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The Hemingway Resource Center Short Story Contest> Winning Entries>Still by Michael J. E. Hanson (Fall 2000)

 

Still

 by

 Michael J. E. Hanson

     I was holding her hand, and she just quit breathing.  I guess all dead people do that, but there was nothing more to it.  No commotion, no chaos.  Just slipped away.  Monday morning, half past six.  The funeral was last Thursday at two.  
     What I wouldn’t give for five more minutes with her.  Which is odd, in a way.  During the last five or six years of her life, she never wrote or called.  In the last two, she wasn’t much for talking.  It all must have something to do with love, predating language, reaching still beyond words.
    
When it was clear Grandma was near the end, I called Dad, who was at a motel nearby trying to rest.  I told him it wouldn’t be long now.  
     He got there in six minutes, but she was gone in three.  I stood in the parking lot, waiting for him, saw him come roaring around the corner in his Explorer.  He jumped out—one boot unzipped—searched my face, and knew. 

     “Did Grandma die?” he asked. 
     I nodded. 
     Then this old man, my dad, took to running into the nursing home.  It was no faster than a walk.  I know because I wasn’t running, yet kept apace.  Only half his heart functions.  He smokes, will be seventy Saturday, has a hitch in his knee.  But he kept this effort up.  Through all the doors, around the corners, down the hallways, to where Grandma lay dead, but breathing some 180 seconds before.
     Stepping into her room, a transformation.  This old man, my dad, became a child.  A young boy.  I don’t know if it was the way his face tightened looking at Grandma as he rounded the foot of her bed.  Or the way his eyes widened, reverentially, his mouth open a bit, changing shape with false starts of what to say first.  Or maybe it was the way he kept repeating, in that clipped way, out of breath but not wanting to sound like it, “Grandma, oh Grandma.”  But something about him, the way he cupped his hand and awkwardly patted her shoulder, stooping to give her a kiss, something, was unmistakably fourteen again.
     Dad woke up at 6:30 the morning of her funeral, precisely 72 hours after her death.  He wanted so badly to have been there when she died.  But maybe Grandma knew better.  When you’re holding the hand of a 93-year-old woman, who is taking her last few breaths, and then taking her last breath, and then taking no more, you know you are fingertip-to-fingertip with eternity, so very close yourself, but nowhere near.  Maybe she knew, or God knew, it might be too much for him.  Or her. 

 

*****

                                                                         

      I spoke with Grandma two weeks ago today.  We would talk again only once.  Never again this well.
    
It was about 8 p.m., in the nursing home.  A couple of doors from Grandma’s room, I tried to quietly duck-walk on the rubber heels of my cowboy boots so I could surprise her. 
     A wide bar of hallway light shone into her room. 
     An imposing thing, I thought. 
     Constant.  Relentless.
    
Grandma was lying in bed, awake, looking at the ceiling.  She blinked once or twice. 
     A nurse came out of an office.  I put a finger to my lips and asked if she’d mind turning off the light.
     “I can’t,” she whispered.  “Don’t even know how.”
     “Would your supervisor?”
    
“No.  Not even maintenance does.  These lights are always on.  We have no switches.”
     If Grandma had a headboard, it would have been against the wall to the right as I walked in, parallel with the hallway.  I gently rapped a couple backhand knuckles on the open door. 
     An old lady’s voice from across the hall or next door, somewhere, kept up a cadenced monotone.  “Help me . . .  Help me . . .    Help me. . . .”  There’s one of these voices in every nursing home.  This was Grandma’s third.
     They never got any better.
    
I tapped again.  The knock registered this time.  Smiling, she tried to arch her neck, the better to look behind her, as if the rap had come from back there. 
     “That’s Mike,” she said, still trying to see.
    
“Hi Grandma,”  I said.  “How’d you know it was me?” 
     She knew where to look now.
    
