Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Memory: A Grandfather's Final Illness, Pink Shirts, Sissies, and the World's Going to Hell

A memory. We all have them, don’t we, those flashes of recollection that leap into our minds, triggered by nothing we’re doing or thinking at the moment? It’s 1976, the weeks of my grandfather’s last illness. So perhaps around the very time of year in which I’m writing this memoir, January, since he died in early February.

He’s in the hospital receiving care for the renal problems that will lead to his death. I’m sitting in the hospital waiting room. Alone. 

Note to self: you seem oddly alone in all your memories.  
Note to self: want to give some thought to that?

My mother would not have been there. She held some obscure, bitter – some Irish – grudge against her mother-in-law that never made even slight sense to me. Perhaps it reflected painful experiences that happened before I was born or could store them safely away in my child’s mind. I don’t know.

I know only that my mother was capable of surprising hatefulness towards my grandmother, who, to my way of seeing, never merited the meanness my mother dished onto her head. It was true that the poor old woman could be vexing. Her Sunday School certainties could work the nerves as effectively as any well-rosined bow pulled with exquisite slowness across taut catgut strings.

But one could always laugh at the certainties, the fatuous assurance that this year was the end-point of all time, so much meanness out there airplanes and folks sailing off into space where people were never meant to fly the Negroes completely out of control women bobbing their hair and smoking and wearing trousers and I don’t know what can possibly be next. 

The bible says, chirren.

So I wouldn’t have been in that waiting room with my mother. Nor with my brothers, the middle one now so disconnected from us – in hiding, truth be told, a college drop-out dealing drugs and working as a bartender – so that, when my grandfather died the following month, my mother didn’t even call to let my brother know. Didn’t know how to reach him, she claimed.

My youngest brother wouldn’t have been with me, either. What my mother wanted, she got, when it came to him. And since my mother dictated that we give the cold shoulder to my father’s side of the family, he complied with the dictate. The only one of you three sons who has ever pleased me in the least, she'd say to me more than once in the final years of her life, speaking of that youngest son.

How he has felt about all of this as an adult, I’ve never been sure, since he's never chosen to talk about, well, anything at all with me. For my part, there have been, for years, those guilt-based dreams in which I discover that my grandparents are still living, still alive and in the same town in which I’m living, and I haven’t known it. Haven’t made it my business to know. Haven’t visited them in lo these many years.

I could have done more. I should have done more. 

On this visit to my grandfather in the hospital in his final illness, I’d have been staying with my grandmother, and would have left her at home to spell her from her chore of sitting at his bedside. Another memory: as he heads to the hospital, she becomes frantic because she doesn't know where his burial policy is stored away:

Dennie, she clucks. Where is that burial policy? What on earth am I to do if we can't find your burial policy? as my uncle bundles his father into the car for the drive to the hospital.

When my grandfather died a few weeks later, my grandmother immediately began to fail, so that the last time I saw her, a month or so after his death, she who loved flowers best of anything in the world had forgotten a hyacinth plant I had brought her following my grandfather’s funeral, had tucked it into a dark closet and let it die. 

She woke the last morning of this last visit I made to her leaping out of bed after a long sibilant sigh I could hear her make across the room from her sleep, ashamed she had slept past daylight and hadn’t yet gotten up to cook me breakfast. 

Within a few weeks after this, she’d fall in her kitchen and lie for over a day on the floor, unable to get up or to find help. Her son in San Antonio would become frantic when she failed to answer his calls, and would succeed in reaching a neighbor who would find her on the floor.

After this, my uncle took her to Texas, where she lived a little while with her daughter and daughter’s husband in Houston, then with her son and his wife in San Antonio, and finally in a home providing care for the elderly. She had warned us for years that if she ended up in such a place, she’d simply stop eating.

And that’s what she did. In the final weeks of her life, she clenched her teeth when my uncle tried to feed her with a spoon. She died on Christmas day 1976, ten months after my grandfather died. 

Her life had been hinged on his, and no one had ever seen that this was the case, under the crusty veneer of their marital connection to each other.

And so that memory with which this account begins: I’m sitting in the waiting room of the hospital in south Arkansas, in the town of El Dorado in which I grew up after my father moved our family there from Little Rock in 1959, after he moved his parents there the following year.

The room is full of people, but is silent for the most part. Many of the people are grieving, bent with anxiety about a loved one, mulling over their thoughts in their own hearts as I am doing.

When out of the blue, a woman in the waiting room begins to vent the most extraordinary, unexpected spate of venom about nothing that seems to impinge on anything going on in that waiting room, on any of the rest of us:

The world’s going to hell, she exclaims. Them sissies. Used to, when they wore them pink shirts to school, we took them out into the woods and beat the tarnation out of them. Now they parade around in them pink shirts and no one lifts a finger to stop them.

And that was that. All of the rest of us, I included, sat in oblivious silence, not saying a word in response to the uninvited tirade. 

And life went on, a grandfather died within days, and after the funeral, I returned to New Orleans and to Steve.

The photo is the last picture taken of my grandmother. My uncle took it at his house in San Antonio in October 1976.

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