Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Last Thursday

If I had taken pictures and showed them to you, it seems unlikely you could have guessed the function of the building. The monotoned hallways simply looked utilitarian in a fashion that could have been a school or an office building. It's hard to explain why it felt so much like it could be nothing but a hospital.

By the time I got there, the prognosis had shifted. After a long, mostly sleepless night, word had come down that they finally thought they knew what was wrong with my grandmother, who had been admitted the previous afternoon bleeding into her abdomen from an unknown cause. It appeared, also, that her liver and kidneys were not working properly. And, of course, there was still the same problem with her heart that she had been admitted with earlier in the month: parts of it were vibrating rather than beating. They thought they could repair the new things, at least, with a minimum of fuss. We were all very relieved.

Walking down one of many identical corridors during my search for the intensive care unit, I knew I was getting close when I saw a woman talking into a cellphone. Her words were soft, and filled with medical jargon. She did not look good. She looked as though she was going to remember this day for the rest of her life.

Shortly after I left her behind, resisting my impulse to offer comfort, I found some of my family in the lounge near intensive care. My mother was there, with an uncle I like a good deal. After yet another status update, still good, we chatted amiably about nothing much at all for a while. I learned that my grandmother was getting a "procedure," and that I could not visit her until it had completed. I had only missed her by a few minutes.

Aunts and uncles came and went throughout the day, reaching a critical mass as afternoon became evening. For the most part, these are people I see infrequently enough that they can be excused for noticing all over again the fact that I am tall.

My grandmother's procedure went well. They couldn't find any source of bleeding, which they took as an indication that their treatment was working, and the bleeding had stopped on its own. When she was back in her room, we were permitted to go and see her.

The short walk from the lounge to her room seemed to take a very long time, partially due to the strides my mother takes, but mostly because I was really trepidatious about seeing my grandmother in a hospital. I am not a fan of hospitals.

I have read accounts of people seeing a parent or grandparent in a hospital room, and they almost always are stricken by how small the person seems. This has never meant all that much sense to me. I think I have always assumed that what they were really saying was that they noticed a diminishing that was other than physical, that they were simply saying that these people had always appeared large until that moment.

And maybe that is what they mean, but I couldn't avoid the shock at how small, how physically small, my grandmother appeared. She was still a little loopy from her procedure, and was hard to understand. My first impulse, which I am not at all proud of, was to flee the room. I did not, and instead concentrated on the appearance of breezy cheerfulness, which I thought she could maybe use.

She said several times how glad she was to see me. I informed her that she could always call and invite me over, rather than drumming up a huge, scary medical predicament to lure me to the suburbs. She said she would keep this in mind.

She extorted a promise that when she is well, I will come over and cook lasagna for her. I am, of course, happy to keep this promise, as it is contingent on her getting better and returning home.

I kept staring at her heart monitor which, due to the fluttering of her heart, was revving between 80 and 140 beats per minute while she lay there unable to move. It made me nervous, and I jumed a little whenever I heard a beep from one of the machines in the room.

I was glad I saw her. I was glad that she seemed glad I saw her.

Most of the day was spent among her offspring, my aunts and uncles. Most of them live within a mile or two of both her current home and the hospital. One had to fly in from Las Vegas.

My role in this group seems to have solidified about ten years ago, when Stan (my grandmother's second husband) died. At the wake and funeral, it seemed that my job was more or less that of a respectful jester. I am to bring levity, and I am to do this softly, without great appearance of effort on my part. I suppose it's nice to have a role, and to know what it is.

This was the general tone I tried to adopt while sitting in the waiting room with this collection of mostly strangers who are my aunts and uncles. I think and hope I was successful, but by the time I left I was exhausted.

We all went for dinner together in the cafeteria of the hospital. The food was unpleasant. At some point, I looked up from what the menu called "scod" in what I can only hope was a typographical error and noticed that the conversation had shifted to the subject of immigration.

