For most of the time now, grandmother sleeps, in a body that she hardly seems to recognize. Her mouth is filled with canker sores. The scab on her upper lip, a result of her fall nearly three weeks ago, still has not healed – a paradoxical side effect of the oxygen mask she needs to keep her alive. She has lost weight and I was startled last night to feel how thin her calves had become, how loose the skin. But still, I repeated loudly what the nurses had said to me two weeks ago, “Grandma, all the nurses say you have excellent firm skin for someone your age.” We think she is sleeping, but we know too, that when you sleep all day, it is always a half sleep, never deep.
Before, when she still had energy to speak she lifted the oxygen mask just long enough to look at my mother and say, “How did it come to this?”
It seems like half a year ago that the doctor deemed her well enough to commence physical therapy, but in truth it was just last week, when she showed signs of improvement and when her body was still hers. When we visited that week, we found two towels stuffed into the sides of her bed. We pondered these towels until evening after dinner she grabbed one between both hands, held it shoulder width apart, and began to twist and twirl them through the air in a choppy figure eight. It was an oddly elegant motion, and my grandmother performed it with a similar albeit shaky elegance, eyes closed and lips pursed. At times it appeared as though she were chanting. Even this tiny movement caused her to wheeze and I wondered about its effectiveness. My grandmother’s arms are strong, much more so than her legs which have undoubtedly been weakened further after two weeks of bed rest, but I suppose at this point you strengthen what you have and pray the rest will follow.
At the very least, the exercise helped pass the time. If you are a bed-ridden patient in the hospital, there is plenty of time. Twenty-four hours a day for fifteen days and counting, every hour blends seamlessly with the rest because in the hospital room with its darkened windows, one really cannot rely on the sun. My aunt, uncles and mother, my grandmother’s four children, take turns spending the night with her, given a break only occasionally by me, the unemployed grandchild with nothing but time and a stack of unread magazines. When the lights go out and my grandmother tries to sleep (though it is rare that she sleeps for an hour straight), I take out my CD player (a relic, nowadays) and listen to an audiobook. My aunt often asks me not to go – I am too young, I need my rest, etc. etc. but I stare at her sixty-year old face and say, “Yi-Mah, I’m twenty-six, it’s nothing to me.” And of course a few all nighters here and there are nothing, but she and I both know that if my grandma’s status were to suddenly take a turn for the worst, it had better be one of her own children than me, a grandchild with hardly any history. In the grand scheme of things, my life is but a tender, green branch, near the top of a towering oak tree.
Morning arrives and my grandmother stirs in her monstrous mechanical bed, not because she is well rested but because she is exhausted and tossing and turning is the only thing she can do to pass the night. I look at the clock; it is 6AM and neither of us has had any sleep. Between the beeping of her oxygen monitor and other patients’ IV drips and nurses who, so accustomed to their nocturnal lifestyles, forget to lower their voices in the hallway and the hourly visits of the Respiratory Therapist and the Nurse’s Assistant and the Nurse to administer one or two of my grandmother’s dozen steroid-based medications via the painful IV in the thin skin of her hand (re-positioned every two days to prevent infection) or the respirator or through the mouth, rest is clearly the only thing not administered to a patient in a hospital bed.
But still, the sun is just beginning to show itself and despite my brain crying for sleep and the danger of driving home in this exhausted state, I find myself striding out of the hospital’s sliding glass doors, slamming my car door and weaving in and out of traffic, racing home to my own bedroom which is free of other patients, free of fluorescent lights and free of commodes and bedpans and IVs. Anything but the confines of that small, dim space, to which my grandma is chained both by the oxygen tube that keeps her alive and by the weakness of her legs. Anything but that dim space in which she will remain until God or Zithromax and her seemingly impotent cocktail of corticosteroids are finally able to oust the stubborn phlegm in her lungs, though today it is clear that God is waiting because the drugs have failed.
To call myself a prisoner when I am free to leave at any time is to rub my grandmother’s present eternity in her face. But in truth I am trying to contrast a portrait of youth, myself, who knows nothing of patience and the most patient of patients, the etymology of which I am only beginning to grasp.