My Mother's Mother's Death
Adrian Nathan West
For my seventeenth Christmas, my mother, her companion, and I got into their battered red hatchback and drove several miles across town through the sleet to see my grandmother. The car, which should have been given up long ago, but which they had kept running for years by various stopgap interventions, clicked rhythmically in the chassis like a kicked can, and each time, my mother’s companion would growl, knit his brows, and incline his ear toward the car’s center, to listen better. He had adopted that month the habit of tying up a fingerful of hair above the nape of his neck with a rubber band, and his face wore an expression of strained dignity that would not vanish entirely until months later, when this strange fad had run its course. I had been drinking Coke all day, and the bumping of the car over the interstate’s uneven lanes made me burp. My mother kept sucking deep breaths in through her nose.
It was not quite night as we exited the freeway, and the rows of homes along the avenue faced the horizon, reflecting in their windows the pure white of curdled clouds. As we moved south, they grew increasingly depressing: plywood sheets sealed the doorways, some stapled with notices of eviction or demolition, the decorative handrails had disappeared from alongside the steps, and even the gutters had been ripped away – salvaged for scrap, presumably; and in the front yards and between the houses, stacked up with some obscure end in mind, lay piles of broken blocks, bent bicycles, old toilets, and twisted gratings. Just when the wretchedness of it had become too much to take, there appeared, like the silver lining of the proverbial dark cloud, a seemingly endless outpost of neat, square domiciles, each of red brick with a brown shingle roof, with grey driveways jutting through their small yards and leading into one-car garages. The neighborhood was arranged in blocks, with the north-south streets named for former presidents and the east-west ones for precious stones. My grandmother lived at Diamond and Adams, number 121; had we not known so, we might never have picked out her house from those around it; and indeed, for the dearth of variety, it baffled me that any resident of that district should ever find his way out of it.
My mother’s companion parked the car at a slant, with two wheels in the street and two in a strip of grass that tapered down into a ditch. My mother shivered as she wrapped herself in her beige shawl. We dropped our heads so the sleet wouldn’t hit us in the face, and we took the packages from the trunk. Her companion lagged behind, letting my mother walk on, and said, “Merry fucking Christmas,” as he had to me every year since I was ten, and he had deemed me of an age fit to behold his disillusionment; and because I did not know how to answer him, he gave a discomfited smile.
Three red steps in the garage led into the kitchen. I walked past the cast iron stove, which had been refitted with gas jets and was a source of great pride to my grandmother and her only costly possession, past the quartet of slim wooden poles, painted gold, that divided the kitchen from the rest of the house – an architectural feature I have never seen elsewhere – and looked down at the table, on which lay a spread of country cooking, so-called, as well as a number of grotesque dishes my mother and her companion claimed to delight in but that I could not bring myself to taste: a casserole of green beans and cream of mushroom soup, baked with a crust of crushed corn flakes; a clove-studded brick of Spam basted in cola; and a stack of tarts of an almost incandescent yellow. Along the windowsill were cut-glass jars of gumdrops and circus peanuts, now dry and congealed, set out years before to welcome visitors, as though there would be visitors.
On the walls of the sitting room, as my grandmother called it – the half of the room not taken up by the table – hung an old pair of dueling pistols and an oil painting of a watermill. In one corner stood the Christmas tree, its plastic body segmented like a wasp’s, and my mother’s companion came in and began to add to the pile of gifts beneath its evenly spaced wire branches. When he had emptied the paper sacks and left them standing erect, to be filled with wrapping paper we would reuse the next year, my mother said, “Well, let’s do the presents.”
