Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Mothers and Daughters

Mothers and Daughters
Stacey Greenberg

Satchel is standing on the sofa in his full superhero regalia—tie-dye cape, homemade Elvis belt, and sparkly, red “Dorothy” shoes—beaming as the four grandmothers ooh and aah over his every move. “Look at this,” he says as he hurls his lithe toddler body to the floor, barely missing his nine-month-old brother who is sucking contentedly on a toy frog. “Ta dah!” he exuberantly announces. The four grandmothers, clutching their cameras, couldn’t be more thrilled.

My mom had called just moments before pleading for a ten minute visit. “I know it’s almost bedtime, but I wanted to bring the girls by to see my boys,” she says. My new year’s resolution involved being more laid back so I force an enthusiastic, “Sure!” The girls, as she says, are her cousin Nancy, her best childhood friend Marilyn (a.k.a. Muscles), and long-time family friend Patricia. They live in New Orleans, where my mom is from, and they have all come to visit my ninety-eight-year-old grandmother who is on her deathbed. Sort of.

Granny’s been in the hospital for nearly a month with pneumonia, but continues to surprise everyone, including the doctors. Just when it seems all hope is lost, she makes a breakthrough and talk in the hallways turns from ordering morphine to ordering discharge papers to send her back to the nursing home. As a result, my mom has been holding vigil next to her bed—feeding her, giving her sips of water, holding her hand, doing whatever she can to make her feel better.

I’m angry with my mom—I think she’s being a bit of a martyr. I hate that she feels like she can’t leave the hospital. I hate that I feel guilty because I can’t be there more to relieve her. I hate that what I really want is for her to babysit my kids while my husband and I go to the movies. I feel frazzled and burned out—I have two small children, a full-time job, a messy house, and no free time. I go so far as to think if Granny dies I’ll get three paid days off of work.

By the time the four grandmothers arrive to theoretically say good-bye, my grandmother is sitting up in bed, chatting with her favorite nurse (and namesake) Dorothy. “You take such good care of me,” she says in her most upbeat tone. “Give me a kiss before you go.”

My grandmother knows how to turn on the charm when she needs to. Until we moved her here three years ago, I thought this charm was her default mode. We went to New Orleans several times a year to visit, and my grandmother was always so positive and pleasant. She was an inspiration. Five foot two, no more than a hundred pounds, legally blind and barely able to walk, she was a force to be reckoned with. She had to be. My grandfather was unable to walk, talk, or do anything on his own. Writing this out, I can’t believe the two of them lived in their own apartment until they were ninety-five years old.

My grandparents lived in a twelve story building on St. Charles Avenue, not far from the French Quarter, in a 200 square foot apartment. Even though it was small, I loved visiting. When we were little, my twin sister, Tracey, and I would spend a few weeks in the summer with my grandparents. They slept on one sofa bed and we slept on the other. They let us stay up late eating ice cream and watching M*A*S*H and The Rockford Files. In the mornings we giggled as we watched our grandfather do his calisthenics. There was no yard, but we would play in the halls for hours—running or doing gymnastics. My grandmother took us with her to the bridge club twice a week while she ran the games. On the way home, she bought us snow cones and 30 minute sessions at the trampoline park. My grandfather bought us lunches at the drugstore, took us to the movies, and let us bet on the horse races. I don’t remember ever being bored under my grandparents’ care.

As the buildings’ residents grew older, management tried to assist with their needs. They opened a cafeteria downstairs and they had nursing aides on staff to help clothe and bathe invalids like my grandfather. And lucky for us, Marilyn, Patricia, and Nancy helped with the shopping, doctors visits, and other special needs. It wasn’t until my grandmother fell and broke her leg that any of us thought of moving them to a nursing home. The break was bad enough to require surgery, several weeks in the hospital, and months of rehab. My grandmother wouldn’t be able to take care of herself, much less my grandfather.

My mom and I scoped out the nursing homes in Memphis. I wrote my grandmother a letter telling her how fabulous Heartland was. I described it as the perfect cross between apartment living and full-service hospital-type care. She and my grandfather could have a private room (that was bigger than their efficiency apartment), participate in numerous activities, and eat three prepared meals either in their room or in the cafeteria. I hinted at long afternoons with me (or my mom or one of my two sisters) by her side listening to tales from her childhood, multigenerational “family” dinners, daytrips to the nearby casinos, and so on. By the time I was done, my grandmother could hardly wait to leave her tiny apartment in the only city she had ever known.

