This time I write not about something that brings me joy, but something that sends me into periods of depression-like frustration.
When my parents moved to my town, they brought my mother’s mother, Fran, with them. “For support”, I suppose, because they were two young parents moving somewhere new with a child under two and finding new jobs and a new home would require that that child was taken care of out of the way for a few.
Fran is one of the most intelligent people I’ve known, and can be funny and sarcastic and witty. When I got to be about thirteen, she joked around and started trying to teach me swear words in German and Austrian and whichever language she knew how to swear in at that time. She taught me British slang and how to creatively put someone down without their knowing it.
Of course, around that time she also had seriously untreated depression. I might have been a snotty little shit at thirteen that needed to be yelled at, but she took it too far sometimes, yelling at me from the time I got home until she was hoarse from yelling and blaming and abusing (usually around dinnertime), or until my mother came home.
My mother would have been able to help me, stand as a buffer or mediator, but at the time she was attending night classes in the next town over where she also worked all day. Some nights she didn’t come home until eleven or so, when I’d be asleep and my grandmother’s temper had worked itself out. And I like to think that I didn’t bother her with complaints because I knew she was tired and overworked; it’s more likely that I just shut it all out and neglected to think it important enough to worry her with.
Long story short, Fran’s depression was spotted a few years in and she’s been on antidepressants ever since.
Not that it seems to do much now.
Skip ahead nearly ten years, and now I’m feeling like I’m caught in a time loop reliving the days when I’d come home and the abuse would start as soon as I open the door, the back-handed comments and sneers that she so expertly wields. She’s sitting there on the couch or at the dining room table and chain smoking, looking vaguely off into the distance or out the window. And all it takes is for me to ask if she wants me to take her anywhere (since I’m her only reliable daily transportation), and depending on how much ruminating she’s been doing and how things have gone in the last few days, she’s off immediately:
“Oh, you don’t have plans with dear Harry?” she says with a nasty baby voice.
“This house is such a shithole. If I had some help around here, it wouldn’t be. But noooo, you know the rule, Fran: if you want something done, do it yourself.” This is said just loud enough for me to hear when I’m trying to finish homework or spend five minutes to myself.
“You know, I’m pissed at your mother. She’s so busy with her new family that she doesn’t give a fat shit about her old family. ‘Oh no, Mom, I’m gonna fix that pipe so you guys can have running water again’. Well dear, it would be nice if you’d do that, but the last time you said you’d do something, it didn’t get done and we still don’t have a goddamn bathroom sink.” This one is the most recent complaint.
“I wish your mother would quit moving things. She knows I can’t see, but she does it just because she can. She doesn’t live here, but she has to have it her way, you see.” Always a favorite of hers when she can’t find something more up-to-date to bring up.
“I sure love it when you people treat me like I don’t have a f***ing brain in my head! Like I can’t do things on my own or figure things out!”
And I, for one, am tired of hearing these phrases and so many others repeated in nearly or exactly the same form every day, sometimes several times a day. But this takes some explaining…
Nearly a year ago, on New Year’s Eve, Fran woke from a sound sleep and vomited over the side of her bed. No warning. The next morning, she did nothing but sleep. My mother, who had stayed with us the night Fran got sick, told me not to worry about her too much and let her know if she got sick again. Mom went back to her home in the next town.
That night, I was so disturbed by Fran’s sudden violent illness (I have emetophobia – a fear of vomit) that my stomach was upset and I could not stop shaking. I was kept up by my attempts to calm down, and sleep did not happen. Around two in the morning, I got up to use the bathroom and heard my grandmother panting and groaning downstairs. Fearing another round of sudden sickness, I asked her if she was okay. She answered when I said her name, but she didn’t tell me if she was alright or not. The groaning continued. So I bucked up my courage and went down.
Turns out she had half fallen off the couch and was trying to get herself back up, but couldn’t for some reason. She hadn’t eaten anything all day, and she’s always been overweight and weak, so I wasn’t surprised. I grasped her under the elbow and hauled her fat ass back up onto the couch. But she was sticky with cold sweat, and I was so nervous that I declared I was staying downstairs with her and not falling asleep again that night. She told me not to worry, but she was wrong.
Within an hour, her condition deteriorated farther than I’ve ever seen anyone’s go. She was pale, her eyes (partially sightless due to blood clots behind her eyes) were unfocused and darting around. She was sweating and going from laying down to sitting up, leaning back and forward. She patted her hand around on the coffee table in front of her as if she was looking for something, but she couldn’t tell me what it was she was looking for. I’d ask her a question, and she barely had the attention span to finish listening to me.
Finally, I asked her her birth date, to test my suspicions. She answered perfectly. Then I asked her for my mother’s birth date. She got it wrong.
And that’s when things fell all apart.
I called the ambulance calmly, got a newly revised med list for the EMTs, and called my mother to tell her what was happening. The ambulance drove off without sirens as my mother pulled up to our house and we followed in tense silence. By that time it was three thirty in the morning and I was numb, my eyelids were plastered open and my eyebrows were scrunched in worry by default now. I texted my godmother, who loves Fran dearly, and my father, who likes to be kept close to our family, and briefly told them the news. And then Mom and I waited.
Writing down everything that happened would be pointless: the standing around in the ER hallway until we were allowed in the tiny room with Fran; trying to talk to her and keep her calm while she flailed about on the bed not knowing anything from one minute to the next; the subsequent trip to the critical care unit and the meeting of the heart and lung specialist . But the results are worth noting.
