An unfamiliar metallic taste behind my tongue woke me up at four o'clock on Monday morning. My phone alarm was set for 4:15 a.m., so I got up anyway and fumbled through the dark room, past the tall, empty dresser, through the odd, uninviting "living area," to the bathroom. I tried to clear my throat with a couple of primal grunts but that didn't get rid of the taste. It just hurt.
Illuminated by the blue LED light of the hair dryer mounted on the wall, I hunched over the sink and peered at my reflection in the mirror. I growled and spat to relieve myself of the phlegm that surely must be the cause of my problem, but again the only result was pain.
Something else was off. Why did I feel hung over? I hadn't had a drink since leaving home on Friday. There's never any drinking during visits to Gram's. If anything I should feel better than usual. So why did I feel so weak and confused, so nauseated?
"Oh, god. I'm getting sick," I said to my blue self.
A hazy panic came over me as I immediately imagined being one of those people who throws up on the plane. I always feel bad for those people, but I also harbor some resentment toward them for putting their need to get from Point A to Point B ahead of my comfort. After all, if air travel makes you sick, then don't fly. It's common sense not to mention common courtesy. I could easily have had four double whiskeys at the airport bar before my flight from Boston on Friday. I had time. But turbulence and too much liquor at 30,000 feet is more than my body can handle, so rather than put American Airlines flight #2189 at risk, I eased off the Johnny Walker after just two.
Ah, the heck with it. I'll be fine, I told myself. A steamy shower and the complimentary muffin and coffee from the hotel Breakfast Area set me in motion toward Jacksonville International Airport. My connecting flight was in Miami. Then, it was back to Boston and my normal life.
During takeoff from Miami, I remained upright but as we climbed through the clouds, I leaned my head against the fuselage wall. It fit nicely in the curve just above the window and I could see several of my fellow passengers in the rows ahead of me employing the same technique. I thought of how countless other heads had leaned against the very same spot on the cabin wall where mine now rested. I'm sure the American Airlines cleaning staff doesn't go up and down the aisle disinfecting that particular part of the wall between every flight and this disturbed me, but my throat hurt and my stomach needed some sort of attention and I knew this was as comfortable as I was going to be, so I just settled in, closed my eyes, pictured my now 100-year-old grandmother and began to replay the weekend in my mind.
"Wow! Look at you! You look great!" I said, hugging my sister Darla with one arm. Rumpled travelers flowed around us and into the airport terminal.
"I know. A late night infomercial talked me into wearing a wig. It's hot as hell under here but it's so much less hassle." I gave her a kiss on the temple and tried to determine what the wig felt like against the bridge of my nose. Synthetic? Wiry? Convincingly hair-like? I didn't have enough information to tell. Maybe later I'll give my sister's fake hair a proper feel up, I thought.
"Wow! That's a change," I said, failing to sound nonjudgmental. Darla once had luminous, satin blond hair that bounced against her back when she walked. The wig on her head was believable enough, but the style made her look like Nancy Grace's much heavier tattooed sister.
"Wow, Chris. You keep saying, ‘Wow.’” How was the flight, Chicken?" she asked.
"Good," I said. "No problems, which is what you want out of a flight, right?"
"Yeah, right. Nowadays, totally. Did you get a direct flight from Boston?" she asked.
"Well, I had to stop in Miami for a couple hours. Then here. Thanks for coming to pick me up." Darla seemed distracted and was multitasking – partly listening to me, partly remembering where she parked, partly worrying about her wig’s believability.
"Oh, that's not too bad. I parked in the garage." Darla pointed vaguely toward a ramp that everyone else was ascending. We walked about twenty feet before I asked if she was still driving the Kia, prompting an extensive oral history of the past two years of the Kia's life. As Darla spoke of oil leaks and fender benders and late insurance payments, my mind wandered and I focused on the bland nature of our conversation. When we were kids, this is the kind of discourse the adults around us would have – genial, rhythmic, helpful for getting from Point A to Point B, but ultimately valueless. As kids, we would roll our eyes, because talk like this committed the greatest sin. It was boring. And yet, here we were, adults ourselves, willing participants in the same crime.
