Cleaning House

“Grandma,” I’d said, “I’m not in the mood to talk about weddings or death.”

“You never are,” she said.  Her voice shook.  “Did it ever occur to you that I might need to?”

I was trying to think of how to tell Grandma I was sorry, but the apology got lost in my rising anger, tempered slightly by the fatigue of being at odds with her, and then she said, abruptly, “Oh, never mind.  Why do you want to clean your shower curtain?”

“I want to get the mold off.”

“Pitch it,” Grandma said, and then she hung up.

That was on May 2nd, just before her 88th birthday, the celebration of which was postponed by a late-night phone call, by a sudden family conference in the emergency room of Abbott Northwestern Hospital. By the sudden move here.

It’s time, I think now. Overdue. Time for me to accept the china. Time for me to grow up.

Time for me to go into the room.

“Grandma,” I say, stepping through the door.

She doesn’t respond.

“Grandma.” I raise my voice and find that place between volume and clarity that she can hear.

Her smile is wide. She brings both hands together, as if she’s going to clap, once, but then her hands part, and she puts one arm out, and I hold onto her more than she holds onto me. With her free hand, she slaps at Grandpa’s feet, and he jerks, scowls at her, and then sees me. He laughs and holds out his hands.

Grandpa looks like someone inflated him. Seeing him rounded in the middle and with arms and legs thin as sticks, I fight back tears. He’s ballooned in the middle from age and constipation and probably from arguing with Grandma. Arguing with her is enough to constipate us all, I know from experience.

I bend and give him a kiss. He’s unshaven, and his cheeks are hollowed. He smells. I don’t know what he smells of, urine maybe, maybe old age, but the smell is sour. If he knew, he would die of embarrassment.

“Who is it?” he asks.

“Sarah,” I yell. “Are you kissing every girl who comes along?”

He laughs and nods long after my joke, and I know he hasn’t heard. I hold his hands firmly in mine.

“How are you?” I ask.

He laughs and nods again. He pats my hand. “I’m going to sleep,” he says and turns away.

I look at Grandma.

“He does that,” she says. She shakes her head. She holds a hand out to me, and I take it, stretching myself out between the two.

The last light is slipping, and the sky takes on a dark blue hue. I let go of their hands and turn on the lamp on Grandma’s night stand. Her pajamas, rose-patterned flannel, drape off the bed onto the floor, along with a white crocheted blanket. Not warm enough. She needs heavier blankets, year-round. I pick up her pajamas, fold the blanket over the metal bars alongside the bed. They’re the kinds of beds advertised on TV for people with bad backs. They adjust. That’s what the whole place is about: adjustment.

Grandma is preoccupied. She presses her fingers against her mouth and taps lightly, repeatedly. With her other hand, she absent-mindedly digs at the scab on her head. To stop her, I touch her shoulder, and she snaps to attention.

“I wanted to talk to you.” She pats my hand with each word, and her pats are soft, her skin is soft.

I pull my chair closer. “Kirsten said you’d been nagging her to call me.”

“I don’t nag. I politely insist. There’s a difference.”

I don’t argue.

“We need to clear some things up,” she says.

“We’re clear.”