I dreamt last night that I was dying. When I awoke, my wife, Heather, was standing by our bed, wrapped in a bath towel, going through her purse. “I dreamt I was dying,” I told her.
“Baby,” she said. “That’s terrible.”
“I was here at our house,” I said. I lay on my back, looking at the time that our alarm clock projected onto the ceiling of the room. Six fifteen. The sun was not yet up, but the sky behind the tree that filled our window was deep purple, and I could see that dawn was close. “There was a stainless steel sink the size of a casket in the laundry room,” I told her. “I had just been diagnosed with some fatal disease, and I decided I’d rather die than suffer. I was to fill the sink with water and to lie down in it.”
“Was I there?” Heather asked, as she pulled from her purse those things that she wouldn’t need for the day, put in those things that she would—pens, her phone, debit card, faculty I.D.
“No, you weren’t,”I told her. “My mother was the only solid person there. I could see a few vague shapes inside the house, but I couldn’t make them out. Mom was running things, and I told her that I would fill the sink with cold water, so that if she didn’t get right to me, I shouldn’t smell too quickly.”
“That’s terrible,” Heather said again. She poked an earring through her left earlobe, another through her right. Two small circles of obsidian, rimmed with silver. I had bought her the earrings before we were married, after learning of her love of dots. She did not turn to the mirror above her dresser to look at the earrings, as I who don’t wear earrings think I might.
“It’s not as if my mother didn’t love me,” I said. “She was just being herself, the life-long nurse. You know how she is.”
“I know,” Heather said, and it was true. She did know.
Heather had been there the night my mother brought to an end my grandmother’s suffering in the bedroom below ours, the room my grandmother had grudgingly made her own five years earlier. She had moved in with us after breaking a hip when she slipped on ice while carrying groceries into her apartment. My mother had stayed with us, too, through most of my grandmother’s recovery. When my grandmother could walk again she agreed to stay, as long as my mother agreed to leave. “I don’t need her hovering like a vulture,” Grandma had said.
Heather had also been there several weeks before my grandmother’s death, had been there the morning we’d found my grandmother in her chair, greeting us with her musical, So?, the single word that obliged Heather or me to pause as we passed through the living room, Heather on her way to the washing machine, or I to the bird seed, rushing to fill the feeders that my grandmother so valued and that I so often neglected. But this morning there was no conversation beyond the opening question, no gossip about her daughters, that Nancy or that Robbie, and when my talk of the early thaw brought only another, So?, Heather and I became suspicious. When Heather asked her what she’d eaten for breakfast, my grandmother shrugged, waved her hand as if it were of no concern. When Heather asked if she were warm enough, my grandmother shrugged again, tilted her head, wrinkled her nose. Then, as if considering better, she nodded. When Heather asked her who had called earlier, when the phone had rung, my grandmother looked away. And when I asked if she were having trouble answering questions, my grandmother stared hard at me before nodding the smallest, quickest nod she could. There was no way around the admission. She was unable to give pretense as when she needed me to weed the garden and could say, “Tomorrow, I’m going to get out there with my sheers,” or when she couldn’t find her favorite pie tin and she could say, “I’m going to go through that basement today with a fine toothed comb,” both of us knowing that she hadn’t been able to take the basement stairs for more than a year, and that she’d given up in the garden after she fell there two summers earlier, helped up and into the house by a neighbor to whom she’d called out as she sat in the soil.
“I ran the water in the sink, but it was so cold,” I told Heather, still speaking of my dream. “And I was only wearing underwear, little white ones like I wore when I was a kid.”
Heather was in the bathroom then. “I’m listening,” she shouted.
“The weather was like it is now,” I said, “fall and spitting rain. I stopped the water and walked outside the laundry room. My feet were bare, and I stepped around puddles in the drive.”
Something small and metal, tweezers perhaps, fell into the bathroom sink, a light trinkle as it swirled around the porcelain basin.
“I found a dry spot under the maple in the front yard,” I shouted toward the bathroom door. “I knew I had to go back in and fill the sink, but I was having second thoughts. I felt fine.”