The conversation continued as such throughout most of the car trip from Jacksonville to Gram's house in Elston, Georgia. Darla wanted to stop for Wendy's in Callahan but quickly talked herself out of it, mumbling something about her wig and fluorescent lighting not being a good mix.
I wanted to know how Gram was. I hadn't seen her since Christmas and wondered if she was looking forward to the birthday breakfast at church Sunday or if she was dreading it.
Gram didn't like a lot of fuss. She preferred life's daily routines to its flashy, singular events. For her, each day began the same, at 4:45 a.m., with several minutes of prayer at the edge of her bed followed by a few carefully executed turns beneath the showerhead. Then, it was out to the bench on the porch where she slurped Boost® with a straw right from the can and watched the hummingbirds drink sugar water from the feeder. These rituals set each day on the acceptable course for Gram just as the swallowing of her pills, Jeopardy! and more bedside prayer brought each day to an acceptable close.
As for being the center of attention, she didn't care for it. Pastor Eric spoke often of the importance of remaining humble and modest in God's eyes so that we may honor Jesus Christ and the sacrifice he made for us. Modesty allows us the grace to forgive our fellow man every day for his sins. Gram liked the message that Pastor Eric promoted through his sermons at First Baptist Church although she sometimes privately questioned his style. Slightly more of a showman than his predecessor, Pastor Jay, indeed more so than any of the nine pastors that had preached at the church during the 75 years that Gram had been attending, Pastor Eric felt the need to introduce certain techniques – "gimmicks" as Gram called them – to his services. Each sermon was preceded by The Children's Lesson during which a dozen or so pre-teen members of the congregation surrounded the pastor on the steps of the sanctuary as he reviewed the week's Sunday school lesson. Gram considered this a bit "theatrical" and not in keeping with the solemnity of Sunday worship.
Gram told me all this during my Christmas visit six months earlier. We went to church the day before Christmas and worshipped privately. Gram wanted to avoid the Christmas fuss. That's when I met Pastor Eric. He seemed friendly and accepting, in no way unlikable, but like many people my age, I've heard and made too many jokes about the hypocrisy of religion to take any of it seriously. God was sent to the back of the line of things vying for my attention long ago. Up against comic books, Nintendo, and the birth of rap music, He never really had a chance. And now, years later, when even pop culture has let me down and revealed itself as empty and soulless, religion still seems as false as ever to me.
I keep all that inside though because I love my Gram. She let me move in with her after Dad died and Mom and Darla moved to Denver twenty years ago. During that whole year I lived with her, Gram never treated me like a child even though I was only 17. She never asked me to be anything other than who I was. Church may seem foreign and weird to me, but who am I tell my soon-to-be 100 year-old Gram, the sweetest woman in the world, what to believe?
Darla and I crossed the Florida state line into Georgia and continued on through the plain towns of Route 15, through Folkston, Homeland, Hoboken, each with their stoplight, each with their gas station and post office. When we passed the green sign that said “Elston – pop. 3,143 – 8 miles,” I asked Darla how Gram was doing.
“She’s fine. She just keeps going along, you know. She can’t hear a damned thing but she’s still sharp as a tack. I can’t believe she’s gonna be 100. Seriously, she never seems senile in the least bit to me. I mean she’s a little wobbly and you gotta keep an eye on that, but compared to a lot of old people, it’s crazy how together she is. I mean around here, come on, people aren’t the healthiest. So many of Uncle Joe’s friends, their parents are either in Baptist Village in Waycross or if they’re not, then they’re on their way. I guess we take it for granted but we’re really lucky to have her, I mean, to have her as, you know, un-deteriorated as she is.”
“Well, that’s good to hear,” I said.
“Even Uncle Joe’s not doing so great healthwise. I mean, two strokes in the last five years, he’s, oh my God, you’re not going to believe how fat he is, and he’s either sitting in front of the TV or the computer all day every day. It’s kinda sad, but, you know, at a certain point you gotta start wondering about how long he can take care of himself, never mind Gram.”
