September 18, 2008
I rang the bell and Dad answered wearing a turban. “What are you, Muslim now?” I inquired. No, he’d simply fallen yet again and his head was encased in bandages. He was out in the street playing tennis with Salami when she lobbed a serve over his head, and he fell as he was running backwards to catch it. He was still wearing the some bloody T-shirt from when it happened. His pants were a crazy quilt of patches from other jeans that he hot glue gunned on to cover the holes.
Grandma incessantly picked on his appearance – well, she used to. Nowadays she couldn’t even speak. Ask her a question and she’d make fish gulping motions for a minute before finally gasping out a single word. I lay the blame for that at Tina’s feet. She did little more than park Grandma in front of the TV for hours each day, doing little to engage her in conversation. However, she would often sit next to her yapping on the phone in Russian, which only further confused the poor old lady.
And now she was in the hospital again. Dad told me after he answered the door. He also told me that he signed up for a new phone and internet service, but the technician hooking him up told him he’d have to dial “1” and then “911” since he wasn’t paying the emergency services fee. I scrunched my face up. That sounded odd.
“Is that really the case?” I asked.
“Hmm, I actually don’t know. Let me try it now without dialing “1” first and see what happens!” Dad picked up the phone and dialed 911. “Well, it’s ringing,” he said after listening a moment or two. Then he put the phone down.
“Dad! What are you doing? You can’t dial 911 and hang up!” I exclaimed. And he was even a cop at one point. Dad just shrugged and I shook my head. Sure enough, as we were standing outside ten minutes later saying our goodbyes, a police car came down the street and trained his spotlight on us. He stopped in front of the house, sauntered up the driveway, hooked his thumbs in his belt and stood there without saying a word while Dad started babbling.
“Oh, uh… the cable company lied to me! They told me I couldn’t dial 911 because of extra taxes and fees and you know… the government… always trying to take from you…” Dad blurted. He was quite a sight. Head wrapped in bandages, bloody T-shirt so old and crumbly it was practically see-thru, patched-up clown pants, and mismatched sneakers. The cop just listened until Dad was finished, and then he flipped out a little notebook.
“Okay, sir… what’s your name? And your date of birth?” He jotted down Dad’s information and then he was on his way. And then I was on my way over to the hospital.
She was worse than I’d ever seen her, and when Mom saw her condition she thought it was the end for Grandma. I did not like going to see her at all. It was bad enough trying to make conversation with her when she could speak, but now it was more awkward and stilted than ever. She’d lie there in the bed staring at us, unable to croak out even a single word anymore.
My sister Mary was on her way home from the hospital one night when she made a wrong turn and ended up on a Dead End street with Grandma’s name. Then she saw a big lit-up “21” on someone’s front lawn as she turned the car around. She didn’t think anything of until the next afternoon at the hospital. Mary walked in the door and Grandma’s eyes were bulging out of her head. She was making horrible choking and gagging sounds, a real death rattle. As soon as she saw Mary she grabbed her by the hand, holding on so tightly that Mary nearly pulled her out of the bed when she tried to go for help. She finally wrung herself loose and came back with the doctors. They went to work on Grandma, but it was to no avail.
They pronounced her dead. The time was 3:21.
Mary called me from the hospital and Mom and I met her there. She was in quite a state after witnessing that. She’d never seen anyone die before. Meanwhile the hospital informed us that they had tried and failed to get a hold of Dad, but they did manage to get a hold of Uncle Tim. Oh boy.
After our initial court battle (in which we had prevailed), Dad and his brothers got into it again (minus me this time). Uncle Chuck won that round and now he was the designated healthy care proxy and had power of attorney. But Dad somehow managed to keep it a secret that Grandma was in the hospital. He was afraid Chuck would send her back to the nursing home. In any case, it was a real nasty shock when Uncle Tim got the news.
The three of us went to Dad’s house to give him the news. Nobody home. I tried his cell a few times, but still no answer. Mom was apoplectic. When Nanny was in the hospital she rarely left her bedside, but Dad was MIA when it came to his own mother. He finally rolled up in his truck after 9:30, surprised to see us standing there waiting for him.
“Hey, what are you guys doing here?” he asked, grinning as he got out of his truck. I couldn’t believe it. He’d been at work all day. He hadn’t even stopped at the hospital on his way home. Mom told him that we had news for him, and that he’d better come inside and have a seat. When he heard that he went, “Oh shit…” Then he asked what happened and Mom told him that Grandma died. She gave him a hug and I saw his stricken face over her shoulder.
