by Rachel Dovey
The Hail Mary was coming from my grandmother’s television, and I tried to pay attention.
“Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death,” a priest with a crew cut repeated, in the tone of studied concern often used by weathermen.
My 87-year-old grandmother had just suffered a stroke so severe she couldn’t talk or roll over, but every time my mom or I picked up the remote to navigate away from her beloved Catholic TV, she would do the one thing she still could—open her milky green eyes and glare at us.
Catholic TV is exactly what it sounds like. There are programs where church leaders interview conservative pundits about their pro-life stance and adolescent boys explain “Treasures of the Church,” like the Eucharist through silver braces, their monotonous voices raising only when they break. There’s a Merv Griffin-style variety show where 70-year-old clergymen sing old-timey pop standards backed by the Catholic TV Orchestra, and at 10am and 6:30pm, a priest or cardinal prays the rosary, inviting viewers to join in at home.
My grandmother is very Catholic. My mom, a long-out lesbian who’d left this Irish neighborhood in Buffalo, New York for Northern California 30 years ago, is not. I’m not either, but the scent of religion still clings to me, thick and lingering as incense. Raised in a Russian Orthodox Church by my dad and an apartment full of Buddha statues and Georgia O’Keeffe prints by my mom, I had struck an uneasy compromise between their conflicting worldviews by 23. I no longer went to church, but I did still pray, and as the clean-shaven priest repeated his ancient invocation—flat, staged and artificially lit as it was—I focused on his words, hoping at best for some kind of transcendence, and at least for a little distraction.
It didn’t work.
From the hospital bed that had been set up in her living room, my grandmother let out a loud groan. It could have been a word, or a sentence, but her voice was so garbled after the stroke that each utterance sounded like it was filtered through gravel. The smell of shit filled the room.
My mom jumped up from the plastic-covered couch where we’d been sitting and ran over to my grandmother, across a TV-lit living room that had started to lose the immaculate shine it wore when its owner swept and polished several times a day. Houseplants were beginning to wither, crucifixes and yellowed photos collected a thin layer of dust and unopened mail was strewn around the coffee and end tables, displacing the lacy doilies my grandmother had endlessly rearranged.
My mom bent down over her and quickly straightened up.
“We need to change her,” she said, her voice dipping as she tried not cry.
I got up and walked reluctantly over to the bed to stand opposite my mother, over this 90-lb woman who was responsible for both of us, but whom neither of us really liked. She looked up at me through a face unusually bare of lipstick and bright pink rouge, her hair white, her jaw and cheek muscles so relaxed I would have thought she looked peaceful if I didn’t know her better, didn’t know that this newly acquired softness was just paralysis from the stroke.
Together, my mom and I lifted and rolled my grandmother out of her diaper and I held her brittle hip and shoulder, trying not to watch. But as my mom ran a wet washcloth up and down her withered thighs and placed a clean diaper underneath her, I accidently looked down, noticing that her naked crotch now sprouted nothing but a few wispy ghosts of hair.
I looked away quickly, embarrassed for her and ashamed of myself. I was ashamed of so many things that day—of being here for the first time in nearly six years, of planning to stay only four days, of being glad that our visit would be so short. And I was ashamed because, though I didn’t like to admit it, I’d thought this deathbed visit would be something with more meaning or profundity, something that might just bring about those great Catholic terms like “epiphany” or “forgiveness,” or even just bind my grandmother, mom and myself a little closer together. A recent college grad with little experience of loss, I wanted something more than this—more than disposable diapers and the jumbled noise coming from my grandmother’s throat, sounding like a distant cousin of “sorry.”
Across the doily-strewn room, under a dying plant, the TV still broadcast the rosary. When the camera wasn’t focusing on the priest, it would pan up the marble-and-gold walls of the tall cathedral where he stood. I remembered something I’d learned in my junior-year art history class, that the narrow basilica and tall, pointed spires of a traditional Catholic church are constructed to draw your attention skyward, up and away from this suffering world. I watched the lens ascend to a dome full of weightless clouds and floating angels and wished my mind could follow them, to hover peacefully above this mess.