We sat shoulder to shoulder and opened them one at a time. There were great shows of enthusiasm, although everything must have fallen short of everyone’s expectations. I gave my mother’s companion some sort of wrench that, because I knew nothing about tools, was probably useless to him, and my mother a drawing of a green grasshopper in a cheap brass frame from which, the week before, I had pried out a photo from my childhood. My mother handed me a poorly wrapped, oblong package; I thought it might be a houseplant. Tearing open the paper, I saw a white-furred stuffed animal with long fangs, wearing purple sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt. On the tag that hung from its ear, I read the words “Rapping Rabbit.” My mother took it from me and pulled its tail, which was attached to its body by a long, thin cord, and as it drew back inside, a kind of voice emerged, rhythmic and staticky, as if from a radio in a tunnel. I do not know if my mother of her companion really found it funny, or if the pressure the holidays exerted on them, the fact of having bought the thing and of having imagined my unwrapping it in the most ideal and unrealistic way, compelled them to a fit of cackling expressive rather of misery than joy; but I myself could neither laugh nor even smile in sympathy with their convulsions. No sooner had the Rapping Rabbit gone quiet than one of them pulled its tail again, and this went on for several minutes. I walked away and sat on the floor in the bathroom till I heard it all subside.
Later I leaned against the radiator, touched my hand to its hot spools, and screamed. My mother’s companion had started drinking, and he yelled at me to have some common sense. My grandmother stood up and walked out with an unusual gait, as though struggling to remain erect during an earthquake. She returned holding a cardboard box bearing an illustration of Noah shepherding pairs of animals up a ramp into a wooden boat.
“Good God,” my mother exclaimed. Her mother’s spending distressed her. My grandmother had inherited, after her second husband’s death, one of those no doubt insubstantial sums the allure of which is enhanced by our ignorance of its precise dimensions. My mother had obsessed over it for years. The further her mother lapsed into senescence, the more she saw it as rightfully her own. She often said it should be invested in the stock market. “Inflation will eat it away to nothing,” she warned. In many ways my grandmother was miserly: she never tipped, and every Christmas gave me a butter-cookie tin she had filled with pennies over the course of the preceding year; she left her heat off, claiming she liked the house cold, and would grumble about her bills when we came over and cut on the radiator. But she was powerless against the lure of discounts and going-out-of-business sales, and felt a kind of species-empathy for the items on a clearance rack, as though for lack of love, they had been left to die. Piled high in the closets and under her bed was the harvest of her mania: never-worn shoes for both sexes in many sizes, plastic menorahs, and patriotic sweatshirts; worst of all, in my mother’s eyes, fifty strands of faux pearls, which had lain for months in a slinky mound beneath the nightstand. My mother and her companion took each such purchase as new evidence of her deepening senility; conscience would demand, it seemed, a certain number of these instances before they could confine her in a “home,” as they had darkly intimated. My grandmother padded past us to the kitchen. My mother’s eyes swelled, and she blinked incredulously. Her companion pursed his lips and lowered his brows in a way that was meant to be calming.
We sat down at the table. My parents complained that I needed to eat, and I spat my bites into the paper napkin and put them in my pocket to throw away. The light from the electric chandelier pooled in the grooves of the cranberry relish, which retained the shape of the can it had come in, and sat in the back of a glass dish shaped like a turkey. We smelled something bitter, and watched a diffuse haze drifting into the room.
“Did you leave something on the stove?” my mother’s companion asked.
“I don’t think so,” my grandmother stuttered, fearing otherwise.
“Oh, for the love of Christ,” my mother cried, and ran into the kitchen.
In the windowsill, beneath the fast and boldly burning curtains, sat a clear plastic boat, bullet-shaped and full of water. The candles inside it, meant to symbolize the beasts of the earth, had floated to one side, clumped together, and set fire to its hull. My mother’s companion took a broom, dislodged the curtain-rod, and stomped on the smoldering fabric. The ark fell, too, gave off a last, very black tornado, and went out.
He laughed as he gathered the mess up and dropped it in the trashcan. My mother scolded my grandmother, who said it was a Christian holiday and should be celebrated as such. This argument had little effect on us, as we had contempt for all but the most superficial religious observances.