She struggled to free her far arm from under the sheets.  Her hand wobbled from a palsy that had set in these last few days.  I hustled to set down my keys and pop so I could shuck my coat.  Free of the sheet, her fingers spread.  I leaned over the silver rail that so redundantly kept her in this bed. She grasped me with surprising strength.  Pulled my head between her pillow and neck. 
     “How are you today, Grandma?”
     Unable to make out her response, I asked again.  And heard her more distinctly than I had in a long time.
     “I couldn’t be happier,” she said.   Bedridden.  Incontinent.  Sores on her skin because her body had bigger wars elsewhere.  Unable to roll herself over.  Lungs filled with cancer and fluid.  Less than a week away from drowning in this very bed.  Itchy.  
     And she couldn’t be happier.  Because I showed up. 
     “Yeah, me, too,” I said.
     I pulled a flat Hershey’s Bar from my pocket, broke it into a few squares.  Little sections of chocolate melted on our tongues as we looked at the family pictures on her swivel-stand.  And I told Grandma to get her rest.  That I was just saying good night, had work to do, would be up in the morning.  I stayed maybe twenty minutes, probably thinking there were switches.
     The next day at noon, I saw Grandma at a lunch table, in her usual spot, in her wheelchair.  But her body slouched left and forward in equal measure, her left hand just a few inches above the ground.  She was trying to straighten things back up with her right arm, but was in something of a deadlock, giving way and holding on, leaning like some splintering prairie barn.  Her lower teeth jutted out.
    
Gently I pulled her upright.  We sat close.  I fed her mashed potatoes, orange juice, and apple crisp with one hand, rubbing her shoulder between sips and bites with my right.  I told her she was pretty, which I’d said so many thousands of times.  Saying it this time, I got the last forceful response I’d ever get from her.  “No!” she said, a little thrust of her head.  She wouldn’t deny being tough.  But disliked my telling her she was pretty, which was just as true and always more fun to say.  So I repeated it.
     “You’re so pretty, Grandma.”
     “Don’t say that so loud,” she said, looking around her table.
     Quieter.  “Grandma, you are beautiful.”
    
“I bet.” 
     She kept her humor—that smug humility—even as her body betrayed her.  During her last, very recent stay in the hospital, she had started wafting her hands in the air, as if riding convection currents only she could see.  Dad, standing at the foot of her bed, asked if she’d been taking Kung Fu lessons.       “What is this, Grandma?”  Dad asked.  “We gonna square off at sundown?”
     Grandma answered, “I --.”
    
She backed up.  Sighed.  
     “Even I,” she said, “don’t know what it is.”   She was losing her once formidable mind, and knew it.  But she could laugh.  And so did we.
    
Just as we did a decade ago, when Grandma invited a half-dozen little ladies, all in their eighties, to a party at her kitchen table.  Mrs. Sears was cranking the card shuffler, while Mrs. Pardon passed the jam, when Mrs. Pratt announced that a certain Mrs. Marty would turn 93-years-old next week. 
     Nobody said a word. 
     Until Grandma said, “Isn’t that just awful?”

     It was one of the first warm days of spring, this last time I talked with Grandma.  With her chair before me, I wheeled her down the long corridors, through the double doors, out from the shadows of the nursing home.  We found a patch of grass.  I asked if she could hear the birds chirping.  She nodded, told me she was tired.   
     “Would you like a nap?” 
     She said yes but was afraid she wouldn’t wake up. 
     I thought she meant she didn’t want to sleep through my visit. 
     We went back to her room and I stopped a passing nurse because Grandma
had soiled her robe.  Amid kisses, I told Grandma this lady would help her get ready for bed, and I would leave now for my home in Sioux Falls.  I told her I loved her. "That’s the trouble," I told her, smiling. "Always was."  I told her I’d be back soon.  I told her to drink lots of water.  I told her to eat well.  I told her to sleep tight.
  
  I can’t remember what she said.  They were her last words to me. 
    
Back in Sioux Falls, I parked in the garage, kept the car packed without really meaning to.      

 

*****

                                 

     I got the call the next night while watching the Oscars.  Four hundred miles back across South Dakota, I pulled into the nursing home.  It was 2:30 a.m., an hour lost to Daylight Savings Time, which had changed during the trip.  But light is light.  Grandma and I would have exactly four hours to live together; not a minute more. 
     Mom was asleep in a chair, her head supported by crossed arms on pillows near the foot of Grandma’s bed.  My sister Tracy, a registered nurse, was awake on the hallway side of the bed.  She and I hadn’t spoken for a year.
    
