Sunday, January 4, 2009

To die, to sleep...

I was awaken this morning to my ringing cell phone; it's a fake rap song that yells out when my mom dials me. Actually, Mindy woke me up off and on by having a bad dream and crying, and then snoring. So, the phone rang and I jumped up and ran to the living room naked to answer it. Mom was already leaving a message.

She called to say grandma was in an ambulance because she couldn't breathe. Again.

I showered, made coffee, and left in 15 minutes. My heart felt heavy.

This has been happening more frequently. Each month, just one or two more visits than the last. I know what happens eventually.

When I arrived, there were only a few family members in the waiting room. One person came out from the ER with my little, crumpled blue piece of paper that granted me access to the locked door. I found Grandma on the far left in the far back. She had an oxygen mask sucking and blowing at her face so hard I couldn't really hear or understand what she was saying. Her breathing was labored and her left hand gripped at her chest, all of those rings stuck to her swollen fingers. For the first time in my adult life I held her hand, her nails stained with blood that had dripped from the catheter stuck in the back of her hand. She squeezed it in rhythm to the breathing and I suspect, the pain from her drowning lungs.

When my aunt left our side for a few minutes, I promised to stay there. She squeezed my hand and said, "It's just you and me, Christina."

And it was just us for that long minute.

I've mentioned earlier that I'm just realizing my grandma likes me. I guess I see that I like her too. For a long time she hated me...or I thought she did. It was just us. And my mind is still swirling wondering what it really means.

I've also said I don't know my grandma. I said this to Mindy tonight and she said, "Do you really think that?" I do. I hardly know that woman, and I wonder how much the rest of the family does.

My family doesn't know me just as much as I don't know them. I don't know if they believe in God, which way they vote, what their favorite book is, what music they choose to sing to when they're alone. I don't know them at all. But, they also have no idea who I am.

They don't know that I write. Most don't know what an archaeologist even does. They don't know what I feel about my last name, or the town I grew up in. When they look at me, and hear me, sarcastic and dry, do they understand anything that's true?

But, I only see them at moments like this: in the hospital; at weddings; at holidays; at funerals. For me, this is when people are at their worst. At least, that's when I'm at my most cynical. I hate holidays mostly because of commercial reasons. I don't like weddings for the same reason coupled by the fact that I can't have the same rights, and no one likes to be in the hospital (on top of that, I've watched my other grandma and my grandpa Holzhauser die in nearly the same fashion). And funerals, they make me vulnerable, make me feel like I'm staring at the ocean for the first time in my life, make me feel guilty for being so intrigued.

I mean, I don't invite my family out for drinks. Most of them haven't seen my house, or know where I live. I wonder if they want to.

At the hospital they all try to talk over each other. The one who talks the loudest is the one who wins and gets to talk the longest, about whatever subject. No Holzhauser is wrong. Ever. About anything. I've learned to keep quiet and nod at whatever they say. To try to get to speak is too much work and not a game I'm willing to play. Sometimes when I'm asked a question, I get cut-off half way through my answer, the subject turns to something else, and I'm lost, left to live only in their suspicions and assumptions. I think this is true for all of us.

I've always asked myself whether or not I'd be friends with my family members. Some I would choose, others I would never give the time of day, and most I'd tell to shut their racist, bigoted, isolated mouths. That's harsh. It's true, though, tonight. Everything seems truer at the moment.

So what, right, we all feel that way at times. Again, I turn to adoption. Do I feel that I'm not close because I'm adopted, or is it because it's just true for my family?

I asked Grandma at Christmas if she was ready for that interview we talked about. She said, "anytime." While I was showering and getting dressed this morning I rubbed that phrase into my body. I have a lot to ask her. A family sex scandal. If she believes in God. If she has regrets. If she really likes all those damn cardinal figurines and sweatshirts she gets for her birthday and holidays. I'll let her ask me things too, if she wants.

Because really, how much does the family know about me or her? We've never asked personal questions; we avoid difficult topics. Only my two cousins who are within a couple years of my age ever asked about me being a lesbian. The hatred, confusion, denial, sadness, and acceptance all passed silently, just lines on our faces speaking for us.

When my grandma dies it will be loud and violent. She will drown in her own fluids, her lungs struggling to pump because her heart has weakened and can't pump the fluids through. Her body will be starved of oxygen. Her chest will heave. There will be wailing from some of the women while God is asked some hard questions. Of course, after all that, silence.

Grandma, it is just us wondering what it's all about. Why we live and then die. Because I've always been cursed with an overwhelming knowledge and fear of the end of my own consciousness. Some think we wake up in the sky, wearing wings and living eternally. Actually, some must think I'll wake up in a fiery pit with the wailing and gnashing of teeth. But I think one day I will go to sleep and never wake up, and never know it.

Grandma must struggle with it, too, knowing it could be anytime and she might not even realize it when it comes. Or maybe she will and she'll have to watch us all, silently dealing, while the family grows and separates. And time again.

Congestive heart failure happens when the heart is diseased, injured, or overworked.
Congestive heart failure is a progressive and eventually fatal illness.

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