It’s now three feet farther to hell for persons who’d jump off the Warren Avenue Bridge. The City of Bremerton has recently installed an eighteen-inch extension to the span’s rail. In my opinion, the city has wasted its money. The Warren goes up to a fatal height almost immediately, and at its middle it stands better than ten stories above the churning and hungry Port Washington Narrows. Only Serious Persons go over the Warren; less than serious persons, those who need just a little attention to feel better inside, never go to the Warren to perform on the off-chance that they might fall off. No, I don’t see a foot-and-a-half—in both directions—getting in the way of a well prepared and dedicated serious person.
Such ran through my mind as I drove Gram to yet another doctor’s appointment. At the age of twenty, I’m getting awfully familiar with doctors’ clinics and the technologies designed to prevent, for as long as possible, what I had once heard described as an “end of life event.” Nobody speaks frankly about anything at doctors’ clinics after the insurance is settled. In a decrepit and mournful sort of way, visiting any of Gram’s phalanx of medicos was like going to Neverland; but instead of recapturing the spirit of youth, we find Tinkerbell in bifocals and Peter Pan attached to a colostomy bag.
It was a typical Pacific Northwest March morning. The bipolar weather changed its mood every ten minutes or so. Wind driven slaps of rain, hail, and perhaps, locusts, would suddenly stop and give over to sunshine so cheery that I was certain that it had to be up to something. Sure enough, the lovely light soon faltered and the whole evil process began again from the top.
“Reena?” Gram said, not at all sounding like the mindless old woman who had earlier killed a half hour whining like a two-year-old because she couldn’t find the hideous “rose” blouse she that she already had on.
“Hmmm?” At that time I was struggling with the wind as to hold my lane on the bridge.
“Tell me we’re goin’ to VIP’s for Bloody Marys; tell me we’re goin’ for butts—Tell me anything but goddamn Group Death.”
“I thought you were dead,” danced on the tip of my tongue. But as I looked over at Gram, I saw the woman I had known and loved for life. It broke my heart knowing that her soul was still in there; trapped like a miner given up for dead; unrescuable; a flickering flame eating the last of the oxygen.
Gram and my late Grandpa Henry had raised me after my mother, their daughter, had abandoned me in my infancy. They were in their late middle-years at the time, and both were hard-working sorts who never let the drudgery of their menial jobs get in the way of having fun. This fun included booze.
Not long after Grandpa Henry had died from a mercifully swift heart attack, Gram had suffered the first in a series of small strokes. For five snarly years, Gram had fought back and kept her dignity. Even though death had meant to take her one piece at a time, Gram had kept her sense of humor. I remember the morning when she had to weigh herself to see if she had accrued fluid due to her failing kidneys. “Christ, I’m getting fat,” she had mumbled through a Winston she had screwed into her mouth. Upon seeing that she had lost three pounds, Gram had winked at me and said: “Probably cancer.”
But even the best of us have only so much good dying in our souls. And on the afternoon Gram had to endure another stroke that wouldn’t kill her, by itself, she knew that the game was up. “Reena, honey,” Gram had whispered as the ambulance took its customary route to our house across the street from the Ivy Green Cemetery, “I’m so sorry about this…There’s still time…Time to get the Demerol…”
I’m not sorry to say that I sometimes wish that I had fetched the Demerol.
Dear God, how it used to be: The laughter; the living and dying for the Seattle Mariners; the childlike looking forward to pay-day; ashtrays which resembled beaver dams; last night loganberry flip glasses left on the ‘occasional’ table; watching Thin Man marathons on TCM over popcorn. Those, and more, yes, were the backdrop of my happy childhood. But, at twenty, the roles of adult and child had been swapped around. This was a poor trade because I couldn’t provide Gram with happy memories; that part of her life was over. Gram wasn’t going to get better because the ravages of time and choice had ensured that there was no level of better for Gram to get back to. Still, within it all, I had learned something of value: The worst universe possible is a godless void in which a sentient chemical accident know as humankind is the sole inhabitant. Yet here, even here, especially here, if an otherwise meaningless being does right by a fellow meaningless being minus the promise of heaven or the threat of hell, as my grandparents had done for me, life has a meaning, and it should be wailed for upon its diminishing, more so than upon its passing.
I had time to think all this because whatever appropriately snarky remark I had shot back at Gram after her “Group Death” comment had landed on a mind that changed even more rapidly than the weather.
“Hmmm?” Gram replied vacantly, very much sounding like the mindless old woman who had whined about the rose blouse.
“Nothing…Nothing at all.”
How I hate doctors’ clinics: décor that is offensive because it is designed to be the opposite; pushcart Muzak around only to stave off silence; fellow wranglers tending their charges; Everest College-types behind counters secretly texting their boyfriends. But, mostly, it’s the walkers I hate most. There’s something about a cane that allows its user to retain his or her independence; walkers are cribs on wheels. You can smack someone with your cane if that someone offends you. All you can do in a walker is shuffle forward, head down, as though you now weigh more on Earth than you would on Jupiter.
