“Is school good?” My grandmother asks.
“Yes,” I say. It’s hard to meet her slack gaze, so I keep returning to the wallpaper of the dining hall. The alternating thick stripes of dingy white and forest green are meant to give this space a dignified air but it looks like a fence. Her smile is slightly crooked. There are untouched domes of puréed food on her plastic plate.
“Are you hungry?” I ask.
She begins to cry again, “Where is Marcy?”
The puréed domes are odorless. “She’ll be back real soon.” The radio is playing Christian rock but it doesn’t mask the silence around us. Everything feels lonely here; turned in on itself.
Rituals are what my grandmother remembers now. Not the names of the aides in blue scrubs who clean and dress her each day but the presence of her daughter, my aunt Marcy, at every meal. But today it’s me with her.
My grandmother uses her left hand to wipe the tears from her face with her terrycloth bib; though she can still move the right side of her body she stopped using that arm after the stroke.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she says. “I thought I was lost.”
Dionisia was an eater.
When I visited Seattle as a child she would spend the day cooking adobo, pancit, or lumpia for the family. We’d take trips to the International District for dim sum, loading our table with steaming plates of dumplings from the carts, or walk down to Broadway and order bags of greasy burgers and fries from Dick’s Drive In.
But now she won’t pick up her fork.
“Is school good?” She remembers that I started college, but not that I finished. A picture of her at my graduation—two years ago—sits on her nightstand.
“Yes,” I say, because she’ll ask again in a few minutes.
Her history is secondhand to me.
Both my grandparents were exceptionally taciturn about their lives before they came to America. I know my grandmother lived through the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. Her family was wealthy and eventually aligned itself with Marcos. She immigrated to America with my grandfather, a man below her station—according to my aunt Marcy. They had two children, fostered dozens more, and went to church every Sunday until he died.
They did not teach their children Ilocano.
After we buried her husband, my grandmother never spoke of him again. Marcy sold their house on Capitol Hill and moved my grandmother in with her on Mercer Island. There, Grandma spent her days grazing on the contents of the fridge between tending to her transplanted roses and watching daytime TV. After her first stroke my aunt Marcy had to bring her here.
I offer her gelatinous water, thickened with cornstarch so she can swallow it.
“Where is Marcy?” She gestures out to the hall, “Go get her.” She is crying again. My explanation forgotten, the trauma of being lost repeats.
“Marcy’s not here right now. But I’m here,” I say. Trying to convince us both I am a suitable replacement.
I was entrusted with house sitting and visiting my grandmother three times a day while my aunt is away for the weekend; the facility is a 10-minute walk from her house. But when the alarm went off at 6:00 am I rolled over and went back to sleep.
I tried to slink in unnoticed for lunch but one of the aides caught me and pulled me aside. She had also come here from the Philippines and when she spoke it was soft and familial, “Your grandmother has been crying since breakfast.” It was a warning, not a scolding, but I took it as one anyway.
“Thank you,” I said. Eyes down.
My aunt’s dedication to her mother garners her much respect in the facility. She visits at almost every meal and knows the names of every aide and their children. She brings huge bags of candy and fortune cookies for them, small tokens to acknowledge the grueling, intimate, and low-paying work they do. A retired city manager, she is the dutiful first-generation daughter who works hard to repay the sacrifices of her immigrant parents. These aides, mostly women, mostly immigrants themselves, respect that.
I am the second-generation screw-up.
I took out thousands in student loans to get a degree in creative writing, which I do not think I am very good at. I just quit my first fulltime job, selling 1-800 numbers to businesses, just because it made me depressed. I cry almost every day over a man who didn’t want to be with me. I am constantly struggling to keep my darkest impulses in check but I’m guarded with my family. I speak in generalities about my feelings and fears so that I do not worry them.
When I walked in the dining hall Grandma’s wheelchair was parked at one of the huge plastic tables; her body slumped to the side. She looked up at me; her eyes wide and brimming with tears, her mouth hanging open. I stretched my face into a clownish smile and tried not to cry, too.
Across the table from my grandmother an elderly Indian woman calls out to me. She gestures around the room while speaking in what I guess is Hindi. She is wearing a bright pink sari that clashes with the stark uniformity of the room. Though I don’t understand what she says I listen carefully and nod. When she finishes her proclamation a satisfied smile forms on her face and she turns her attention back to the uneaten food on her tray. The other residents eat soundlessly. The aides move from person to person, encouraging, admonishing, or just feeding them distractedly while watching the muted TV. In all the times I’ve visited with my aunt, I’ve rarely seen other families here as well.
“Is school good?”
She smiles back as best she can, “That’s good.”
My education is the only subject I’ve ever talked to my grandmother about over the last few years, but she’s never asked about what I write and I’ve never offered to show her.
I am frustrated with how the aides avoid my grandmother and I and then it hits me. She is my family. This is my responsibility.
Slowly I scrape some puréed meat into the spoon like I have seen Marcy do dozens of times and bring it to her mouth. She accepts my offering, some of it dribbles out of her mouth and I wipe it away with a napkin.
I have never provided for someone in such an essential way before.
My grandmother is still crying a little, I can’t tell if it’s from relief or residual fear.
“I thought I was lost,” she says again and now I understand that she really means forgotten. “You’re so good to me.”
“It’s nothing,” I say. And saying that feels like nothing. It feels wholly inadequate when I imagine her sitting alone here this morning. How do you explain to someone who cannot remember how you have failed them?
After she loses interest in the tasteless turkey paste I serve her some cake moistened in milk. She likes this. She’s always had a sweet tooth. We have that in common. If she had her way they would only serve her cake. I would let them. I would not deny her anything now.
“Is school good?”
“School is important. So you can get far.”
The piece of wet cake in my spoon plops back onto the plate. “What?”
My grandmother locks eyes with me, “Education is important. So you can get far. So you can be someone else.”
We understand so little about each other and there isn’t time to fill in the history. All I know that I am responsible for her. And she knows that she is responsible for me.
I put my hand on her arm; the flesh is soft and loose around the bone, “I will make you proud,” I say.
She leans in, “Where is Marcy?”
Powered by Froala Editor
Powered by Froala Editor
Powered by Froala Editor