By Nikki Wertheim
The smell started gradually and then permeated the room with such force that I felt I had been slapped across the face. I didn’t dare mention it out loud for fear of embarrassing my grandmother. After a few minutes, my mother chuckled and said it was time to change her diaper. She went out into the hallway to fetch the first employees she saw, two young black women in white shoes and scrubs who looked like they definitely didn’t want to deal with changing another geriatric. They entered and I politely left the room with my sister, Riss. The last thing I wanted to see was someone wipe my grandmother’s ass while she was on her death bed.
Riss and I stood awkwardly in the hallway, glancing around at the other doors. Some had names on them and some didn’t. There were pictures of flowers in vases on the cream-colored walls. The carpet looked like vomited pea soup. From my grandmother’s room I could hear her speaking coherently for the first time that night. She was screaming for help.
My mother, a homecare nurse, did not look up from her paperwork as she told her to calm down, that it would be over in a minute. She was used to this sort of thing—changing diapers, dying old people, Alzheimer’s, dementia, whatever—and it was almost as if she wasn’t aware of what was happening. I was and I allowed myself to look in despite the stench.
My mother had told me earlier that my grandmother’s system was shutting down. Her blood pressure was so low she couldn’t sit up without fainting. Her stomach had stopped working, which was why she burped frequently. And she was shitting blood.
“Help!” she screamed. “Oh, God!”
“Frances!” scolded one of the nurses. “Calm down.”
“Relax, Mom,” my mother said without looking up. “It’ll be over in a minute.”
As they changed her, the smell drifted out into the hallway. My sister was the first to mention it, rolling her eyes and muttering, “Jesus Christ.”
I laughed to mask my horror. The smell would stay with me until the next time I saw my grandmother, wrapped up in a bargain-bin coffin.
* * *
My uncle was the first to notice. It seemed fitting; he had been my grandmother’s best friend. When she was too sick to understand, she carried a picture of him in her wallet and said he was her husband. When she finally passed, he was the only one in the room with her.
“This isn’t right,” he said, eyeing the casket. “This isn’t what we picked out.”
My aunt Kathy, who had arrived from Florida shortly after the passing, sat clutching a tissue to her chest.
“What do you mean it’s not right?” she asked.
“It’s not right,” my uncle repeated. “This isn’t what Laura and I picked out.”
Laura was my mother. This registered somewhere in my mind as I sat, staring. I could have looked at my grandmother all day long, lying in the pink dress I hadn’t seen her wear in years. Occasionally, if I left my eyes out of focus, it looked like her chest was moving. I felt nothing aside from a growing irritation toward the Irish family across the hall in the bigger room. Another woman had died and her family was larger and rowdier than mine. I wanted to slam the door on their laughter and stupid orange hair.
Later, after the wakes were over, my mother told me they’d put her in the wrong casket.
“The casket they put her in was a thousand dollars more expensive,” she said in the car. “The funeral director said, ‘Well, what do you want to do? It’s up to you.’ I said I didn’t want to move her. He said he wouldn’t charge me the extra.”
My grandmother loved sales. I remembered the countless Sundays I spent with her in the flea market, overwhelmed by the variety of people there. I told her once that I saw a nun and she said it was only a Muslim.
“She did love a bargain,” I told my mother off-handedly. It was an attempt at humor, but she didn’t laugh. Our grieving processes weren’t synched. Humor had always been my defense mechanism, an attempt to lighten the worst situations. My mother had remained stoic ever since my uncle called with the news an hour after we left my grandmother at Somerset Gardens, the assisted living home.
* * *
After we got the call, my mother left me in the den with my girlfriend Amy and made the 45 minute drive back to Somerset Gardens. We weren’t sure what was going on. I put my head in Amy’s lap and waited. The phone rang close to an hour later, and my mother told me she was gone.
I hung up and laughed. The more I felt like sobbing, the harder the laughter came.
