In the days following my grandfather's fall, my grandmother refused to bring me to visit him. She said that I didn't deserve to see him and that he wouldn't want to have to look at me. Initially when I asked her where he was or how he was, she'd tell me none of your business, but after she returned from her first visit to the VA Hospital, she was more than happy to share with me the dire state of his life.
"Handicapped, dangerous men," she said with some disgust. "The wards full of trash. The smell of piss and vomit. It's like he's back in the war."
At the time, I didn't know about soldiers and veterans who were injured and damaged but I knew more than I wanted already about illness. That night I dreamt of a place very much like the sanitorium where my mother lived out her last days--traumatized patients in various states of debility slumped over in their chairs, crying, shouting, banging their heads, their plates, the walls of their rooms. I relived the fear I felt whenever I stepped into that tight spaced horror where some waited to come back into their bodies and others clammored for death. How these ghosts haunted me day in and day out. I didn't know if wanted to visit my grandfather any more than I'd desired to witness my mother's shell strapped to her bed. And with this came the inevitable shame and even more so considering the whole situation was my fault.
The house felt more dangerous without my grandfather: a pressure cooker ready to explode under the procession of days and decisions. It was clear from her heightened agitation that my grandmother missed her interactions with my grandfather: the doors slamming, the shouts down the hall. She had particular narratives dedicated specifically for him and saying them to me did not have the same impact. My grandmother came to bed later and later and sometimes not at all, falling asleep on the couch. I was unable to sleep if I didn't hear her slip into her room, unlock the door to my bedroom, then lock hers so I could pass between the rooms. If I couldn't crawl under her bed and listen to her breathe than how would I be able to make certain she was still alive? Those nights I paced in my room, or pressed myself tightly against the door listening for any sound of movement. I was convinced I would soon be in that house all alone, fighting for my own life.
One morning, my grandmother announced that my grandfather had been moved to Boston for surgery. "It will probably kill him, she said. "You should know that." She slammed and banged the idea into me for a solid hour before I had the courage to approach her.
"What if if he lives?"
"Well if he lives maybe someone will take us to see him."
And then the waiting began. I could hear phones ringing in other apartments, across the street, and my heart would begin to pound as I raced for our phone. I was desperate for our phone to ring and yet each time that it did, something in me shattered.
Our days became more and more disorganized as what little routine we had was abandoned. I'd see the kids pass my house but I refused to go to school so that I could remain at home on guard. I was afraid to leave because I didn't know what I'd return to. She began to call me Patsy and then exploded at me as if I had made her do it. My new role to be her daughter and her granddaughter and her partner didn't suit me. She drank more and she smoked more because I was a difficult kid and drove her to it.
We lived with extremes: love and hate; necessesity and rejection; consistent and ever-changing. Eventually the call came. My grandmother held the phone pressed to her ear and eyed me sternly. I knew enough to wait until she was good and ready to share the news. After she had hung up, turned on the tv, and settled in my grandfather's tattered brown chair, she told me that he had survived the surgery and we could see him in Boston. "But only if you are good and do what I tell you."
I'd been gearing up to hear those exact words but now that they were uttered did I really want to go? Images of this peculiar hospital atmosphere swirled in my mind, reminding me why I should remain at home, but in the end, I couldn't trust her to tell me the truth about my grandfather's circumstances. I had to see him my own two eyes.
By the end of the week I was packed in the back of my grandfather's niece Leslie's car. There were many hours for me to prepare myself for what I was about to witness and yet all I could do was replay experiences from my past with my mother. I knew he would be weak and confused and that there was a chance he might not know me at all or that if he did recognize me that he would be as disappointed in me as my grandmother.
When we pulled up in front of the hospital on the edge of Boston, I was amazed. It seemed to be such an impressive structure and I said as much aloud, to which my grandmother replied, "It ain't the best there is in this city, kid, that's for sure. But we don't have the money for those places. He's here because they owe him for cooking on that ship in the war."
Still it had to be better than the place where my mother died, I reassured myself, but as we walked down the hall, it only took a moment before the smells and the sounds distorted whatever courage I'd mustered.
My grandfather was partially reclined in bed when we entered his room. His head was bald and bandaged but familiar, and as he turned to me, his glassy eyes pulled all of my attention. He began to smile at me, then glanced first at my grandmother. He struggled to sit up. In that bed, he looked so tiny and undernourished. He opened his mouth but had difficulty speaking. Finally he managed, "Good, you've come."
I did not move to touch him at that moment even though he extended his hand toward me. Instead I hovered at the edge of his bed unable to cross the gulf that had been created between us. I'd been pulling back since his disappearance in the ambulance, so certain I would never see him again. But here he was before me and this was my victory. I imagined him prepared to come home and do battle.
"You look like hell," my grandmother said.
My grandfather scowled in his typical manner and said nothing which was also usual. The doctor came into the room to speak to us before my grandmother could continue to wear him down. He explained that he was able to get the tumor out despite the location and that he felt good about the prognosis. He spoke of the symptoms my grandfather had experienced, things we had noticed prior to the fall--the slurred words and shuffling--and said they would all be resolved with rehabiliation. At the time, I couldn't follow the entirety of his explanations, so I looked to my grandmother to gauge her reaction. She seemed more agitated and anxious in the doctor's presence and waved her hands in his direction as if holding his words at a distance.
"When will he come home?" I asked, then caught my grandmother's eye. Her glare told me that I was not meant to speak, but it was too late.
"As soon as we can, we'll transfer him back to the VA in Florence."
"You mean he'll make it out of here?" my grandmother asked as if she didn't want to be convinced.
The doctor nodded.
'Well I'll be god-damned," she said.
To this, the doctor gave his best wishes and farewell.
While my grandmother glowered on the other side of the bed, I told my grandfather how I happy I was, even forced myself to touch his wasted body. It was when I put my fingers to his wound, that I felt suddenly unsettled. A surge of images flooded my mind: my grandfather's dark room, the bare bulb swinging from the ceiling, yellow stained fingers over my mouth. Shhhh.
My grandfather patted my hand and I tried to smile as I took a step back. In that moment I saw my grandmother studying us. Then she moved right beside him and looked down on him as if he was dead.
My grandfather looked relieved when the nurse came in with food, followed by Leslie with a bunch of flowers.
"I found something nice, uncle Mitch," she said, then embraced him.
My grandmother took hold of my arm and dragged me toward the door. "We'll see you when you're closer to home."
With this, we were off. Leslie harassed my grandmother for a time about how long a drive it was for a very short visit, but my grandmother would not be engaged. She smoked cigarette after cigarette and let out short bursts of dialogue-- it's crazy, this shit or they ain't getting any of that from me.
My head ached from car ride, the clouds of smoke, and my tangled thoughts. There was too much in my brain and I was so tired. I realized I hadn't slept since the night my grandfather had been taken away. I squeezed my eyes shut and forced those images back into the recesses of my memory. I would not allow myself to think of anything. I had no place for those memories and no one to share them with. I leaned my head against the door, and by an act of G-d, I fell asleep.