At first, they said she had pneumonia, the kind that creeps up on you. And with Fran, who had a bad smoker’s cough anyway, it was understandable that we would have missed any watery coughing that would alert us. Mom and I were told that they would run tests and call us when anything new came up. The point was that she was stable for the time being. Before we left, Fran was in her right mind finally, and I told her that my cat, Sid, would miss her. She told me quite clearly and reassuringly that Sid didn’t give a rat’s ass about her. We laughed and thought everything would be fine.
Mom and I went back home to catch some shut-eye until about ten in the morning. We had left around seven or eight, so we didn’t get much sleep. But it helped. At some point, we went back either at the summons of the pulmonologist or our own worries. A few days went by, each one with more startling surprises.
Fran’s immune system had been compromised by an ongoing staph infection, one that had slipped by underneath the radar of her nurse practitioner under the guise of elevated WBC counts caused by any number of problems that she could have had. The staph had settled in her heart and on the mitral valve. It grew unnoticed for a long time; the immune and diseases doctor she was assigned said it could have happened years ago during a normal sickness and progressed completely unseen. After all, who gets routine checks on the insides of their hearts? At some point, it had flaked off a tiny portion, which had traveled up to her brain and caused several small strokes.
For the next few weeks, she stayed up in the CCU mostly asleep as they performed tests and injected medications and ran a tube down her throat to breathe for her when she would have killed herself trying to do it alone. We were battered and scared, both Mom and I. Mom took time off work for a couple days here and there, and her husband stayed out several times with her. It was extremely good luck that I had not had classes because I would not have coped at all.
She exceeded all the doctors’ expectations and was released from a rehabilitation hospital in my mother’s town in mid-February. But she came home with a few lingering problems. The strokes had knocked out her working (short-term) memory, and the left field of her vision (her good side) was gone. She had a shorter temper, got frustrated easily, raised her voice often and suddenly, and had more medication to take. Mom instructed me on how to fill and monitor her med intake when she wasn’t there to do it for her or me (my mother is a medical assistant and deals with doses and patients all day).
This summer, Fran was told she had malignant small-cell lung cancer. Given her habit of smoking nearly a pack a day, that was no real surprise; it was just a waiting game for the time when it was found. See, Fran is, and always has been, someone who has never been able to afford stellar health care and would only go see the doctor for extremely serious things, like strokes and sudden gurd. In all the time I’ve been alive, she’s been to the hospital only twice, for those two reasons I just mentioned. She’s stubborn and militantly self-reliant. The strokes did not change that one iota, they only made it worse.
The chemotherapy and radiation have now finished without hiccups, and the doctors have given her a break for the holidays (“So nice of them, don’t you think?” she quips in that sweet, sarcastic voice she relishes using). But that doesn’t mean a thing to her, and frankly, I wish she had something, anything, going on so I wouldn’t be stuck at home with her during the season to listen to yet another furious, criticizing diatribe about poor Fran, the perpetual victim, always broke and taken advantage of, always dismissed and told lies, always pushed off to the side unless someone else needs something (mostly money).
But she never seems to follow logical thinking no matter how much I try to enlighten her to the bright side of things (or on a few truly brave occasions, her own faults and shortcomings so she can stop bitching about everyone else’s for five seconds like she’s the only perfect being on Earth). I cajole, I plead, and sit and listen for hours, and wait my turn as she gets to the end of her rant. She fails to acknowledge all that Mom and I have done and shifted to make things easier for her.
She says she’s the constant victim at the hands of my mother and I (she who raises her voice and cuts us with both sides of her tongue as we sit politely by waiting for an opportunity to get a fair word in edgewise). She whines that she never has enough money (but won’t bat an eye at spending about a hundred dollars on crap we don’t need at thrift stores). She throws a fit when I fail to remember tiny details like telling her about my plans for the day (but won’t admit that her memory is so bad anymore that she can’t remember if I told her something or not anyway). We tell her lie after lie after lie according to her, but even when we tell her the truth that she doesn’t want to hear, she never listens or tries to see it from our perspective even once.
She doesn’t see or care that Mom and I love her and want her to live even when she’s a colossal raging cunt. We help her read things and her needs come first when we plan anything. I hardly see my friends anymore and my boyfriend only sees me once or twice a week on average. We fill her med box because we know she can’t tell one pill from another, she’s told us so. We tidy things up so she can find things easier instead of bumbling around for hours looking for one receipt among hundreds of pieces of paper. We are constantly at her beck and call, fetching, toting, leading, waiting for her.
These last few months I have gotten my glut of her poisonous attitude and all that comes with it. I, a person who hates conflict and avoids stirring the pot at all costs, have had the strength only a couple times to say what’s really on my mind, and she has shut me down time and again.
Fran knows it all, Fran cannot lie, Fran has known you since you were born and she is your elder. Don’t try and defend yourself against her even when she’s wrong because you can’t possibly know anything and it’s not your place or right anyway. You’re only, what, 21 years old? A child. You don’t have any opinions or needs or plans of your own. Your life revolves around being her little slave, her punching bag, the enduring, unwilling audience to her every bad thought and awful habit. Your view does not matter and never will.
I have given her enough slack to wrap around the world by now. She’s old and blind and sick. She might have died earlier this year several times, so her body is working hard to repair and hold up. She still smokes like she used to despite doctors’ warnings and a worsening of her cough. She eats when she feels like it and eats whatever she has a craving for, which is usually sugary doughnuts and fast food and ice cream and french fries. So as a consequence, she feels like shit all the time and never has the right energy. Perhaps I’m being too harsh on her. After all, I can’t and won’t try to understand the situation she’s in right now, with cancer and blindness and obesity and heart surgery to worry about. I couldn’t begin to sympathize, and that kills me.
But truthfully, I’m so glad that I’m moving out of state for my bachelor’s degree next spring. Finally, privacy, peace and quiet, and freedom are just around the corner.
I just wish my mom could join me….