“You are fine, sweetie,” Heather said as she walked back into the bedroom. She was wearing flannel pajama bottoms now, protection against this first cold morning of autumn. She latched a black lace bra at her stomach, spun it around, poked her hands through the limp loops and slipped them over her shoulders.
My mother had flown home from her winter retreat in Arizona, in order to be with her mother at the hospital after the stroke, my stepfather following on land, pulling the trailer back to Michigan. When she arrived, three days after we had taken my grandmother to the hospital, the worst seemed behind us. Grandma was able to talk. She had packed her bags. She had taken to pulling her I.V. from her arm, and chiding the orderlies when they rushed into the room in response to the alarm. While we awaited her discharge, my three aunts and my mother fussed over my grandmother. Heather and I set up a temporary office in the cafeteria, where she bemoaned the lack of vegetarian fare, and I ate the meatloaf and turkey meals that reminded me so much of the TV dinners I ate as a child, when I was home alone, my mother working the evening shift at the hospital. We walked from my grandmother’s room to the cafeteria, from the cafeteria to my grandmother’s room. We smiled at her when she was awake, and we tiptoed out when she was asleep. We all apologized for calling my mother home from Arizona. “We didn’t know what to do,” we told her. “You’re the one who knows about this stuff.”
My mother had, in fact, made a career of ‘this stuff.’ She had put herself through nursing school after her divorce from my father, working eventually as a nurse on the terminal ward of Bronson Hospital, before the erection of the new building where my grandmother was housed, before the cappuccino bar where Heather and I got our lattes, before the piano lounge and the wireless internet. She worked there at a time before terminally ill patients were sent home to die, when the job of helping them die fell often on my mother, who twice a week worked the night shift. “That’s when they go,” she would later tell me, reminiscing about her career as a cook might reminisce about the dinner rush. “Three a.m., the call board lights up like a Christmas tree.”
Heather turned her back to me, displaying the delicate straps of her bra. “Will you even these?” she asked. I pinched one small buckle and pulled it up a quarter of an inch. Her shoulder blades rose and then settled. “Maybe you can model those little underpants from your dream for me sometime,” she said, turning toward me with a smile, hoping to pull me into the day.
When I was a child and my mother was pacing her way through nursing school, I would lie on the carpet in those underwear, on a summer evening as my mom sat in the kitchen of our small apartment, flipping through medical textbooks and poking syringes into oranges. I would lie in them in bed at night, thinking of the human body printed on the tissue-paper layers of my mother’s book, how each layer peeled away to reveal what lay beneath—muscle, organ, nervous system, bone. My pulse would beat back at me through my Charlie Brown pillow, and I would hold myself awake, sure that if I fell asleep the beating would stop. I would lie in those underwear in the little house my mother later bought by the paper mill, while she sat in the dark dining room, still in her nurse’s uniform hours after work, a sweating glass in front of her, melting ice falling into itself. I would look at her nursing shoes, stains that I did not know were blood whitewashed a dozen times over, and I would wonder what it felt like to walk on those thick, marshmallow soles.
“I didn’t want to climb into the sink,” I told Heather. “The water just seemed too cold.”
“Poor baby,” she said, and she found my hand under the blanket, gave it a squeeze, her other hand digging through her purse, looking now for the car key that I knew was in my rain coat, left there after a dinner out the night before instead of in its place on the buffet, where I was sure she had already looked.
“I emptied the little cold water that I’d run,” I told her, “and I started it again, sneaking in a little twist of hot. My mom opened the door to the laundry room a crack, and I swirled the water and turned up the cold tap, acting as if I were rushing. ‘I don’t feel sick,’I told her. But she said, ’Nothing has changed. Everything is the same as when you were calmer, when you decided this was the right thing to do.’”
Heather squeezed my hand again beneath the blanket. “That’s not her place,” she said.
“Whose place is it? I was dying. It has to be somebody’s place.”