A month after the immolation of the plastic ark, my grandmother began to die. She cleared her throat constantly, and her breath smelled of old blood. She complained a while of pains in her thorax, then suddenly stopped and said she felt better; but she lost so much weight, it was plain to see she had quit eating, and my mother drove her to the hospital in spite of her protests. After a series of X-rays, the doctor found what he called “spots.” He prescribed my grandmother radiation treatment and chemotherapy. Her head, already blotched brown and sparsely covered, rendered up its last strands of ash-white and shale-grey hair, and its ivory yellow calvity, shedding slivers of waxy dandruff that lay like snowflakes on her shoulders, came to resemble a pickled egg. She began staying up all night watching television. My mother implored her to rest, but she said she wasn’t tired. You could see her dog’s ribs because she no longer fed him, and she wouldn’t take her trash out or trim her nails.
Twice a week my mother drove her downtown to the American Legion and gave her twenty dollars to drink with; while she was gone, we cleaned her house and readied it for sale. It was surprising to me how in so long a life one could amass so little so predictably: old wine boxes full of yellowing romance novels and plastic bags of cheap hard candy formed the majority of her legacy. There were no diaries or scrapbooks and very few photos. Beyond a pair of curiosities – a wooden treasure chest down which a pirate would dive, coming back up with a cigarette between his lips, and a bronze plaque bearing the motto “Love thy neighbor but don’t get caught!” – there was nothing irregular or unique to give depth or poignancy to the decrepit surface fading out before us. We threw out her trash and moldy leftovers, and when we brought her back, drunk and reeling, she would shout that we were stealing from her. When my mother, in exasperation, asked, “What exactly do you think is missing,” she growled and snapped, “It just doesn’t look right in here.” She fought hard in this way each lessening of her estate on earth, even if it were nothing more than envelopes of expired coupons and stacks of tabloids she wouldn’t live long enough to reread.
After the house was cleaned, the carpets steamed, the roaches and mice gassed or caught in traps, and the fetid brown bands scrubbed off the inside of the tub and sinks, my mother asked my grandmother to move in with us. She refused. My mother took a week’s leave to see her through the worst of the chemotherapy, to cook and do her shopping and hold hands with her while the doctors gave their ever-grimmer prognoses. As though to commemorate her absence, her companion burned something in the oven every night. When she came in late, her eyes lowered and sighing, she would take a cold hot dog from the refrigerator, wrap it in a slice of processed cheese, and eat it standing over the sink. “I don’t know why she has to make this so hard,” she’d say; “I guess she thinks this is some kind of holiday for me”; “She can’t even take care of her god-damned dog.” These complaints would at length give way to reminiscences about her father, who died when I was a baby: about their many moves across the country, following his job, because of which she’d never had any friends; and about the rancor she felt he’d always harbored toward her for cutting his own youth short. I could see that she wished to say a great deal more, but felt incapable of it. Her companion, bearing his weight first on one foot, then the other, would wait for a pause for thought, then walk away.
My grandmother relented, moving in during the first weeks of spring, after plans were laid to cut out sections of her throat. My room was provisioned with a spittoon and copies of the Globe and the National Examiner. Burt, her toy poodle, pissed frantically in several corners of the house while my mother’s companion chased it and tried to take it outside; it yelped when anyone but my grandmother approached. I was made to sleep in the living room. I remember I was taking Western Civilization that semester, and that we had to read an excerpt from Jakob Burkhardt. Late at night, she and I would sit together on the couch – because her days were few, I believe, she was reluctant to let them end – and I would study as she watched John Wayne reruns on the classic movie channel. An observer might have posited a parasitic relation between us: I had just hit my growth spurt, and had gained thirty pounds in three months, while she was shrinking, growing stiller and less human. Even regarding the movies, she was increasingly insensible – bitterly resenting any attempt to change the channel. Roused from my reading for the fourth or fifth time by the splash of a fist against an outlaw’s face or the crack of rifles shot at Indians, I would slam my book closed, my fellow-feeling exhausted, lean on the arm of the sofa and watch for a moment, and ask, “What the hell is this movie even about?” And she would glare back at me, folding her arms in a huff across her wrinkled nightgown, which stank of sweat, then stare at her reflection in the brass lamp on the end table.
