Where’s the podcast? Well, I live in New York now and this weekend, I decided to hang out with friends instead of recording. It was selfish and I apologize, but there was fire in my blood that only the city could quench. Thanks for understanding.
My grandma opened her eyes. They were pale and blind, as if the color had bled out.
“Bryan leaves tomorrow,” my mom added two drops of essential oils to the cauldron of holistic power she was brewing, “you need to talk to him.”
“I tried,” I met my grandma’s sightless gaze. Were these the same eyes that had watched me grow? “Bryan won’t talk to me.”
“There are cracks forming in Brother Bryan’s foundation,” David sidled up, grinning ear to ear. He had always been the jester in his family’s court. Now his older brother was coming apart. Now it was his turn to laugh.
“He’s had a rough couple years,” I tried to add context.
“We talked for a while today,” David pulled up a chair, “when it’s just he and I, it’s different. Kind of like when I was working with Prince.” He said the name as if the pop star was a close friend. “Prince is a different person one on one. When the peanut gallery is around he feels like he has to perform.”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to encourage him. My grandma blinked, squinting orbs searching for light, ragged breath struggling to maintain. My mom dribbled a few drops of herb-infused water down my grandma’s throat.
“Bryan is a bean counter,” David continued. “Artists roll with the elevation and the tide and the size of the wave, but for Bryan everything has to be perfect. If he’s two cents short or three cents over, he has to balance the books.”
The door to the room opened. Aunt Gaye and little Nina stepped quietly in. For the past two days they had been driving to Colorado from North Dakota. Their movements were timid, each of them scared of the zombie in the bed, of the monster to which the rest of us had grown accustomed.
“Gaye!” I blurted excitedly, shattering the moment with manic fervor, “you look great! I wrapped her up in a hug. “You’ve lost so much weight!”
“So have you!” She giggled, hugging me back. Gaye had always been fat. Now she was just overweight.
My little niece stood quietly behind her mother, a mousy twig just entering her teens.
“How’s it going, Nina?” I asked.
“Good,” she smiled, trying to look at me, her eyes drawn to her grandma.
“How was the drive?”
“Long,” she stared at the bed, transfixed by the tragic scene. “I asked mom if our butts would get flatter from sitting so much.”
“What did she say?”
“She said she didn’t think so.” Her voice trailed off. I followed her gaze to the creature in the hospital gown, to our grandma with vacant slits instead of eyes. Neither of us knew what to say.
“Last night when they were orienting us they said the family was the head of the team,” my mother began telling Gaye about the nurses and their pain killers, “Craig was here alone and the nurse on staff came in and said that his mother was in pain and he should feel guilty for the way he was treating her…”
Nina began to cry, her skinny legs trembling, her tiny face filling with tears.
“It’s pretty rough, isn’t it?” I tried to remember how I felt the first time I saw our grandma like this. Did I cry? It seemed like a lifetime ago.
“She always had something to do,” Nina tried to explain, but the words wouldn’t come.
I understood what she was saying, “It’s her first nap,” I wrapped an arm around and pulled her close.
“Crazy, old lady,” Nina shook her head, laughing through the tears.
“Twenty-one to three, Packers over Kansas City!” David scrolled through his newsfeed excitedly.
“It’s preseason,” I reminded him. “Preseason doesn’t count.” It was how you finished. That’s what people remembered.
“Mother was coherent until the nurses gave her two milligrams of morphine,” my mom continued. I looked at the growling thing trapped inside that fractured skull, knowing it wasn’t morphine that did this.
“They wouldn’t listen to me,” my mom shook her head, “I went to the doctor and told him that the lab reports all showed a…”
I left the room. I was tired of my mother’s story, of the way she blamed the doctors for everything, as if the car accident had nothing to do with it.
The halls at Hope West were wide and covered in oil paintings. The subject matter was trite- landscapes, flowers, animals- the kind of thing old people liked to look at.
At the end of the hallway the lady in the dark room was still yelling, “Help me!” She cried. I stood outside, listening, “Help!” she yelled.
