January 25, 2005
Grandma was deaf as all get out. She couldn’t hear me yelling at her from two feet away, but somehow she could hear little rumblings noises from the fridge, or the semi-trucks going by on the distant highway. And then she couldn’t hear the TV unless it was blasting.
A couple of nights earlier Dad plopped himself down in front of the TV and announced he was putting the news on.
“Uh oh. Bad idea,” I said.
Dad just hemmed and hawed at me and put it on anyway with the volume on full blast. Grandma was helping me with the dishes in the kitchen and she heard every news report perfectly – reports that grew progressively worse: insurgents in Iraq shot at American soldiers… a kidnapped teen’s body found dead in Texas… terrorists cut a man’s head off in broad daylight in Iraq… a child kidnapped by a known child molester…
Grandma was getting more and more upset: “Oh my God… terrible… that’s terrible… monsters… it’s getting worse every day…” Dad must have heard her carrying on. By then I was ready to go and grab the remote, change the channel, and the fling the remote back at him. He didn’t have to change the channel even – just turn it down so she couldn’t hear it. What was wrong with him?
Instead I just went and stood behind him and said loudly, “Uh, you might want to change the channel.”
He just hemmed and hawed and me again. So I bent down and said even louder: “I don’t know why you put this on when you know it upsets her.” I turned to leave the room, saying, “I guess you like to upset your mother…” That did it. Thirty seconds later the channel changed. I was positive I heard his teeth grinding from the kitchen.
The next night Dad went into the same routine. He sat down on the couch and announced that he was going to see what was on the news. Here we go again. I just sighed and shook my head. He turned on the TV, again with the sound on full blast. He watched the news for a few minutes, and thankfully he changed the channel.
He put on Seinfeld.
I couldn’t believe it. We would experience Hurricane Dad if he ever caught us watching that, and now was watching it himself and laughing. Meanwhile Grandma heard words like “sex” coming quite clearly from the television, prompting her to ask, “what are those stupid people saying?” This time my dad finally got a clue and turned the volume down. But then he got up and left the house in the middle of the show, leaving the TV on.
Grandma shuffled into the den and sat down to watch, and I hurried in to change the channel. She’d have a stroke watching a show like that. When she thought Ann Miller was disgusting, Elizabeth Taylor was terrible, Doris Day was a slut, and Frank Sinatra was a gangster… Seinfeld was out of the question. I put on EWTN, the Catholic network, and we watched Mother Angelica saying the rosary – or as I called her, The Pirate Nun. She’d had a stroke and wore an eye patch to cover her lazy eye. Her voice was also slurred, and Grandma was getting upset because she thought Mother Angelica was making fun of the rosary with the way she was talking.
“Grandma, she had a stro- ah, fuck it never mind…” I muttered myself into silence, realizing that any explanation was a waste of time.
Everything upset or worried Grandma and it wasn’t due to old age. Dad said she’d been a nervous ninny and a worrisome nag ever since he and his brothers were little. So I did my best to shield her. I wouldn’t watch the TV news with her and I cleared any newspapers out of sight. Then Dad would watch the news with her and leave copies of the ever-salacious NY Post lying around the house. It was like trying to put out a fire while he was pouring gasoline on it.
This particular night at dinner Dad had talk radio on for a change. Sigh. It was turned up pretty loud but somehow Grandma didn’t catch a single word. Good thing, because they were discussing the massive tsunami in Asia. Dad kept making references about it to me while we ate. I just kept giving him looks and shaking my head, but he was oblivious and so was Grandma. Finally he said – directly to her – “They said the death toll is up to 80,000…”
She looked up. “Huh?” she said. I kicked Dad under the table to stop him but he went ahead and explained it to her anyway.
“Oh my God…” Grandma said, very upset. “That’s terrible.”
Dad looked at me. “What are you kicking me for?”
Unfortunately, everyday matters and even household items were a source of anxiety for her. I was working with Dad in construction at the time, and we frequently came home late in the evening. Grandma would be peering through the front door and wringing her hands as we rolled up in the truck, and first words out of her mouth when we came inside were, “What happened??” followed by “I thought you had an accident!”
The paper towels stressed her out too. “I don’t like those paper towels,” she said at dinner. “They’re dangerous.”
You’ve got to be kidding me…
She continued: “Because they have dye in them [from the designs], and it comes out when it gets wet. It’s poisonous. The same with those Kleenex… when you throw them in the toilet you see all the pink dye coming out in the water. When you use them that stuff gets into your system… it’s poison.”
Eventually I learned it was best to just nod and say yes. Like when she told us we shouldn’t keep the Italian bread in the paper sleeve it came in. She told us there were chemicals in the paper and that it’s poisonous and that it gets into the bread. Grandma’s source for all of this was a book called, “The Poisons in Your Food.” Some genius thought that was a great gift idea for her once. Grandma hardly remembered shit anymore, but she still remembered that goddamn book to the letter.
Grandma was also reluctant to drink water for some reason. She’d constantly complain: “I’m dry, I’m dry…” and you could hear her smacking her lips from the other end of the house, but when I’d put a glass of water in front of her she wouldn’t hardly touch it. At most she’d take the tiniest sip, or just dip her fingers into the glass and wet her lips with her fingertips. Then she’d dump the rest into the plants on the windowsill when I wasn’t looking. She’d already had one bladder infection from not drinking enough, so I did my best to get as much fluid into her as possible.
Meanwhile Grandpa’s roommate at the nursing home was scamming a drink of water whenever he could. His name was Walter and he’d had a stroke and was ridden with the usual one-sided paralysis. I’d avoid his gaze because he was always motioning to me, but I never knew what he wanted because he couldn’t speak. All he could do was move his lips and gulp, and occasionally manage a few syllables in a hoarse whisper. One day I finally figured out that he wanted water. I gave him some from his bedside pitcher, but just then a nurse walked in and said I wasn’t supposed to do that because he could possibly choke on it and die. Well, shit. “Don’t worry,” she said, “This is the third time I’ve found him today drinking water. He’s always scamming people left and right.” Walter went into fits of silent laughter as she said that.
Grandpa was nowhere near as jovial. Dad found out that in addition to having them sign DNR forms, uncle Chuck had wrangled for himself the position of health care proxy for my grandparents. He did that a few months before they came to live with us. So as long as Grandpa was in the nursing home, Chuck seemed hell bent on keeping him there.
Now if we could only keep Grandma from suffering the same fate.