Four o’clock on a Friday afternoon. My grandmother slumps against the arm of the sofa, eyes half-closed, sinking down, down, down. The tips of her fingers graze the floor, and she moves them about, grasping at some hidden thing she keeps secret. Today is no different. She has just turned ninety. The dementia, the vision and hearing loss have made her close in on herself. She seldom speaks unless prompted. Her responses are brief. Yes. No. I suppose. Some days she parts her lips as if to talk. Gulping air, a terrible fish. She cannot find the words at all.
It’s time for bed.
We’ve perfected our routine: I transfer her into a wheelchair. My mother pushes her down the hall, to the bedroom at the back of the house. I turn on the stereo, and Dean Martin croons “That’s Amore” as I lift her from the chair to the beside commode. Together, my mother and I slide her arms from her shirt, her legs from her pants. We slip a nightgown over her head. Then she takes her medication, the sedative she’s swallowed each night for thirty-five years, ever since her husband and two of her sons-in-law died in a plane crash while scouting the Idaho Floodwoods for timber. Ever since she waited at the edge of the rural airstrip while a crew searched for the missing plane. Waiting as the skyline darkened to purple, a deep bruise, then to black. I place the pill on her tongue as if giving her communion, all three of us praying she feels enough peace to sleep through the long night. But sometimes it’s not enough. On those nights, when my mother checks on her, she finds her awake in the dark, twisting Kleenexes into knots. Where did he go? she asks. Where is your dad?
My grandmother is a mirror reflecting, perhaps, who my mother will become in twenty years—and me in forty more. If I ever get like this, my mother whispers, promise me you’ll put me in a home. I nod, but we both know the truth. I worked in nursing homes for ten years. I’ve seen what it’s like in there. Residents asleep at the table, heads bowed over bowls of cold poached eggs. Shivering in hallways, wrapped in nothing but bed sheets. Hidden behind privacy curtains in rooms shared with strangers, waiting for someone they know to come, someone they love.
I will fix my mother French toast, her favorite breakfast, every morning when she wakes. I will pass the afternoons with her, watching light comedies on television or lounging on the deck in the September sun. And at four o’clock when she tires and her head dips down, down, down, I will push her wheelchair into the bedroom at the back of the house and put her to bed.
I didn’t have children. I try not to think about what will become of me.
To help her stand, I slip a transfer belt around my grandmother’s waist. Her legs are tangled sweet pea stems balanced on toes that curl and bow in bewildering ways. My mother coats the thin, chapped skin on her backside with cream for diaper rash, then a layer of cornstarch, a steadfast attempt to keep the bedsores at bay.
My grandmother stares off into the distance.
Where has she gone? The strong-minded woman who tired of being a mid-century housewife in a North Idaho logging town. Who went away to college with her daughter. Who began a nursing career in her early forties, the same age I am now.
It’s time for her to pivot, to turn toward the bed so I can lay her down.
Would you like to dance? I ask.
She wraps her arms around me and rests her head on my shoulder. Dean Martin sings another standard, and we begin to sway. I rub her back, the sharp wings of her shoulders. She presses her cheek against the pulse in my throat. My baby, she murmurs. Beside us, there is a mirror on the bureau. I don’t need to look. We lean into each other, my grandmother and I, as if we have always moved together this way, holding each other so tight that we become one.
Jennifer Anderson is an English instructor at Lewis-Clark State College. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, Colorado Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Cimarron Review, among other places. She is also a documentary filmmaker. Her most recent film, The Act of Becoming, is about John Williams’s 1965 novel, Stoner.
Photo by Elizabeth Fackler