“I don’t understand why I didn’t hear anything, I’ve had my phone on me all day,” he said as he turned to dig it out of his truck. Then he got really upset when Mom informed him that the hospital managed to get a hold of Uncle Tim instead. “Seriously? Ah, great. Shit…” he muttered.
We took a seat inside and Dad poured himself a big drink. He was beating himself up about not being there “but I didn’t think it was that serious.”
“She was in the intensive care unit, of course it was serious,” Mom said, restraining from rolling her eyes with great difficulty. Dad heaved a heavy sigh.
“Yeah, I know… but I thought she was going to get better, like she did last time,” he said. Then he told us a story he’d heard about a girl who – in her final moments – opened her eyes, looked around the room, smiled at things unseen to anyone else, closed her eyes again and peacefully passed away. “And I never got to see that smile,” he choked up on the last few words.
“There was no smiling,” Mary told him, launching into an abridged version of the events she witnessed when Grandma died. We stayed for a little while longer, and then we left Dad alone to grieve.
“Now we’re both orphans,” Mom told him sympathetically on our way out.
Grandma lay in the hospital freezer for nearly three days, after which they were going to send her to the county morgue if the Dad and his brothers couldn’t come to an agreement. They haggled over her remains until Sunday night, when she was finally turned over to the funeral home and the wake was the following night. When I saw her in the casket, I was amazed. She looked better in death than she had at any point during her last two years alive. They did a really good job on her.
In between the afternoon and evening wakes we went out to eat, and by “we” I mean myself, Mom, Dad, Mary, Kathleen, Bill, and Dad’s friend Joe. I did not want to be stuck with Dad and Joe, talking about abortion and the Catholic Church for the next hour and a half. Kathleen was stuck with them instead, and the rest of us were at the other table. I was glad for the chance to catch up with Bill, who’d finally moved out of the house some months before. Meanwhile, I heard poor Kathleen trying to contribute to the conversation next door with questions like: “So what does the Pope do? Like what’s his job?” I’m sure Dad was glad to see that twelve years of Catholic school weren’t wasted on her.
Kathleen disappeared during the second wake and I finally found her in the funeral director’s office, in full flow about her relationship problems with Rick the Dick. I couldn’t believe it. We were there to mourn Grandma and Kathleen was busy boring this woman with her prattle. She eventually emerged by the end of the night to stand next to her picture board. She collected every shot of her and Grandma, including the one I’d snapped for her at Thanksgiving when Grandma made a disgusted face at being asked to pose for the hundredth time.
After the wake we stood in a circle outside telling stories and laughing. Dad and Bill were especially bowled over at Johnny’s impression of Uncle Tim. We were carrying on so much after a while that I saw people peering at us from the windows above the funeral home. They were probably wondering who the jokers were outside. The hilarity continued the next morning in the limo ride to the cemetery, prompting the driver to shake his head and chuckle when Mom remarked that it was probably the most entertaining funeral he’d ever been to.
The number 21 kept revisiting us – on the back of the truck on the highway, the exit number for the graveyard, and finally at the burial site itself. The same priest from my grandparents’ 60th anniversary said the final prayers, and then he picked up a box. “I brought these CDs about Lourdes which I want to distribute to everyone… I did a head count and there are 21 people here.”
A rustle went around the circle and Dad went “whoa.” Until that moment he had pooh-poohed our repeated tales of the number 21 popping up in conjunction with Grandma’s death. But once he heard it on the priest’s lips he was finally convinced. Tim and Chuck gave short but moving eulogies, and when Dad’s turn came he blustered his way through like he did at the 60th anniversary dinner. He got emotional at the end, talking about how he’d failed to live by the example his parents set, and how he’d failed his marriage and his family.
And then it was over. We made to disperse, and when Dad turned around he saw Shannon standing there. He greeted her and then pointed: “So who’s this good-looking guy standing next to you?” Iit was Patrick. I thought he was joking, but Dad legitimately did not recognize him. Maybe it was because he was sporting sunglasses, but in any case Patrick just shook his head and walked away in disgust.
Then Mom said we’d all better watch out. “Now that Grandma’s gone, he’s got nothing left to distract him. He’s really going to be on the rampage now.”