A beautiful collection of distilled realism which propels mind, body and spirit into the depths of human emotion.
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Grandma is yellow. Originally diagnosed as jaundice, her subsequent dizzy spells, fatigue and disorientation led to further testing which yielded this - Grandma is dying of liver cancer. She is yellow and has a few weeks to live.
I live six hundred miles away, so I called her.
“Grandma, this is me, K.J.”
In her polish accent, “I know who it is.”
I can hear polka music and Grandpa pounding his cane on the floor. He’s shouting, “Who is it, Lucy? Who is it?”
“Goddammit, Sylvester! Shut your mouth! I’m talking to our Grandson!”
Which one? Grandpa chimes.
“The only one that calls, you old fool! K.J.!”
“Did I call at a bad time?” I ask.
“No! No! This old fart’s driving me crazy! Every time the phone rings he thinks it’s a doctor with a miracle cure. That there was some mistake at the clinic. Can’t he see? I’m yellow! I’m tired, I just want to sleep and he’s in that kitchen bitching and banging his cane on the floor. Tap! Tap! Tap! Boom! Boom! Boom! The way he carries on I can’t even watch golf on television! I swear to God I’m going to shove that cane up his ass before it’s all over!”
I can see her holding the phone against her big beautiful face. Her gray hair. Her thin lips pursed. Her big green eyes glaring through her big oval glasses at Grandpa. I cannot for the life of me picture her as yellow.
I ask her, “How are you doing?” then think of how dumb I am. She’s dying. That’s how she’s doing.
“I’m not dead yet!”
“That’s good, hey?”
“I guess so...” She covers the phone, but I can still her yelling at Grandpa. “Turn down that radio and stop banging that cane or I’m going to beat you with it!”
Grandpa hasn’t been handling it well. I learned this from my Mom. In fact, everything I know about Grandma’s sickness has come from Mom. She’s having a tough time too, but she’s dealing with it. What’s keeping Mom sane while watching her mother die is making the funeral arrangements. She says it’s like planning a vacation for a person that will never return.
Grandma comes back to me. The music is quieter. Grandpa’s not banging his cane.
“Sheesh! Finally, some peace! Thank God!”
“What did you do to him, Grandma?”
“Your Uncle Dale came and got him. They’re going to Posen to get some petunias. All I want is to sit on the porch in the summer sun and look at the flowers and birds.”
I wonder if she’s slipping away into thoughts of disarray. Summer is more than a few weeks away.
“That’ll be nice. You always have the best flowers.”
“So, what do you want?” Grandma asks, getting right to the point.
Her directness flusters me as always and I’m glad she can’t see my face. I think my color would be insulting.
“I called because I was thinking of coming to visit.”
“What? Don’t be crazy! That’s too long to drive!”
“But I want to see you before...” I cannot finish the sentence. The only sound is polka music and her breathing.
She’s in her chair, I bet. In her burgundy recliner that never reclines. The t.v. is on, its shaky picture detailing the latest golf tournament. Always, she roots for Tiger Woods. “He’s so damned cute!” she’s said time and time again. In between sips of Milwaukee’s Best, “Look at him. He sure can hit that ball. And the way he moves - so graceful!” The family thought maybe something was wrong with her a year ago when she took to watching golf so much. And Tiger Woods? A young black man? As far as we knew she’d never even been out of Northern Michigan, let alone seen a black person. But, it was a nice break from the incessant dinging and buzzing of game shows and the greed-driven, sex-filled soap operas that bombarded us during our visits. We accepted her love of golf though it seemed strange to see this 72-year-old polish woman watching it so intently. Her big body leaning forward. Eyes squinting. Her hand tight around a can of beer as Tiger paused at the tee. “He’s beautiful. Just look at him! He’ll hit it farther than anyone!”
I hear her clearing her throat over the long distance line. Then I hear her taking a drink of something. I look at my watch. It’s 11 o’clock in the morning over there in her little white trailer near the lake - about the time she usually cracks her first beer of the day.
“You drinking a beer?”
“Shit no! That damned woman’s got me so doped up I can’t drink anything but water!”
“That one from Hospice. She’s a pretty little thing. And nice too. If you come home I’ll introduce you.”
I smile. My Grandma, sick and yellow, but trying to set me up with the woman who has come to help her die.
“She’s pretty?” I ask.
“Oh yes! Dark brown hair, brown eyes, very pretty. Pretty like that snotty one you used to date.”
“Oh, you mean Tyler?”
“Yes! That talker! I’m glad you got rid of her.”
“What’s this nurse’s name, maybe I know her.”
“Oh, you would have to ask...I can’t remember her damned name now. Let me ask Grandpa...” She covers the phone and calls for him. I cringe.
“...Sylvester! What’s that nurse’s name? Sylvester!”
She keeps yelling even though Grandpa and Uncle Dale are on the way to Posen for petunias. Mom says that since Grandma’s started dying there’s been more action around the trailer than ever before. Aunts cooking meals and cleaning. Uncles planting flowers and trees. Grandchildren stopping by. I can’t help thinking how sad and beautiful it all is the way death awakens love.
