THE USES OF SORROW

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
  1. Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.
  2. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.
  3. --Mary Oliver
  4. It's October 25th.
  5. Three years ago on this day I watched my grandma die. She was in the hospital recovering from an operation when she caught pneumonia. The doctors put her on life support.
    my grandma and me at Storyland
  6. It was my senior year in college. My mother came to pick me up from school in upstate New York and together we drove down to where my grandma and grandpa lived.
  7. They were my paternal grandparents. My dad wasn't able to go when we did because his time off for bereavement only applied as a mourning period, or something, and my grandmother wasn't dead yet. I think he was scared, too. Maybe he could have taken those days off. I don't know.
  8. My mom and I picked up my grandfather to go to the hospital together. He was watching the news when we got there. The green and red up and down arrows of the stock prices ticked across the bottom of the screen. He was looking at them. I don't think he was seeing them.
  9. We drove to the hospital and I trailed behind my mom and my grandpa as we walked through the bright halls to the room my grandma was in. "She's going to look different," my mother warned me. I wasn't ready for it!
  10. The bloating--that's the first thing I noticed. Her arms were puffy. Her torso strained against the fabric of the hospital gown. Her face had ballooned. I realized how thin her hair was. Usually she fluffed it out to appear as thick as possible, but it was matted against her skull.
    my birthday
  11. She would have crowed at us to look away if she'd been awake!! My grandma was always self conscious about her appearance. Her hair, her clothes, her weight. She was thin and beautiful when she was young, she told me. She had a 19 inch waist. I think she told me that a hundred times. Her father owned a clothing company and she modeled his pieces.
  12. In some of the photo albums that we found the next week as we searched for pictures of her, she had placed stickers over her backside if she was sitting, or just beside her to trim her hips down. I didn't get it at first. My mom, laughing a little, explained.
    my brother, me, my sister, my grandma
  13. The second thing I noticed was the mouthpiece that covered half of her face, forcing a large tube down her throat.
  14. Her lips were cracked and dry at the corners of her mouth. I wanted to fish the burt's bees out of my coat pocket and dab it there. I also really didn't want to touch her.
  15. There was a chair on either side of her bed. My mom sat in one and my grandpa sat in the other. I stood by the foot of the bed. I wasn't sure what to do with my hands. I couldn't figure out where to look. My mom took my grandma's hand and started speaking to her about all kinds of things.
  16. That we loved her. We were proud of her. She was strong and wonderful. My mom recounted memory after memory as I stood by, silent, useless. My grandpa was repeating things over and over. Hard things for me to hear.
  17. My mom got up from her chair and I sat down. I took my grandma's hand. It was warm! Somehow I didn't expect it to be warm. Her chest rose a little in a rhythm from her respirator, but other than that she was still.
  18. I ran my thumb over her fingernails and realized for the first time that they were bare. I had never before seen my grandmother without an elaborate manicure. Once, when I was 10, she took me with her to the nail salon and told me my nails could be as beautiful as hers.
  19. The manicurist tutted over my nails. "These are too short to do anything with!" I shrugged. My guitar teacher got frustrated if I kept my nails long because I couldn't play the chords. My dad had told me about when he used to play his 12-string guitar, how he would keep his left nails cropped short but his right nails long to pick the strings with.
    my mom and dad outside my grandparents in New Jersey
  20. I got my nails painted a bright, boring blue. "We'll come back when they're longer," my grandma said. "And you can get a design." We never did. I don't really like long nails.
  21. Things ran through my head to say to my grandma as she lay there. They were all so dumb. I felt weird, with my grandpa and mom there. I told her I loved her. I felt like a fraud. I felt like a horrible granddaughter. I felt like I was 10 again.
    me wearing my grandma's glasses
  22. We slept at my grandparents that night and went back to the hospital the next day. My grandpa and my mom and my uncle had told the doctors we would take her off life support. She hadn't even been on it for a week! It was her choice, they said. A choice you make before you're in the bed, dying.
