Let Her Talk

Last Wednesday I volunteered along with my uncle to stay overnight in the ICU, where my grandmother lay under yellow fluorescent lights with a monstrous BiPAP breathing machine strapped to her face like a giant muzzle. A giant muzzle with a blow dryer attached to it. The machine’s function was to push as much oxygen into the patient’s lungs as possible, since the patient’s lungs were most likely resisting their intended purpose, but the machine did not so much help its patients breathe it seemed, as make their last remaining breaths on earth extremely uncomfortable.

For twenty-four hours a day the BiPAP Vision (I have no idea what the “vision” part means) forced air into my grandma’s failing lungs with a horrible, constant whooshing sound, not unlike an industrial strength vacuum cleaner that made the deep, intimidating breaths of Darth Vader’s mask seem like a kitten’s purrs. It cracked her lips and parched her throat, but worse, the pressure of the air forbade her to take any food or water as there was the danger of the air blowing the food down the wrong pipe and causing an infection all over again.

The BiPAP machine should have prevented her from talking, but my grandma has not, for the past ten years (or for the past sixty-eight years that they’ve been married, if you ask grandpa) been one to shut up. The only time she was silent at the hospital was when she had to choose between speaking or breathing, and when that time passed, she was talking again as best she could through the racket of the BiPAP machine.

“Tell her not to talk so much,” my grandpa said over and over again when we visited her in the ICU, “She needs to rest.”

At the time, I had been crying for what seemed like two days straight and was overjoyed to see my grandma well enough to be talking, and I chastised her ornery, often sullen and always stoic husband, “Oh Grandpa, if she wants to talk, let her talk. Someday soon you might not be able to hear her voice at all.”

He looked at me. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

I thought it was obvious, but didn’t respond.

“Oh you mean if she’s dead?”

“Well, yeah,” I said, and my grandpa snorted angrily and walked away.

It was an insensitive thing to say to a man whose wife was hanging on for dear life, but still, I stood my ground. Grandma’s status was far from stabilized and I wanted her to have her say, lest she leave us with wise words unspoken. She never went to college and had little need for books or newspapers, preferring to spend an evening cooking for her progeny, but she’s been around for eight-seven years and it’s not lost on any of us that she raised four filial children, ten adoring grandchildren and maintained a bittersweet marriage to a very difficult man. On top of that she could, as my aunt put it, be the darned community leader of Sunshine Park, where she and my grandpa took their daily morning walks when her lungs still allowed it. I’m sure that for the past twelve days the denizens of their little cul-de-sac have been scratching their heads, wondering where darling talkative Mama Leu is. But word spreads quickly and my grandma’s hospital room has had from the very beginning a nonstop flow of visitors both related and not. People love her. The nurses love her. We love her. There is definitely something to be learned from so much love.

Grandma post ICU and BiPAP, reading about Warfarin.The hair is really something special.

During the first two evenings, when grandma’s vitals were all over the place and when her only hope of leaving the physical world in peace was upon morphine’s calming current, we leaned in close to the mouth cover of the BiPAP machine each time she wanted to speak. If she was at the end of her life, we reasoned, whatever words she spoke would take great effort and we wanted to make sure they were heard.

At first, she cried and we cried and when she spoke her speech waffled back and forth between acceptance of her fate: I’m ready to go, I’m not afraid, don’t be afraid, (I’m rattling them off now but in the moment those are very sad words); and flat out rejection: I’m not ready to go, I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go (these are ten thousand time more heart-wrenching and, it turned out, a reflection of her true heart). A few days later when the antibiotics and steroids had taken effect and the infection reduced, she was well enough to inform my grandpa thus: “Don’t listen when someone tells you they’re not afraid of death. Liars, all of them.”

As her condition improved however, thoughts of death and dying floated away and her mind busied itself with other things, namely, hubris and prejudice. That Wednesday night, two days after I’d admonished my grandpa for telling her to shut up, I found awake in the ICU at 2AM, wishing my grandmother would do just that.

Her nurse that evening was a pretty middle-aged black woman with long, curly hair and a perky butt, which according to her, was one reason she was constantly being hit on by reckless young fools in the ER. (“They don’t know I’m old enough to be their mother,” the nurse said smiling to herself). We chatted a bit here and there as she changed my grandmother’s iv, wrote down her vitals, and, occasionally, changed the bedpan – the most unassuming yet menacing reminder of our mortality, if there ever was one. Whenever she clicked her pen to go, I leaned down towards grandma, who even in the deadest hours of the night could not sleep due to the incessant pressure of the Bipap, and asked if she needed anything.