Once my mom and older sister got my grandparents settled in Heartland, Tracey and I were deployed to New Orleans to clean out their apartment and return with whatever we could fit in the back of Tracey’s Ford Explorer. We spent our first night eating Popeye’s chicken and drinking frozen daiquiris at the seedy bar next door while playing the slot machines in the back corner. My mom and older sister had done most of the work for us—the apartment was pretty much stripped except for two adjustable beds, the TV, and a few random pieces of furniture and some odds and ends. We decided to have a “hall sale” the next day and see if we could at least cover our gas money home.

Walking through their building for one of the last times, it seemed that my grandparents were moving just in time. Their floor had peeling, stained wallpaper and smelly carpets. The lobby had been completely gutted. The elevators were unreliable at best. The nursing aides were no longer being coordinated by the administrator. The cafeteria was only open for lunch. Word was that the building’s new management was desperately trying to attract younger residents and (inexplicably) book special events like wedding receptions.

After chatting with several residents, assuring them that our grandparents were safe and sound in Memphis, Tracey and I lined up our wares in the darkly lit hall outside their apartment door. Among other things, we had two retro folding chairs, an art deco table, a plant stand, a walker, a portable toilet, some crutches, and a few lamps. In order to boost sales, we hung up signs in the lobby that read: “Moving sale: Everything must go!” And then in small print: “Free Ensure and Depends with purchase.” We bought a dozen boiled crabs, a twelve pack of Abita Amber, some smokes and waited.

Most of our customers were friends of my grandmother’s who just wanted a memento. Old ladies lingered in the hall, staring at the remains of my grandparents’ apartment with tears in their eyes. My sister and I promised to pass on their well wishes as we pocketed their money. The kitchen staff purchased a few things and a Tulane student came by and bought most of what was left. We dragged the last bits to the incinerator at the end of the hall. Tracey and I spent our last few hours in our grandparents’ apartment lying on their twin beds nestled under worn towels watching “Trading Spaces.” Once the Medicare reps came for the beds, we loaded up the TV and hit the road back to Memphis.

Upon my return, it was clear that my grandmother did not fall in love with the nursing home as I had expected. In a cast from her hip to her ankle and totally out of her element, my once tough as nails Granny was a quivering mess. My mom, my sisters and I worked double time trying to make her transition as smooth as possible. I came every night at dinnertime to make sure she ate. My older sister taped the Game Show Channel so she’d have something to watch on TV. My mom hung pictures, stocked the fridge with familiar food items, and befriended employees far and wide in the hopes that they would look favorably upon my grandmother. Tracey brought her kids by to run around, give kisses, and say cute things.

Complaining seemed to be the only thing my grandmother was excelling at. She told us that the food was gross. (She had very few teeth, and even fewer taste buds.) The workers were inattentive. (She wanted someone to sit next to her bed and jump when she said, “Jump!”). The other residents were black. (What happened to the woman who wore a “No Dukes” button in the nineties to protest the candidacy of the well known Klansman David Duke?) Grandfather was suffering. (He was actually doing better than ever, relatively speaking, but she was obsessed with his every move—or lack thereof.)
Instead of hearing stories of her days growing up on Tchoupatoulis Street, I heard a detailed litany of the wrongs that had beseeched her and my grandfather that day. Interestingly enough, when Pat or Nancy or Marilyn would call, I would get a glimpse of the sunshiny grandmother I knew in New Orleans. That’s when I realized that the shoe was on the other foot now—the sunshiny grandmother I thought I had only existed on the phone.

I felt stupid for thinking that all those years of taking care of my grandfather in that tiny apartment were easy for her. She just never let on how bad it was. Not to me anyways. I’m sure Pat, Nancy, and Marilyn heard about it on a daily basis. I was getting to know my grandmother again—not the one I saw a few times a year or talked to on the phone, but the one who carried the weight of the world, well the weight of my grandfather, on her shoulders everyday.

My older sister stopped visiting my grandparents because she said she couldn’t take the constant insults from my grandmother. Tracey started timing her visits so that she could be out in ten minutes or less. I found out I was pregnant and was soon too tired to do anything but squeeze in the bed next to Granny and say “uh-huh” every few minutes while Who Wants to be a Millionaire blared from her tiny television.

