Later that night Dr. Hamner came to visit. She was a practicing M.D. who had tempered her methods with holistic remedies, a white witch with levels in exalted medicine. She stood at the foot of my grandma’s bed, hands folded, staring down, her chin pulled tight into her neck.
“What are you picking up?” My mother asked.
Lynda watched for a while, reading auras and chakras that pulsed like a psychedelic kaleidoscope. “Has she been breathing like this all day?” My grandma’s breath was ragged and frantic, inhaling and exhaling in rapid bursts, then growing quiet, then rasping again.
“Off and on,” my mom replied.
Worship music played from the stereo on the night stand, pan flute and acoustic guitar, cleansing the room of evil spirits.
“It sounds like she has apnea,” Lynda said thoughtfully.
I put the gigantic bag of lasers next to the other things Dr. Hamner asked me to bring in. It was an industrial case covered in pockets and zippers, as heavy as they came.
“If the doctors hadn’t given her morphine we’d be talking to her right now,” my mom said sadly.
“You guys have had quite the experience,” Lynda agreed.
“It’s going to be a story for the ages,” my eyes gleamed in the muted hospice light. “It’s going to change lives. It already has. Three lives have been changed by my story.” My hands began to tremble, “I’ve been keeping track. I’ve written them down.” My voice was forceful and frantic. Sleep was becoming increasingly difficult. My mind was beginning to fray. “Whatever happens, it’s going to be used for good,” tears choked in the back of my throat. “So is my sickness and Brett’s death and Bryan’s Parkinsons. I’m going to use all of this for good.”
“Georgia had a dream,” my mother walked over to the bed. “In the dream Mom was in a room like this one, sitting up and talking.”
Georgia was my grandma’s neighbor. My mother believed in angels and demons. In powers and principalities at war with one another— a cosmic realm, vying for the souls of mankind. In this world ancient prophets could part oceans and dreams were sacred things, not to be dismissed.
“But if that dream is going to come true,” she continued, “we need to get more fluids into her.” My grandma let out a long and painful gasp, arching her back then returning to uncomfortable rest. “Cindy keeps trying to stop me. I’ll have to sneak it in.”
“What do you think, Dr. Hamner?” I asked, “Should we be feeding her?”
Lynda moved to the bed and put her hand on my grandma’s forehead, looking at the old lady with cat-like eyes. “I want to laser her liver.”
Lynda’s world was similar to my mom’s, but with pagan gods instead of a holy Trinity. She believed that stars held portents and that the moon was a holy goddess. Years later I saw Lynda on the night of an equinox, gathered around a fire, her friends beating drums and chanting towards the infinite night. She lit a clump of incense then rubbed the smoke on her body, cleansing herself with ritual magic.
“It’s a class IV laser that penetrates 5 to 6 inches into the body,” Lynda tucked her hands into the folds of her flowing sleeves. “It increases circulation and decreases edema. It helps with pain and healing.”
“How?” I asked.
“Light is energy,” she fixed me with her feline gaze. “The laser increases ATP production by 500 per cent.”
“You’ll have to go home,” my mom said, “Lynda only has two pairs of safety goggles.”
“I was hoping I could watch,” I said, a little disappointed.
“The light can refract all around,” Lynda pointed at the various mirrors and shiny surfaces in the room. “We wouldn’t want to burn your cornea.” She unzipped one of the bags and pulled out a set of leaded, black aprons.
“Do you remember how to use this thing?” My mom came over and handed me a frequency specific machine. It was a tiny box with four wires connected to sticky pads. “Yellow, yellow, black, red,” she pointed to the various places where I should place the color-coded electrodes. “Take your melatonin, then run the sleep cycle, it will help you rest.”
The frequency specific machine was a small contraption that sent electricity through various parts of your body. My mom believed these frequencies canceled out the wave forms emitted by damaged tissue. Sickness or trauma caused your tissues to vibrate in sub-optimal ways. The frequency specific machine negated those harmful waves, resetting the system and allowing the body to reinstate healthy patterns.
I didn’t trust the frequency specific machine, but I was also on prednisone and my mind was crumbling from lack of sleep. The city of Grand Junction recently outlawed medical marijuana, closing down all the dispensaries, and my sister had eaten my entire stash. I was willing to try anything.
Lynda removed the cold laser from its case. The giant box was covered in archaic buttons that jutted from a plastic cover the color of flesh. She connected a thick cable to the box. The cable terminated in something not unlike a shower head.
“Run the program, take your melatonin, then try to get some sleep,” my mom zipped the frequency specific machine into a fanny pack and handed it to me, then she put on a pair of laser-blocking goggles. Lynda handed her a set of gloves. “Goodbye, honey.”