I pushed the door open and stepped into the room. Her curtains were drawn, but piercing light sliced through a crack between them. The old woman was balding, bent and alone. Someone had wrapped a blanket around her legs.
“Help me!” She continued, but there was no one to hear. My grandma’s room was teeming with life, a seething mass of conflict and family. This woman had no one to fight over her. Tentatively, I took a step closer. I wanted to see her eyes.
“Help!” She coughed, phlegm filling her lungs, “Help me!” She spit on herself.
Another step, how long until she noticed?
The room was spacious and well-laid out. Decorated with cozy couches and ergonomic chairs. It seemed so empty.
I squatted down in front of the woman. “Help me!” She pleaded, finally tracking my movements. Her eyes were dark pools, the pupils grown wide in dim light, the irises obscured by cataracts. What did she see? What was she afraid of?
“Help!” She yelled, her lips twisting like worms.
“I can’t,” I said softly. “No one can.”
“Help!” she bawled. “Help me!”
I left the room and walked into the entry way. Shelves sat recessed into the walls, each filled with machine-made pottery. The pieces were brightly colored and accented with Nouveau flourishes. I took my time, looking at each one.
There was a sitting room connected to the entryway. Inside stood wooden bookshelves full of dusty tomes, the kind of ornate decorative books that weren’t meant to be read. It reminded me of Gatsby’s library. Along one of the walls an intricately detailed globe sat next to an old fashioned harp. I spun the globe a few times, thinking about the billions of bacteria that covered its surface. Did they live lives like mine? Did they hope and dream and fuck and die, searching for meaning and comfort, believing themselves important? Was I like those bacteria, a speck on a speck, spinning madly through space, the unintended consequence of some unfathomable purpose? It seemed likely. Whatever the reason for the universe it probably wasn’t humans. We were just too small.
Next to the globe stood a harp, a beautiful thing, small and ornate. Someone had carved delicate scrollwork deep into its crown and neck. I plucked a few strings, listening to the discordant, resonant tones. The instrument was out of tune, a melancholy mix of order and chaos. I looked around the room and found a tuning key sitting on one of the book shelves. I attached the key and twisted a peg back and forth, plucking its attendant string, listening to the pitch shift up and down, trying to find a sweeter note; but the harp was old, and the pegs no longer held their position. Like most of the things in this place, its time had passed.
Wearily, I sat in one of the cozy chairs and breathed deep, listening to the stillness, watching the light play through stained glass, its colors dancing on the patterned floor.
• • •
“Where were you?” Asked Gaye when I returned to the room.
“Wandering around,” I gave her another hug. Gaye was a first rate hugger.
In my absence the room had filled with people. So many that there were no longer enough chairs for everyone to sit on.
Dwight stood next to the bed reading get well cards to my grandma.”Mom,” he said loudly, “The Kitson’s sent a card. It says To encourage you during this time and there’s a verse with it. It says: It shall be well with them, Ecclesiastes 8:12.“
David was holding The Baby Hannah, rocking her back and forth. He had cornered Dennis, one of my grandparent’s neighbors, and was telling him about his latest home improvement project. “When the government engineers asked what I was going to do with all that power. I told them I was going to hook my arc welder up to it, but the secret is,” he smiled devilishly, “I don’t have an arc welder. I drug those number 6 wires back to the deck and hooked them up to my new 320 gallon hot tub. That’s 320 gallons of water the government doesn’t know I have. All I need is a little pump and my Multi Pure water filter and as long as somebody doesn’t put a bullet hole through the side, I’m good for a long time.”
“Wow,” said Dennis, his stoic gaze and white mustache betraying nothing.
“So what do we do?” Asked Bryan, his hands trembling softly with Parkinson’s. He and my mom were engaged in a heated debate.
“We keep giving her water,” my mom said resolutely.
“The doctors say she’s brain dead.”