Grandma lay on her left side, angled that way by blankets and pillows.  Her white hair was straight back, having been brushed throughout the night.  Her glasses were off.  Her teeth out.  The oxygen nozzle, which normally fit neatly into each nostril, now lay on her tongue, hissing into her mouth wide open.  The compressor in the corner heaved and sighed in regular beats. Her breathing was rapid, making a gurgling in her lungs. I took Grandma’s hand in mine.  Told her I was here, I knew she knew I was here.  "I love you, Grandma, and that’s the trouble."
     It was an add-on Grandma had coined years ago, after I’d gotten into a minor scrape with the law for tearing down a storefront banner that said “At Mini Mart, Little Things Mean A Lot.”  An account of the incident was published in the local paper.  She read the piece.  “But I love you,” Grandma said.  “And that’s the trouble.”  We’ve said those two together ever since. 
     She was unresponsive, as Dad had forewarned.  I looked at her eyes.  Both were fixed, in a soft way; unmoving, unblinking, moist.
     “Grandma,” I said, “can you squeeze my hand?”  She did.  Barely.  Quick.  So slight it seemed quick.  But she did it.  I felt it.   Tracy then removed the nostril tube from Grandma’s open mouth and swabbed her lips with a sponge stick from a red glass of water.   I later did the same thing, daubing the stick, touching Grandma’s tongue.  Only the first two times did she have the strength or presence to clamp on the tip and suck the moisture down.  After that, I could only swab her lips and press the sponge against the sides of her mouth, but not too hard lest she be unable to swallow.   Throughout the night, I caressed her cheeks with the backs of curled fingers.  Patted her hair.  Tried to act like Grandma could understand everything.  Nurses coming in would say, “Look Viola.  It’s Mike.  Your grandson Mike is here.”
    
There was no reaction, ever.  But still, I think she heard.
     Dad was in the motel three blocks away, having stayed with Grandma until two.  Tracy had gone to a couch in the lobby shortly after I arrived.  
     Before Mom fell asleep in the bed next to Grandma's, Mom motioned me over — into the half of the room darkened now that I had partially closed the door to block the hallway light—and whispered me a story.  She said that earlier this evening, a nurse had stopped in the doorway and begun speaking at length to my mother.  Grandma was sleeping.  Until Grandma’s faint voice.
     “Am I all dead?
    
“Oh no no, Grandma,”  Mom said, dashing to the bed, holding her hand as if in prayer.  “You’re here with us, and you know we’re going to live eternally, together with the Lord.”  Grandma closed her eyes.   Grinned.   Took a breath.   Opened them again.
    
“I believe it,” she said. 
     Mom said she had told Grandma all the stuff I was telling her.  That Grandma hadn’t slept all night.  So when Mom fell asleep, I kept quiet.  It was just Grandma and me.  I tended to her through the sponge stick.   Little un-tucks of the blanket.  Tiny kisses.   Tired, I pulled the recliner parallel to her bed, so I could hold her hand while resting.  Looking back, as dawn so slowly appeared in the window near Mom’s bed, gradually making even more of Grandma’s corner the brightest in the room, I realize Grandma’s arthritic hands, curled up like October leaves, had grown cooler and cooler.  Yet I’d secretly thought she was getting better because the gurgling in her lungs had stopped soon after I got there.  I even fantasized of the talk I’d soon hear:
     “Mike showed up, and she got better.”
     “She was waiting for Mike.”
    
“Mike healed her.” 
     What I didn’t know was the clinical reason for the end of the gurgling noise.  Grandma no longer gurgled because she was breathing off the top of the water in her lungs.  And her breathing became shallower because her lungs were filling up.  
     Still—I knew something.  All night, her head propped to one side, I’d watch a tendon in her neck labor as she breathed, a flex that coincided with her jaw opening a little wider as she sucked in the air.  But the tendon became less and less prominent; her jaw, still agape, more and more still.  
     So I started talking to her again.  “Please, Grandma, go ahead and go to sleep go to sleep go to sleep go to sleep go to sleep.”
     Her eyes remained open.  Fixed, though soft.  I placed her glasses on her face—and smiled, just in case.  
    
And I told her something new.
    
