Published: November 22, 2009
The grandmother is someone to be ashamed of. Her wispy orange hair tufts around her ears in clumps and patches; her prosthetic leg and walker clip, scratch against the asphalt. The father is waiting in the car, his forehead against the Arizona-hot steering wheel asking himself why, God damn it, he hadn't visited his mother earlier.
The last time he saw her his daughter was four years old, his son had just been born, and he was in the White House, shaking hands with the president. His mother clamored on stage, beaming, lips trembling, smoothing her hair around her ears, and even though she was slow and awkward with her cane, the father never cringed. They looped arms, and the two of them stood taller than President Clinton, filled the entire room, so that reporters shot pictures though one another's legs, and the flash bounced off the huge, proud bodies, made hundreds see dots.
Now she is obese, six-foot-one in all directions, and goes to chemo twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This is a Sunday, so she's able to walk, but slowly, and the father doesn't have the patience to wait for her.
The daughter doesn't remember her grandmother as a strong person who stood with her son and met the president. The daughter is now six years old and observes that morning as the grandmother snaps at her mother for serving orange juice from concentrate, watches her order a juicer off of the television when she has three in the cabinet. Months later, the family would come back, and the grandmother's health would have degenerated so she just lay in bed, on her side, bald, fat, and deflated, as waste was pumped from her cancerous colon through a tube into a plastic bag. Years later, the mother would tell the daughter that she had the same sharp sense of humor as her grandmother, and the daughter would wrinkle her nose, remember the orange juice and the plastic bag, and not take it as a compliment.
It is months later. The daughter fell asleep in the armchair, her back straight, her head tipped onto her shoulder, and her feet stuck out in front of her, parallel to the ground. She heard speaking in the night, but didn't open her eyes, knew that if she got out of the chair and went upstairs, she would see figures hunched over her grandmother's bedspread, and that someone would have to leave her grandmother to put her back to bed. She wanted her parents to hear her grandmother's last breath. In the morning, she kept her eyes closed, and listened to her parents whisper, "Should we tell her?" Her mother's cold fingers gripped her calf and, without opening her eyes, the daughter told her, "I know," so the mother wouldn't have to say the words out loud.
Now the father is waiting in the car and the daughter is walking beside her grandmother's walker, taking two steps and then pausing. They are making slow progress, but the street is clear. The daughter feels like a mother toward her grandmother, the huge, stooping woman with fat in her wrinkles who speaks in grunts when she can get away with it. "You got it, Mum?" the daughter asks, and the grandmother makes a noncommittal noise in her throat, keeps clip, scratching.
A car screeches around the parking lot corner, windows down, blaring music so loud it becomes a series of beats. For a moment, the daughter and the grandmother stand staring, and then the grandmother jumps into sentience, and the daughter is six years old again, clutching a wise old woman's hand. The grandmother yells at the girl to go, and the girl hesitates, knowing the grandmother can't run-but she goes, tripping on the curb on the other side of the street and falling into the manicured shrubs. The grandmother makes no effort to go faster. In four seconds, the car screeches even louder, trying to break, and the grandmother, stopping altogether, turns to face it. The car stops, but the bad shocks jolt it forward, press on the grandmother's knees for a moment before settling back, vibrating with the straining bass. She puts her walker aside and places her heavy palms on the hood of the car. Her breath leaves mist on the windshield as the daughter tugs on her hand, her small lips tight and tense, looking for her father's chest to cry into even as the grandmother presses the little girl to her huge, amorphous breasts and whispers, "Look how brave you were" in her scratchy, little-used voice.