My mom was feeding my grandma crushed up vitamins hidden in applesauce, more nutrients to help her heal. If the nurses found out they would be livid. Distantly, I wondered if you could get kicked out of hospice. “They also told us her brain had been sheared,” my mom continued, “then they said it hadn’t been, then they claimed she was in the late stages of dementia, which is ridiculous. Nobody knows for certain. That’s the bottom line.” My mother was a necromancer, and didn’t care about the odds. She would resurrect my grandma no matter the cost.
“There’s no activity in the brain scan,” Bryan tried again, but my mother didn’t care. She was stubborn and myopic. She also had the medical power of attorney, a fact she wielded like a club.
“Can you drive Hannah and I home?” My sister asked. She was still a little high from the pot cake she had accidentally eaten.
We packed up the necessary items and hauled them out to the car, “Such a battle,” my sister said, referring to the debate between my mother and her younger brother.
“Clash of the titans,” I opened the front door and climbed in. Death was coming for my grandma, even Bryan wanted to stop giving her water, but first mankind’s ancient foe had to pass through a behemoth. My sister and I both knew that would never happen.
• • •
Later that night I was sitting in the kitchen watching draft videos while my mom lectured me about Facebook.
“I’ve told you, Nathan, that Facebook is something you have to be careful with,” she pulled a carrot out of the fridge, then found the cutting board. “I understand that you were crazy when you posted those naked pictures, but you need to make some changes or Bryan will never let you move in with grandpa.”
“Your brother is a simpleton and a coward,” I said, prednisone swirling in my veins. I had taken a second dose to counteract all the stress. Sauron was rising, feeding on my despair.
“He’s not a coward,” my mom began chopping the carrot.
“He won’t face me,” I turned down the volume on the clip I was watching.
“He wants to meet with the family to discuss things before he talks to you,” she put down her knife and looked at me.
“That’s the simpleton part,” I spat the words. Stupid people made excuses for everything. “I’m not changing. I love my story and the pictures are beautiful. They’re who I am.”
“Then you’ll never get past my brothers.”
“I offered to move here to help you,” I reminded her, “living with grandpa was your idea. I love what I’ve become,” the madness began to grow, the fervent psychosis of a writer unleashed, “I’m finally the artist I’ve always wanted to be. My story is effecting people,” a gleam of pride shone in my eyes. “It’s changing lives.” I could see the hopeful masses, the people I would help. All they had to do was touch the hem of my garment. “I’m not going to change who I am for an uncle I barely know.”
“He won’t appreciate the language you’re using,” my mom attacked me through her brother.
“Consonants and vowels arranged in random order!” I shouted. How many times would we have this conversation? “We add meaning to accidental sounds, but they’re not evil in and of themselves. They can’t be. They’re only tools. Trollop used to be the worst thing you could call a woman, now it’s meaningless. What changed?” The holy prophet stepped to the edge of the cliff, ocean air blowing through his beard, “Only our perception. An apple pie is no different than a fucking apple pie. The words themselves are not obscene, it’s only what they describe that can be perverse. Nothing in my book is perverse. It’s about hope and family. Someday I’ll write about grandma.”
“Don’t swear about grandma,” my mom said, weariness in her voice.
“I’ll swear about grandma and cut Bryan to ribbons,” I said proudly, my psychosis amplified by anger. “I will expose our family for the frauds they are.” My face was twisted in an angry sneer. My fragile arms began to tremble, my brittle heart pounded in my sunken chest. I was weak and broken. I had nothing left, but the pen was mightier than the sword.
“Did you take prednisone today?” My mom asked, taken back, searching the shivering creature in front of her for the boy that used to be her son.
“I had to,” I nodded. “Being around grandma stresses me out.”
“I wish you wouldn’t,” worry filled her voice, the fear of a mother watching her child come unhinged.
“I could feel the little pocket knife poking me from inside,” I remembered the dark days, the agonizing struggle. I didn’t care if the pills made me crazy. It would never happen again.
“It’s just so dangerous,” she sighed, wishing I was in pain instead of on steroids.
“Have you talked to grandpa about me moving in?” I changed the subject.
“No,” my mom shook her head. His children were treating him like a child, attempting to impose their will on their patriarch, as if his fate were a prize to be claimed.