“Are you all right?” Amy asked.
“It’s over,” I said, giggling and feeling light-headed.
Amy said nothing, patiently waiting for my moment of grief. The laughter stopped. I squinted at the TV.
“I wonder where she is right now,” I said.
I didn’t cry at the wakes or funeral. I accepted the hugs of friends and pretended I didn’t feel like throwing myself off a building. I kept thinking I could only cry when I was alone, but even then the tears never came.
* * *
Aunt Kathy used to own a condo in the mountains of Pennsylvania that we would visit in the summertime up until I was twelve. When I found myself missing my grandmother during these trips, I could quell my separation anxiety by sniffing the pink fuzzy bathrobe she had hanging in the closet of her room at the condo. It smelled just like her.
The bathrobe was the only thing I asked for of hers after she died, but I was told my aunt had discarded it a long time ago.
* * *
A few weeks after my grandmother was buried, I went with my mother and sister to clean out her apartment. She had lived upstairs and Aunt Kathy and her husband lived on the ground floor. I asked to go up alone, knowing that being around other people would only make me uncomfortable.
I sat on the spotless kitchen floor and stared at her decorative sewing wheel I used to play with when I was little. I fiddled with the pedal and thought about the funeral. The Indian priest had referred to my grandmother as a “devoted wife,” despite the fact that she had raised her three children on her own after her alcoholic husband took off. Had he ever seen this sewing wheel?
As I willed myself to enter her bedroom, the Lord’s Prayer began playing through my head.
Our Father, who art in Heaven…
The floor was lined with bags of her clothing. I pawed through her personal belongings, keeping the bottles of old perfume that smelled the most like her. I carefully picked through the clothing and found the old gray sweatshirt she used to wear. I touched it gingerly with my fingers as though it were made of silk instead of cotton, paused, and then held it to my nose.
Hallowed be Thy name…
I imagine it must have been a ridiculous sight to see—a twenty-year-old crumpled up over a sweatshirt, sobbing.
* * *
I got home from college around midnight for Thanksgiving break and dropped my bags on the floor of my room. I saw the clothing I had collected from her apartment folded over my desk chair and the pink blanket decorated with gray dogs. She had died under that blanket, and the image of it was even more haunting than the last time I saw it at the end of the summer. My gray schnauzer Gizmo had been put to sleep in October and the dog pattern looked eerily like him.
As I unpacked, the depression creeping over my body only got worse. I was used to this sensation. After she died, I felt it every single day until my therapist suggested Lexapro.
I snatched the pink blanket off my chair and curled up in bed with it. I thought about how my grandmother had looked underneath it and about how my mother had wrapped Gizmo in a purple blanket before she took him to the vet to be put down. Purple had been my grandmother’s favorite color and my mother said the blanket would make it easier for her to find him in Heaven.
I felt uneasy about the first holiday my family would spend without her, but I seemed to be the only one. The following day, everyone acted as if nothing was different. But the minute the last family member stepped out my door, all the depression came flooding back. I spent the night hiding in my room.
“Are you all right?” my mother asked. I looked up from the book I was reading.
“Oh, you know,” I said. “Yeah. Fine. I mean, my dog is dead. And my grandmother is dead. But I’m fine.”
She sighed. I looked away, afraid that she would begin to cry, but she didn’t.
“I’m very grateful God took Grandma when He did,” she said slowly. “The worst was yet to come and it would have been a horror for us all. Grandma lived a very long life and she left a beautiful legacy behind.”
I felt a lump growing in my throat and forced it down, staring at the pink blanket hanging on my chair.
“We all miss Gizmo too,” my mother continued and the lump came back. “He was very sick, just like Grandma.”
She kissed me goodnight and went to her room. I put on my coat and walked out to my car to have a cigarette. I watched the smoke curl up around the rosary beads hanging on my rearview mirror. They had belonged to her once.
Hallowed be thy name…