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My grandmother’s in the mirror. Thin white hair, pulled back in a knot. Sunken, floury-white cheeks, round blue eyes staring out of puffy pouches and a skeletal face. When did it happen that I turned into her? My mother’s mother, Grandmother Alice, the whiny, selfish one. I hated her.
Of course, I know how it happened and when it began. My two sons and I were on our traditional New Year’s Eve hike on Mount Diablo. Ever since my husband, Fred, died of a heart attack ten years ago, we have hiked together, just the three of us, every December 31 to put an end to the old year, celebrate the new. Dick, lean, fit, always on the move, jogging, mountain climbing, backpacking, cooking, talking, talking, and Daniel, tall, blond, quiet, thoughtful. They had flown here with their wives and my two grandkids for the holidays, Dick from Oregon, Daniel from New York.
No rain on New Year’s Eve, although the three of us had done this hike in the rain many times. It’s part of the tradition. But this year sunshine flooded the valleys and hills, sparkled drops of water on blue oak leaves, lit up red toyon berries. We chose the Mitchell Canyon Trail because of the waterfall, which plunges down the mountain, spewing white froth over coyote bush and the brilliant blooming manzanita, a specialty of winter.
Flat trail at the beginning, thick sludge, mud boots. Pine forests on either side. Chaparral everywhere. Two of us talking, talking. Daniel listening, smiling.
“So what’s Grace’s first choice?” I asked Dick. My brilliant granddaughter, Gracie, who was waiting to hear from colleges.
“I don’t dare ask,” Dick said. “She’s done the whole thing herself. No help from me.”
I laughed. Must have been hard. Dick has always been in everybody’s business, asking questions, making suggestions.
Up went the binoculars. “Quick,” he called out. “Flicker. On that live oak, Mom. Left side, bottom branch. Oops, he’s off. See the red shaft?”
Too late. The flicker was gone.
While Dick searched the skies, calling out red tails and Cooper’s hawks, Daniel strolled along at my pace, catching me up on his son Julian’s reading difficulties. Sweet Julian who at nine years old always beats me at Monopoly but struggles to read the cards. Daniel, a history professor who reads for a living, was unusually patient with his boy.
“I tell Joanie reading has nothing to do with intelligence. He’s really bright.”
Daniel’s wife, Joanie, a lawyer, worried. She didn’t understand how a child of hers couldn’t read.
“I still hate reading,” Dick said. He didn’t read until fourth grade and now he is an orthopedic surgeon. Always was good with his hands. “Quick, Mom. That raptor, way up there. I think it’s a golden eagle.”
I couldn’t see it.
Suddenly it wasn’t flat anymore. We were climbing up the Eagle Peak trail, a narrow, rocky path, on the dizzy edge of the deep canyon. I didn’t dare look down. In spring, this path is rich with golden globe lilies, shooting star, the spray of white blossoms of virgin’s bower. But now in winter it was green and fresh and soaked with spray. Alive in the sunshine.
I was straining, each step up to the top an effort. Dick had gone ahead to pick out a large rock for our picnic. Daniel was behind me, steady, silent.
Once on the rock, we stared down at the waterfall below us, eating egg salad sandwiches, talking about the children, my grandchildren, Grace and Julian.
“Look how the sun’s sparkling on the water.”
“What did you say?” Dick asked me.
“The sun is sparkling on the water.”
“Say it again.”
“Your s sound is different.”
“Sounds fine to me.” But it didn’t. I tried to say the word sun again and it came out fuzzy.
“I’ve been noticing your speech the whole hike,” Dick said. “It’s probably nothing, but we need to check it out.”
“What do you mean, check it out?”
“Emergency room, I’m afraid. I’m sure it’s nothing, Mom, but I don’t want to take a chance.”
“That’s crazy,” I said. “Daniel, have you noticed it?”
He nodded. “’Fraid so, Mom.”
So on to the New Year. Test after test, cat scans, MRIs, EKGs, echograms. Which meant Cancer. Lung cancer metastasized to my brain. Luckily not the smoker’s lung cancer; you don’t get many months with that one. Luckily not glioblastoma; not much better than smoker’s cancer. But nothing fixable, like a stroke or an abscess that can be drained. CANCER.