“Jesus,” I said. Listening to my sister describe the situation, I felt a tiny flutter of something, guilt or panic, maybe. This all seemed so grave and adult to me. It’s not that I didn’t deal with grave and adult issues back home in Boston, it’s just that grave and adult issues in my life meant things like making sure the rent was paid on time, not getting pulled over by the cops when you’ve had too much to drink, navigating breakups with unstable girlfriends, but not deciding when it’s time to place my relatives in the nursing home. How the hell do you decide that?
“How the hell do you decide that?” I asked Darla.
“How do you know, I mean, what’s the tipping point where you say, OK, time for Uncle Joe to go to Baptist Village. He can’t take of himself anymore and no one’s able to move in with him to help him, so the best thing for everyone, including him, is to go to Baptist Village. You know?”
“I don’t know,” Darla said. “I guess when you can’t do the normal daily tasks anymore that you need to do to take care of yourself. You know, like, basic stuff.”
“Like what, though?” I asked. Darla seemed to be getting agitated. She always got agitated when she felt pressed for an opinion, but I had learned over the years to push through her agitation in order to get to the truth of what she was saying and feeling.
“Like, I don’t know,” she said. “Cooking, cleaning, paying bills…”
“Personal hygiene?” I asked.
“Yes, personal hygiene. That too.” She seemed about ready to drop the subject. Time to push some more.
“So that means, what, like, showering?”
“Yeah,” she said.
“Yeah, I guess, but that’s gross.”
“Well, yeah, it’s gross, Darla. The whole thing is gross, but we’re dealing with some serious reality here. So, you’re saying that if Uncle Joe reaches the point where he can no longer sufficiently prove to us his ability to complete an unassisted shit, then, sorry Joe, it’s off to the nursing home for you.”
“No,” she said. “I’m not saying that. That’s gross. You’re saying that. You’re gross. I guess I agree with you, though.”
No need to stop here.
“Do we give him an extra chance?”
“What?” Darla’s voice was becoming shrill, a good sign. We’re getting closer.
“If Uncle Joe fails to complete an unassisted shit, is he then given another shot at it, so to speak, or does one messy solo crap justify our putting him away in the insane asylum?”
“It’s not an insane asylum!” Though smiling, Darla was practically screeching in protest of my questioning.
“OK. We’ll be fair. Three attempts. We’ll give him three tries, but that’s it. After that, I’m calling for the little white truck.”
I waited a beat and calmly said, “I mean, no way am I spending my golden years cleaning up after Uncle Joe.”
It sounded harmless, but I was being an asshole. Five years ago Darla had moved from Denver to live with Gram ostensibly to be there for her if and when she needed assistance. Darla had just been fired for the third time in two years and was a mess in every imaginable way. Depressed, lonely, broke, and dangerously overweight, Darla felt drawn to the comfort and security she remembered from our childhood visits to Gram’s. Her moving in with Gram seemed like a win-win-win. It deferred the potential need for Gram to move out of her home and into Baptist Village or some other assisted living facility, it solved Darla’s desperate situation, and it left me free to continue my life eleven hundred miles away from all of these grave and adult complications. Each could remain the version of our self with which we were most comfortable. Win-win-win.
Darla turned off Route 84 now and rumbled over the freight train tracks we used to flatten pennies on when we were kids. During World War II these same tracks carried US soldiers to Jesup, Savannah, and still farther north. Before that, some 5000 Union soldiers were held in a prison camp, one of the largest such encampments of the Civil War. This place, I thought, is crowded with ghosts. After a few blocks, we rolled down a long driveway past a clutch of mailboxes and onto the lawn in front of Gram’s house. The Kia’s brakes let out a meek squeal. The lights were on inside and I could see my soon-to-be 100-year-old grandmother, widow of John and mother to my father Jimbo and his brothers Joe and Jesse, inching past the living room window. She is the sweetest old lady in the world, I thought. When Darla shut the engine off, there was no sound at all.
“Are you still glad you moved here?” I asked my sister.
Darla shot me her worst dirty look and swiftly plucked the wig from her head revealing the dry, yellowed, stubbly remains of her once gorgeous hair and said, “Come on, Chicken. Let’s go in.”
Tom Davies is a writer living in...