County General

I paced the hospital halls nervously, waiting for news.  One, two, three, four, look out the window, sigh, turn around, one, two, three, four, turn around.  This cycle continued, and I lost track of time.  The sun set, I watched headlights slowly flicker on, car by car, on the highway below.  I watched the nurses change shifts, the ones I had come to know well replaced by all new strangers.  I’m sure, by the time this is over, I’ll know them well enough to send Christmas cards every year.

My family is no help.  They sit huddled together, talking in low voices, murmuring words of comfort and support and complete drudge.  This is the Lord’s plan…it’s meant to be this way…she’s going to a better place.

No, damn it.  She’s dying.  That’s it.  The cancer that’s been eating away at her colon for five months is finally gaining the upper hand.  It’s life.  It’s what happens.  People die, and it’s not a plan so much as a failed social experiment.

I wish I could believe.  But after a lifetime of being told over and over again that it wasn’t meant to be or there’s a different plan, I’m getting sick of empty words.  I want meaning.  I want reason.  But now that she’s dying, I wouldn’t mind some empty words.  Maybe they’d make me feel better.  Because science and reason failed me.

I wasn’t always like this.  I used to be just like them, going on and on about plans and God and predestined happenings.  But then I got older, and things started happening that those placating words couldn’t fix, couldn’t make right.  I wanted the truth, and I didn’t want it sugarcoated.  So I left my family behind and tried to find something else.  I wasn’t sure of what I wanted, or what I was looking for.  I’m still not, actually.  I haven’t been inside a church in ten years.  I miss out on a lot of family functions and events because of my refusal, but I can’t sit there and listen to the roomful of people all agreeing.  Why can’t they see?  Why can’t they look for their comfort somewhere else, somewhere that will provide them with truth and facts and cold, reassuring reason?

They tried their best to understand.  Surprisingly, they weren’t hateful or judgmental.  That’s one good thing about my family, as religious as they are, they realize that sometimes some people need to venture out and find their own way.  So they let me go, sent me postcards every now and again with promises of prayer.  Though I didn’t believe, it was still nice to hear.  I missed those days, where I was young and naive and nothing mattered but school and church and friends, when I had no bills and lived in my pink room at my parent’s house.  how times change.

And now here I am, wearing a hole in the cold linoleum floor at County General, waiting for my beloved grandmother to die.  She was part of my first memory.  I was 3, and we were outside in the front yard.  It must have been early spring, because though the air was warm and the sun bright, the grass was cold on my bare feet, and the breeze that ruffled my little sundress made my knees cold.  She was wearing a straw hat, presumably to keep the sun off her perfect porcelain skin.  All I remember is her hat, and her face, and the sun, and the way she took my little hands and twirled me around, laughing loudly.  And as I grew up she remained my partner in crime, the person I would run to if someone or something was bothering me.  Many an afternoon was spent at her kitchen table, the back door open and the smells of whatever she was cooking – barbeque, fried chicken, bread, cookies – wafting around the room.  She always had homemade snacks ready for me, always fresh lemonade or juice to go with them.  And she listened, to every inane story about my friends, every complaint about school, every lovesick lament about a boy I liked.  She knew everything.

Leaving her was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  But when I turned 18, it was time for college, and my academically minded parents would have none of this staying home for college business.  They considered a journey to a different state essential to my development into a successful member of society, so every school I applied to was at least 50 miles away.  I got into every school; I chose the one 200 miles away.  And so I packed the car, left behind my cat and my bedroom and my friends and my grandmother, the last one the only one I was truly sorry to see disappear.

The first month was the worst, and I called her every night, mostly crying about how different everything felt.  She listened, sympathetic humming, and reminded me that changes are always hard.  Being thrown out of my comfort zone is important for everyone to experience.  I would be fine.  And, funny enough, I was.  When I came home for Thanksgiving, I never left her house, and Christmas went much the same way, much to the chagrin of my parents.  And as spring semester started, I found myself settling in, making friends, becoming busier and busier.  My phone calls to grandmother only occurred once a week, then once every two weeks, and then only a few times a month.  She didn’t mind; she always made sure to tell me how happy and proud of me she was.  Though I felt guilty, I was glad at how I’d finally begun to form my own community and spent less and less time missing home.

There was one year I didn’t make it home for a year and a half, and when I finally saw grandmother again the changes shocked me.  She was grayer, many more wrinkles, a sort of paleness to her that wasn’t attributed to her many years of careful sunblock application.  She moved slower.  It made me realize how long I’d been away, and so I took the entire summer off to stay with her.

That was the last good summer.

By Christmas she’d visited the doctor, and by January they’d found it:  cancer.  Of the colon.  Amazingly enough, or maybe not, she took it like a trooper.  She continued to cook, though not as elaborately as before, and took to writing letters and knitting.  There are plenty of people, she used to say, who are worse off than I am.  She wrote letters to her friends in chemo, knitted them scarves and mittens and the occasional sweater.  I requested a sweater with my initial on the front, much like Harry Potter, and she obliged, a lumpy package arriving to my dorm room one day containing a navy blue sweater with a bright white A adorned on the front.  I wore it proudly, every day.

She came to my graduation and sat in the front row, grinning wildly the whole time.  When my name was called, she couldn’t stand out of her wheelchair but I felt her love, radiating outwards.  She waved and whistled and hollered louder than anyone else there.  And after the ceremony, I put my graduation cap on her head and bent down so we were level with each other and smiled for the camera.  That was the last picture we took together.

She went steadily downhill from there.  Aunts and uncles said she was simply waiting for my graduation, hanging on long enough to see me become a real grownup.  And then they cried, and prayed, and I felt even more along and isolated.

And now I’m here, waiting.  We said our goodbyes yesterday, the last time she was awake and aware.  I told her that I’d finally gotten a job, working with at risk kids.  And though I had to bend close to her mouth, I heard her happiness and pride.  She told me she’d never worried about me.  She knew I’d find my way.  And what an amazing counselor/teacher/therapist I was going to make.  And she told me she loved me.  And then she drifted off to sleep.

I, however, haven’t slept for two days.  I try to, but the hospital is too loud and the beds too uncomfortable for anyone to get any real rest.  I try to talk with the family, cousins, aunts, uncles, parents, but I don’t really care about them.  They’re not my favorite person.  But they finally convince me to stop pacing and come sit down, and I fall asleep in the chair in the hall, my feet propped up on another chair next to me.  I don’t know how long I sleep, but I awake suddenly, startled by something.  The hallway is quiet and deserted, the moon shining eerily through the window at the end of the hall.  The family is gone.  I get up, and shuffle down the hall to my grandmother’s room.  Everyone is in there, the machine that has been monitering her heartbeat loudly and steadily for the past three days is quiet.  Heads are bent, tears are flowing, and words are being prayed, and I know that she’s gone.

It’s been three years since that moonlit hospital night.  I’ve been promoted; I’m the director of community outreach, focusing on children and children’s activities.  It’s long hours and hard work, but it’s the kind of work that lets me sleep well at night.  I’m happy.  I like to find those misunderstood kids, the ones who feel different than the rest of their family and friends.  I like to let them know it’s ok to be different, and how it’s good to be different.  I listen to them talk, about their friends and school and latest crush.  I always make sure to have homemade snacks, and some kind of lemonade or juice to go with it.  I always wear copious amounts of sunscreen.  I wear my grandmother’s straw hat in the summer.  And I think of her.


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