NOTHING COMPARES 2 U
The flight was fine. It was fine in that there was no turbulence or delays. It’s a forty-five-minute flight, so it’s not all that torturous. But it was awful in that all Rachel and I did was say, “I really didn’t think she had cancer,” over and over.
When we get to the hospital, my mom is waiting next to my grandmother’s bed. Uncle Fletcher is talking to the doctor. Mom sees us before we get into the room, and she steps outside to prep us.
“She’s not doing great in terms of energy,” my mom says, her face and voice both stoic. “But the doctors are confident that she’s not in much pain.”
“OK,” I say. “How are you?”
“Terrible,” she says. “But I’m not going to deal with it until I have to. I think the best thing for all of us is to buck up. Put on a brave face. Use this time to tell her how much she means to us.”
Because we don’t have much time left.
“Can we talk to her?” Rachel asks.
“Of course.” Mom opens her arm and directs us into the room. Rachel and I sit down on either side of Grandma. She looks tired. Not the sort of tired after you’ve run a race or the sort of tired after you haven’t slept. She looks the sort of tired that you might be after living so long on this earth.
“How are you, Grandma?” Rachel asks.
Grandma smiles at Rachel and pats her hand. There’s no answer to that question.
“We love you, Grams,” I say. “We love you so much.”
She pats my hand this time and closes her eyes.
We all stand around for hours, waiting for her to wake up, seizing the moments when she’s lucid and smiling. No one cries. I don’t know how we all do it.
Around three, Charlie and Natalie arrive. Natalie looks as if she could burst at any minute. Charlie looks haggard and stressed. He looks at Grandma sleeping. “It’s bad?” is all he asks, and Mom nods.
“Yeah,” she says. “It’s bad.”
She takes Charlie and Natalie into the hall to talk to them. Rachel goes with her. It’s just me, sleeping Grandma, and Uncle Fletcher. I never have much to say to Fletcher, and now, when it seems there is so much to say, I’m still speechless. He is, too. After a while, he excuses himself, saying he’s going to find a nurse. As much as I have nothing to say to him, I also don’t want him to go. I don’t want to be alone in this room. I don’t want to face this alone.
I walk up to the chair next to Grandma that Uncle Fletcher just vacated, and I sit down. I grab her hand. I know she’s asleep, but I talk to her anyway. I’m not alone in this room yet, I realize. She’s still here.
“You know, I wrote to Ask Allie,” I tell her. “I wrote to her about Ryan and me. You were right about a lot of the things you said. About how I could have avoided this year altogether if maybe I’d valued some things differently. And yet I think I needed this year. I think it was in me, and it had to come out, if that makes sense. I think I needed extra time with Rachel. I needed to be able to focus on Charlie. I needed to explore some other things. Or, you know, maybe I didn’t need to do it. Maybe there are a number of ways I could have handled my marriage, and this was just . . . this was the way I handled it. Anyway, I wrote to Ask Allie about it. I asked her what she thought I should do. You were right about her,” I say, laughing under my breath. “She’s good.” It’s eerily quiet in the room, so I keep talking. “Ryan was here when Grandpa died. And I remember the way he just held me and somehow made it better. Can just anyone do that for you? Can you be held by just anyone? Or does it have to be someone in particular?”
“Someone in particular,” she says. Her voice is rough and scratchy. Her eyes are still closed. Her face barely moves when she talks.
“Grandma? Are you OK? Can I get you anything? Should I get Mom?”
She ignores me. “You have that someone. That’s all I’ve been trying to say. Don’t give up on him just because he bores you. Or doesn’t pick up his socks.”
“Yeah,” I say. She seems too weak to keep talking, so I don’t want to ask her questions. And yet there is so much I want to learn from her. Her eccentricities, the things that felt so silly and laughable before, now seem profound and insightful. Why do we do this? Why do we undervalue things when we have them? Why is it only on the verge of losing something that we see how much we need it?
“I wasn’t actually positive that I had cancer,” she says. “I hadn’t been to the doctor in ages. I kept telling your mother and your uncle that I was going.” She laughs. “But I never went. I figured if I did have it, I didn’t want anyone trying to cure it. A few times, I walked out the door, telling Fletcher I was going to see my oncologist. I didn’t even have an oncologist. I was playing bridge with Betty Lewis and the Friedmans.” She laughs again, and then she fades out for a moment and perks back up. “The doctors say this type is fast-moving. Most likely, I just developed it. You guys weren’t wrong to make fun of me all those years I kept saying I had it,” she says, smiling at me, letting me know she knew what we were saying the whole time. “I was ready to die, and I think that was the only way I could admit it.”
“How can you be ready to die?”
“Because my husband is gone, Lauren,” she says. “I love you all so much. But you don’t need me anymore. Look at all of you. Your mom is doing so well. Fletcher is fine. You three kids are doing great.”
“Well . . .”
“No, you are,” she says, patting my hand. “But I miss my mom,” she says. “I miss my dad. I miss my big sister. I miss my best friend. And I miss my husband. I’ve lived too long without him now.”
“But you were doing OK,” I say. “You were getting out of bed. You were making a life without him.”
My grandmother gently shakes her head. “Just because you can live without someone doesn’t mean you want to,” she says.
The words bang around in my brain, knocking into one another, bouncing off the edges of my mind, but they keep rearranging themselves in the same order.
I don’t say anything back. I look at her and squeeze her hand. I often think of my grandmother as the old lady at the dinner table. But she’s seen generations. She was a child once. She was a teenager. A newlywed. A mother. A widow.
“I’m sorry this has been so hard,” I say. “I never thought of how difficult it must have been for you without Grandpa. It’s a hard life.”
“No, sweetheart, it’s not a hard life. I’m just done living.”
When she says it, she’s also done talking. She falls back asleep, holding my hand. I rest my chin on her arm and watch her. Eventually, Natalie comes back in, needing to sit down.
“It’s hard to stay on my feet so long,” she says. “It’s also hard to sit still for a long time. Or lie down for too long. Or eat. Or not eat. Or breathe.”
I laugh. “Is this such a good idea?” I ask her. “I mean, you’re due in, like, days, right?”
“I’m due Thursday,” she says. Five days away. “But it was never a question. We had to come. This is where we need to be. I’d be uncomfortable sitting at home, you know? This way . . . this is better.”
“Can I get you anything?” I ask her. “Ice chips?”
“You know I’m not actually in labor, right?” Natalie laughs at me, and I laugh back.
“Fair enough!” I say. It wasn’t when she said she needed to be here for Grandma that she became a sister to me. It was when she made fun of me for offering ice chips. Big gestures are easy. Making fun of someone who’s just trying to help you, that’s family.
Charlie joins us. Uncle Fletcher comes in with a bag of Doritos. I don’t even know if he went to get a nurse. Mom and Rachel come in. Rachel has clearly been crying. I look at her and see the red in her eyes. I give her a hug.
We stand around. We sit. We wait. I’m not exactly sure what we can do to make any of this better. Sometimes we are talking. Sometimes we are quiet. There are too many of us in this small room, and so we take turns walking out into the hall, walking down to the vending machines, getting a glass of water. Nurses come in and out. They change fluids. The doctor comes in and answers our questions. But really, there aren’t many questions to ask. Questions are for when you think there is a way to save someone.