Saturday, January 3, 2009

15 Holzhausers Walk Into a Hospital...

November 24, 2008

My grandma is dying.

Not in the sense that we're all dying every day, but in a real, very obvious sense.

She is my last grandparent. My mom's dad died when I was 2, his wife died when I was 9, though I was at her bedside when the very end came. My dad's dad died when I was 17 and it's still a haunting memory of violence and then nothingness as I hid behind a curtain and watched.

Grandma's been having congestive heart failure for the past month. Every time, she is taken in an ambulance to Jeff City or Columbia, and the whole family is called. We all arrive and sit in the emergency room or waiting room. If you can't imagine 15 Holzhausers in an uncomfortable situation it is much like arriving to a party and realizing everyone there has been drinking since the early afternoon. They are loud and telling stories they've told many times: Uncle Greg nearly bit some guy's nose off in a fight. We laugh heartily. Dad had to shoot the deer over an over before it died. Some of us laugh with a wheeze and a red face. I suppose it's comforting to hear what we've always heard and it feels like Christmas or Thanksgiving. I feel sorry for the other guests who are waiting, in pain, to be seen. Or the other people who are waiting, like we are, in case this time is the last.

I came out to my family 11 years ago and since then, I've been working my way back into their lives. Or, maybe I'm starting to work into their lives, as an adult and not as a child or a teenager who felt out of place.

Two weeks ago I went to the hospital to see Grandma on a Friday in the afternoon. I meant to stay 30 minutes and leave. She was sitting in a chair with tubes and everything stuck into her and running out of her. She looked older than I remembered. She asked how my teaching job was, I told her the drama. She asked about Mindy. I showed her my latest rugby injury and she shook her head, smiling. Then we started talking about Mindy and me. I mean, really talking. I told her that we had no legal rights to each other and she told me to get it done soon because you never know what could happen. She asked if we wanted to have kids. I said someday, that Mindy would do it. We talked about sperm donors. "Grandma," I said, "did you ever think you'd have a conversation like this with me?" She laughed that old smoker laugh until she coughed. "No, honey, I didn't." We laughed together. And after that, she wanted to talk about everything with me. I stayed for 3 hours.

I called her on her birthday not long after that and she said how much she enjoyed visiting with me. Mom called to tell me that grandma had called to tell her that I'd called and said we had a nice conversation.

Yesterday she went back into the hospital so Mindy and I drove to Jeff City. She was in the emergency room waiting to get a bed. When I walked in, her face lit up. I made her laugh a couple of times. We didn't talk too long since she was feeling bad, but I remember she said, "I just wanna feel like Edith again."

The idea of aging has really been bothering me lately. Old people aren't aliens, they're like you and me except they're older. I know it sounds stupid, but people forget that. One day, you and I will have the same brain but in a crappier body. That's all an old person is: a young person in a wrinkly body.

So, Grandma's body is trying to quit and she must know it. She just turned 78.

I've been meaning to video her for years, ask her about the horse and buggy, all those things that are being forgotten more and more every day. There was a sex scandal she was involved in in the late 40s. That couldn't have been easy. She ran a bar for years with Grandpa. I wonder what she's seen?

I'm embarrassed to say this is what I know about my grandma: she is 78, her name is Edith, she's quoted as saying, "Vince Gil could leave his boots on my bed and I wouldn't say a thing to him." And that's it, really.

My grandma likes me. She laughs at my smartass jokes. She loves Mindy and calls her "dear." She even asked yesterday if I played rugby this weekend.

So it seems my time to get to know her is very limited, but if I start asking too many questions, will it make her feel bad? Will it make her feel like we all know it's near the end?

Yesterday we stood there, the 15 of us, around her hospital bed. People were playing with their cell phones ("I can't figure the goddamned thing out") or laughing (Joe's so goddamned afraid 'a snakes one time..."). Grandma tried to keep up, smiling at the funny stories, but she kept drifting asleep. For one moment, everyone was quiet as we looked at her, her eyes closed, her false teeth out. The moment it got quiet, she opened her eyes, like she was afraid to miss something, and someone started, "January 17 we're having a fish and chicken fry out..."

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Writer, teacher, and archaeologist. Contributing essayist in the anthology "Crooked Letter I: Coming Out In the South" from NewSouth Books.