked Him for all the blessings He had given her.
“Push fluids,” he said. “Have her drink as much water as possible.”
I went to the sink in the basement. Like most of the sinks in my mother’s house, it was retrofitted with an MP400PC Multipure Drinking Water System. Above the sink were three shelves covered in crystal trophies. My mother had been awarded the trophies for selling so many water filters. I looked at my distorted reflection in their shimmering surfaces. Reality was a thin mirage. It could be seen through any lens. My sister was experiencing one of these lenses for the first time.
I brought the glass of water over to her place on the floor, “My skin is numb,” she groaned, trying to push through the high.
I set the glass down and sort of propped her up against the uncomfortable blue couch, “Drink,” I offered her the cup, “my dealer says water will help.”
My sister raised her arms, trying to grasp the cup, but her wrists went limp and her hands began to flutter like an old woman with cerebral palsy, “I don’t know how,” her eyes lolled about, trying to focus on the glass, “I’ve forgotten how to drink,” she whispered.
I talked her through the task, holding her trembling hands, raising the glass to her lips, “Swallow,” I said, watching the water dribble out the sides of her mouth, “you have to swallow.”
“So good,” she spurted water out her mouth, her eyes growing wide with excitement, “water is so good!”
Upstairs, the Baby Hannah began to cry, hungry for her mother’s psychedelic milk, “Keep at it,” I said, ruffling my sister’s hair “you’re doing fine.”
My sister slurped and drank, clumsily spilling as much as she ingested, blowing bubbles into the cup. I ran upstairs, grabbed the milk she had pumped earlier that day and began heating it on the stove. I’d learned how to feed a baby when I visited my niece a few weeks prior. With the milk warming I ran upstairs and lifted Hannah from the playpen, my mother’s gigantic Abraham Lincoln bed stared down disapprovingly. My actions had led to this moment. I went to Alaska, contracted Chron’s, then ignored the symptoms for a decade. The prednisone in my blood necessitated marijuana cake and my sister was paying the price. If not for me, she would still be holy, feeding her daughter herself. My sins were spreading, they had begun to effect people around me.
Hannah screeched and screamed, pawing at my chest, trying to feed. I bounced her down the stairs, cooing and cuddling, hoping to placate her until the milk was warm, “Mommy’s on another planet,” I tried to explain, hoping some part of her infant mind would understand, “She’ll be back just as soon as Saint Cheech allows.”
I fed the little darling, who consumed every drop of the milk my sister had pumped. Then I burped her. The belch sounded, bulbous and deep. Everything about my niece was amazing.
I ran downstairs and checked on my sister. She was sprawled out on the floor, her curly hair splayed in every direction, “Don’t stop breathing,” she mumbled to herself, “never stop…”
I placed Hannah in her car seat then hauled her upstairs. I set her outside my mother’s bathroom so I’d be able to hear her if she began fussing, then closed the door and turned on the shower. It had been days since I had bathed.
Like everything in my mother’s house, the shower was spotless, as if she scrubbed it every day. As I washed, I noticed a jar of lavender-scented hoof cream sitting amongst the various shampoos and conditioners. I didn’t know what hoof cream was, but the small, tin canister made me laugh. My mother was a Craterhoof Behemoth, there was no denying it.
I climbed out of the shower, toweled off, and began scrapping five days growth from my face. Halfway through the tiresome chore, a sloppy grenade went off behind me. It sounded like a jazz drummer rat-a-tating his snare inside a swimming pool full of sewage. Patters and explosions bubbled to the surface, farts I would not have believed possible from a grown man, much less a tiny baby. Half-shaven and startled, I put down my razor and walked over to the car seat where my niece had just filled her diaper. She looked up, innocent and unassuming, unaware of the impressiveness of the noises she had just made. I was going to have to change her. “There’s a first time for everything,” I sighed, reaching into the car seat to lift her out. I regretted the decision immediately.
The little darling’s diaper had run over, filling the bottom of the car seat with bright orange shit. I looked in the mirror and saw that my hand was coated to the wrist, “Seriously?” I looked at the little squirmer, resisting the urge to drop her.
Awkwardly, I spread blankets across my mother’s bed, then set Hannah on top. Somehow I got her clothes off. I had never played with dolls and the snaps and holes were confusing. Butternut squash puree dripped down her chubby legs, soaking everything, even her socks. For a second, I contemplated leaving her there. Someone would find her eventually and I could always plead ignorance, but no, it was my duty. This was my penance.
I removed the socks and wrapped them in her onesie, then balled the entire mess up, ran down the stairs and threw the pile into the garbage can on the side of my mother’s house. I was half shaven, with white foam covering my face, wearing only boxers, my hands stained a nasty shade of orange. It was OK, the neighbors already knew my family was weird.
I returned to my niece, ran 2 inches of water into the tub, then set about the heinous task of scrubbing shit out of the various folds and creases of her fat little legs. Periodically, shaving cream dripped on her round belly, causing her to giggle. We made quite the team.
Once I’d gotten her clean, I dried, diapered and clothed her. The process took more than an hour. “You owe me,” I admonished her. Hannah looked up, kicking her feet in ignorance.
I placed her back in the playpen and began stroking her tiny head, rubbing her chubby knees and singing softly. Her eyes began to roll and close, opening each time I stopped petting her. Eventually, she fell asleep.