My “condition” did provide some sunshine in my grandmother’s gloomy new existence. She told me what motherhood was like when she was young. After helping to raise her siblings, she was in no hurry to have any of her own. She married late and told my grandfather that she planned to work just as hard as he did, and that he shouldn’t expect to come home and find dinner on the table. (He agreed, and they ate at restaurants every night.)

When she got pregnant, she was a schoolteacher. It was a faux pas to be a pregnant schoolteacher, so she was forced to take two years off. (That actually sounded pretty good to me.) My grandmother showed me a ten inch scar running from her navel to her panty line from the surgery that removed my mother from her womb. She said that my mother had no intentions of coming out on her own. “In my day, women spent a month in the hospital after having a baby,” she said. (That didn’t sound so good.)
When I told her I planned to have a homebirth she thought I was crazy. “Why would you want to use a midwife when you could have a doctor?” she asked. When I pointed out that she was probably born at home, it made it seem slightly less crazy to her, but still incredibly unappealing. I held my breath and hoped that my baby would be more cooperative than my mother had been in 1938.

Thankfully, he was. But the thought of taking my golden boy to the germ-infested nursing home made my visits to my grandmother fewer and farther between. I felt guilty, but I was so wrapped up in my new role as mother, the guilt wasn’t enough to make me visit more than once every week or two. It actually worked out well for me. My grandmother found it hard to complain when there was a sweet little baby in her arms, so our visits were much more pleasant than they had been. However, it didn’t work out so well for my mom who now had the sole responsibility of keeping my grandmother happy.

This pretty much became the status quo over the next two years—my grandfather died after a bout of pneumonia, I had another kid, and my sisters had their own reasons for not visiting. Every once in awhile, my mom seemed like she couldn’t do it one more day, but for the most part, she took it in stride. She got to know some of the other residents and arranged for them to sit with my grandmother at lunch and visit her in the evenings. My mom got the ladies in her office to buy Christmas presents for the nursing home and she always invited a group of my grandmother’s friends to go eat next door on Friday nights. She brought my grandmother to major family gatherings, took her to ladies’ lunches, and even to the casino on Mother’s Day. Basically she wore herself, and my grandmother, out.

But this was nothing compared to the state my mom was in after six weeks of spending nearly 24/7 at my grandmother’s hospital bedside. I told my husband that when and if the tables were turned, there was no way that I was going to sit by my mom’s hospital bedside 24/7. But we both knew that was a lie.

I got my act together and took the boys to the hospital as much as I could. As the weeks passed, I could see my grandmother deteriorating even though my mom insisted she was doing great. I don’t think she could see the changes as much as I could since she was there around the clock. One afternoon, I went alone so that my mom could take a break. My grandmother clutched my hand and told me how frightened she was. “Frightened of what?” I asked. But she couldn’t say. I guess being blind, 98, and in an unfamiliar place was enough to make her feel insecure. I planned to stay until she fell asleep, but every time I tried to slide my hand from under hers she woke up—just like an infant. My mom told me later that my grandmother was waking up in the middle of the night, crying for her own mother.

On a whim, Pat drove to town one Sunday evening. Again, my grandmother seemed to be doing well. She and my mom spent the night at my mom’s house marveling at my grandmother’s strength. The next day Pat went to the hospital and my mom went to work. At lunch my grandmother aspirated while trying to eat. By four o’clock I got a phone call saying come quick.

As I drove to the hospital—just a few minutes from my office—I had a feeling that my grandmother was watching me. I wasn’t surprised when I opened her door and found her already gone, my mom and Pat crying. I cried too. “I didn’t think she could really die,” I said. I went to hold her hand one last time. It was still warm.

My older sister came a few minutes later, crying before she was even in the door. “I didn’t think she could really die,” she said. Tracey came a few minutes later and echoed our words. It was sad and funny at the same time. I asked my mom what we were supposed to do now since my grandmother planned to donate her body to science.

“Granny changed her mind last week,” my mom said. “She told me she didn’t want to be cut up. She asked to be buried with her mother.”

Of course, I thought. I couldn’t help smiling…and wondering if I shouldn’t reconsider trying for a girl.

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