“Grandma,” I said.  “Thank you.”   
     Then a flood of things she’d done for me—things she could no longer
do, even if it meant a squeeze of my hand—washed over me.  
     My vision grew thick.  Warm salt dripped from the top of the back of my throat.  I tried to stifle something deep in my gut that wanted out. 
 
     Failed.  A quick wet muffled bark.
  
The second one got mostly pinched off, a quick hand to the mouth and nose, swallowed back down.  Told myself to raise my head.
  
     I saw the little dimple in her chin.  The way her top lip formed a fancy parenthesis.  Her wrinkles, lined up like sand dunes on the Gobi.  Her eyes, the same position.  Then on the outside corner of her left eye, I saw something.

     A tear?
     I drew a thumb-and-forefinger across my eyes.  Turned my head left and right into raised shoulders to blot the rest.   Got to my feet, pulled a Kleenex from a box.  Leaned over the rail, gently placing the Kleenex near Grandma’s eye, drawing it softly across her cheek to that spot.  The light blue tissue grew dark in an instant.  A tear was running to my fingers through the Kleenex.
     “Ohhh Grandma, I’m okay.  Just sad you’re not better yet.”
    
Grandma’s only tear.  She wept because I wept.  She's suffocating, and she cries for my pain.  She's parched, the oxygen tube hissing her tongue dry all night, and she spends her precious last water on me.  
   
 She would die in about two hours.
Much of that time I spent in a tearful silence.  Railing at God.  The pointlessness of this, all of this, how futile is life that it should end.  That this was always her destiny.  Everything gone.  Not even our memories much longer truly shared.
 
  
   I bore down, squandering no more, remembering better.  My eagerness to meet my soon-to-arrive cousin and his store-bought six-shooter, with an Indian headdress she’d cut from red construction paper and a handkerchief loincloth she’d detailed with Magic Marker.   Teaching me to throw a spiral, believing the secret to be an index finger placed at the very tip of the ball.  Washing my clothes so often she inadvertently trained me to hang my shirts the opposite way – Grandma’s way – as they do to this day.  
And her determination to make one last trip across South Dakota, to a small chair in the audience at my graduation, where she softly patted my face, and said, “I will never forget this, Mike.” 
     Hospitalized twelve days later, discharged straight to the nursing home, this little one hundred pound lady would never live with Mom and Dad again.  Six years in a wheelchair in a nursing home to go.

 

*****

                            

     An hour into those two hours, at 5:30, Tracy and I sat on the floor at Grandma’s side.  The pre-dawn window framed the morning star, hung low in the sky, next to the thinnest crescent moon I’ve ever seen.   Ten or fifteen minutes later, about half an hour before Grandma died, Tracy looked up at me, mascara gone.  “Pretty light,” she said.  I had brought it up, saying, “No more gurgling.”
    
At 6:20, a faint blue sky turning brilliant suffused the room with light.  I walked to the kitchen of the nursing home, made Grandma a cup of coffee the way she liked it, not knowing it would be the last one I made for her. 
     And I took my time about it.  Found a cup.  Looked to see it was clean.  Found some decaff coffee.  Filled it two-thirds up.  Poured some out to get it at half.  Turned the knob.  Tested the water.  Dashed a little in so the coffee was cooler and the cup back up to two-thirds again.  Walked to Grandma’s room, nose in the steam.  She liked the un-full cup of coffee because it was lighter for her hands to lift to her lips.  I swabbed Grandma’s lips with the coffee-laden sponge, telling her it was made just the way she liked it.
    
