Frida Kahlo, The Little Deer

My grandfather, who gave me his name and his intellect and his arrogance, has lung cancer. He is refusing to see an oncologist, and rightfully so. He is 96, and it is time to go. He was never a smoker, never a drinker, and being a diabetic, he had always been rather fit, but I do not know if it was sober, sugar-free living that kept him going for nearly a century. I think my grandfather is the prime example of the will to live.

His mind is fully intact, albeit much slower, but he is fully aware of what is happening to his body as it has been corroding rapidly over the past five years. There may be something to be said for dementia, which is a burden to the family but perhaps protects the individual. If you do not know you are dying, if your brain disconnects you from our shared reality, you might find greater peace.

On second thought, I take this back. My grandmother, his wife of over fifty years, died of Alzheimer’s disease, and from the little I witnessed, her final years were an agony that has filled me with pain. She had been abandoned, exiled to a home exclusively for victims of this cruel disease. My sister, in her infinite compassion, wanted to visit my grandmother. I did not.

I was twelve, maybe thirteen, at the time and my heart had grown so cold that the only thing I wanted was to sunbathe in Boca, watch soap operas, and eat Entemann’s chocolate chip cookies. Somehow, I knew what I would witness and the apprehension tore at me. I nervously chewed my fingers and silently cursed my sister, thinking her foolish for caring.

We entered the home, me fresh with resentment, my sister hopeful and excited, my grandfather detached and officious. The smell of fresh ammonia remains in my nose today and I can still feel it numbing the front of my brain. As always, the air conditioning was much too high, and everyone was dressed accordingly. I stood there in my oversized Betty Boop shirt, short shorts, and Keds thinking more about how I looked in order to block out what was happening around me.

The wait was interminable and I could not relax. A patient, an elderly man wearing his pajamas and bathrobe sat in a chair and did not move once while I was there. I watched him with a kind of painful awe. But it became too much, so I looked away and began chipping away at the nail polish on my index finger. I could hear the sounds of nurses bossing and cajoling their patients into submission while the patients were as docile and helpless as newborn babies. But unlike babies, I didn’t hear any of them cry out. They seemed to have accepted their fates and retired to a place deep inside themselves that no one could reach. I began chipping away at the nail polish on my thumb.

Perhaps the wait was not so long as I thought. Time play tricks where pain is concerned. At some point we were allowed to go to my grandmother’s room. The door was wide open, which seemed strange. I peered in and saw a nurse helping my grandmother into a long white slip. A rush of embarrassment swept over me. Here was a woman whose appearance meant everything to her, a woman who took great pride in being put together, and now she was fully exposed. I stood at the door struck dumb, wanting to run but having nowhere to go.

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait as a Tehuana, Diego in My Thoughts

The nurse was having a hell of a time getting my grandmother dressed. Submissive throughout her life, the disease had released her from my grandfather’s control and a she-cat was born. With all of the attendant mewling and hissing and clawing that comes from a feral animal, my grandmother resisted all instruction. When she realized there were visitors at her door, she recognized my grandfather but seemed confused by the sight of two adolescent girls. “Is that my sister?” she asked, looking at me and my throat closed while my heart soared. A very strong part of me was cheering for her.

“Rose, these are your granddaughters,” my grandfather corrected, as though the facts at this point still mattered. Let her think I am her sister, I wanted to shout. My grandmother didn’t quite follow, but that’s okay because she had other things on her mind. As we took a thirty-foot stroll through the small and enclosed garden of home, my grandmother gripped my grandfathers’ arm and repeatedly pleaded, “I want to go home.”

I want to go home.
I want to go home.
I want to go home.

Her voice echoes in my ear as I write this. My stomach clenches just as it did that day. My grandmother, who never had a mean word for anyone, who accepted her domination in a way I never understood, could no longer be controlled. Her knuckles were white as she cling to my grandfather for her life. “I want to go home.”

My grandfather had had enough. Not even ten minutes into the visit, and we were through. He handed her back to the nurse, saying he would call or something equally irrelevant and he told us to wait by the car while he sorted out something at the front desk.

Under the scorching Florida sun we stood on the asphalt, besides the Lincoln Town Car that my grandfather drove to the early bird specials. My sister and I exchanged no words, which was probably for the best because I desperately wanted to blame her for making me see this.

I never saw my grandmother again.