As I left the room, I looked back. My mother and Lynda were both slipping into lead aprons. With the thick gloves and dark-tinted goggles they looked like something out of a Frankenstein movie. I could almost hear the storm raging overhead, its electric power trembling in anticipation. Tonight, there would be monsters. The door closed. Behind it, two mad scientists began to weld my grandma back together.
I drove home, across the vacant streets of that desolate town. The air was clean and fresh, the desert resting after a long day beneath the sun’s punishing glare. At my mother’s house I climbed the steps to my sister’s old room and my bed for the night. Noelle’s things were still there, the ones she had grown up with, now vacant and abandoned. Someday my mom would die, and this furniture would be sold at an estate sale, each piece full of memories and sadness and hope. A little girl would fold her clothes and put them away in the antique chest of drawers, sensing, but not understanding, the history soaked into each piece.
I took off my shirt and looked in the mirror. My skin was tan and my body returning, muscle and sinew stretched tight around bone, an underweight Bruce Lee. For the first time in my life I was eating right, exercising, and spending time in the sun. Crohn’s was a chronic condition. It never went away. My doctor said it was impossible to avoid a relapse without medication, that diet and exercise played no part. Still, I wanted to try.
My grandma was in hospice and clearly needed pain killers, but my mother stood in the way. Was I making a similar mistake, suffering needlessly when a cure was at hand?
I attached the sticky pads to various parts of my body and set the frequency specific machine to adrenal support. Tiny, intermittent pinching sensations pulsed through the device, sending waves to counteract patterns that my body had grown accustomed to.
Patterns and waves, one of the kids in my engineering class claimed that everything in the universe was a wave, the patterns oscillating back and forth across space and time. What if my habits were part of a larger form, some giant and inescapable purpose that rendered free will obsolete? What if my sins were not my own? I swallowed some melatonin and laid down, feeling the tick of the frequency specific machine against my skin. Sleep came- 4 or 5 hours- enough to keep me sane for one more day.
• • •
“But is it grandma?” I asked Noelle the next day.
“She asked where Chris was,” my sister strapped The Baby Hannah into the car seat.
“So she’s going to make cheese pockets for Thanksgiving?” I was suspicious, especially after the ups and downs of the previous day’s false recovery.
“Well…” my sister trailed off and then began laughing, “Hannah is making the funniest faces.”
Chris came out of my mom’s house and climbed into the front seat. He had come to town the previous night, something about a wedding. “Do we have a happy baby?” He asked.
“She’s smiling.” My sister cooed as her super sized husband started the car. “You were a little darling until daddy came to town and now you’re all fussy, aren’t you?” She was talking to Hannah in a baby voice, but the information was meant for Chris. Moms did that sort of thing. My sister was becoming a mom. Her husband pulled down the driveway and headed out the cul de sac.
“So the cold laser worked?” I looked out the window as we passed the corner where the neighbor kid stood. He’d been playing on or near that intersection for years, staring at each car as it passed. “Grandma is back to normal?” I held up one hand in a half wave and, just like always, the kid watched me pass without returning the gesture.
“It’s hard to understand her,” my sister replied, “but she’s definitely talking.”
Georgia had dreamed that my grandma would wake up and talk. Had this been a portent of things to come? Had my grandma’s neighbor seen the future? Were my mother’s methods beginning to work?
Chris had uncanny navigation abilities. If he visited a place one time, his mind drew a mental map, then filed it away in alphabetical order. He drove right to hospice even though he hadn’t lived in Grand Junction for years, a feat I found amazing. “Have fun at the wedding rehearsal,” I said as I climbed out of the car, “Bye, The Baby Hannah,” I waved to my niece, then walked through the front doors, past shelves of Art Nouveau pottery, down the hall with paintings of elk, past the empty room where the crazy lady was yelling for help, and into my grandma’s room. Everyone was there— Gaye, Dwight, David, Cindy and my grandpa— “How did you get here?” My mom asked, but I didn’t answer, my eyes were focused on my grandma.
“Hey!” I smiled and gave half a wave. She was sitting up, the back of her bed raised to the shape of the letter L. Her eyes stared back, tracking my movements. There was understanding in her gaze. Her mouth began to work, attempting to form words. This was not the full recovery I hoped for, but the change was significant. “Don’t talk,” I approached the bed, “save your energy.” I reached down and grabbed her knobby fingers. The green eyes watched. She knew who I was.
“I’ve seen a lot of miracles,” my grandpa said, tears in his innocent, ancient voice, “and this is a miracle.”