“Can you grab me a towel?”
My mom was trying to spoon feed her mother broth, but the clear liquid kept pouring back out of her drooping mouth—a process I’d been trying not to watch. Instead, because it was 10am the next day, I listened to the same clean-shaven priest sermonize on TV, now in the middle of a comparison between the glory of God and extra-strength laundry detergent.
I went to the hall linen closet, finding rigid stacks of towels that had been color coded and cross-referenced according to type—hand, bath, wash cloth—by my grandmother, once a librarian, before the stroke. I wasn’t surprised; this was, after all, a woman who’d dreaded leaving her home for an apartment not for sentimental reasons, but because she couldn’t stand the thought of a communal laundry room.
“And then he was transfigured. His clothes became whiter than any bleach could make them,” I heard from the TV.
I brought the towel reluctantly over to my mom and then hurried back to the couch, wary of catching my grandmother’s half-shut eye. Once safely back on the plastic surface, I began rifling through a box of old photos that was stowed nearby, picking memories out of their faded depths. There was the vacation cottage on Lake Ontario where my grandmother had always insisted that I sleep downstairs, in case the house caught fire. There I was in a pink two-piece during the first months of my 14-year-old anorexia, when she’d surveyed my gaunt physique approvingly, but still told me that she weighed less at my age. There, in a dim snapshot from the distant past, she stood on her wedding day beside my grandfather, years before the five children, the drinking and the unspeakable things to come.
My mom interrupted me.
“Your cousin isn’t coming,” she said in the same tone she always uses to talk about her brother’s family, who live in South Carolina and namedrop Jesus like he’s everyone’s friend.
“She says she doesn’t want to see her like this. She wants to remember her like she was.”
I continued sorting photos, pretending to be surprised. My mom’s implication was what it usually is—that I was the better cousin—and letting her paint me as the family’s model child never failed to comfort both of us when we were around her relatives. They might see her as the rebellious San Francisco ex-pat, but I was different. Instead of getting slapped by Sister Mary Edith and smoking pot in school, I’d gotten college scholarships and straight A’s. Instead of a string of failed romances (with women!), I’d been in a nice, traditional relationship with a penis-owner for nearly six years. With our blonde hair and green eyes, my mom and I might look nearly identical, but we both knew very well that, here, I functioned as an atonement for her many sins.
But while I would never admit it, I envied my cousin, who was at least honest. Sure, I’d made the big grand gesture, bought the plane ticket, flown to this dreary corner of upstate New York, but now that I was here, what was I actually doing? My mom busied herself with a thousand things—sponge baths, feedings, coordinating Hospice care—the anxiety lodged deep in her DNA spurring something nearly identical to love. But I tried my best to stay back, “out of the way,” I told myself, but really just as far across this small dark room from my dying grandmother as I could get. Something about her twisted body and croaking voice was too glaringly real, blinding as newly bleached whites, and in that age-old gesture Fr. Crew Cut had just been talking about on TV, I hid my face.
On our third day in Buffalo, I sat on my grandmother’s cement driveway and pulled a hidden box of Camels out of a tear in the cloth lining of my purse. My mom knew I smoked, just as I knew she’d been trying to kick the habit since I was ten, but it was one of the things, like her early childhood, that we didn’t talk about.
I blew a white cloud out into the muggy morning. Through the thin walls of the 1940s cottage behind me, I could still hear my grandmother moaning—her guttural cries escaping with the frequent intensity of crashing waves. The Hospice nurse had assured us that this new development wasn’t serious, that she was just sore from being unable to roll or stretch, but coming from a woman who likely had kept resolutely silent while birthing twins, the sounds were alarming. My mom had responded by frantically fluffing pillows and crushing Tylenol when I finally left the house, doing anything, and ultimately nothing, to calm her.
