All night we defended her from nurses, dutiful Ukranian scions with weary eyes and black axes, our pelts pulled tight against the wind. The old woman lay unaware, dreaming sacred dreams on the border between life and death.
“Wake up, Mother,” David tried again. “I need you to wake up.”
“Let her sleep,” My back ached from too much sitting. My eyes were bleary, but every time I laid down, my mind began to race. It didn’t help that David wouldn’t stop talking.
“She needs to eat more applesauce,” my uncle shook her gently, worry in his voice. “Wake up. I need you to wake up.”
“Sometimes sleep is better than food,” I tried to reason with him.
“This food has a concoction in it,” There was fear in his eyes. Her condition was deteriorating.
“Sometimes sleep is better than concoction.”
Her body was at war, the broken machinery grinding against the mechanism of itself. Sleep or applesauce, it probably made no difference.
“Wake up, Mother!” David tried one more time.
“It’s OK, man,” I said more forcefully. “It’s not your fault. No one will blame you.”
He was scared she would die on his watch, that it would somehow be his fault. I grabbed an orange off the top of the mini fridge. I wasn’t hungry, but it was something to do.
A nurse came in for a check up, “How is she tonight?”
“Before she fell asleep,” David replied, “I asked her if she wanted to see her husband, Alick. Her face lit up and a big smile spread across it, then she said, ‘No.’” My uncle laughed at that, “Still cracking jokes! She always had the best sense of humor.”
The nurse smiled sympathetically. David wanted her to think my grandma was lucid enough to tell jokes, that we weren’t monsters for denying her pain medication. The nurse checked my grandma’s vitals. David watched, afraid she might inject her with a hidden needle.
“I’ll be making my rounds,” the nurse pressed a button on the panel next to the bed, “if you need something you can always buzz.” She pointed at the speaker box mounted to the wall, the one my uncle had smothered with a pillow when he thought the staff was recording his conversations.
Once she left, David took my grandma’s hand in his, “You’re the only woman I know who could take on a semi and win!” He arranged a few stray locks of her hair into a more suitable order. “Earlier,” he looked up at me, “I asked if she wanted a puppy, and she said ‘No.’” David cackled as if it had been another of her witty jokes.
“I know,” I began to peel the orange, “I was here.”
My grandma had been saying ‘No’ to almost everything. It didn’t matter what you asked, the answer was the same. Her responses seemed reflexive, as if her spirit had fled, as if her brain were on autopilot. The dramatic recovery of the previous day was beginning to look less impressive.
I ate the orange and laid back down on the couch. “Let me know if you want to rest your eyes,” I yawned, knowing he wouldn’t.
David talked to his mother. I pretended to sleep. He tried several more times to wake her, the nurse checked in, and then it was morning.
Dwight arrived to take his watch, the youngest son, the golden child. Tomorrow was his birthday. He didn’t say much, just stood there with those big blue eyes, hoping it all worked out. I put on my hoodie. Dawn was cold in the high desert, even in the summer.
“You ready, Nathan?” David gathered his things.
“Whenever you are,” I nodded. My uncle was heading back to San Francisco, to his home with the hot tub full of water. The government didn’t know about the water, which was just how David liked it.
“Love you, brother.” He hugged Dwight. “Goodbye, Mom. I’ll bring you some of those chocolate covered chili peppers in a week or so.”
On the way out, I passed a newspaper stand at the entrance. The front page read Letters from Children. “I hate this town,” I shook my head, exhausted and annoyed. Grand Junction was a beautiful place to ride a mountain bike, but nothing Important ever happened.
“Do you know the movie Caddyshack?” My uncle asked as we climbed into the car.
“I’ve seen parts of it,” I buckled my seatbelt. “Pretty overrated.”
“License to kill gophers,” he quoted one of the lines from the movie. “Last Friday I was trying to find a rhyme or reason to all of this and for some reason that moment popped into my head, and suddenly I was at peace with all of this.”
“Because of gophers?” I was a little confused.
“Oh yeah,” he turned out of the parking lot and headed down a street lined with apartment buildings and trees. “Now, with that said, I’ve shed more tears this week than I’ve sent bullet rounds down range in the past decade.”
“It’s a sad time,” I thumbed through my phone, reading a couple of texts from my sister.