Sometime during my brief life, civility, actual and feigned, has been, as Gram would’ve said, before the loss of her mind, “shitcanned.” Once upon a time strangers used to speak to other strangers by formal address until they were given permission to do otherwise. Perhaps I’m proof that even a twenty-year-old girl can have a lot of humbugging fogey in her; still, there’s nothing more irritating than have someone unknown to you call you by your first name as though you are a dog or a toddler.
“Has Elizabeth fasted?” The Everest College-type asked me upon check-in.
“How should I know what Elizabeth is up to?” I said cheerfully. “She could be off waxing her tramp-stamp, for all I know. Mrs. Allison, Mrs. Elsbeth Allison has fasted.”
Surprise! My little remark pissed the Everest College-type off something awful. Unless I was horribly mistaken, the evil light that shone through her previously bored expression communicated her desire to watch me starve slowly in a sealed room.
“Have a seat,” the E.C.-type said through clenched teeth. “The nurse will be with you.”
“Why thank you, um, Misty,” I said after I made a big show of reading her name badge. “I’m sure it won’t take too long for that to happen—even though it will give you and I less time together.”
Dante would lose his mind if he could see that humankind hasn’t taken The Inferno as a cautionary tale, but has used it as a blueprint from which to devise smaller hells on Earth.
Call this an overreaction, if you must, but I have spied concentric circles of increasing misery inside every doctors’ clinic I’ve ever been to. The first circle has to be the waiting room; which is guarded (as you already know) by disinterested E.C.-types who wear pastel scrubs and too much make-up. The second circle involves a mute tech who points at an old timey scale better suited for weighing livestock than humorous human beings. The Nurse (who is likely the brains of the outfit) inhabits the third circle. Every The Nurse is an intimidating and omniscient person who has learned her (never his) skills from repeated watchings of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and/or Godzilla.
The fourth circle is excruciating. This is where you cool your heels in a cruddy cubicle waiting for the doctor to come talk at you as if you have the IQ of a pineapple. Old Gram (the person whom I knew and loved, not her insufficient doppelgänger) used to go to special pains to make herself unendurable for the doctor whenever she felt she had waited too long: “There’s dustbunnies ‘neath that table—Hope y’all wipe better than that.” That sort of unendurable.
I heard muffled chatter, hard by. I imagined the doctor reading (probably for the first time) the results of Gram’s last blood draw (she’d have another on the way out; think circle five). I imagined him being able to give names to each of her few remaining red cells as though they were a box of kittens. I imagined nothing good. Instead, I loaded my mind with unendurable remarks enough for two.
Dr. Zale made his entrance. Though I had been taking Gram to see this particular physician for over a year, I always got the impression that every time Dr. Zale saw Gram was like the first time. To be fair, Gram 2.0 has never been all that memorable. If she and Dr. Zale had known each other a bit longer, as little as three or four months, he would have brought a whip and a chair.
Dr. Zale, however, remembered me. Not by name, but by sight. It did my heart good to have his confident I Am The Scientist, You Are The Zombie demeanor slink off and get replaced with an “Oh, no, not her again,” expression—which, to be frank, I get a lot of.
He smiled weakly. “How are we, this morning?”
“I suppose that depends on what the test results have to say,” I said.
Dr. Zale shrugged and held his weak smile and went over to where Gram was seated, but he never took his eyes off Yours Truly. “How are you today, Mrs. Allison?” he asked, still looking me in the eye.
For our miserable year or so together, I had been struggling to develop an actual opinion about Dr. Zale. His use of Gram as a prop to deliver sarcasm my way ended the struggle.
Something along the line of “Listen, fuckstick, eyes on to whom you’re speaking,” had entered my mouth like a shell slammed into the chamber of a shotgun. And I would have said it too, if a voice hadn’t called out from below the insurmountable slag that over-topped it.
“It’s three feet further to hell for folks who’d jump off the bridge, Dr. Zale,” Gram said. “On the drive over this mornin’, I noticed that the dumbass city put an extension on the Warren’s rail.”
I could actually feel my eyes dilate, and a weird tingling erupted in both my hands and thighs. I sat down heavily on a nearby stool, and I wondered if I was not too young to suffer a stroke of my own.
Dr. Zale looked nonplussed; he had never heard Gram speak before, save for yes and no and general gibberish.
Gram looked at me. Though her pallor remained that of old paper, the lightning blue I had always remembered being in her eyes was fully charged. A wicked, lovely, vicious, warm grin had broken out in her face. “We think a lot alike, don’t we Reena baby?”
“Ye-yes, Gram, we sure do,” I replied. I wanted that moment to last forever. But, already, the befuddled fog again gathered between reality and the survivor.