  23. Quality of life. What does that even mean???
  24. The doctor explained to us what was going to happen. They were going to turn off the machine, but then it was pretty hard to say. Sometimes the person held on for another week. Sometimes days. Sometimes hours.
    Grandma and Grandpa took my brother and me up to check on their place in Maine one winter
  25. A priest came in to do last rites. My grandma was Polish. She was born Sophie but that day her name was Vikki. She hated her name and while in college, she and a few friends all changed their names to Vikki. One of the most ridiculous things I've ever heard! Once she yelled at me at dinner when I told a friend her real name!
  26. She was also very, very Catholic. My parents aren't especially religious and hadn't been going to church when I was born. My whole life my grandma had been saying to me, "Christine, the only thing I want before I die is for you to be baptized." Hitting me with that Catholic guilt!! I didn't believe. I never did it. It wasn't her choice.
  27. My dad's cousin used to send me photocopied Bible passages about baptism and being saved, etc. it was so weird. It pissed me off.
  28. I don't remember what he said. The priest. Then he left. The doctor turned off the machine. They told us again that there was no way to tell how long it would take. For her to die. The nurse shuffled around the room a little and then left. My grandpa was crying. I stood in the corner. My uncle paced a little.
  29. I'm going home," my uncle said. "You guys shouldn't stay here. There's no point, it could take hours." No one moved. He left.
  30. I went for a walk. I sat outside the hospital on a stone wall. I didn't bring my jacket. It was cloudy, I think. I was wearing my then-boyfriend's hoodie. It was noon, I think. He had a break between classes. I texted him something. I don't remember. I went inside and walked around some more. I didn't want to go back.
  31. The room was dark, the blinds were down. My mom and my grandpa sat there on either side of my grandma. The tube was gone from her mouth. Her breath was shallow and made a scary rasping sound, like there was a puddle of drool at the back of her throat.
  32. My mom got up and I sat there and took my grandma's hand. It was warm still. I tried to tell her the things I hadn't been able to say the day before. I was still a fraud, though. Or I felt like one? I stood back up. We sat for another hour. Maybe two, I don't remember. There was a horrible choking sound.
    my brother, my grandma, my sister-in-law
  33. I couldn't look away. Something was erupting out of my grandma's mouth, some thick colorless liquid, I don't know. My mom held one of her hands still. My grandpa the other. The strange choking cough went on for another thirty seconds or so and then it was over. The bottom half of her face and neck were covered in that sick liquid.
  34. My mom went to get a nurse. My grandpa was wailing.
  35. "I think she's gone, I think she's gone," he repeated to the nurse who wiped off my grandma's face with a damp cloth. The nurse nodded. I don't remember the next part, I don't remember going back to my grandparents house, I don't remember anything. I know I texted my boyfriend because I saved his response message on my phone for a long time after.
    the view from my grandparents' place in Maine
  36. It only took a few hours from the time they turned off the life support. My mom said that meant she was ready to go.
  37. My dad got there sometime that night. His gray scarf looked sort of pinkish in the dim light of my grandparents living room. He hugged me. He was wearing a suit.
  38. I looked at a lot of pictures the next week. One day a telemarketer called and asked for my grandma. "Vikki died two days ago," my grandpa yelled into the phone before hanging it up.
  39. We had some kind of makeshift funeral. My grandpa kept repeating that we couldn't do a regular one, in a church, even though my grandma was the most religious person I ever knew. It's a waste of money, no one will come, everyone else is dead, he kept saying. He died 3 months later. He told me he died when she died.
    we told them they should make this photo their Christmas card but they didn't take our advice :/
  40. This is my line in the sand. This is my before-and-after experience. This is the thing that separates the two sections of my life. Before this. After this. This is the image I can't get out of my head--her bloated face, that thick sludge, spewing out of her mouth.
  41. When I tell people I'm thinking about her, I think they think I'm remembering better memories. And I am, sometimes. But mostly it's just this image.
  42. I wish I hadn't seen it, I'm glad I saw it. I don't know. I think it fucked me up a little. I don't know. I just miss her.