“But that’s different,” we stopped at a light. He turned to look at me. “Tears are different. I haven’t felt this alive since I was living on the edge playing spook 105. Every part of my body is waiting for something unexpected around every corner.”
My sister and I had started calling David Agent Snuffleupagus. The Snuffleupagus was a giant, hairy elephant on Sesame Street. When Sesame Street first introduced The Snuffleupagus, only Big Bird could see him. The beast would show up and talk to his yellow friend, then wander off just as Gordon and the gang arrived. “I swear! He was just here!” Big Bird would exclaim, but no one believed him. David was like that. Around everyone else, he kept the crazy in check, but when we were one on one, he started rambling about his days as a secret agent. It made me feel like Big Bird, talking to Secret Agent Snuffleupagus.
“If this is all we get,” David sped through a yellow light, then changed lanes to get around a slower driver, “it was worth it. If Mom dies, and then the dawn of something beautiful, well that’s OK. I would be happy.”
“But you and I are artists,” I added my own madness to his ramblings, “we see beauty in the charge of the Light Brigade, in the meaningless death of a tragic life. My mom isn’t that way. She doesn’t like sad movies.”
David pulled through the round-about that guarded the entrance to Grand Junction’s tiny airport, “Everything turns out alright in the end,” David slowed over twin speed bumps, and parked next to the curb. “I promise.” He climbed out and I grabbed his bag out of the back seat. “I love you, brother,” David hugged me goodbye.
“I love you to,” I squeezed him back. “Safe travels.”
He headed into the little building, trailing a single piece of carry-on luggage. For all his failings, my uncle was a compelling character. I was excited to write about him some day.
Back at hospice, Dwight was sitting quietly next to the bed, “Agent Snuffleupagus has returned to the field,” I smiled.
Dwight nodded politely. He didn’t know what I was talking about, but he didn’t want to encourage me. I was crazy, just like his brother. Better to keep quiet than ask questions. My uncle leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs, hands folded in an imitation of prayer.
“She was a great woman,” I sat down on the other side of the bed, “And I mean that in the Alexander the Great sense of the word.”
“She’s inspired a lot of people,” my uncle agreed. “I mean, golly, when they were out on the ranch, they were always doing something for someone. They lived in simpler times. Mom got to see the horse and buggy, the first tractor. Dad had an airplane before he had a car.”
“Really?” I laughed, imagining my dashing grandpa flying from place to place, helping other farmers and ranchers as best he could.
“He got to see how vehicles changed, aviation changed, the invention of the computer. Now we have smart phones.” Dwight held up his phone and shook his head in amazement. “This thing is incredible,” he set it back down, “but you have to keep it in perspective. I try to keep myself focused on the simple things. It’s real easy to get caught up in the busyness of the world.”
Dwight was uncomplicated, as honest as they came. He loved hounds and cars and quiet walks through the forest.
“Grandpa was looking at that new, big window they had put in,” Dwight adjusted his shoe laces, “and he says, ‘Is Mom gonna get to see this?’ And I says, ‘I don’t know. Only the LORD knows, but I think there’s a more beautiful window for her in heaven.’”
“And she’ll be up there washing it,” I joked, “because the angels didn’t scrub it clean enough.”
“You’re probably right,” Dwight laughed. “There’s an old rancher at the church who came to a realization after his kids were born. He says, ‘You gotta start the releasing process after they’re born. You gotta let them go.’ He says, ‘It’s also the dying process. From the time they’re born they start dying.’ This is just a part of that,” Dwight combed his fingers through his hair. “She’s been dying all along.”
My grandma coughed, her lungs buzzing like trapped hornets. It had been a long time since she’d been awake and something terrible was beginning to grow inside. Eventually the spasm stopped, replaced by the disorganized starts and stops of her labored breathing.
“I wonder what grandma’s thinking?” Dwight pondered aloud.
“That’s the question,” I replied. “Is she still there? Is all of this reflex?”
“I don’t know,” Dwight said sadly. “But I do know this isn’t what she’d want. I told the LORD last night that if she’s going to suffer, He needs to take her home.”
“What if He wants to leave her here so that you’ll suffer,” I poked around the edges of my uncle’s theology. “What if this tragedy was meant for you?”
Dwight considered this,“The world used to be perfect. It’s man that messed things up.”
“But God made Adam and Eve knowing they would sin,” I pressed the advantage. “That means He set up the dominoes intending them to fall.”
