July 6, 2018

a room full of pizza boxes

I pulled up a chair beside Grandma's bed and spent an hour visiting.  She was in a nursing rehab facility after my daddy lovingly carried her inside our house for Christmas dinner and accidentally broke her hip in the process.  Her wounds were slow to heal and she had been there for two months, but her dementia was far along and no one can know if she realized how long she had been staring at that wallpaper and the fake posies on the window sill.

We talked in circles.  I answered the same questions, always as if it was the first time she had asked them, questions from a woman who must have, in the early stages, felt horror and grief that her mind was going before her body.  Now, there was no agitation or fear, just the calm repetition of conversation.

Then her eyes focused on mine, and she said, "I think you and I have always understood one another."  There was lucidity in her gaze.  I didn't know what to say, so I nodded, and within seconds she was gone again, the clouds denying us the dazzling sunlight.  And I gathered my purse and keys and had to go.  I had obligations at home.  I left her with the wallpaper and posies.

Sometimes I feel like Grandma's spitting image, a version of her born in more modern times.  But how could we understand one another?  I'm the only grandchild left, the one she helped rear, the one who spent Saturday nights on her couch, laughing at The Golden Girls and 227 and doing the logic puzzles in her Dell crossword magazines.  The granddaughter.  We don't tell our kids so much.  Who shares the sordid, drawn-out truths of adult life with the granddaughter?

I really don't understand her at all.

I don't understand what it was like for her when Granddaddy left her with four young children and a third-shift job as a nurse.  The stigma of divorce in 1961.  The need to rely on Rowena to watch over her brothers while Grandma was at work, while carrying the burden of unwelcome resentment - oh, how she prayed over that, prayed for decades - toward her own mother for putting her in the same position, the eldest of nine in a poor family living in a mill town.  I don't know how she held her head up during those days, how she didn't break.

I don't know what it was like, riding home in the back seat of a car from Atlanta with Jay's ashes in a box in her lap.  I wasn't there to see her meet his partner, though I know she would have handled it gracefully, even if her religious beliefs were screaming at the incongruity.

I don't know how she felt about the spare bedroom in her subsidized low-income apartment during the last years she was able to live alone.  We later found it contained towering stacks of boxes that once contained Domino's small cheese pizzas, used-up crossword magazines, a closet full of unused Tupperware from the early 1980s, at least fifty rolls of wrapping paper she bought because she didn't know if she had any at home, and every publication ever printed and distributed by the Southern Baptist Convention.  She apparently stopped cooking and lived on pizza and frozen concentrated orange juice for several years, and spent all of her time at church or at the dining table with her pens and tablets and writing ideas.  The spare bedroom was her hiding place for the growing storm clouds.  If she could still close the door, she could outrun their shadow.

It was at that time she stopped allowing me to come visit.  "It's just not a good time right now, not this time."  Was she ashamed?  Was she defensive?

I don't know how aware she was of how far she had slipped mentally when those days of living alone drew to an end, when the town police found her driving around downtown unable to remember how to get home along streets she had driven ten thousand times.  She didn't realize she had forgotten to pay her bills for six months, forgotten to tell anyone about both times she fell down the stairs.

We laughed together when I was a child, sometimes at things considered inappropriate.  She bought me small toys with money she couldn't spare and ice cream on Sundays after church.  My parents wished she wouldn't because I would be "spoiled".  Later, she silently accommodated my adolescent depression and all of the car rides when I stared out of the passenger side window and said little to nothing.  Sometimes, we were on our way to choir practice, and our folding chairs were side by side in the alto section.  I could sing when I couldn't speak.

I grew up and she lost my companionship.  Our family isn't one to get together except on holidays.  I moved away and she adjusted to solitude.

She understood me.  I will spend the rest of my life trying to understand her.  The two are the same.

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