I am indignant. How could a healthy 80-year-old get cancer? I’d never been in a hospital before, except to have children. I’d never been sick. I’ve hiked up and down Diablo, and all over Marin County. Ridden the rapids down the Grand Canyon. Climbed the dunes of Mongolia. Snorkeled in the rough water of the Pacific Islands. All in my 70s.
But it’s real. And it’s radiation, chemotherapy, pills, more pills. My heart races as liquid fills the sac around it. The pounds melt away, the cheeks sink in, the white hair thins. Six months later, still alive. But Grandmother’s in the mirror.
Somewhere a phone is ringing.
All those awful years when she lived with us. In my bedroom, my large bedroom with the shelf of shells I’d collected, my high-fidelity record player, my records, my posters, Elvis, Buddy Holly, Elizabeth Taylor. I had to sleep in the double decker above my eight-year-old brother, Brent, in his shoebox of a room.
“Why does she have to have my room?” I asked at least once a week. “It’s not fair.”
And Mother would explain again that our house had only three bedrooms and that Grandmother was sick and old and needed privacy and comfort. Brent’s double decker was out of the question.
She lived with us six months of the year, because she was alone and weak and needed help taking care of herself. My grandfather had died years before. So she shuttled back and forth, twice a year, between my Aunt Mary in Kentucky and our house. As soon as she arrived, she would beg to go back to Aunt Mary, who reported that Grandmother begged for us when at her house.
But it wasn’t just the sacrifice of my room, my things, my due as the oldest child. It was Grandmother. I didn’t like her. No, I actively disliked her.
“It’s cold in here,” she’d complain.
“I don’t feel like eating a thing.”
“I’m weary today.”
“Nobody ever writes me.”
“I want to go home.”
When I turned sixteen and got my driver’s license, my job was to drive her to the doctor, to sit with her in the waiting room, to hear her compare our family doctor with “my man Frost” in Kentucky.
“This one doesn’t know his business.”
I’m being unfair, of course. Grandmother had been a beautiful woman; the photos were in the album. And she still had, even in her emaciated form, a touching fragility. She kept herself clean and sweet-smelling, wore soft cotton dresses in summer, tailored wool dresses in winter, navy blue with white linen collars. The neighbors would remark, “Mrs. Rawlings always looks so fresh.”
When I complained about her, as I so often did, Mother would say, “I wish you could have known her when she was younger. She’s not always been like this.”
“But she is now,” I would say.
I think what I held against her the most was her indifference to me. And to Brent. But to me. Grandmothers are supposed to be interested in their grandchildren, supposed to love them, give them things, knit sweaters for them, show an interest. I could have been the hired help for all the attention she paid me.
“She is selfish,” Mother would admit. “But she wasn’t always like that.” And then the dreaded words. “If you’re not careful, Judy, you may turn out just like her. You do complain a lot and you’re not very generous.”
“Never!” I would reply.
And now I look in the mirror and there we are.
A phone is ringing. Where?
I’m in the hospital. For surgery this time. Fluid is flooding the sac around my heart, squeezing my heart. It’s been drained twice now, but the fluid keeps coming back. Every time I breathe it hurts. So back to the hospital. The surgeon, who looks like a lumberjack, stout, with a belly and a sense of humor, is going to cut a “window” in my pericardial sac, where the fluid is. The idea is that it will drain permanently into the lung, which has plenty of room for extra fluid. But it’s surgery and I’m on a blood thinner and I’m thin and sick. A glance in the bathroom mirror. Grandmother Alice in a hospital gown far too large for me with tubes and plastic cords tacked all over my body, my white hair too long, sticking out at angles. I’m a mess. Not even tidy and sweet-smelling like Grandmother.
In comes Dick. He’s flown down from Portland. Smiling, laughing with the nurses, sneaking me a cup of coffee which is forbidden on the cardiology ward where they’ve stuck me.