“We’re about to have a family meeting,” my mom put her hand on my shoulder, “text me when the timer hits zero.” She pointed at a frequency specific machine hooked up to my grandma, its digital counter ticking down the seconds. Cold lasers and frequency specific machines, quack science advanced by practitioners on the fringe. I had always doubted my mom’s methods, but my grandma’s eyes had gone from cloudy to green. My stomach filled with butterflies. Was this the first step on the road to rehabilitation, or some kind of awful end, a vegetative state that would last for years?
“Hai ai ai ai ai ai,” my grandma struggled to speak, her tongue thick with disuse, her words trailing off into silence.
“Shhh,” I put a finger to my lips. “Rest quiet. Save your strength.”
She looked down at our hands, a foreign gesture for the both of us. Resolve strengthened her face. She looked back up, her lips working, her throat struggling, “Hai ai ai ai,” she began again, her face a desperate prayer, her voice a raspy growl “Hai hruvv heou.” It was the first time I had heard her say it. “Hai hruvv heou, Gnahan.”
“I love you too,” I sniffed, my nose suddenly runny. “Everybody does.” A tear tumbled down my face to splash on our hands. “You’re the best.”
She mumbled a string of nonsense, then lowered her head, exhausted.
“Shall we?” Asked Cindy, pointing towards the porch, “Nathan can watch Mother while we talk.”
Dutifully, the family exited the room, heading to the conference that would decide my grandma’s fate. The two of us sat quietly, feeling one another’s company, our silence a loving thing. We had never talked much. In college I’d lived in Grand Junction, just 20 minutes from her house. In four years I’d visited a handful of times. Was it my fault? Should I have tried to know this woman better and, after a lifetime of neglect, why was it so hard to let go?
“Way ya fava?” She murmured beneath her breath “Way ya fava…” She trailed off, exhausted by the effort.
I leaned closer, trying to understand, “Where’s who?”
“Where’s David?” I repeated. She nodded. “He’s outside,” I pointed towards the porch, “talking with the rest of the family. They’re trying to figure out what to do with you.” The old piece of leather looked back at me. Did she understand? “You should be dead,” I tried to explain, “Cindy wants you dead. She wants to give you pain killers until you disappear.” Prednisone coursed through my veins, a virulent serum that compelled me to say whatever came to mind. “Diane disagrees. She’s been fighting for you tooth and nail. Only David believes in what she’s doing. Without my mom and David, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” I looked at her broken body, her spirit staring out through the shattered portal of her eyes. “I’m with Cindy on this one,” I confessed. Another tear traced its way down my face, “If it were me, I’d want to die. Do you understand?” I waited for her to answer. “What do you want?” She stared back silently, green eyes blinking. Was I talking to a ghost?
We had never gone to the movies or the park or played games together. She came to my gallery shows, and sometimes I helped her with chores, but it was mostly birthdays and holidays that brought us together, dutiful dinners in the dining room with the fancy dishes. We’d sit around eating quietly, a respectful celebration of time’s passage. I felt the warmth of her hand and listened to her breathe, little things made poignant by the looming darkness. Soon her eyes would close and her breath would stop. The knotted fingers that had worked hard her entire life would stiffen and die. Only her finger nails would continue to grow, and someday even those would give out. The pain swelled, tears bubbling up. Something deep inside began to throb. How much worse if I had known her?
The patio door opened, my family’s secret meeting at an end. The fate of my grandma had been decided for another day. The various members began collecting their things.
“I’m going to try and get some sleep,” uncle David put his laptop back in its case, “I head back to San Francisco in the morning.” My grandma was supposed to be dead. No one imagined she would last this long. Bryan and Craig had left the day before, and now even David had to return to his job.
Cindy gathered my grandpa and their belongings, “It’s been a terrible day,” she sighed, looking at her mother. Her greatest fear was being realized. Half a recovery was worse than none at all.
My mom sat down on the other side of the bed and began swabbing my grandma’s mouth, applying Chapstick to her cracked lips.
“I’ll come back tomorrow morning,” my grandpa stooped down and patted his wife’s forehead. He looked so small and lost, his hunched back and hawk nose the picture of defeat. My grandpa was a glacier, as tough as they came, but some catastrophes destroyed the world.
A doctor came in, squeezing past Dwight and Gaye as they left through the same hallway, “How is she doing today?” He asked.
“Better than expected,” my mom said defensively, “she’s awake and remembers faces. She’s making connections. When she saw my daughter, she asked where her husband was, all the things the neurosurgeons said were impossible.”
Cindy sighed dramatically, shaking her head as she gathered my grandpa’s oxygen tank.