“Oh shit,” Grandma says, “I forgot. He’s gone to Posen for petunias.”
It’s cruel that our minds fail us. We should have our thoughts always. Our minds should not deteriorate, but gain strength as we grow.
I remember a party one summer when Grandma was conversing in English and Polish. The generations had gathered for a reunion and Grandma was the link that brought us together. Grandma was younger then. Thin and tall. Her skin tight and fresh. She smelled like spearmint. Her mother, my great-grandmother, was there in her wheelchair, legless and blind, telling stories the only way she knew how - in Polish. So Grandma sat next to her holding her purple spotted hand and translated these stories for all of us to hear.
“I can’t remember that nurse’s name,” Grandma says. “But I can find out later when she gets here. I don’t remember so good anymore. It’s like my brain’s in pea soup.”
“Do you think it’s the medicine they have you on?”
“Aw shit! I’m old! That’s what it is! I’m falling apart! I don’t know if I should tell you this, but sometimes I piss my pants. It’s embarrassing!”
Mom’s told me this. That Grandma pees her pants. That my Grandma shits her pants. Sometimes she goes in her sleep and she doesn’t want to get out of bed because she’s afraid the mess she’s made will upset everyone. Mom and Uncle Dale clean and change her and put her in her chair on the days she’s too weak to do it on her own.
“Well, think of it this way,” I say, “you’ve changed and bathed and taken care of everybody and now it’s our turn to take care of you.”
“It’s bullshit, that’s what I think. Shittin’ my own pants! Can you imagine?”
I can’t imagine it. Just like I can’t imagine her sitting there all yellow and dying just as the best part of Michigan’s Spring is coming round. The bright, warming days. The cleansing rains. Grassblades and buds greening to life. Grandma is supposed to be stocking her birdfeeders and sitting near the open kitchen window watching bluejays, sparrows and canaries crack and scatter seeds. She’s supposed to be doing loads of laundry and hanging the wet clothes to dry. A long wave of colors swaying in the fresh lake breeze on a line between two cedar trees. Instead, Mom goes there every day to change the bedding and make sure Grandma’s clean. She loads the trunk of her car with shitty pants, pissy sheets and cries on the way home because this is not the way her Mom is supposed to be.
“You sure you don’t want me to come visit?” I ask.
“Yes! I’m sure. What would you do here? Watch an old woman die?”
“Well, I have some vacation I could use and I want to see you, you know?”
Her voice is tender. “Yes. I know. I understand, but I don’t want you to see me like this. Right now I’m okay and I know I’m okay, but I know that later I won’t even know who I am.” Then, her voice charges up again. “Besides, I look like a goddamned canary!”
Last time I saw her was a month ago. It was Easter time. Her trailer was decked out with bunnies, plastic eggs, and baskets overflowing with mounds of candy-filled Easter grass. She was sitting in her recliner wearing a white sweatshirt that said, “WORLD’S GREATEST GRANDMA” on it. Mom had purchased the thing at Kmart and given it to Grandma for Grandmother’s Day on my behalf. Seeing her in it, knowing that she believed it was a gift from me, filled my stomach with shame.
“Wanna beer?” She asked, as I sat down in the only other chair in the room, a plastic lawn chair.
The television was on. Tiger Woods was nine under par. Grandma was glowing as she handed me a beer. But in her dimly lit trailer, I wonder now, was I seeing yellow?
We cracked our beers and watched the game. Green grass. Yellow flags. Tan men in sunglasses, hats, and wrinkle-free clothes. Brandnames on everything.
“What do you think about all that advertising?” I asked.
“Oh, who cares? It’s about men putting their balls into holes!”
Both of us thought about this for a moment then broke into laughter.
Grandma is not politically correct and she is not always right. What she is is True.
“Life’s too short for bullshit!” she said to me after meeting Tyler, the girl I thought I loved - an attractive, one dimensional, vegetarian feminist who believed that it was not only ghastly in this day and age that Grandma raised and butchered chickens, hogs, and rabbits, but that it was heartless and cruel that Grandma believed that it was okay to shoot an animal if it was suffering (in this case a 13 year-old blind, arthritic hound that she asked Uncle Dale to shoot while we were visiting).
Grandma drank beer and listened to Tyler go on about animal rights, Medi-Care, and the ills of red meat. But when she started in on the harmful effects of alcohol, how it not only destroys human tissues but that it’s consumption is usually an indication of “deeper emotional problems”, Grandma looked at me and said, “Talk! Talk! Talk! She talks too much about too many things that don’t mean shit!” Then she looked at Tyler. “Do you believe in Santa Claus?”
Tyler looked at me uncomfortably. I smiled. She shifted in her chair and looked up at the fly paper hanging from the ceiling. One fly was still alive, buzzing furiously. I could tell that Tyler wanted to reach up and let it go.
“I said, DO YOU BELIEVE IN SANTA CLAUS?”
“No. I mean, I used to. When I was a kid and all, but I don’t anymore.”
Grandma sipped her beer. “Why not?”
