Mme. Mazois (The Artist’s Great Aunt on Her Deathbed) by Henri Regnault, 1886
I’ve forgotten my voice waiting for her to die. I came to say goodbye but I don’t believe it’s time yet and neither does she.
Six days ago in San Francisco, my friend Audra invited me over to eat chili. She stirred the soup in her narrow, steamy kitchen. I told her my grandma was sick but I didn’t have a way to get to her in LA. Saying it out loud to Audra, it didn’t feel real. It just felt like a story I was telling while we waited for the beans to soften and the spices to soak in.
“Take my car,” she said.
“No…” It was too generous, easy.
“Yeah. If the only reason you’re not going is because of a car, you should take mine.”
“How’ll you get to work?”
“I’ll take the train; I’ll figure it out. This is important.”
“Okay. How about…I’ll let you know if I can’t find anything else.” I leaned on her counter top. “Thank you so much for even offering.”
“You should take it. This is really important.”
Which is how I came to understand it was actually happening, and came to be driving Audra’s white Jetta down to West Hollywood. How I came to be standing in the doorway of my grandma’s room.
Almost all her furniture had been removed or rearranged. The master bedroom looked huge without their king-sized bed. As a child, I’d wake up in the guest room from nightmares about people trying to murder me. I’d tiptoe into their room and crawl into bed between them so I could fall asleep again among their snoring, squishy bodies.
It’s been almost three months since she’s stopped eating—claiming nausea and that nothing tastes good. Now, I sit beside her new hospital-style bed, while she drifts in and out of sleep all day. I try to stay busy while she sleeps; I knit or write or read. I catch up on This American Life.
Once it’s dark outside, she wakes up and we talk. She says things like, “You make my heart sing,” and when she has the strength, she likes to yell, “Ah!” and then shout, almost angrily, “You are so beautiful!” She complains about which appliances in her life are breaking, and who isn’t calling her the way she wants them to, and she likes to gossip about our family.
We’re the same people as before. Nothing about her or me has gotten inherently wiser just because she’s dying.
So instead, we discuss the green and golden afghan she’s not sure she can finish. She teaches me the stitch: knit two pearl two in a row with a number of stitches that’s divisible by two but not by four. She cries and covers her face with her wrinkled-skin hands, and I lean over the bars of the bed and drape my arms over her lap and say, “I don’t care that we’re just sitting here. That’s all I want to do. This is all I came down here to do.”
In early morning, I sort her pills for her, rolling their smooth gel casings between my fingertips, and when I crack eggs for lunch later, wonder if traces of morphine remain, and lick my skin just in case.
After approximately sixty-three hours in the house, I stand in the bathroom. There’s a three-foot long mirror on the wall that I’ve been looking in since I was a little girl and stayed with her for weeks at a time. It’s possible I haven’t showered since I got here. I pull off my smelly gray sweatshirt, stare at my naked chest, yellow in the mirror. I’m trying to remember how to breathe fully into it.
This is not the first death. There was my namesake grandma before I was born, and the grandpas, one in high school and the other in college. There was the sudden death at 17 that sent me to the bathroom floor sobbing: a boy I loved who jumped into the water. These deaths were important and also different—they were a phone call. They were a surprise, a punch in the stomach. Sometimes they’ve taken me years to believe in—he’s actually gone. I am glad now for the slow build of her dying. Her dying has been in the background for months now, like putting the teakettle on the electric burner and listening for its steam to build to a whistle.
But, nobody instructed me: when sitting with the dying, you must be very careful not to get caught inside the land of the dying.
I walk down the wooden hallway to the kitchen, telling myself to stop sneaking slices of banana bread covered in butter. My uncle, who lives with her, or she lives with him they like to say, gets home from his girlfriend’s place. He makes me leave the house with him to pick up sushi from around the corner. We walk through the streets, along with the gays and tourists. This is part of what she loves about the neighborhood. I carry the meal home in its Russian nesting dolls of plastic inside plastic.