“Yes, we’ve heard about the things you’ve been doing,” he came closer. “She hasn’t had any pain medication today…” He let the implication hang in the air.
“No,” said Cindy angrily.
“She hasn’t needed it,” my mom held her ground.
“Yesterday we gave her dilaudid…” The doctor reminded her.
“Yesterday she was in pain.”
“Come on, Father,” Cindy held out her hand, glaring at my mom, “it’s time to go home.”
“We’re here to give information,” the doctor said cautiously, “to inform the care givers about their options, and we want to respect your wishes, but…” He paused, not wanting to start another fight, “we have a very specific mission at this facility. We’re not here to rehabilitate. If the patient recovers on her own, we’re happy to move her wherever you wish, but we’re not equipped to administer hydrating IV bags.”
Apparently my mother had been at it again, badgering nurses to hook my grandma up to a saline solution. “I understand that,” she said, “but we were brought here under false pretenses. The doctors at the hospital were wrong. There’s a chance that she could pull out of this.” Valiantly, she held the gap, her invincible faith a light in the darkness.
“Yes, well, if you’d like to move her back to Saint Mary’s, we can contact the ambulance, but this is not a hospital. We exist to provide a comfortable place where patients can recover or pass on, but…” Again he stopped, letting the meaning of his words sink in.
My mom, bull-headed as ever, ignored the man, choosing not to answer. David waved goodbye and picked up his laptop case.
“So, I think we’ve been clear,” the doctor said once he realized my mother had nothing more to say. “Let us know if you need anything like pain medications or drying agents, but we’re not talking about any fluid hydrations or IVs at this point, right?”
“Correct,” my mom didn’t look up.
The doctor approached my grandma, “How are you today?” She stared back at him, “Do you need anything for pain?”
“Ngo,” the rustling leaf growled reflexively.
“OK, you let us know if that changes, alright?”
My grandma muttered a string of nonsense, looking around the room as if seeing it for the first time. The doctor turned and left.
“Make sure the door is closed, honey,” my mom gestured towards the hall.
I leaned back in my chair and looked at the entrance, “It’s closed.”
My mom pulled the syringe filled with water from the box of tissues beside the bed and dribbled liquid into her mother’s lips.
“You’re impossible,” I laughed.
“Why?” My mom asked, genuinely confused.
“Nothing,” I shook my head.
My mom put the syringe back into the tissue box and pulled out a jar of applesauce, unscrewing the lid, then finding a plastic spoon, “I’ve got some applesauce here, Mom,” she said in a voice two decibels too loud, “would you like to eat some applesauce?”
“Yehz,” my grandma growled.
“Here you go, here’s some apple sauce,” a tiny bit dribbled down my grandma’s lower lip, but the rest found its way into her awkward mouth. Reflexively she chewed, reflexively she swallowed. “Was that good? Did you like it?”
“Ngine’s ge-her,” she replied. My mom and I both laughed. My grandma was a proud woman. No one did anything as well as her.
“Yours is better,” my mom agreed, then scooped another spoonful out of the container, “but this stuff is organic. No herbicides, pesticides or sugar, just apples. Want some more?”
My grandma tried to reply, but couldn’t. A coughing fit seized her, wet with the applesauce still stuck in her throat. When it was over, my mom put the spoon next to her mouth and she ate another bite.
“I talked to Bryan yesterday before he flew out,” I straightened a wrinkle on the bedspread.
“And he doesn’t want me to live with grandpa,” I kept straightening that same wrinkle, arranging it until it conformed to some arbitrary rule. “He compared me to the felons that he hires to work for his company and said that everyone deserves a second chance, but I would have to work hard to prove myself to him.” My uncle was a debt collector. He bought up bad loans for pennies on the dollar, then hired criminals to convince people it was in their best interest to pay him back. “I’m not a felon” I sighed. “There are swear words in a book I wrote and I posted naked pictures on the Internet. I don’t need a second chance.”
“I told you,” my mom put the lid back on the applesauce. “You have to be careful about the way you conduct yourself, or this sort of thing will happen.”
“He’s probably right,” I finished fidgeting with the bed spread. “I’d be a terrible caretaker.”
“I’m so tired,” my mom sighed, her shoulders sagged, her neck slumped. “Everyone is mad at me.” She began mashing a slice of avocado in a plastic bowl. “They say the nastiest things, then tell me to keep doing what I’m doing. Everyone but Cindy.” She shook her head sadly, then turned to the broken remnant of the woman who had given her birth. “Mom, I’ve put some iron in with this avocado. It’s going to taste nasty, but I think it will help.”
“Ngraszes,” my grandma groaned, “Ngy ngraszes.”