Dwight sat silent for a while, pondering the ancient riddle, “Sometimes you’re not going to have the answers for things,” he grabbed a tissue from the nightstand, spilling the watering syringe from its hiding place. “When I was a kid I used to sit under the pine trees out on the ranch and watch the honey bee hives. There was a little strip in front— that was the door. And I used to watch them bees come in and out just full of pollen. If it was a hot day some of them buggers would line up at the entrance and fan air into the hive to keep the others cool. One day I realized that those honey bees had no idea what they were doing. They were just making honey and fanning each other. All the plants depended on them, but they didn’t know that. They were concerned with other things.” Dwight blew his nose, “Sometimes you just gotta do the best you can and hope the rest sorts itself out.”
My grandma coughed again, a violent spasm that contorted her body.
“Her breathing is heavier,” I winced.
“The apnea is back,” Dwight scratched his beard.
Cindy arrived, leading my grandpa by the hand. His shirt was freshly pressed and his pants were pulled up past his belly button. Most men approaching 100 tottered on scrawny legs, struggling to keep their balance, but my grandpa’s body was stout and powerful, not at all unsteady, a lasting monument to the man he had been.
“She looks terrible,” Cindy set down her classy, understated purse, “Do you see that she’s in pain, Dad?”
“I see it,” my grandpa sighed wearily. Cindy had been staying with him at his house on the outskirts of town. The situation made me uncomfortable. My aunt was manipulative and conniving. Once grandma dies, Shelob whispered in my ear, she’ll poison grandpa to get his oil money.
“She slept so peacefully after the nurses gave her pain medicine.” Cindy reminisced aloud, reminding my grandpa that this could be over sooner rather than later.
The old rancher propped his oxygen tank next to a chair and sat down.
“Can I get anyone a yogurt?” I offered.
“I already had a big bowl of porridge,” he waved me off.
“Yes, we each had big bowls of porridge,” Cindy addressed me like one might address a child, “then Father washed his down with a glass of warm water. I’ve always said that you’re only as good as your breakfast, and this morning’s breakfast was good, wasn’t it, Father?”
My grandpa ignored his daughter, staring silently at his wife.
Cindy reached into her purse and pulled out a leather bound book, “Mother,” she said loudly, “I’ve brought a Bible to read to you.” She opened the thin, crinckley pages and thumbed to a familiar passage, “It’s one of your favorites, Psalm 23.” She found her place, then in a measured tone, began to read, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want, He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.” It was King David’s poem, a cry for help in the wilderness. His enemies were pursuing him. He was hiding in a cave. The passage had been translated and passed down for millenia, read aloud countless times to loved ones who lay dying. “…Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…”
For days Cindy had been chanting her death spell, a tireless invocation to the god of oblivion. My mother stood against her, thwarting her plans with applesauce and water, but Cindy was a Phoenix and her fire could not be quenched.
“…And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Cindy looked up from her Bible.
My grandma coughed. The sound was terrible and frightening. The fits were becoming increasingly frequent.
“She’s opened her eyes,” my grandpa said.
“Go talk to her,” said Cindy.
My grandpa stood and wheeled his oxygen tank over to his wife’s side. He leaned over slightly, not daring to touch her. “Mom, can you hear me?” He asked. “I’m here with Cindy, Nathan and Dwight. I love you. And I need you,” he stopped for a moment, overcome with grief. “The bay window is finished and the curtains are up. I put that hound you like on the left side and he really looks good there. ”
“We’re here with you,” added Cindy, “and it’s OK for you to rest. Close your eyes and rest.” She paged through her Bible to another passage and began to read, “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be—”
My phone rang. It was my mom. “Hey,” I stood and left the room, exiting onto the back patio with its low railing that overlooked the parking lot.
“How are you, honey? Did you make it through the night?”
“I didn’t have any flare ups and I didn’t take any prednisone.” The morning air was already warm. The sun was inching higher, promising blinding rays of punishing light.
“I tried to get a hold of Dwight,” my mom continued, “to tell him what to do with those homeopathies, but he didn’t answer. Is he there?”
“No,” I lied, “it’s just me and Grandpa and Cindy.” My uncle’s phone was in his hand, but he hadn’t answered. He didn’t want to talk to my mom. I wasn’t going to force him.
