My aunt was grappling with the cord on the plastic horizontal blinds. The string was basically useless. No, that’s not true. It would pull the blinds up. It would not, however, drop them down. Across the room, my uncle squinted with the full glare of the late afternoon sun in his face.
“That’s not working,” came the obvious from my father, near the corner. My aunt laughed and kept gently trying to jiggle the cord into position. As my mother moved to help her, my uncle suddenly bleated. “There! Phyllis! Just–” he made a tiny motion to the left with his hands as my mother formed a partial eclipse across his face. She smiled and scootched that way as my aunt’s nervous giggle sounded next to her again.
“Perfect!” he said, shaded. “Don’t move.”
“What are wingbacked chairs for?” I asked from my perch in one, lolling my head dramatically to one side. “Are they to catch your head if you fall asleep?”
“Yes,” said my mother. “That is what they’re for.”
“Well this one fails,” I said, rubbing my neck where I’d kinked it from my experiment.
“Do you remember how Josh used to fall asleep as a kid?” my cousin Greg asked, and I nodded. Josh was kind of freakishly sleepy, practically a narcoleptic when we were little.
“In his bowl of spaghetti!” Aunt Jane declared as Josh humbly rolled his eyes and nodded, having heard that particular story semi-annually for the last 30 years or so.
“On the floor outside the shower,” I began.
“–While the shower was on,” my mother finished.
“I don’t remember that,” Josh laughed. “Everybody says I did it, but I don’t remember it.” Josh is affable, instantly likable and quick to absorb ribbing, which, as the youngest of my aunt’s children, he had taken plenty.
Dad’s phone rang and he walked out of the room to take the call. Technically he wasn’t supposed to have the phone, but nobody had said anything to him, or any of the rest of us, who had ours too.
“We were going to get married,” I said to no one in particular, gesturing to Josh. “When we were five.” I still have a sepia-toned memory of us holding hands walking down a sidewalk, maybe into – or out of – the little school we went to together where his job was to tie shoes, because he could, and my job was to roll up sleeves for messy crafts. Josh was the youngest of his family and I the oldest of mine, ourselves separated by just seven months, the children of a pair of sisters. He was always a sensitive soul with puppy dog eyes and a sweet, infectious smile, traits which have carried him into his 35th year. Fortunately we fell rather out of love by the time we were seven, at the outside. Plus I had moved away and the distance was a bit of a strain on the relationship, as neither of us had gotten terribly good at writing yet. Also there was the cousin thing – though that had not phased his great-grandparents, a fact which had cursed his father and uncle with what the family referred to as “an imbalance” in the way that folks who still love the Old South refer to the Civil War as “the late unpleasantness.” Fact was, his father and uncle were nutty, sans meds. And sometimes flat-out nasty.
Nutty, too, is Aunt Jane, though not from inbreeding. Countless are the times when Aunt Jane has heard something and from it grown an entirely conjured story full of stuff that was not I mean even a little bit on the mark. Once, ten days after Josh’s wedding, I got a voice message from my aunt, in tears, telling me she had heard only just now about how Josh’s friend Billy had groped me on the dance floor at the reception. My mother’s voice followed hers, saying my aunt had told her, and maybe it was true for all she knew, because I never tell her anything and probably would have handled it myself. It took me a couple of hours to stop angrily muttering to myself about how bats–t my aunt is before I could figure out a way to call her back and tell her, in a manner properly respectful of her elder status, that she was hallucinating. Nothing even close to it had ever happened. Lord, if Josh had heard this confab of fiction before I set it straight, Billy would be dead to this day.
Not surprisingly, that’s a story that never gets told at family gatherings.
Dad walked back into the room just as Greg was telling his girlfriend another infamous family tale: the one in which my father had tied a rope around Greg’s waist when he was a toddler and used it as a leash. Dad was babysitting while Mom and Aunt Jane shopped, and my aunt – very protective of her children – returned home to find her eldest child roped and running as far as the slack would let him go before my father would yank him back into the other room. Greg thought it was great. Thirty-seven years later, Aunt Jane is still touchy about it.
My mother’s brother eats these stories up, laughing his dry, scratchy laugh with blue eyes bright at the pure pleasure of time with family. His shoulders shook listening to the story again, though we’d all heard it many times before. He laughs like my grandmother did. It’s either a chuckle or a full-tilt romp. There is no in-between.
A series of beeps sounded. “Whose phone?” came the question, and for a brief moment there were the lookings left and right of those who can’t quite remember where they’ve put their gizmos. But the direction of the sound became clearer and we all glanced at the monitor over my head, and then at my grandfather lying in the bed in front of me, so much less substantial than he used to be, sleeping the sleep that comes from a steady dose of dilaudid and whatever was happening inside his skull. He is 93. And a half, because I think when you hit 90, the halves count again. I used to tell him he didn’t look a day over 89, and he would laugh. But now he looks every bit of 93, gaunt from two years on a feeding tube. In recent days, he’d lost the ability to speak, and then to see.
We had been told that my grandfather had had a mild heart attack, which caused the fall that left him lying in a heap atop his walker with a shiner, unconscious when my aunt found him. We had been told there was a bleed in his brain, one that would require surgery to repair, which could be a coil through a small hole, or could be a full-blown craniotomy, with no chance of recovering what he’d lost, but with a chance of preventing further damage. We decided against the surgery, which would have required a chopper ride to another hospital. We had been told that he had 24 hours, maybe 48.
He stirred, futzing feebly with a sheet, opening his useless eyes a bit. “Hey!” boomed Greg’s low and distinctive voice as he leaned over our mothers’ father. “Hey, you dreamin’ about pretty women again?” And the left side of my grandfather’s mouth curved up in a lopsided smile.
“It’s like the voice of God,” I said with mock reverence. “Only more smart-ass.”
Later, we would learn that, in fact, the bleed had been on the outside of the brain, the surgery was not even indicated, and that he was not dying. He may regain some motor control of his right side, but with advanced Parkinson’s Disease, that was a crap shoot on a good day. He would not regain the ability to speak, or see. He still could not eat or drink, the result of a paralyzed epiglottis from an undetermined incident two years ago. He could not write, because of the Parkinson’s.
We knew none of this, gathered in his room. Not yet. As my cousin chuckled, my grandfather’s eyes closed and his head rested. The sun still setting, Uncle Alan’s face once more glowed orange, and my dad crossed the room for his turn to wrestle futilely with the blinds.