Painting by Van Gogh
Saturday morning, Grandma is still in the hospital. As we are sitting at the table eating our Rice Krispies, Mama tells us that Daddy has to work, so we’re going to visit Grandma in the afternoon.
“But we can’t, Mama.” I said, “Kids aren’t allowed in the hospital unless they’re sick." And I’m glad. I really don’t want to go see her.
“I don’t want to go anyway. I’ve got stuff to do,” Billy adds in a sour voice.
“I’ll have none of that attitude, Billy. Daddy talked to the doctor, and he gave special permission for you to go in and spend a little time with Grandma. You should be happy they are letting you in. She’s your grandmother.” I catch Billy rolling his eyes as soon as Mama turns away.
Somehow, I get the feeling that Mama is just saying the words she thinks she should say. It doesn’t seem like she really means it at all. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t like Grandma either.
“I don’t like it here, Mama.”
As we walk down the long hall, our shoes clicking on the shiny linoleum floor, I glance into some of the rooms as we pass them. They all have at least two people in beds and some of them even have four. I see bright lights and bandages, and one guy with his leg up in the air with a big cast on it. Some people have cards and flowers on the window sill. There are visitors in some of the rooms, but no children. Everything is glaringly white and it all smells pretty funny.
All around us, nurses swish past in white dresses with stiff little caps on their heads, the rubber soles of their white shoes squeaking on the floor. Almost every one of them frowns a little when they see Billy and me. I feel like I just farted in church or something.
“I don’t like it either, Ma.” Billy adds. “This place smells really bad.”
“Stop it, both of you. Now, listen, I don’t want you to be shocked when you see Grandma. She’s very weak and she can’t breathe on her own. So the doctors have her hooked up to a brand new kind of machine that helps her breathe. Part of it goes in her mouth, so she won't be able to talk.”
Behind me, I hear Billy mutter “There’s a blessing” under his breath.
Mama turns. “Did you say something, Billy?”
We come to a big office-looking place in the hall, surrounded by a counter. There are more nurses behind the counter shuffling papers and writing into the pages of metal notebooks. Billy and I hang back while Mama stops to talk to one of them. They are talking in very low voices and we can’t hear what they are saying. But both of them look at us a couple of times, and I see the nurse nod.
“Okay, let’s go. The nurse said the other patient in Grandma’s room is asleep, so you need to keep your voices down.”
We walk down the hall a little farther, turn a corner, and stop at a door on the left that’s halfway closed. Mama gives it a little push and it swings open.
There are two beds side-by-side in the room, each with a woman in it. Grandma has a hissing machine beside her bed. She is in the bed farthest away from the door, and in the closer bed, another old lady is sleeping.
Both the sleeping woman and Grandma have a pole beside their beds, with a bag of clear liquid hanging from it. There’s a tube that runs from the bag and disappears under the covers. I don’t want to think about where that tube ends up.
We file into the room and go over to stand near Grandma’s bed. Mama reaches up, and grabs a curtain I didn’t notice before that hangs near the wall between the beds. She pulls it and it spreads open to make each half of the room sort of private.
Mama says, “Hello, Mother Lawson. The children have come to see you.”
Grandma looks like she jumped out of one of those monster movies we go see sometimes at the Capital Theater on Saturday mornings. She’s all covered up in a white blanket, sort of like The Mummy. All except for her head. There is a mask thing over her mouth, held on by straps, and a fat tube runs from the mask to the machine that’s breathing beside her bed. I almost want to look outside the window to find the space ship it arrived in.
It’s all pretty scary.
Grandma doesn’t look scared though. She looks mad as a mud hen. Her eyes are glaring and she’s frowning at us like we did something wrong, just like we usually do.
“Hi, Grandma,” I whisper. I give Billy a little kick, and he mumbles, “Hi.”
Mama starts saying stuff to Grandma, but I don’t think she’s really listening. She just lies there, glaring at us. I hate it.
Then Mama says, “Mother Lawson, Alice and I will be right back. I saw a cart in the lobby where they are selling flowers. We’ll go get you some. They’ll help cheer up this room a little. Billy, you stay here and visit with Grandma.”
I really expect Billy to object, but he just says, “Okay, Ma. I'll just shoot the breeze with Grandma.” He must be feeling guilty about the bad thoughts he had about Grandma the other night.
Mama takes my hand. We walk back down that long, shiny corridor and take the elevator to the lobby. I’m glad to escape that look on Grandma’s face. Besides, I gotta to pee.
When we get to the lobby, we stop at the bathroom so I can go. Then we go over to the flower cart. Mama selects a vase of pink carnations, which I don’t think are going to do much to cheer Grandma up, and we head back upstairs.
When we turn the corner in the hallway, I'm surprised to see Billy standing out in the hall with a nurse.
The nurse comes forward to meet us. Pointing to an alcove with green plastic chairs a little further down the hall, she says to me, “Why don’t you go sit in the waiting room with your brother so I can talk to your mother? There's a good girl.”
Mama looks sort of scared She gives me a little push toward Billy. “Go ahead, Alice. I’ll be right here.”
As Billy and I walk toward the waiting room, I can hear the nurse whispering to Mama, and then a big crash. I turn around, and see Mama standing there with a hand pressed over her mouth. The vase of flowers is broken on the floor at her feet, its water running everywhere. Then Billy grabs my arm and pulls me toward the chairs.
“Billy, what’s going on? Why are you out here? What’s wrong with Mama?”
Billy shrugs. “Something happened with Grandma. She started to thrash around in the bed. I don’t know what was wrong with her. I think that machine hiccuped or something.” His voice sounds kinda odd. “I went to get the nurse. She told me to stay in the hall and went into Grandma’s room. She just came out when you got back. I don’t know.”
Today, the doors to the parlor are open, but, oh, man, I wish they were still closed.
I’m hate going in there. Grandma is in there, but at least she’s not yelling at us about anything. She can’t, because she’s dead. She’s in the parlor, “laid out” -- that's what Daddy said, honest -- in a casket. She’s gonna be in there all day, and people are coming in and out to pay their respects, Mama says.
Billy and I are helping Mama by carrying around trays with cookies and stuff. I wish I were somewhere else, like in the living room watching television. But Billy actually seems happy to be helping. I haven’t seen his eyes roll once.
People go over to look in the casket, which I think is pretty creepy, and as I pass, I hear them say, “She looks so natural.” I know somebody tried to make Grandma look good. She has on her best dress. Her hair is all curled, and there’s even makeup on her face. But to me she still looks like Grandma, only dead, with her face still stuck that way.
This was written for The Tenth Daughter of Memory, where the prompt is "Shooting the Breeze."