“I have patients for most of the day and won’t be able to make it to hospice until late afternoon.” My mom was driving, I could hear traffic though the speaker. “You’re going to have to feed grandma. I want you to take a tablespoon of applesauce, then open one of the little, white bottles with the honey-flavored beads, and dump it into the spoon, then put it next to her mouth, and make sure she swallows. We don’t want her choking. You also need to make sure she gets 1cc of water every 15 minutes. Do you think you can do that?”
Cindy was inside, reading Bible verses about death. To feed my grandma I would have to push past her. I didn’t want to fight my mother’s war.
“I’ll figure it out,” I said uncertainly, “have fun at work.”
“Call if you need me to talk you through anything.”
I hung up the phone.
“Invincible, that one is,” Gollum peered from the shadows beneath the manicured bushes. “No army can defeat her,” he hissed, “but she can be tricked, remember?” The pale creature smiled, “Oh yes we do. Fooled about marijuana, she was.” If my mother found out that no one was feeding my grandma she would leave her job and come to hospice herself. “The creature cannot be stopped,” Gollum smiled, “but she can be fooled.” I put my phone in my pocket and pushed back inside.
“We love you mom,” Cindy pleaded, “Just go to sleep. No more struggle. No more pain.”
Before the energy companies found oil on the ranch, Cindy stopped talking to her parents. For more than a decade she ignored them, refusing everything, even phone calls. It probably wasn’t her fault, my grandma could be a difficult woman. Then, the largest oil strike in American history was found up north, and my grandpa owned a piece of the pie. Cindy forgave her parents. Phone calls became visits, and visits turned into vacations at tropical destinations. Her motives were obvious, love in exchange for money, the oldest vocation. And now my grandma was dying. Cindy was one step closer to her goal. I didn’t want her to win.
I sat down in my chair. The cushion was still warm. My grandma’s eyes were closed. Cindy was begging her to die. My mom wanted me to feed her applesauce.
“Grandpa,” I cleared my throat and waited for him to turn towards me. “I’ve got a question for you.” The old man met my gaze, but said nothing. “It starts with a preamble,” I began, a little nervous. “This summer I got real sick, and people pulled me in a bunch of directions. My mom wanted me to take herbs and the doctors wanted me to take pills. My friends pushed me one way and my mom’s holistic friends tugged the opposite way. So I know what you’re going through.”
Cindy looked at me cautiously, wondering what the son of her hated sister was up to.
“I know people want different things from you, and I don’t want to add to that.” Involuntarily, I touched the pocket where my cell phone was. “I just talked to Diane and she told me how to feed grandma homeopathies in applesauce.” Cindy began to speak, but I held up my hand to stop her. “Cindy doesn’t want that, but what Cindy wants isn’t important. The same goes for my mom. I don’t care what either of them think. The only thing that matters to me is what you want. No one seems to be concerned about that, but you’re her husband,” It felt like the words were coming out wrong, like I was messing things up. “What do you want?” I consolidated the thought. “Should I feed her homeopathies, or let her die?”
For a while it seemed like he hadn’t heard me, he just sat there silently. “I’m beginning to think that what the doctor said is true,” he didn’t move his head or hands, each word was measured and thoughtful. “She may come to a point where she can sit up and feed herself, but as far as walking?” A machine beeped and then returned to silence. “She’ll never do that. And she wouldn’t want to live that way.”
He looked at his wife, the room quiet and peaceful. Cindy held her breath, not wanting to break the moment.
“So no homeopathies?” I asked.
“Right,” my grandpa nodded.
“There is still—” Cindy began.
“—If my mom finds out that no one is feeding grandma,” I cut her off, a palpable anger in my voice, “she’ll be down here in a second to do it herself. So I’m going to lie to her. I’m going to sit here quietly and let her think that everything is alright.”
“It’s not a lie, dear boy. You’re—”
“—A lie by omission is still a lie,” I snarled at my aunt. Cindy was a charlatan, a politician with ten thousand faces. She lived her life in the shadows, slinking from place to place, vomiting words without meaning.
“She’ll never walk again,” my grandpa repeated.
“If you change your mind, let me know,” I said, “and I’ll start feeding her.”
“She needs pain medicine,” Cindy’s face was a mask of concern. Victory was at hand, but she wanted to be certain. She was a thorough assassin, the kind that left nothing to chance.