I sit at what we call the “real” table, drawing thick slabs of pink sashimi into my mouth. I’m afraid of concentrating too hard on this raw fish flesh. I don’t want to remember the lamp light on her emaciated cheeks three minutes ago, when I fed her a bite of hamachi, the first food she’d accepted all day.
I felt triumphant, watching her swallow, and thought, that should solve it. She used to tell me, when I untangled a necklace or fixed her phone, “You’re magic, Janet.” I picked up a second bite with the chopsticks but she closed her mouth and shook her head at me, like a contrary toddler. She’s getting more beautiful in her starvation, except for the sunken places where her dentures and right-breast prosthesis should sit.
While eating, I try instead to see what’s physically real: the living room in front of me, where I sleep when visiting. White couches, masks from countries they visited all over the walls, my stuff an explosion of clothes in one corner. Not knowing what to bring, I brought too much.
I want to get farther away than the living room—for this, a car is needed. I drive down Sunset and turn left, towards the canyon, leaving the crowds behind me like an exhale. The flammable beige and green plants on each side of my car are familiar. The windows are up. I like the closed container of the car.
I connect my phone to the sound system and turn on music, try singing, just to hear my own voice. I almost lost it from all the yelling to be heard through her hearing aids, or worse, without her hearing aids.
I don’t want to think about ten minutes ago when I stood by her bedside, my shadow falling sideways in the lamp light, and told her, “I’m leaving for a few hours.”
“Where? Where are you going?” she protested.
“I’m going to yoga with Sonia.” She loves Sonia, my friend from college, because Sonia is beautiful and talented and listens.
She started crying, moaning, “I guess I have no choice do I?”
I can, in the car’s silence, scream words I gulped down—because I didn’t want a fight, because all day I checked to make sure she was still breathing, like a baby—which were: this is why it’s so hard to visit you, and: you make me want to lie to you.
I once thought this city was soulless but I know now, the green, the canyon; I was wrong. Here is just anywhere, but with more expensive cars.
I thought I should move my body into downward dog or maybe warrior one, but I got lost in the canyon’s turns, in not-thinking about what if she dies while I’m gone out of spite.
Five minutes late, they’ve locked the studio door on me. Sonia arrived on time and is inside, without her phone. I climb back into the car, waiting for the class to end so Sonia, her boyfriend, and I can have dinner. Trying to remember what else people do besides sit and watch the wheezing inhales of the person who probably loves them most.
I turn up the music, skipping through songs that feel wrong right now. Nothing too sad, or too happy. I want purgatory music. I roll the windows down. When my phone rings with an unknown number, I answer, hopefully, wishing it’s either God or an old friend calling to say, “I was thinking of you.”
It’s a volunteer: “Phone banking for the Dems, just making sure you’ll vote no on Prop 32!”
She did things like this for the Democratic Party when she was younger, better at using the phone.
“I already sent in my absentee ballot. I voted no. Thank you. Thank you for what you’re doing. Okay. Okay, bye.”
That twice thank you—I wanted her to like me. I wanted the phone banker to be a sage and stop her script to transmit wisdom, or maybe comfort me. To say, “Are you okay, Janet? You sound sad,” and, on the phone with her, I’d be able to cry, the way I haven’t been able to by myself yet, but this isn’t a movie, so we just hung up.
It’s becoming early evening. I watch the middle-aged women taking walks around the block with their dogs, jealous of their commitment and consistency.
I drove forty-five minutes here for some spiritual guidance and all there is now are car sounds coming in through the open windows: a screech of tires, honk of horn, smell of cigarettes and flash of expired parking meter. There’s nothing for me to do but sit and wait for the yoga class to end. After a brief gap of silence in the music, I’m shuffled my dead friend’s song, recorded for me in high school—next month he will have been dead seven years—and I let it play, resting my dry hands on the bottom of the steering wheel, and I listen.
Janet Frishberg lives and writes in a light blue room in San Francisco. She’s currently editing her first book, a memoir. You can find her work in Literary Orphans, Cease, Cows, sparkle & blink, the SF Chronicle, and soon in The Rufous City Review and Black Heart Magazine. You can find her @jfrishberg
This essay first appeared in Verity La.
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