Heather had given up the search for the car key, knowing that she would have to continue downstairs, but not wanting to leave me until I was a little more awake and further from the fear of my dream. She laid out her clothes for the day on the bed, and from beneath the duvet I could feel the small weight of skirt and sweater as they fell across my body. “Well she doesn’t have to like it so much,” she said.
“I just kept hoping the sink wouldn’t fill,” I said.
Heather sighed in commiseration as she slid out of her flannel pajama bottoms. I reached out a hand and she let me touch her nakedness before she pulled on black lace underwear and a gray wool skirt. Above her head was a picture from our wedding day. It is of the unveiling of the bride, a Polish ritual. Heather is in my lap, and the women of the family have gathered round. They are removing her veil, a long process of finding and pulling pins, as her great uncle plays the accordion and her father sings in Polish of a girl leaving home. I am hardly visible in the picture. Beneath my wife’s wedding dress, and the busy arms of her mother, her grandmother, sisters and aunts, I am lost in a shroud of perfume and powder, of satin and chiffon. Within the circle of these women, the sound of the band fades, and I can hear only her mother’s voice, directing, and the murmured acknowledgment of the women who follow her lead. I feel my wife’s body relax, settling into my lap, and I know that she’s let go, placed herself wholly in the care of these women.
“If I had been in your dream,” Heather said. “I would have turned off the water.”
“I know you would have,” I told her.
None of us had been there the night before my grandmother was to be discharged from the hospital, the night she had her second stroke. When Heather and I walked into her room the next morning, Grandma shrugged her left shoulder and tilted her head, apology in her eyes. She mouthed the word, So, but there was no sound.
We were told that she could no longer swallow. For three days, my mother sat by her bed, conducting traffic. She announced to Grandma the visitors as they came, a steady stream of family and friends and neighbors, and she filled the awkward pauses when the visitors were at a loss for things to say. “Remember when Mother used to fry all that chicken for the picnics at Pendils Lake every Sunday?” she said to one. To another she revived the story of the snow storm of ’78. “Mother sure was grateful for the ride you gave her,” she said. “Twenty years later, and she still talks about it.” To me, she said, “Just be here. Just be yourself.” By the fourth day, my grandmother’s lungs had begun to fill with fluid, and she developed an aspirated cough. She stopped paying attention to visitors, and she began to look with suspicion at my mother. A priest came to the room, and the doctor set another discharge date, this time in coordination with Hospice.
My aunt Barb, the youngest daughter, was angry. She was angry at the hospital for my grandmother’s second stroke, angry at Hospice for offering assistance in death instead of the rehabilitation we’d all expected three days earlier. She was angry at the family for not wanting to fight the discharge, and angry especially at my mother, the terminal-ward nurse to whom the family looked for leadership. In the hallway outside my grandmother’s door, Barb threw at my mom her last stone. “Mother always said,” Barb told her, “that you were the crepe hanger in the family.”
Although her words had been motivated by pain, by a need to inflict that pain on someone else, Barb was right. My mother had always been the crepe hanger. She was a five-foot-tall grim reaper, a little slower now than she used to be, osteoporosis bowing her back, arthritis knotting her fingers. A weathered wooden gate on a rusty hinge. I didn’t want her to open for me in my dream. I didn’t want her knuckled finger curling to motion me through. But if I had to go, whose hand would I rather hold? What comfort greater than the firm insistence of those old bones?
When my grandmother came home in the ambulance, her four daughters sat around her bed on folding chairs that I remember from holidays when I was a child. Half a dozen tanks of oxygen lined one wall of the bedroom. Barb opened a jar of Gerbers pureed chicken, pulled aside Grandma’s mask, and managed to get a few spoonfuls into her mouth before silently acknowledging that it was only draining into her lungs.
For two days, behind her oxygen mask, my grandmother seemed aware only of her fight to breathe, until my aunt Robbie asked, “Are you ready to join Dad?” At this, she became lucid. She shook her head, mouthed the word no, and as the rest of us giggled foolishly, my mother stroked her hair. “You’re afraid,” she said. My grandmother nodded. “It’s okay,” my mother said, and she continued to stroke her own mother’s hair until Grandma closed her eyes and fell into a fitful sleep.