“OK,” my grandpa conceded.
If you’re going to starve your wife to death, you might as well make her comfortable.
Cindy found a nurse who came quickly into the room, “You’re sure about this?” She asked my grandpa.
“I’m sure,” he nodded matter-of-factly.
In seconds it was done. Such a tiny thing, to end a life.
“She was faster than that other one,” my grandpa looked at Cindy.
“The PICC line was already inserted,” Cindy pointed to the tube taped against her mother’s arm. The previous day my mother had allowed the nurses to administer a small amount of dilaudid. The insertion point was still taped to my grandma’s arm. How would things be different if she had stood her ground?
As the morning passed, my grandma’s apnea got worse, her breath came and went with larger spaces between. “She’s getting weak,” my grandpa observed. It had been more than 12 hours since she had eaten, and no one was giving her water. The nurse returned to give her more medication.
Gaye arrived and sat down next to Dwight, her husband. “I found a bunch of ox tails in the freezer,” she said merrily, “Nina’s boiling them on the stove. We’ll have soup for dinner tonight.”
“We’ve stopped feeding her,” I whispered somberly, filling her in on the decision. “The nurses are pumping her full of medicine.”
Gaye nodded, appraising the situation in this new light. “Grandpa’s going to die of a broken heart,” she whispered to me, her innocent eyes wide, her head nodding knowingly. The old man was about ten feet away, hunched and still, gazing at his wife. Everyone was certain that his life depended on their marriage. It was a terrible thing, to lose your identity in someone else.
I thought about his bank account stuffed with oil money, and hoped he found a way to spend every cent before he died. He could get a different buzz cut every day, then fly from rodeo to rodeo in a rocket ship shaped like a stallion. His golden limousine would detach from the larger craft and drive him to events where gorgeous retainers would hand out excessive cash prizes to his favorite bull riders. Cindy would be furious.
My mom arrived around 3. She was dressed in work scrubs, ready to do battle with the hospice staff. “Who is her nurse today?” She asked, wanting to size up her latest foe.
“I can look on the board,” I offered, my heart suddenly pounding in my throat. How long until she discovered my betrayal?
“She was here last at 2:30,” Cindy said sweetly, “when she gave Mom something for pain.” The words hung in the air like a victory banner.
My grandparents moved from North Dakota to Colorado so my mother could act as caregiver. For more than 12 years she pumped them full of vitamins and filtered water. She hooked them up to frequency specific machines and drove them to doctor’s offices. This was long before the oil companies turned my grandparents into millionaires. My mother’s love was often clumsy, but it was real.
“Why didn’t the nurse call me?” The Behemoth looked at her mother, the gravity of the situation sinking in. “They were supposed to call me before they gave her anything.”
“Dad asked her not to,” Cindy lied, hiding behind her father, protecting me in the process.
“Was she in pain?” I could hear the fury in my mother’s voice, a brutal, terrifying calm.
“Dad and I arrived at 9:30, and he looked at Mom and could tell that she was in pain.”
It had been 16 hours since my grandma received food or water. Her veins were roiling with poison. I had watched them kill her.
“OK,” my mother said, her head swimming, the ground reeling beneath her feet.
“And then they came again at 10:15,” Cindy continued. The precisely trained muscles in her face maintained an appropriate amount of sadness. Only her voice was smiling.
“—OK,” my mom said, her mind attempting to process this new information.
“—OK,” she tried to cut her sister off.
“—OK!” My mother almost shouted. If one injection had put grandma into a coma for days, then this— she looked at the bed and the PICC line she had allowed the nurses to insert— this was the end.
“And again at 1:30,” Cindy continued to attack. Her dagger was invisible, a dutiful sister informing her eldest sibling about their dear mother. No one could blame her, but each admission was a stab, a vicious rake with her fiery claws, “And most recently at 2:30.”
The Behemoth— invincible, unshakable— roared in pain, a wound far deeper than death. Take me! She bellowed. Throw me into the abyss, but give me back my mother! But no one heard her prayers. The siren, high above, screeched triumphantly, her voice like a song.
“The nurse said she will continue to come back every hour,” Cindy delivered the coup de gras with cold reserve.
My mother looked at me, the question in her eyes. I stared back, unable to explain. She asked me to feed her mother applesauce. I killed her instead.
to be continued