“Because, I think Santa is an awful form of social control.”
Grandma leaned forward and smiled. Her little lips never parted, but stretched wide and made tiny dimples in her big red cheeks. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“What I mean is that I would wait up for him and never see him. My Mother and Father would make me go to bed. They said that by not going to bed like a little girl should Santa would not come. And they said that by not sleeping and being good I would not grow up to be a big girl. It’s a cruel hoax.”
“Well then. They were right about one thing.”
“How do you mean?” Tyler asked, her fingers locked together and white, as if she was praying really hard.
“Did Santa come anyway?”
“Of course. In the morning there were always presents under our tree.”
“So, they were wrong about that. Santa did come. But look at you now. All grown up. Such a big girl!”
By this time the fly was screaming. Grandma leaned back and looked out the window at a sparrow that was on the window sill looking in. We could see Uncle Dale walking through the yard with a rifle in his hand.
“I mean no disrespect, Mrs. Wieschowski, but I am a woman, not a girl.”
Grandma kept on looking at the sparrow. The sparrow kept on looking at her. I watched Grandma and the bird and waited for a gunshot.
Grandma, sounding bored and tired said, “I know I don’t even have to ask this, but you don’t believe in God, do you?”
Grandma was right. And up until then Tyler had nearly talked me into believing that God was a hoax, a trick, a crutch, that Jesus and sin were part of a story. A story created to keep all of us in line. Under control.
“Everything is not black and white, ma’am. There is an indefinite state of gray.”
The gunshot was louder than I had expected and it made me jump in my seat. I knew then, as Tyler stood up and stomped on the floor that we would not last.
Grandma remained in her chair and spoke quietly.
“I agree. Everything is not black and white. Everything is gray. But you are a girl and will be a girl until you start seeing and believing not only what you see, but also what you can’t see.”
With that, Tyler walked out the door. I looked out the kitchen window and noticed a couple of canaries had gathered near the sparrow. Uncle Dale was walking by again, this time with a shovel and a burlap sack.
Grandma stood up. “Time to feed the birds. They’re waiting for me.”
“Need any help?” I asked, having seen the size of the bag she hefts out to the porch to fill the feeders.
“No. You better go to your girlfriend. Things are going to be different between you now.”
“Oh, I know.” I said and smiled. “But thanks to you I think I’m seeing again.”
Grandma turned and opened the fridge. Pickled pig’s feet. Pickled herring. Hand-picked eggs. Chicken breasts thawing for supper. She reached in for a beer.
“You want one or two for the road?”
“No I better not, though I might need it to cope with her.”
“Listen, she’s no good for you. A talker that doesn’t listen. She’s got a big mouth. Not loud or obnoxious, but the size of it is big.”
I was confused. “Yeah, I guess it is sort of big.”
Grandma put her hand on my arm and whispered. “Girls should listen more than they talk. Everyone should. And girls with big mouths have big holes. This one, she’s been around. Probably is still going around. I tell you this so you’re careful.”
I gave Grandma a hug, a kiss on the cheek, and told her I loved her and that I would see her again soon.
She was blushing. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Stop with all your lovey-dovey horseshit. I got to get out there and feed the birds. The canaries are finicky and won’t be back for a while if I don’t get out there and feed them soon.”
I hear Grandma banging around pots and pans.
“Making lunch, Grandma?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Better get ready to feed the old bastard when he gets back from Posen. If I don’t he sits there like a bird on the window sill. Cheep! Cheep! Cheep!feed me, Lucy! Feed me!”
My yellow Grandma and her yellow birds.
“Grandma, you aren’t really as yellow as a canary, are you?”
“Not yet. But I will be. But that’s okay. You like canaries, don’t you?”
“I love canaries, Grandma.”
“You don’t worry and don’t make the trip. There are enough of them running in and out of here all day.”
“Okay then, but I just want you to know...”
“Yes, I know. I know. You wanted to see me before...”
She can’t say it either and I know we have to let go. That Grandma needs to rest. But I want to stay and listen to what she cannot say. Her breathing. The slight movement of the phone against her face. The polka music still there, but only slightly, like a whisper. I want to sit and talk until the phone lines go dead. To ask her to turn up the music and translate the words. To show me how to be right even when I’m wrong by being True.
From the short story: The Horn
It had been two days before Christmas when Mom was on her way home from Fisher Big Wheel with a carload of gifts and Willie Lunker hit her head on. From what the papers had said, Willie had worked the midnight shift and five hours of overtime then stopped at Kramer's Pub for a half dozen beers or so. He killed my mom with his Dodge in the early afternoon as she waited at a stoplight.
I've seen the newspaper clipping. Our blue Plymouth station wagon crumpled up into a wad of metal. Fisher Big Wheel bags, new toys and clothing spread over the pavement. The only thing that makes Mom's death real, besides the color of the car, is the caption - Scene of the crash, which claimed the life of 24 year old Alpena woman, Tabitha Kausabowski.
I grabbed two more beers out of the backseat.
"Let's see if we can finish a few more of these before we get to The Horn," Tom said.