So what remains?
Notes on death, grief, language, and memories.
My great-grandmother was born in 1924.
I sit in a chair in my amnesic patient’s room. She can no longer remember who she was, but she remembers a hamburger joint somewhere near her Virginia house. So, we, her husband and I, spend half the night talking about burgers and the consistency of the burger places we each have visited throughout the years. He goes to sleep on a chair next to her hospital bed where she lays still and unbothered, like an Egyptian mummy. We turn all lights out and I’m left alone with my thoughts in the squeaky, honestly most uncomfortable chair I have ever sat on.
She speaks and I can hear my great-grandmother’s voice come out, wondering how it feels to have your thoughts so methodically removed by time. My great-grandmother didn’t die from dementia. She died of what the doctor explained to me as “respiratory failure.” To mean she was hooked to a nasal cannula for oxygen until the very end. She went because of dehydration and empty lungs. She left the way she always used to wherever she went: willingly and with grace.
Wherever my great-grandmother went, even back then on her own two feet and with no extra hands to help her stand, she always took her grace with her. She carried it like a second handbag, not a purse or a wallet. We didn’t have the kind of money that calls for wallets. Our fortune laid in her hands and the work she put them through. She used to keep nothing but pictures in her bags then, she even kept the photos of those whose names she could no longer remember.
I’m on this chair wondering how she is doing, wherever she is. Wondering who I’m writing this for and coming back to her. Ever since she passed, my family and I keep making up stories for her. “Did she say that?” Tia asks. “Did Mami say that?” Did she really?
I can hear the rhythmic peaks of my patient’s heart rate coming from the monitor from my spot in this chair. We’re all machine-bound here. We get cardiac leads for arteries and beeps for running blood. I take her labs and put a needle in her vein expecting blood, but the regrets come out instead. The peaks and valleys of dysrhythmias on a screen. Not a heartbeat sound in the room, but it suffices to know it might still be there. Healthcare is quite the heartless environment to inhabit. All the coming in and going out of rooms full of the smell of blood, feces, urine, and bleach. Life for a hospital worker is in the absence of knocks on a door. We peek through the windows and see shapes on beds, if the shape is still on the bed, we can keep our jobs.
I’m glad my great-grandmother didn’t make it to the hospital.
I feel like I didn’t see enough of her in those last few days. There was breath and whatever came after. It was better for her body to give up first, her brain a case for what remained of it, which is what we tried to hold on to. We held her here.
Movement is the only thing keeping me grounded nowadays, so I keep my hand moving on this notebook. But there are only so many letters in the alphabet we can use to express our thoughts. The Chinese and Japanese fulfill my desire of finding one single block of strokes describing what I’m feeling. Their alphabets have an order to them. They don’t just stack lines and hope they form a shape; there is routine to their figures. In Japan, kids learn several characters called “kanji” every year they attend school.
I have meant to put these things into paper for the longest time. Funny I decided to do so now, sitting in a room with a lady whose memories have exited the premises. My only hope is mine will want to hang around for longer than hers.
Blocks to build a record with... If only we could write things as beautifully as the Japanese and Chinese do.
They put ink to paper and mountains and volcanoes emerge. They build their languages around shapes, and they build statues where we can only build weak log bridges. There’s beauty in the shape of a character, and it is to be found in construction and meaning rather than just lines put together. We build sentences in what takes half a page, but they build a story in half a square. Their ink never runs where is not supposed to run. Their language skeletons are a lot more refined than ours.
There is only so much strength behind our bones. The joints softly bent and clicked together.
I have no recollection of my great-grandmother’s hands or the way they used to shape around green beans, snapping the tops off and throwing the bits in a huacal. Her sitting figure in a chair under a tree and her back to the only things she grew that became completely and utterly successful: her plants. I don’t mean to complain about how things turned out. In the end, the outcome would have been the same regardless of how much more love we put into saving her. We don’t own these things, we’re only here to let them pass.
After we buried her last year and every time I came back from work thereafter, I longed to see her face when turning off the lights in my one-room apartment at night. But then I was scared to see her, so I started praying with my eyes wide open. I build up a prayer worthy of hers, but it started sounding too much like routine. Then I stopped praying for a while. Nowadays I pray for people I haven’t seen in forever, something I learned from a childhood spent next to her kneeling body beside our bed.
I leave my patient’s room early morning, while her nurse examines her, the way I would love to leave these years of hell behind. But just as I carry the weight of my patient’s sorrow when I return home, these heavy years follow me everywhere I go. My great-grandmother’s shadow matches mine. I can hear her footsteps behind me. We walk into the changing times like we did when I was a kid and followed her to the kitchen. If only life remained the way our shadows do after we’re gone.