Broken Speed Dial

Originally in River Oak Review.

“I can’t see in my right eye,” my ninety-one year old grandmother says. “It’s just a cloud.”

“When did this happen?” I ask, placing salad bowls in front of us on her small dining table.

“A week ago maybe,” she says. “The doctor thinks he can fix it.”

I struggle to comprehend. She tells me the doctors say she may have some kind of degenerative arthritis syndrome, one that can be connected to another disease that makes you go blind.

“Did the rheumatologist say the vision problems could be related to this syndrome?” I ask.

“He thinks so. He took blood. I could go blind overnight.” She moves her fork around in her salad with her small, curled hand, checking sideways for my response.

I’m confused by her reaction. My normally stoic grandmother seems frightened by this possibility, but also pleased by the drama of it. The busy circus of our small family might actually halt mid-juggle and pay attention.

I have come for my usual five days to my grandmother’s winter home in Venice, Florida. We usually take turns cooking meals, and we sit together at lunch and dinner as she fills in gaps in our family history. I do chores like put a new tape in the answering machine or select tile for her foyer, and then sit by the pool or walk on the beach while she naps.

Yet this visit, I put drops in her eyes, change her sheets, and fold her shredding, tattered nightgowns out of the dryer. She seems frail to me, confused. I begin to wonder if she has become an unreliable narrator.

The kitchen is covered in Pepperidge Farm toast crumbs and there are V-8 stains on the floor. My grandmother owned a restaurant. She has always kept her kitchen military inspection clean.

Now she gets dizzy and confused, asking me three times if I know whether she has taken her thyroid medication. She has a pacemaker, an oxygen tank in her bedroom for emphysema, three kinds of eye drops for glaucoma, and four other pills whose purpose I cannot identify.

Part of me still sees her as the capable, independent senior citizen who looked the same at sixty as she does now at ninety-one. The lover of history who volunteered as a docent at her local museum. The licensed driver who, before her cataract surgery at seventy-eight, drove to every DMV in the state of Massachusetts until she found a clerk who would pass her on the eye test.

I cannot reconcile that image with the fragile, overwhelmed person I find before me. What if she is going blind? How long have things been deteriorating? How come no one noticed? Where has my dad, her only child, been lately? Have I been too busy to call often enough? She has only my father, my sister and me. Should she have come to Florida by herself this winter? My parents leave for Asia in a few days for three weeks. What am I supposed to do?

“I need you to help me with my phone,” she tells me. “The speed dial is wrong,”

“What’s the problem?” I ask, inspecting the over-sized numbers on the phone.

“The names are wrong,” she says. “I need to add Elizabeth and Mildred downstairs. Muse and Jane and Lee are on there.”

At first I cannot understand what is wrong with having her old friends’ numbers programmed in. I look around the white kitchen of her one bedroom condo, frustrated. There are three stories, thirty units, all seniors. She and her friends knock on each other’s screen doors and kitchen windows, call each other if the car hasn’t been out of its spot in a few days. Jane used to live downstairs, Lee was next door. Then I get it. She wants me to take the dead people off her speed dial.

My grandmother’s eye is worse, and she’d been up in the night with pain behind her knees, she says. She sits in her cushioned deck chair on the screened-in patio and begins to cry.

“I can’t cope,” she says. “I need to go home.”

Home would be New England, where my parents live, where she lives in the summer. I have only seen my grandmother cry at her brother and husband’s funerals. I look around behind me. Is there someone else who could be handling this?

I move slowly to the fake grass mat in front of her, kneeling.

“It’s ok Gram,” I say. “I’m here. We’ll figure out what’s going on with your eyes and this arthritis and if you need to go home, I’ll get you there.”

The sun sends throbbing waves of hot light onto the porch and the garden below. Tall masted white schooners slide down the waterway beyond.

The ninety-five year old neighbor, Stan, comes to the door.

“You wanna come see my new portable phone?” he asks, listing to one side as if he were standing on a fast moving sailboat.

Minding my manners, I oblige Stan, visiting with him for a few minutes in his airtight quarters. I take small breaths to avoid the heavy smell of rotting oranges and Wednesday night’s spaghetti.

Back in her apartment, my gram sits in her chair, eyes closed. I tip-toe past her to get my flip-flops from the deck.

“He can be a pest,” she says, never opening her eyes.

“I’m going down by the pool,” I say. “Can you put some lotion on my back?”

This is an old ritual for us, since college break when I would come to visit my grandfather and her. I get all the spots I can around my bikini top, and she fills in the blanks across my back. This time, my grandmother cannot open the lid to the sunscreen. Her hands are stiff, the skin almost transparent, like Saran Wrap over the veins. She bruises easily now, and there are purplish marks by her thumb and wrist. I put some sunscreen in her palm and she smears a little across my back. Her touch feels cold and shaky. She misses most of the area around the back strap.

“Perfect,” I say. “Thanks.”

She lies down with her oxygen and I walk quickly down the outside stairs. A neighbor sticks her head out the door.

“She shouldn’t be driving,” the woman whispers, looking down at her cat-shaped door mat. “We’ve been giving her rides to the doctor.”

I speak to my father on the phone. She’s turned a corner, I say. She should not be unsupervised. I’m trying to get answers from her doctors, but she may be going blind. I may have to stay here more than five days. I may have to bring her home. She tried to drive herself to the fruit stand and passed it four times before giving up. The kitchen is dirty. She left the stove burner on. She asked me to put in her drops.