In her last weeks, my grandmother seemed to become aware of what a burden she was to us. If existence is twofold, composed of presence in space and time, she seemed to wish to sacrifice the first in exchange for the prolongation of the second. She weighed only ninety pounds. She had had five “procedures” that made swallowing impossible, and for most meals labored away at a can of the ironically named Boost! If my mother cooked yams or some other soft food, my grandmother was opposed to the notion of a plate. “Sweetie,” she’d get out in her raspy hiss, “You don’t need to go dirtying a whole dish for me. Just throw it on a piece of tin foil or an old jar lid, that’ll do just fine.” Nor would she take more than a few sips; offered a soda, she would produce a pill bottle it should be poured into. These self-denials, penance for her refusal to vanish, gave her a certain credit, in her mind, sufficient to forego discussion of her death; and when my mother brought up estate law or used the term hospice worker, her mother would go days without looking at her or speaking. I felt sorry for her, for the speed with which it had all unraveled – how could she have seen that the chance combustion of the ark would set in play a sequence of surgical intrusions and annulments of liberty tending inevitably toward the revocation of her last precious privilege, life?
My mother predicted the death uncannily, and took off the very week necessary to stay with her mother through a night of rending agony and another of collapse, leaving three days spare to plan a funeral for the following weekend. It ended like this: increasingly fatigued, my grandmother would no longer leave the couch. Her scent grew richer, like a ripening cheese’s, and her trachea so contracted that the once-involuntary act of breathing became a sustained effort of the will. One morning we saw fine bursts of red spray on her pillowcase. My mother poured water in a glass bowl and set it on the hotplate she used to keep her coffee warm. She would dip a tea towel into it and run it across her mother’s arms and forehead and wipe the rinds of dry skin from her shins and scalp. My grandmother stayed awake through the night, emitting the hollow bellows you make when a scream is no longer possible, and hacking up crimson bits of tissue. “It’s all right,” my mother kept saying, and, “I love you. Do you know I love you?” They passed another night in the same way. The next morning, a summons came for me over the school intercom: my mother was on the phone for me, and she told me my grandmother had died. That afternoon, her companion picked me up, and we went to a second-hand store to look at suits.
The Saturday of the funeral, the sun shone horribly bright. My mother’s companion and I left her at the funeral home alone and the two of us went to a supermarket to buy a tray of cold cuts and sandwiches cut in quarters. The viewing fee had included only punch. When we returned, we were waved inside by a young attendant dressed in an ill-fitting suit, to a red-carpeted hall lined in wood panels. To the right and left branched off smaller chambers, and in one of them lay my grandmother’s coffin on a pedestal, covered with flowers. It was an exuberant bouquet, mostly purple, with Turk’s caps and bright asters cupped crookedly around their yellow cores; it had been the greatest insult to my mother among the many funerary outlays. “It’s beautiful,” my mother’s companion said. “It ought to be for two hundred fucking dollars,” my mother said. “It costs more to die than it does to fucking be alive.”
We had a half-hour alone before the reception began. My mother sat in a chair expressionless, a foam cup of coffee in her lap. Her companion stood in the doorway watching her, leaning almost imperceptibly away; and when only the tiptoes of his lead foot still grazed the ground, he said, “I’m going to go outside to smoke another cigarette.” I scrutinized the Polaroid atop the coffin. It showed my grandmother, much fatter than at death, in a sleeveless red dress, with bent arms. In front of her, laughing, was a thin old man in a short-sleeved yellow shirt, doing some sort of dance.
Slowly people began to file in and leave. The women from my mother’s work, all carrot-orange from the tanning bed, with smoker’s wrinkles around their lips, hugged my mother and stroked her back and gave me kisses on the cheek. “You’re all grown up,” they said to me. “I can remember you when you were this big,” and they would hold the flat of their hand level with their crotch. Many half-cripples tottered in and mumbled recollections. Two black people entered, both unknown to us. The man was soft-spoken, with speckled auburn eyes, and his wife looked like a sausage in her tight, shabby dress. “Excuse me, Miss,” the man said to my mother. “Are you the daughter?”
“I am,” my mother said.
“We just wanted you to know how sweet your mother was to us,” the woman said.