“You can’t concentrate on anything serious in a hospital,’ he says as he pulls a P.D. James novel from his backpack. “And they won’t let you sleep.”
I laugh. I’m so happy to see him.
“I want to hear what the doctors say,” he tells me. “And I may have some questions.”
When the surgeon comes in, Dick does have questions. Good ones phrased to make sure I understand what’s going on.
“How big is the window?”
“What keeps it from bleeding?”
OK. He’s thinking about my blood thinner.
“Where exactly does the fluid drain to?”
The surgeon explains that he’s using laparoscopic surgery.
“What size is the camera?”
The surgeon explains how the camera is inserted and how it works.
“How long does it take?”
I’m amazed at Dick’s quiet, respectful manner. He usually talks fast and asks too many questions. Thank God he’s here.
The phone is ringing. Where am I? An empty room. No. A hallway. A small hallway. Doors leading to bedrooms. The phone is ringing. It’s one of those phones attached to the wall with the receiver hanging off it.
The fog clears. A face hovers over me. It’s smiling.
“You’re in the ICU. You’re doing great, Mom.”
“Daniel’s up in your room waiting for you,” he tells me.
“Daniel? He’s here?”
“Of course he’s here.”
“Are you in pain?” a voice asks.
“I don’t feel a thing,” I say.
The phone is ringing. I close my eyes. There is a woman I don’t recognize. I see a cotton print dress clinched with a blue belt. Brown spectator pumps. Large round blue eyes, blurry, washed. White hands reach for the phone. Screams like something out of nature. Something wild.
Up the front steps, one at a time, holding onto Dick. The door opens and there they are. Daniel, Joanie, Julian, Gracie on summer break from UVA. Laughing, hugging, popping champagne corks. Blinis and caviar and sour cream, scampi. More champagne. I nibble a blini, too tired to eat, too happy to go to bed. They repeat the family stories, laughing at me, at each other. The time I rolled the car down an embankment, blinded by the sun, and climbed out the window, called a cab and AAA from a neighbor’s house and took off for work. The time the middle school principal brought our model student, Daniel, home roaring drunk after he sampled some “juice” a kid gave him on the school playground. The time six-year-old Gracie made a bouquet from tulips and roses she cut from a grumpy neighbor’s yard and the irate lady called the cops claiming vandalism.
“Remember ‘Duncan will flunken’?” I say, laughing.
“What?” Julian asks.
“Some smart-ass teacher wrote it on Dick’s report card when he didn’t do his homework.”
“But why Duncan?” Gracie asks.
I smile. “That’s your dad. We named him Duncan, but he hated it. So in high school, he changed his name to Dick.”
“I never heard that,” Gracie says. “Duncan’s a funny name. How’d you come up with that?”
“My uncle,” I tell her. “My mother’s favorite brother. I did it for her. He was killed in a plane crash a long time ago.”
“He was flying the plane, right Mom? He was the pilot?” Dick asks.
“I think so. I know he was in the army and it was a small plane . . . ” Why was he flying? I can’t remember.
“What happened?” Gracie asks.
It’s coming back. “He was flying to see his brother.” Is that right? “His brother was dying.”
“Oh my god. I didn’t know that part.” It’s Dick.
“He never made it. He crashed into a mountain somewhere. They found the body . . .” I was so young.
“Mother always said . . .”
I can’t stay awake. “Mother always said . . . Duncan was full of life . . . talking, laughing . . . .”
The phone’s ringing.
Mother’s crying. My daddy’s crying. And the woman I don’t know, the one in the print dress, is crying. I’m crying. Mother takes me to her bedroom. How old am I? Three? She tells me Uncle Nelson has died from cancer. I don’t know Uncle Nelson. Mother’s crying. She says Uncle Duncan was flying an Army plane to visit his brother. Because he was dying. The plane was a two-seater. They found it crashed on a mountainside.
I can’t . . . Who is that woman talking on the phone? I ask Mother.
Don’t you know?
One phone call.
She’s there in the mirror, Grandma Alice. Looking at me. It took you so long, she’s saying. What have you been doing that it took you so long?
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