“Maybe I’m not the right one to live with him,” I suggested. “What if he had eaten my pot cake instead of Noelle?”
David burst through the door, a whirlwind of manic energy, “Dwight has fled,” he announced triumphantly. “He’s always been the good little soldier, and Bryan needs numbers. Bryan knows that I’m going to challenge him,” he raised his finger and pointed towards the ceiling, “What he doesn’t realize is that I will also support him.” He walked across the kitchen dramatically.
“I’m done being controlled by a man,” my mom followed her brother’s non-sequitur with one of her own, “I did that,” she shook her head, remembering her awful marriage, “for 26 years I did that. And now Bryan thinks he can walk all over me.”
“Bryan is broken,” David continued. “When he opened up to me I tried to hold his hand, but he pulled it away and said, ‘Don’t touch me!'” I could hear the hurt in David’s voice. He had reached out and been rejected. He was well past middle age, but a part of him would always be a little brother. “Sister Cindy says we are not to give Mother any more water.”
“It’s not up to her,” my mom said, “Cindy glares at me every chance she gets, but never so anyone notices. She’s the one who hasn’t spoken to me in 35 years.” So much hurt. So many many schisms.
“Ostracized by you who, the Pharisee,” David began to quote a poem, “Wrongful blame been put on me. Art of the possible is salvation, but in the end, just to be killed by those he came to free.” He walked over to the sink and began filling a glass of water, “It’s a 15 year old lyric to an A flat minor seventh struc tonic chord,” he said proudly. “It’s a blues song because blues is pain.”
Beauty from pain. It was the artist’s way, an attempt to reclaim tragedy, to make something useful out of suffering. How many books, movies, songs and paintings had been created to that end? Too many. And for what? The world was no different than before.
My sister came downstairs and we all made bowls of yogurt and fruit, eating and talking about what would happen if my grandma died. The rest of the family was no doubt doubt doing the same, divided into camps, forming alliances, planning for the coming war.
“Can you take me back to hospice?” David asked once it had grown late. “I need to take over for Bryan.”
We climbed into my mother’s car and drove down quiet streets lit with orange lights.
“Once I got my Department of Energy clearance,” David launched into another of his wild stories, “I could walk into any nuclear facility in the world. I had credentials and a government issued laptop. They couldn’t connect the dots, but I gave them one person who could. This guy was so deep that when they tried to get information about him it came up Access Denied. I supported this guy. I was his liaison. He went to school in Syria under the guise of a student. That’s how I came to have pictures of a phone booth in Syria!” He cackled at the thought, his mind working faster than his mouth could process, “I went to get him out and the only way was through Iraq or Israel. Kristen doesn’t know any of this,” he paused momentarily, thinking about his wife, “I’ve never told anyone but you,” he looked at me earnestly. Was this another of his lies?
“So I went to Syria,” he continued, “and got my friend transportation through Israel, but the governments were changing and the inbound officials thought he was working for the other side so they threw him in the coop! They took away his laptop and his camera. The thing held 1500 high res infrared pictures and his laptop had tons of classified information. He was gathering intelligence about Hezbollah.” He paused, lost in the dream of a memory that had never happened, “I can’t tell you how I got him out of Syria.”
I turned onto First Street, sticking to the shoulder so only one tire hit the speed bumps, “Why can’t you tell me?”
“It would compromise a whole host of folks,” the story grew, swelling to accommodate an elite force of imaginary friends. “You’re the only one who knows these things,” his face grew dark, “Don’t tell anyone what I’ve told you.”
I could feel the MP3 recorder attached to the necklace beneath my shirt, listening to his every word, “I won’t,” I promised.
“I could get shut down just for telling you this story,” he said with fear in his voice.
What if he wasn’t lying? Would I one day be responsible for the death of my uncle?
I pulled into the parking lot and parked the car near the entrance.
“If I clam up, you’ll know why,” David climbed out. “Goodnight, brother.”
I drove home wondering what it would be like to be my grandma, catatonic and blind, to have my fate decided by the outcome of a conflict between 6 insane children.
to be continued