She’ll be all right, he says. She’s coming home in April.

April is three months away.

She may need to come home now, I tell him. She cried and told me about an assisted living place she’s considering. It’s bad, I say.

I picture him stuffing his fingers in his ears, squeezing his eyes shut, thrusting out his tongue and yelling “LA LA LA LA LA!” at me through the receiver like a ten-year-old.

You’ll figure it out, he tells me. Keep me posted.

I’m just the granddaughter, I think. I’m just here for Chex Mix, banana bread, and the Peter Rabbit game. Maybe it’s not as bad as I think. Maybe I’m being dramatic. Maybe my father needs to cancel his vacation.

I wipe up crumbs in the kitchen.

Returning from the grocery store, I call out to my grandmother. I walk to the bedroom doorway and she sticks her head out of the bathroom, completely bald and eyebrow-less like a leukemia child. I have always known she wears a silvery wig, but I have never seen her without it. I step quickly backward into the living room, my eyes focused on the TV stand.

I extend my trip from five days to two weeks, and I piece together her medical reports, cajoling receptionists, walking in to see doctors. Her blood tests determine no arthritis or sight-reducing syndrome. The eye doctor diagnoses an infection – conjunctivitis. I am relieved and annoyed.

“What will I tell my friends I have?” Gram asks.

“Tell them what the doctor told you,” I say.

“What did he say?” she asks.

“That you have aches and pains,” I remind her.

She is quiet, clearly displeased with this answer.

I make repeated trips to the pharmacy, fill her fridge with groceries, manage the medication for her eye infection. I drive her to the follow up visits. She mixes up north and south, left and right. In the car, she yells at me. Why am I not doing what she asks? I drive the way she guides me until she realizes she is lost.

We arrive at the doctor’s office in silence. I want to jump out of the car and slam the door, but I think how terrifying it must be to lose your way down the street from your home. When I help her out of the car, she usually takes my arm. This time, she reaches for my hand. Her hand is small and curled, yet to me it feels like the weight of it could pull me to the ground.

I crouch on the white linoleum kitchen floor, whispering on the phone to my boyfriend Paul in California as if I am twelve.

“How’re you doing?” he asks.

I try to respond, but the concern in his voice, the familiarity and comfort trips me up. I lose my language and only mumbling sobs come out.

Paul says nothing. Just holds a safe place for me to cry.

At night, I toss and turn in the damp, hot air of the front bedroom. What if I can’t get her stable enough to leave and go home? What if I have to fly with her to New England? Why am I responsible? What if I get up and she isn’t at the breakfast table and I go to wake her and she’s not breathing? Should I do CPR? Can you do CPR on people with pacemakers?

I buy a hot water bottle that helps the pain behind her knees. The eye medication kicks in and her sight begins to return.

“Can you do CPR on people with pacemakers?” I ask my grandmother as we share peach slices at the breakfast table.

“Yes,” she says, “but you have to be gentle.”

I chew on my peach.

“I have a living will,” she says. “It’s in the drawer next to my bed if you want to read it.”

I crumple my napkin into my fist.

“If someone in the family came to wake you and you weren’t breathing, would you want them to do CPR?” I say into my plate.

“No,” she says immediately. “No.”

We hire a home health nurse who says more oxygen may make Gram less confused. She teaches her how to use the portable unit. The nurse cooks Gram South American food and promises to show her new stretching exercises.

“You have a life,” Gram tells me. “I don’t want you to stop it for me.”

We work out a program of helpers and visitors and drivers. She thinks she can make it until her son/my father arrives in March.

I make salmon for dinner, one of her favorites.

“The bank where you met Grampa,” I ask. “Did you go right to work there when you graduated from high school?”

“No,” she says, pressing her napkin to her mouth. “One of my girlfriends from the church group convinced me to go to New Hampshire for the summer. We lived in a bunkhouse on Winnipesaukee and worked waiting tables at the clubhouse of a resort.”

“Wow Gram,” I say, smiling into my rice pilaf, surprised by this new story. “A whole summer in New Hampshire unsupervised in those days?”

She points her fork at me and laughs.

“We weren’t exactly unsupervised,” she says. “The cook kept a pretty close eye on us.”

“What about Buddy? The boyfriend who came before Grampa?”

“He showed up to visit me a few times. Didn’t like it a whole lot that I’d been seeing a couple of the fellows working there too.”

I put down my knife and look at her.

“I always thought there was just Buddy and Grampa,” I say.

“Oh no,” my grandmother says nonchalantly, picking at her zucchini. “I dated quite a few boys before your grandfather. We had a lot of fun in the Methodist youth group.”

I clear the table, imagining my grandmother dancing on a dock in the warm summer evening air.

The day before I am to leave, I come out on the screened-in porch to sit by my grandmother. I am afraid to abandon her. I don’t know what might happen if she spends too many hours alone.

“What if you are by yourself and you can’t get out of the bathtub?” I say, pulling dead leaves off a straggly ivy plant hanging from a hook.

My grandmother presses her lips together.

“It’s not a question of can’t,” she says. “I can. And I will. It just may take me a long time.”

“The nurse will come every other day,” I tell her. “Will you promise to only take a bath when you know she is coming?”

She stares out through the screen toward the tall green shrubs lining the walkway beyond, and nods.

2 comments on “Broken Speed Dial

  1. What a wonderful rendering of the complex situation you found yourself in. Gram always loved spending time with you, and your love for her really shines through this piece. Thank you for sharing it.

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