I looked around. This was a neighborhood my grandfather had hated because of its confluence of first-generation Italian and Irish immigrants. With his German pride and taste for expensive martinis, he’d never been happy about raising his family on Buffalo’s industrial border, but he’d have suffered a second heart attack if he saw the neighborhood where his widow eventually moved. The green, tan and white cottages with plastic window awnings and carports lined this pothole-dented street with none of the usual signifiers of suburban wealth—no white picket fences, no sprawling lawns. Though I couldn’t see it from the driveway, I knew that the Catholic school and church my mom had attended were only blocks away, as were the homes of her cousins on my grandmother’s side, raising their second-and-third generation Irish families in the Sunday schools and pleated uniforms my mom had long since left.
This fading rust belt city, with its abandoned railroad terminals and crumbling factories, was the backdrop of things that happened to my mom in her early childhood that she’d only told me about once. I was six, just beginning to retain memories myself, and had walked in on her picking each of the blue-and-white plates her parents had given her out of our kitchen cupboard and hurling them against the wall. She told me then, as she crumpled into a heap of broken china, about the thin strands of half-formed memory that were starting to come back to her, about the things that sometimes happened to children, and about the fact that her own mother had quietly, politely, resolutely looked the other way. She told me, in detail far too great for a six-year-old to comprehend, about the whimpers that had been hushed half a century before, creating a silence that would roll and drift through our family like heavy smoke for years to come.
I inhaled again, starting to feel the nicotine’s calming buzz. My grandmother was dying 30 feet from where I sat, and there was nothing spiritual about it—no meaningful glances, no warming embraces, and, on my part at least, no forgiveness for what she’d never done. I knew my mom shouldn’t have told me what she did, but at least I understood why she’d done it, her words “You can always talk to me” a desperate attempt to clear the muteness that had echoed through her life. I looked over my shoulder at the living room window, which flickered like a votive with the light of Catholic TV.
I remembered, then, a novella by Tolstoy I’d read in High School, “The Death of Ivan Iyllch,” an experience which, I realized, that was the closest I’d come to death until today. Like most things written by Russians, it doesn’t shy away from the gory details—we see the protagonist’s naked, skeletal thighs, feel his exhaustion after shitting, smell the odd, rotten odor that follows him everywhere he goes. It’s a story, like most things written by Russians, that only tiptoes cautiously around the edge of redemption—there’s half a page of lines in twelve chapters that hint at anything beyond what seems like painful, meaningless death. And when they come, those lines don’t call on the usual image of floating bodiless, free, up toward the light. The image Tolstoy uses is a strange one—instead of going up, Ivan has to follow the light down, through a soft, dark, earthy sack.
I realized that it was one of a host of images I’d encountered on my Russian dad’s side that was overtly sensual—round and womb-like as that country’s low-domed churches, and so very different from the ascetic angles and needle-thin towers of my grandmother’s self-abnegating faith. For me, this image conjured something like reality, something like acknowledging that we’re here for a while and may as well do what we can to cope. And I had just spent the last three days doing the opposite, like my grandmother—a woman who wouldn’t look down at the life falling to pieces around her, but always stood like the statue of the Virgin I’d seen on TV that morning, frozen white and silent in the hope of deliverance, looking up at the sky.
I rubbed my cigarette against the cement, feeling the springy give of its fleshy softness as the sparks went black. We still had one day in Buffalo, so I did the only thing I could—I went to inside to see my grandmother and help my mom.
Rachel Dovey is a reporter and nonfiction writer living in Santa Rosa, California. Her work has appeared in Bust, Paste, Thought Catalog, Wired and SF Weekly, and in 2012, she received a fellowship through USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism. She is a staff writer for The Bohemian, a Northern California alt-weekly, and when she isn’t struggling to meet a deadline—hell, even when she is—she can be found in that baffling and wonderful alternate universe known as Parenting a Seven Month Old.