Cleaning House

Grandma sits up a bit in her chair, leans forward.  Her frown is deep, and there’s a flash in her eyes, a spark that I’m glad to see, sort of.

“We’re not clear,” she says. “We are not clear yet.”  She spits out the last word. She will always have the last word.

We are all small women, my grandmother, my mother, and me.  Only Glennie is tall, and with her thick gold hair, she’s a siren, without knowing it. She hasn’t realized what we know, that men are waiting for her to notice them. I am short. I am plainer. I have an honest face, my mother says, clear blue eyes, a strong jaw, hair an auburn color that makes her think of late September and falling leaves. My mother is poetic. My sister is graceful. I look at my grandmother. We have the same determined jaw, she and I. We have the same eyes. We are the strong ones.

“What’s not clear between us?” I ask.

“The china.”  Grandma waves her hand in the air. She picks at her scab again, and I take her hand gently in mine.

“Thank you,” she says softly.

Time changes things slowly, like the seasons. The leaves turn yellow, and then the color deepens, and suddenly some are red, and fall arrives, as if overnight. I’ve decided that’s how age works. Suddenly, there is a gray hair, a wrinkle, a dull ache in one’s joints, but the changes are small and easy to accommodate. When Grandpa couldn’t see to drive and Dad told him to stay off the road, he and I waved good-bye to his Chevy Impala as they wheeled it away to the junk yard. Then I helped to drive him places, to the hardware shop; the Donut Shop, where the old Navy men meet to tell tales; to the basketball games, where he swore loudly every time the high school team lost, which happened more often than not. Looking back, I can see the slow sequence of changes, but it’s a jarring and sudden awakening when Grandma cannot climb the stairs, when suddenly, her body no longer works right, and I’m wiping her feces off a wall.

Last May, I met my family at Emergency. They’d rushed Grandma there, uncertain what had happened, uncertain anymore what qualified as a crisis.

Dad was watching for me, looking across the lobby to the entrance, but he missed me entirely. He was wearing jeans and an old wool sweater and a pair of ratty old work shoes. He had his hands thrust into his jeans pockets, a look in his eyes that was inscrutable, and his chin thrust out, all gray beard and defiance.

Mom stood outside a set of swinging double doors, peeking down the hall each time they swung open. Grandpa was rifling through the magazines on a nearby table, then he straightened the pile, and then he stood, hands behind his back, and watched the doors as well. I reached them just as they each moved closer, just as a doctor came through and turned to them.

“She exploded,” Mom told the doctor, her mouth a thin line, her face newly haggard and pale.

“She’s losing control, Mrs. Macmillan,” the doctor replied. He was an emergency room doctor, a stand-in for Doctor Kline.

“She tried to get to the toilet,” Mom said, and then, “We can’t keep up.” Her voice sounded firm, as if she was trying to convince herself.

The doctor nodded. What could he say? There was nothing to say. There was no way, after a certain point, to keep up.

We walked Grandpa down to see Grandma. She was sleeping, eyes shut tightly, face pale. Grandpa’s hands shook, but he reached out, stroked her forehead, brushed the hair out of her eyes, and finally sat holding her hand, occasionally adjusting her blanket, occasionally drifting off himself.

Later, Dad and I talked to Dr. Kline, who said Grandma should probably not go home. Sometimes, Dr. Kline said, life straightens out the wrinkles on its own. He knew a nursing home that had a room. He was on the board. I remember thinking that he sounded like a travel agent talking about a hotel, something small and clean and temporary, and then I realized that was exactly what he was talking about.

A nurse walked Grandpa back out to the lobby and guided him to a chair. Dad bent down, hands on his knees, and talked into Grandpa’s best ear. He told him what Dr. Kline had said. Grandpa nodded.  His voice was steady when he said, “Wherever she goes, I go.”

Grandpa and Grandma moved to the nursing home a week later. In the meantime we shuttled Grandpa back and forth to see Grandma in the hospital. We filled in the nursing home application. Question fifteen. Please list a funeral home.

That night in the emergency room, we were clear eyed, unblinking, calm. Yes, we understood. Yes, we knew this was for the best. I called my little sister, Glennie. She was at the library, according to her roommate, and I knew this was probably true although it was nearly three a.m. She fell asleep there often, curled up in the chairs down by the humming pop machines, locked in for the night. But that night I wished Glennie had a boyfriend or a hobby, that she had a life beyond organic chemistry and DNA, a life beyond her future dreams of medical school. I wished she was with us.

Later, as light came back into the sky, Dad and I returned home and wiped down the bathroom wall. We threw away the towels hanging on the rack. We closed the door.

“You need to learn to accept a few things,” Grandma says to me now. “I need to accept some things, too. One of them is that I’m here. You need to accept that we are going to die.”

She catches me unprepared. “I know that,” I say, and my voice sounds light, surprised.

“No, you don’t.”

“Grandma, I understand.”

Grandma shakes her head. She slumps back into her chair. “If you knew that, you’d listen.”