“David has your glasses at the house,” my mom put the spoon to her mother’s lips, “I’ll have him bring them later tonight.” My grandma opened her mouth and ate the avocado, a look of disgust spreading across her face. “Dr. Hamner is coming soon to give you another laser treatment,” she stroked my grandma’s arm lovingly. “You look so much better today. If this keeps up, grandpa is going to have the prettiest wife in the whole valley.”
“He already does,” I said.
We sat there, talking to my grandma, feeding her tiny bites of vitamin-infused food. The cold laser treatment had produced dramatic results, but it wasn’t enough. The poor thing could barely talk, could hardly even swallow, and her movements were clumsy and erratic, like an ancient baby beginning to discover the workings of her body.
Georgia had dreamed this would happen, that my grandma would sit up and talk, but this seemed more like a nightmare.
Lynda arrived, walking quietly into the room, her hands hidden beneath the folds of her large black sleeves. “She looks much better than yesterday.”
“The change is dramatic,” I agreed. “Are you going to give her another treatment?”
“I think so,” Lynda came closer to get a better look. “I brought an extra pair of goggles so you can watch this time.”
“I gave her some iron in an avocado,” my mom said absently, hoping that somehow it would be enough.
Lynda set up her machines while I moved furniture away from my grandma’s bed. When the equipment was ready, she handed me a pair of laser-blocking goggles. She was dressed like a mad scientist. My mother was as well. We all looked ridiculous.
“Are you ready?” Lynda asked. My grandma stared back silently, trying to puzzle out what was going on.
White light flared from the top of the futuristic shower head, a brilliant beam of healing energy— dazzling, even from behind my goggles. My mother wrapped her arms around my grandma, moving her disobedient body like a bag of jagged porcelain. “Lean your head back, Mom,” She cradled the tiny skull in her hands, exposing the larynx, and jugular. Lynda pressed the top of the laser against my grandma’s neck, massaging her tender throat in slow, purposeful circles.
For more than an hour they worked, moving my grandma into various positions, then applying the laser to different body parts. The light flashed sterile, accompanied by an unsettling buzz. My grandma gaped like a newborn, waiting for them to finish.
“Her breathing is more normal,” Lynda observed once the procedure was over. She was right. The ragged gasps had stabilized. My grandma had fallen asleep. Lynda coiled the thick cable then took off her apron and folded it neatly.
“David will be here in an hour,” my mom checked the messages on her phone. “Do you mind staying until he arrives?” She looked at me.
“I’ll probably just sleep here,” I replied. “Then in the morning I can drive him to the airport.”
“I don’t want you pushing it too hard,” my mom handed her goggles to Lynda. “We don’t need your Crohn’s flaring.”
“I’ll be fine. I took prednisone today,” a manic smile spread across my face. “It makes me invincible.”
“I wish you would stop,” my mom sighed wearily.
David came an hour later, after Lynda and my mother had left. “She looks much more peaceful.”
“I’m going to crash here and take you to the airport in the morning” I yawned, looking at the clock. “How’d you sleep?”
“I didn’t. Too much going on up here,” he pointed at his head. I knew how he felt. We sat and watched her breathe. After a while she woke up. David told her about his wife’s most recent vacation and how his chili peppers had turned out, “I bought a bushel of the hottest I could find, then filled them with dark chocolate. Then I dipped them in milk chocolate. You bite into the things and at first it’s sweet and then you get the kick, and then it mellows out again. It’s the perfect blend. I’ll bring you some once you’re better.”
I was exhausted, but could tell that sleep was a fantasy. I needed pot cake and frequency machines and handfuls of melatonin, but even that might not be enough. Wearily, I wandered over to the couch and laid down, hoping for a miracle.
“You know what’s going to happen if you fall asleep, don’t you?” David looked at me with a devilish grin.
“What?” I asked.
“When I was working on the Ministry album,” he launched into another fantastic story, “the original engineer fell asleep on the couch, so Al Jourgensen got a bunch of newspaper and soaked it in lighter fluid. Then he drank water for two hours while he duct taped Sleeping Beauty to the couch and covered him in the newspaper. Then he lit them and when the guy woke up he peed on him to put out the fire,” my uncle cackled like a madman, the memory of his imagined past sending him into hysterics.
“You’re going to light me on fire and pee on me?” I said angrily. His story was absurd, the kind of thing Hollywood put in movies.
“I’m just planting the seed, brother.” He slapped his ample belly, “Just planting the seed.”
I laid there, listening to my uncle talk. He told his mother about the things she had missed since the accident, periodically dripping water into her mouth like a soldier in some hopeless war.