I checked on my sister. She had spilled water everywhere and was crawling across the floor with the empty cup, “I need to push fluids,” she looked up at me, desperately fighting for sobriety, thoughts of her child filling her mind.
“I got you,” I said, leading her back to the pillows on the floor. I filled her cup with more water and brought it back to her.
“Help me,” she said, fear in her eyes, but there was nothing I could do.
Back upstairs, I dumped the rest of the orange sludge out of the car seat and into my mom’s trashcan, then dismantled the waterproof cloth covering and its attendant straps and plastic buckles. I was still shirtless. Half of my face unshaved. The buckles were caked in vibrant baby shit. I threw the cloth parts into the washing machine and the plastic parts into the dishwasher, adding an extra scoop of detergent for good measure. I started the dishwasher then went downstairs to check on my sister. She was passed out on the floor, snoring softly, waves of euphoric sand churning through her limbs. I went upstairs and finished shaving.
Hours passed. I sat in my mother’s bedroom with my laptop, listening to Hannah breath, writing the story you’ve been reading, checking on my sister from time to time. Then she came home. The Craterhoof Behemoth, stomping and banging cupboards. I raced downstairs as quietly as I could, “Mom, be quiet! Hannah is asleep.”
“She can’t hear anything,” my mom put a bowl away from the freshly run dishwasher, the ceramic clattering noisily.
“I heard you!” I tried not to raise my voice, “Why did you tell Noelle to eat my pot cake?”
My mom stomped across the floor and sent a pan crashing onto a stack of other pans. She wasn’t angry, she was just gigantic, blundering, and didn’t give a fuck if my niece woke up, “What pot cake?”
“The pot cake I warned you about, the pot cake that was in this container,” I held up the glass dish with the plastic top.
“I thought that was grandma’s,” She slammed a cupboard closed and began stacking noisy plates.
I resisted the urge to throw the dish at her, “Noelle ate the cake in this container and now she’s high as fuck and we’re out of milk and when Hannah wakes up she’s going to be hungry so you need to be quiet so she’ll sleep for a long time and give Noelle’s body a chance to process the THC or we’re going to have a high baby as well as a high mommy.”
“Noelle’s high?” My mom asked.
“You told her to eat my marijuana cake!”
My mom began to laugh, a giant booming thing that shook the walls.
“Be quiet!” I whispered, but it was no use. She was doubled over, tears streaming out her eyes.
I left the room, angrier than I had been in a long time, but unable to do anything about it. I went downstairs and sat next to my sister, “Where’Shannah?” She asked, her words blending one into the other.
“Asleep,” I said, but not for long. Upstairs my mom had called a friend and was relaying the story of my sister in a voice so loud I could hear every word from the basement.
Think! How do you stop your mother? You can’t stop her. She’s invincible. She does what she wants, and never listens to anyone.
A cupboard slammed shut and then my mom tromped across the floor and into the garage, closing the door behind her with a bang.
She has to have a weakness. Every villain has a weakness. What is my mother’s weakness? She’s stupid. That’s why we can’t reason with her. There’s no stopping stupid. Maybe we could trick her. Maybe we could tell her a lie!
I ran up the stairs as quietly as I could and caught my mom before she could come back through the entrance from the garage, “Mom!” I whispered, “Hang up the phone! It’s about Noelle.”
“Bev?” She shouted into the receiver, “I’ve gotta go.” She hung up the phone, “Where’s Noelle?”
“Downstairs,” I whispered, “but she’s paranoid. Pot makes you paranoid.” My mother had never done drugs. She didn’t understand them. It was my only hope. “She’s worried that you’re being too loud and it’s going to wake up Hannah and that’s making her have a bad trip.”
“That’s crazy!” My mom barked, “Hannah’s upstairs, there’s no way she can hear.”
“I know! I know!” I tried to whisper over her, to quiet her down, “but people think crazy things when they’re high, so we have to be quiet or Noelle is going to freak out which is a bad place to be when you’re high.”
My mom looked at me, the hamsters in her mind deciding how to process this new information, “OK,” she said at last, “I’ll be quiet,” and went back to unloading the dishwasher at a reasonable volume.
I sighed, relieved that she had bought it, hoping Hannah would sleep until her mother sobered up.
“They’re moving grandma to hospice,” my mom said quietly.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It’s a place people go to get better or die,” my mom replied sadly.
“I thought they put her on I.V.s?”
“It wasn’t enough,” my mom began putting away the silverware, “What are these?” She held up pieces of black plastic.
“I changed the messiest diaper I’ve ever seen,” I said proudly, “It soaked everything and covered the buckles in her car seat. I put the cloth parts in the washing machine and the plastic parts in the dishwasher to get the poop off.”
“You put poop in the dishwasher?” My mom said, disgusted.
Color drained from my face, it had never occurred to me that this might be a bad thing, “Whoops,” at the time it had seemed like such a brilliant idea, “sorry.”
“What am I going to do with you?” She laughed quietly, and began putting the dishes she had just unloaded, back into the washer.
I went back upstairs and peeked in on the Baby Hannah. She was still sleeping, untroubled by her noisy grandma. I closed the door, my mind coming to terms with a new awareness.
“She can be tricked,” said Gollum, his eyes gleaming in the dark hallway. “She can’t be stopped, but she can be tricked…”
All my life I had fought with my mother, trying to convince her of the rightness of my claims. Every argument had ended the same way, with her opinions unchanged. But she could be tricked. My mind reeled with the implications.
My mother could be tricked.
to be continued