There was a casualness to some of the vaguely racist comments I heard that was chilling. I thought to myself that it isn't so much that a racist will use different words, but maybe that they phrase things differently or something. There is a way of pronouncing the word "they" that I cannot replicate, which brings up an anger inside me.

I tried to remind myself that most of them still think of me as ten years old, and that we were assembled not so much by choice as by out of mutual concern for my grandmother. I tried to remain respectful to the occasion, and to my elders, and to those not participating in the conversation.

I remained silent. I could almost feel silence moving out from my body. I was no longer willing to entertain them. My mother tells me that at one point I leapt upright and grabbed my tray. I doubt anyone else noticed this. They all grabbed their trays, as we were mostly finished eating. I left almost immediately afterward.

Afterward, I felt very sad that they tarnished my day as they did with their thoughtless comments. It had been a reasonably nice time up until then, especially considering the circumstances.

Seeing my grandmother was lovely, and seemed to lift her spirits so much. I'm still glad for that part of the day, but I clearly should have left before dinner.


Sundry said...

Sorry to hear this. It's difficult to be around people whose opinions conflict with one's basic values, and so complicated when it's relatives. Hopefully, now that you know, you'll be able to remove yourself from the situation. Or, as the radio show host Michael Jackson used to do with guests he really didn't agree with, ask, "Do you _really_ think so?" It tended to fluster them and imply he disagreed without actually getting up in their faces.

So glad you spent time with your grandmother. Those visits truly mean a great deal. You're a good man, clearly.

The Moon Topples said...

Sundry: Thanks for the comment. I'm a little angry at myself for not speaking up, but what with the hospital and all, I don't know that it would have been a good thing. Maybe I'll try the whole asking questions to fluster them next time, if I can think straight.

Unknown said...

Just read your last post as well and is it any wonder that you 'can't think straight'.
I see life as spinning plates on poles, like those old variety acts (except without the lycra suit). When we add more plates to our normal, everyday ones, some plates start to wobble, or come crashing down.
Put yourself where you need to be at the moment and concentrate on what is important.
The relatives aren't worth your attention - they have their path and you have yours. Now go and make that lasagne.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

You know what they say about not being able to choose your relatives.

I have been in many awkward situations in which someone I know, or am supposed to know, well, drops a racial slur like a turd into a conversation. I am always compelled to say, "I don't feel that way," or something similar. I have decided that it is preferable to tearing their throats out and calling them names, which tends to escalate things.

The important part of this day was that you and your grandmother connected and comforted each other over your shared mortality. And I'm sure your mother appreciated your being there. The other people don't matter.

Pants said...

My very best wishes to your grandmother. A beautifully and sensitively told tale. I always think it is the greatest betrayal when bigotry emerges at times like these - not that there is ever an appropriate time but there are certainly situations when you feel more free to defend your values. Although it makes you feel wretched you did the right thing to keep your mouth shut. I've learned over time it's better to stick to the fights that you can win. Your relatives were not making those statements to provoke you - in which case you have no choice but to defend your position - rather because it's what they believe. Better to challenge each one separately, point by point, when you are alone with them. You change minds by replacing false perceptions with the truth, logically and calmly.

Anonymous said...

Take heart in knowing you were a great comfort to your grandmother...and your mother. And keep in mind that you rarely see the ones that caused you such distress. Stressful times do not always bring out the best in people. Focus on the positive aspects of the day and the people who really love you. Let the rest fade from your memory like a bad dream.

Suze said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Suze said...

well told. Sensitive and honest. I used to feel compelled to inject my objections but... when it comes to extended family members, you come to realize they won't change based on your beliefs. Sad but true. Leaving is usually the best approach. The nuclear family, however, better mind their "P's and Q's". Your grandmother is clearly lucky to call you, "Grandson".

Julia Buckley said...

Only just saw this. I hope your granny is mending well. My grandad was in intensive care last November, so I can really relate to a lot of what you wrote here. Hope lasagne day arrives soon.