“We’re the neighbors,” said the man. “She was always just the sweetest woman, nicest woman you would have imagined. We’ve got two boys, you know, they’re always in the yard making some kind of trouble, the way they do, you know, but your mother never had a mean word to say. Used to come out on the porch and ask them if they wanted a glass of tea. Used to bake a cake for us every Christmas.”
“Yeah,” my mother sneered, “The famous Christmas cake.” The cake, a brick-dense confection of pecan flour and maraschino cherries, more or less inedible, was the subject of recurring jokes in our family. “She must have baked fifty of the damn things every year. We used to try to pawn them off on anybody that would have them.”
Abashed, the man said, “She was just the finest sort of people.”
“Is that her picture there?” the woman asked.
“Yeah, that’s her,” my mother said. “American Legion. Christmas party. 1982, I think. In a red dress, no less. Drunk out of her gourd, I’m sure.”
The neighbors were visibly embarrassed, and set their vase of flowers at the foot of the pedestal. They stood in silence for a moment before the wife reiterated, “Yes, she was a very special lady,” and they wandered off.
A train of cars drove to my mother’s family plots, just past the Georgia state line. We parked at the gate and stood there greeting everyone who came in. My uncle Keith, looking extraordinarily destitute in a threadbare coat and pants, swayed toward me, pinched the back of my neck, and asked if I were taking care of my mother. “Sure,” I said, and pulled away. He walked over to her and held her, hiccupping and sobbing, and she looked disdainfully at the ground. Assorted old women arrived and wiped their eyes. I saw my cousin Jean, who was my age. We waved and eyed each other suspiciously.
In spite of her high heels, my mother helped to bear the coffin. When we had reached the grave, she led people to their seats and her companion teased my cousin, drawing back a finger and threatening to poke her in the ribs. I asked the workmen about the mechanics of the coffin-lowering device. A collared preacher, red-faced, with grainy skin like a plucked turkey’s, made his way to the lectern with a cane in each hand and the metal straps of braces wrapped around the bottoms of his shoes. My mother’s companion took his place beside me and whispered, “We might as well go ahead and have this guy’s funeral, too.” My mother slapped him on the thigh. The preacher condensed all the sentiments we had heard throughout the day, that panoply of virtues present in almost any life, but which one is compelled to call unique when any given one reaches its end, into their final, most eloquent reckoning, and the heads in the audience nodded gravely. The sheet of skin beneath the preacher’s chin, thin and veined like a scrotum, quivered as he shut his eyes and recited a verse from the Bible.
My mother began to cry. She leaned forward, and her black hair gathered on her face. She fell into her companion’s side. A shudder traveled through the crowd, like the rustling of the wings of startled birds, and the mourners turned in their seats, took handkerchiefs from their pockets, and ran them along both sides of their noses. She looked quite noble, shielding her eyes from the sun, her mouth twisted into an afflicted grimace only barely distinguishable from a smile. Her eyelids slipped shut, and drops gathered on the shelf of her palm and little finger, like rain on the undersides of eaves, grouping in the wrinkles where the printed skin ends and dropping off into the folds of her skirt.
We left not long afterward. We were going to have lunch together, just the three of us. My mother’s companion took the highway that cut through downtown. To one side were hotels and office buildings, to the other a stretch of warehouses of concrete and corrugated tin. How square it all looked, how white and geometric and therefore cold and distant. Beneath tussling clouds stretched endless files of cars. I looked at the passengers and drivers as they went by. In the minds of each of them, perhaps, were worlds, indices of longings and concerns and completely irreplaceable perceptions, and the springs that would impel them to accomplishment or failure, and would eventually give out, so that they would lie quiet in the earth, as my mother’s mother now did. It was as if I couldn’t accept the gravity of their existence: their careers seemed purely visual, like those of coursing elements in an elaborate mobile sculpture. Nothing lay beyond that day’s horizon, it seemed to me, but the contemplation of abstract urban settings and the beings that passed through them, varying in size and aspect, in their deeds and the accounts they gave of themselves, but finally as alien and impenetrable as ants.