I watch Grandma sleep in the shadows of a hospital room. An oxygen machine hisses. A fan hums, filling the space between the hisses. I can’t sleep, uncomfortably wedged into a pull-out chair with my feet dangling over a suitcase.
With industrial regularity, nurses interrupt any sleep to which I succumb. “More pain meds, Barb?” they call, correctly assuming Grandma is quite deaf without her hearing aids.
“Just give us a second, Dear,” the nurses shout at me, perhaps forgetting I can hear perfectly well.
I leave the room as Grandma’s pillows are adjusted. Across the brightly lit hall, a patient sits bolt-upright in a chair, snoring like a grizzly bear. A cleaner pushes a mop, half-heartedly. There isn’t much to clean, but still, the effort is made. After the nurses finish, I pad back into my pullout chair in bare feet, murmuring thanks.
When daylight arrives, I open one eye to see Grandma watching me. “You sleep like a teenager,” she whispers. “It’s after 7.”
“I need some of what they give you,” I mutter.
On the third day of my visit, a blizzard blows in. Grandma says she’ll go out with the wind, which she doesn’t. She changes her mind and says she’ll die after the Briar.
By 4 p.m., the room is nearly dark, and the streets are filling with snow. I shovel out my car, but the nurses tell me the parking lot might not get cleared for a while. “If the ambulance can’t get through, then it just doesn’t go out,” they say, as if ambulance service is an optional feature in a smalltown Manitoba hospital, like tea, but only before the kitchen closes.
I take Grandma’s hand. “I need to go to Mom and Dad’s farm now, before dark,” I whisper. “Dad will clear snow in the morning, and then I’ll go home to Saskatchewan.”
Grandma lets her face roll to the window. “It’s awful windy, Aim,” she says, using her pet name for me. “Getting dark, too.” With great effort, she turns to face me again. She purses her mouth. Without her teeth in, she seems featureless, like a caricature of an elderly woman. But she’s more than that to me.
I cry now because I must say goodbye. Not until I return, but forever. This goodbye is the finale and Grandma knows it, too. Tears seep down the deep crevices around her eyes.
I lay my cheek against hers, careful not to hurt or distress her. I don’t want her fears to worsen, her sadness to deepen. “I love you, so much,” is all I manage.
When I make it to my mother’s, a nurse calls, asking: “Barb wants to be sure Amy made it okay.”
The end comes a week or two later.
I take a chunk of the “notify list,” calling a second cousin, then potato farmers my grandparents met as snowbirds in California.
I ring Grandma’s niece, and then a former colleague of my grandma’s – “I can only picture her through a haze of smoke.”
“Funny,” I reply. “She died of lung cancer.”
The funeral service is delayed by another blizzard, but when it does come off, I don’t recognize my grandmother in it. My uncle eulogizes his mother but describes her orbit – greasy food, cards on Saturday, much cigarette smoke – more than he describes her. My dad gives a sermon, again with only passing references to Grandma. I play a piano prelude of her favourite songs from the 1940s, tunes unlikely to be heard at funerals for much longer. I long to describe how Grandma cried when I played We’ll Meet Again on my cellphone at the hospital, or how she liked The White Cliffs of Dover sung at her garden parties, but I play on. Silently.
Perhaps we’re so locked into the mechanics of the funeral that we forget Grandma. Or perhaps we lack the words to bring her back, to remember who she really was.
If I remember the perfect moment, I’m 15 again. Grandma wears pale blue seersucker shorts with her knees dirty from the garden. A pack of cigarettes and two tissues emerge from her bra through the neck of her T-shirt.
“You gotta learn how to drive standard!” she mumbles while lighting up. “Everyone needs to learn.”
“Standard!” I sputter. “I don’t even know how to drive an automatic.”
“Hop into the driver’s seat!” she commands, climbing into her little pickup truck. “Nothing to it. Put your foot on the brake and turn the key.”
The truck is dusty and filled with horticultural implements. The cushions are torn. The seat isn’t pulled up far enough, so I perch with my toe uncomfortably pressing the brake.
“Now push the clutch with your left foot and move the stick to R for reverse.”
I do this.
“Now let the brake go.”
I let it go all at once, not gently easing it as an experienced driver might do. The truck jumps backward and I slam the brake in a panic. The passenger seat isn’t quite latched, and it releases back with a jolt. Grandma is flung flat. Her mouth flies open, but she doesn’t say anything. For one dreadful moment, I think I’ve killed her, and then she starts to laugh. Wheezing first. Chortling next. Coughing last.
“Amy!” Grandma finally manages, groping for the door handle. “Put it in neutral and get out!” As she staggers around to the driver’s side, she doubles over, slapping the hood with glee.
I remember her this way. The sun on her T-shirt. Her dirty knees.
Like a scent in the air or a song on the radio – the essence of a human can’t be found in the eulogy. It lives in the laughter, the space between the words.
Amy Boyes lives in Warman, Sask.