Grandma struggled to unclip her mask and I hurried to help her out of it, worried that she needed more pain medication, “What is it? What do you want me to tell the nurse?”

“Does she know you’re my granddaughter?”

I stared at my darling grandmother. It was two in the morning, she had just come back, it seemed, from death’s door. This was the most pressing question she had?

“What does she need?” the nurse asked kindly.

I chuckled,  aware that my face was, because of the time of night, a sickly yellow pallor, made worse by the unflattering ICU lights, “Oh nothing, my grandma just wants to know if you know that I’m her granddaughter.”

The nurse smiled, “Of course! Your grandma is really proud of her whole family. Earlier I think she was trying to tell me that she had what, twenty grand kids?”

“Ten,” I said. “Ten.”

The nurse nodded towards my uncle who was not quite nodded off, but headed there. He smiled at her.

“And is that your dad?”

“No, that’s my uncle.” 

Grandma tugged at the mask again, this time more hurriedly and I rushed to un-clip it.

“Tell her I’ve got two great-grand kids,” my grandma said, “And two on the way.”

I bit my lip, but the nurse looked at me expectantly. I told her. 

“Wow, that’s such a nice big family you guys have,” she said, “I saw a lot of people gathered around here earlier. She’s lucky to have you all be so close.”

“Yeah,” I said, and looking affectionately towards grandma, I nodded, “She’s pretty special.”

I reached down to clip the mask back on and right before her voice was muffled my grandma asked, “Ask her to guess how old I am.”

I told her to shush and get some sleep. The nurse had other patients in more critical states to attend to.

At four AM, I had all but given up on sleep and instead watched my grandma toss and turn and poke and prod at the plastic mask, one moment scratching the top near the bridge of her nose, at where the mask had dug a fresh red groove, and another scratching the back of her neck, where the Velcro straps no doubt caused a horrendous itch. It was a modern medical torture device and I wanted to rip it off as much as my grandmother did, but if it was removed for more than ten seconds, the blasted machine it was hooked up to would start an incessant beeping and the nurse would come rushing in to admonish us all.

The black nurse came in again to read the machines and a few minutes later a black respiratory therapist entered as well to administer a breathing treatment. They chatted quietly, keeping their voices low so my uncle, who had finally dozed off, could sleep and worked their way around the cramped perimeter of the bed. My grandmother watched them attentively.

The man left, pleased with my grandmother’s oxygen levels and the nurse turned to go to. I glanced at my grandmother to see if she needed anything, and true to form her arm shot out with an alarming urgency for someone supposedly old and tired, though all too lucid.

I unclipped the mask and whispered a little too loudly for the nurse to wait. She turned and said, “Is everything okay? Does Mama need anything?”

Grandma swallowed a couple of times and her eyes fluttered upward. I wondered if the morphine was wearing off. Her mouth opened and closed a couple of times, adjusting to the cooler air and finally, she spoke, “They’re married, aren’t they?”

I was confused for a minute, then realized she was referring to the black nurse and the black respiratory therapist. In her simple deductions of the world at large, the two black people who had by the chance scheduling of their occupations ended up behind the same curtain of the same ICU at the same time, must be married.

I gave my grandma an incredulous look that she ignored and said, “No grandma, they are not.”

“They’re not?” now it was her turn to be incredulous.

“No.” I thought to explain that the nurse was not even from California, that she was a traveling nurse here for 13 weeks, and hailed from Connecticut, but these details, invisible to my grandmother, would mean nothing to her. I could tell she didn’t buy my dissent and rolled her eyes. “They seem married,” she murmured.

“What does mama need?” the nurse said, and I turned to give her an apologetic look. The nurse had been nothing but kind and understanding, and if I’d read her correctly, would merely laugh at my grandmother’s harmless prejudices, but it was four in the morning and I wasn’t about to take any chances.

“She’s fine,” I said, “Doesn’t need anything. She says you guys are great.”

And as if right on cue, grandma waved her IV free hand in both the direction of the Respiratory Therapist that had just gone and then at the nurse. She gave a thumbs up and closed her eyes, attempting to sleep perchance to dream in a world where all black nurses were married to black respiratory therapists, at least those who were in the same room at the same time.

The nurse smiled, “Oh she is just the sweetest thing.” 

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