That night, my mother woke Heather and me, three a.m. projected onto the ceiling of our bedroom. “You should come down,” she said. My aunts were around the bed again, now in bootie slippers and quilted robes, my grandmother breathing through her oxygen mask one labored breath every half minute. We told her we loved her. Her daughters thanked her. I kissed her cheek. Heather squeezed her hand. Two hours later the dim light of approaching dawn pushed into the room, and my grandmother was still alive. She moaned in pain, and my mother pinched from an eyedropper another four beads of morphine onto her tongue, her handling of the opiate as smooth and second-natured as the priest’s prayer of absolution a day earlier. She put her hand around Grandma’s ankle, reached under her gown and held her knee. “She’s cooling,” she said, “but she’s going slowly. It’s because of the oxygen.” Another hour passed, another half-dozen drops of morphine. My aunt Barb slipped another spoonful of pureed chicken under my grandmother’s mask, compelled still by some hope, and when the baby food gurgled into Grandma’s lungs, my mother said, “I’m taking off that mask.” She looked at Barb. Barb looked away, and when ten seconds passed without protest, my mother reached for the mask. Robbie and Nancy joined her, Robbie helping to loosen the rubber straps, and Nancy spinning closed the valve on the tank. Then Barb reached in, raising the back of my grandmother’s head while my mother slipped the straps free and pulled away the mask. It took less than half an hour after that, the daughters gathered round, my grandmother’s hands in theirs, our kisses and whispered goodbyes, and then a nod of my mother’s head as she took her fingers from the side of my grandmother’s neck. “She’s gone,” she said.
While I called Hospice to report the death, my mother bathed and dressed my grandmother in the bedroom, while we waited in the living room, unsure, without my mother’s guidance, what we should say. We wondered aloud several times how long the hospice nurse would take to arrive. We studied our watches as if they required some calculation to read. When my mother had finished, she called us back into the room. Grandma lay now in lavender pants and a matching top, hair brushed, hands overlapped on her belly.
My mother stood in front of the window, the early morning light so bright behind her that it burned through the contours of her silhouette, rendering her hazy, indistinct, as if she were only half there with us, half somewhere else. I fancied at first that she was returning from wherever she’d escorted my grandmother, reconstituting herself after a trip to the afterlife. But as she stepped away from the window, and I saw her sunken eyes, the hollow of her cheeks, saw how much smaller she appeared than she had just a few hours earlier, I stopped thinking about her escorting someone else to an afterlife, and thought instead of her going there herself. I wondered who would be there for her, who would take charge, give the orders, hang the crepe.
“How did the dream end?” Heather asked, sitting on the edge of our bed. She poured something from a small frosted bottle onto the tips of her fingers, touched those fingers to the fingers of her other hand, and ran them all through her hair. I don’t know what this is, what it does. Her hair looks the same as before, and I think that, even in this small matter, it is the ritual that is important.
“I heard you,” I told her, “and I woke up.”
She smiled and snapped her purse shut. She put her hand on my arm, just long enough to let me know that she loved me, that I would be okay, that it was time for her to go. I thought how simple her gesture was, and how impossible that I would have thought to do the same were our roles reversed. “When my mother’s time comes,” I said, “you’ll help me, won’t you.”
“Of course I will,” she said. She slipped her wrist through the handle of her purse, leaned down and kissed me.
“I had another dream,” I said. “You and I were in a high-rise hotel, and tornadoes were swirling all around.” But she was dressed then, a black sweater pulled over her head, a thin belt buckled around her waist. She had a full day of student-teacher conferences ahead of her, was already ten minutes late leaving the house, and I realized that on this gray morning I had received all the consolation that my wife had to give. “The key,” I told her, “is in the pocket of my raincoat.” She kissed me, smelling somehow already like the crisp fall air that I knew was waiting for her outside, and then I was alone, plans for the day crowding out my dream until it became only a memory of a dream, the single remaining image that of my mother, watching the sink fill with cold water.