Mom called on Saturday to tell me you were sick, that Uncle G had taken you to the hospital because you’d turned orange and that once there it was discovered you have cancer in your liver and lungs. Now, two days later, it seems you might have known this already and kept it a secret from the rest of us. I imagine you wanted to maintain some dignity, some control; you are 93 and don’t like to be treated like a child and somehow it seems that is the only way our culture knows how to treat a dying elder.
A dying elder. That is what you are. You will not recover from this and do not want to be treated, but only made comfortable until the end. I hope it comes soon, I think; and then wish it would never come. You are my grandmother. You are certainly not the stereotypical knitting and baking grandmother with the soft body and welcoming arms. You are not – have never been – sweet. Or soft. You are tough, sometimes hard, and at your core there is an anger that simmers. Your children are conflicted right now, reconciling the good memories with the bad and the very bad; they are struggling to understand what your death will mean to them and learning already how they are going to remember you. It is not an easy job and it is not a pretty one, either; there are so many difficult memories; there have been so many difficult times.
But you are my grandmother. You have always shown me love and especially since I’ve had my own children, you have also shown me tenderness – and more so since my second daughter died.
I want to ask you about your baby. I know I’m not supposed to know. After I miscarried the second time, your sister told my mother – who told me – that when Granddad married you you were already pregnant with someone else’s baby. She told mom that you went to the hospital to have the baby but came home without it (him? her?). She has no idea what happened, if the baby lived or died, or…what? I think I know the baby must have died, because why go to the trouble of getting married, of creating the cover, if you were only going to give the baby up? No, I think it must’ve died and something about the tone of your voice since Anja died confirms this for me. I wish I could ask you.
I wonder how it must feel to have kept this secret for close to 70 years. I wish I could just ask you, but you are such an old curmudgeon. And you are so angry. I imagine a scenario where I come to see you in your hospital room, M in my arms, and I ask you. I ask, ‘Grandma. What happened to your first baby?’ And you – you are filled with relief to tell and lightened by the telling and we hold hands and your eyes are calmed as you acknowledge the life and death of your first child and we cry together, remembering our children.
But what is no doubt more likely is that you react in anger, close yourself off to me, refuse to acknowledge or talk. Carry the secret to the grave.
I wish I knew. I wish I wasn’t scared to find out, scared to face your anger. Based on all I know about how it feels to mother a dead baby, I feel certain you would welcome the chance to talk, to unburden yourself, to remember, to accept that baby as part of our family. But you are still such a formidable force; you snap angrily, you ridicule, your face a mask of derision.
Is the anger connected to the baby? There have been other traumas, too, other disappointments, other terrible losses. You have lived a long, long life and it is nearly over. I stand at the window today, holding M and looking out at the rain-soaked park, and imagine you, sixty-seven years ago, holding your first living child, and I wonder what you thought, how you felt, what you remembered then. But most of all, I wonder what you remember now. I wonder what you are thinking, seeing, smelling, feeling as you lie in a hospital bed, weighing less than 100 pounds, turning yellow, full of tumors: what do you remember? Where does your mind take you? Your heart?
I remember the story you’ve told me so many times of how it was when Uncle G learned how to tweet like the birds and it wasn’t how you thought it would be at all and it took you days to recognize that that’s what he was doing, talking to the birds.
There is so much I want to ask you, now. There is so much you will take with you. There is so much we are both going to miss.
I love you, Grandma. I wish your life had been easier. I wish I was there with you now to hold your hand, to talk, maybe, but to hold your hand and tell you that I love you, that I understand – maybe – some of the anger. Mostly just to hold your hand.