Moments later a nurse walked in.  Tracy was at one side of Grandma’s bed; Mom, the other.  The nurse nudged Mom over, put the stethoscope to Grandma’s chest, mouthed something to Tracy, an arc over Grandma.  I didn’t look.  Made a decision not to look.  But had to look.  Somehow I knew the nurse was repeating.
     “She’s dying.” 
     The compressor pumped away. Then I remembered.  We better call Dad.  I asked for a phone.  The nurse said I could use hers.  She started to take it off her neck but it got caught in the stethoscope and a necklace and wouldn’t come free and I wanted to yank it off her neck but said Forget it where’s another phone? and she got it off and Mom said Do you have his number, who has his number?  The nurse handed me a folded piece of paper, said Dial slow and I went outside Grandma’s door and dialed the number and nothing happened and I couldn’t find the hang up button and then did and tried to push the numbers slow and it didn’t work and why the hell am I calling Dad while she stands next to Grandma doing nothing so I asked if she’d call and she asked if I dialed nine and I handed her the phone and made my way back up to Grandma’s. 
     I tell people I was holding Grandma’s hand—and probably was, had all night, but the fact is I don’t know if I was.  I didn’t think she was dying, not for good.  Dying, but not now and forever.  Just dying.  As she had for months and weeks and all night long.  Yet living the whole time. The nurse handed me the phone, said it was ringing.  I walked into the hallway.  Dad answered right away.
     “Hi Dad.  It won’t be long now.”
     “Okay.”
    
Back in the room.  Grandma had just now breathed.  She was alive.  Mom burst into tears.  “Oh Grandma,” Mom said. “Her little chest’s stopped.”  
     Then Grandma’s mouth, open all night, caved around the oxygen tube, sucking like it was a straw stopped up with strawberry malt, her cheeks dimpling three, four seconds.  Then relenting.  Again, her lips fell around the artificial life source, but not so harsh this time.  Then relenting.  Then just a little toke, as if she was done with that now. 

     The sheets, level and still.
    
The nurse turned off the compressor, making the room very loud with the silence that made our voices so loud.  I had to think hard why it was we weren’t supposed to call the cops. We had been a vague, milling carousel during Grandma’s last few breaths.  She took them while I was at the foot of her bed and up by her side.  In one of those places, we might have been holding hands.
     I hugged Mom.  Leaned over the bed, hugged Tracy, ran to meet Dad, weaving among sleepy old people being wheeled to the breakfast tables.  Saw Grandma’s spot, where I fed her mashed potatoes, orange juice, and apple crisp not two days ago.  The same old faces.  But didn’t consider them the lucky ones.  
     Dad and I back in the room.  We all gathered around Grandma, two on each side of her bed. Uncried tears cupped in Dad’s lower lids.  
      “This isn’t a bad day,” he said.  “Grandma’s in a better place.”  We all tried to hug.  A funny looking steeple over Grandma.

 

*****

 

     I awoke about six the morning of her funeral and twenty minutes later decided to go to the Happy Chef for coffee and the paper.  Heavy frost clung to my windshield.  I scraped once or twice, but then got in the car and turned on the defroster.  Tiny twin arcs began to form where the glass met the dash.  The car was cold, steam rising from my nose.  Then there was a sudden translucence to the glass – a bright light coming from outside the windshield.  With all the ice and frost, it was a backlit veil.  I lowered my head, looking through the arcs, which were a little bigger now, as if peeking through television-style binoculars. 
     Squinted, still trying to see. 
     Just now cresting the hill behind my folks’ house, the sun was shining its rays into and through Grandma’s back bedroom window.  And out her front window, right through the house and into my eyes.  Except for the rays blocked by my father.  Dad, silhouetted in Grandma’s window, was giving me a little “good morning” wave.
     The frost disappeared in mere seconds.  The risen morning sun had taken up what I had given up on.  I grinned, the way I imagined Grandma’s last grin.  My breath vanished as I put the car in drive.  

 

*****

 

     She looked rested at her funeral.  Younger, free of something.  Had she died twenty years ago, the place would have been packed, but she outlived most everyone who shared her life.  So there were just a few of us. 
     I was a pallbearer.  Grandma was surprisingly heavy.  I was glad to see that.  Her hair was arranged nicely, fingernails painted pretty.  Between her folded hands, I placed a photo of her and me, taken in a booth at the Happy Chef.  On top of the photo, I slid a folded piece of little notebook paper, my final note to her.  In it, I thanked her, made some promises, told her I loved her.
     I wrote out an exact copy of that note.  I have a duplicate of that picture.  So we each have a set.  I keep the note in my billfold—inside a folded tag, the kind you find on Christmas presents. 
   
The front of the tag says:  “A gift for you.” 
    Open it, and you see where Grandma had written: 
     “To Mike - Love, Grandma H.” 
     The comma so small it looks like a period.  


The End

 

 

 

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