The fat, gray-blue Honda Odyssey sways down 880 like a drunken metallic bee. I sit in the backseat cross-legged with my eyes closed. On some endless family drive through the southwest desert, Grace once told me that the images of the landscape outside the car fly by and make the fluid in your inner ear spin, and that’s how you get nauseous. She also used to say that if the Odyssey ever flipped over, the automatic doors would never let us out, because they only slide open if the car is in park. Otherwise, they stay stubbornly closed and spout out three metallic, high-pitched beeps when you pull the handle. My sister is in Israel now on an internship, restoring artifacts at the National Museum in Jerusalem.
I feel like I will vomit, so I try to imagine clear cool water running through my body making my twisted guts unfurl into a winding stream, and when that doesn’t work I lean over and spit into the nylon garbage bag hanging from the back of the driver’s seat and ask how much longer the drive will be. “Long,” my mom says. She continues talking, sometimes addressing me. I don’t answer the rhetorical questions, and nonrhetorical ones usually only require a one-word answer, so I oblige. “I want to learn more about French history, Allison,” she tells me, probably because she watched a documentary on Normans last night and she knows that I like history and will probably be a history major and never get a job, according to my father. “Mm,” I say in an acknowledging way and try to imagine swapping my torso with that of a fish who has probably never been carsick. My dad grumbles about us being late and looks out his window. His seat is pushed back far, which is why I sit cross-legged.
We are going to see my father’s mother, Christel, who lives in an assisted living home for Alzheimer’s patients and handicapped seniors. When I visit, she puts on bright-pink lipstick to match her nails, which the caretakers have painted for her. They have also done her hair — she points out the salon to me on our way to the dining hall. If you could touch my grandmother’s voice, it would feel like a soft peach in your hand, and as her wheels creak along the carpeted hallway she asks in her sticky German accent if I will take her into the sunroom so she can say hello to the turtle that lives in the glass tank.
She moved to Sunnyside Gardens after the day in late September when she fell for the third time and my grandpa found her screaming in pain on the floor of the living room. One day, my dad picked me up from Berkeley to visit his mother in the hospital in Mountain View, explaining to me in the car on the way over that this could be the last time I would see her. Stunned by this possibility, I swallowed jerky tearful impulses and wads of rising phlegm as we walked through the sterile wards of the huge hospital whose lobby vaguely resembled that of a fancy hotel. We entered my grandma’s room. It was the wrong element for her completely, but somehow her European class was still evident despite the thin blue sheets and fluorescent lights as I fed her peach yogurt and she fixed her eyes on the Discovery Channel program playing on the hospital television. My grandpa collapsed in a chair by the window. “I’m so tired,” he said, almost to himself, because he is nearly too deaf now to hear any consolation or sympathy or advice.
I had never seen my grandfather or my father so stressed in my life. It seemed my father had aged years in the few months I had been away at college. His love for his mother was readily apparent. Every week before her miraculous recovery, he drove to visit her, bringing her lattes from the hospital cafe downstairs and cutting her long, thick, yellow toenails with clippers he had brought from their antique-filled house in Cupertino. I don’t pretend to know anything about getting old, but in those days I tried to imagine cutting my dad’s toenails someday, and I hoped that, eventually, there would be someone to cut mine.
After that first visit, we left Hayward and headed to my mother’s father’s care center in Sunnyvale, where he was recovering from a massive stroke and an ensuing car crash. No one had yet told him that the car he lost control of had killed a middle-aged man with a wife and children, but my mother said she thought he maybe knew anyway. I walked down the dingy hall into the arms of my Aunt Margie. When I was little, my Aunt Margie had always smelled of detergent and perfume. She had a round raised scar above her left eyebrow, and she always called me “precious.” “It’s a hard day for you, sweetheart, isn’t it?” she said and hugged me, and I felt hot pinpricks of tears behind my eyeballs. Something about arms around me always makes my tears surface. I recovered quickly and walked into the room. “He’s fairly with it today,” Margie said. “You picked a good day to see him, honey,” and she moved the blanket to cover up the rusty red and yellow plastic tube of the catheter that ran down the side of the bed to the floor.
I had never seen my grandfather so thin. I was used to his imposing stature and boisterous Boston accent. When I was very little, I was mildly afraid of him. He was so loud, and his head was so oval and big, and his eyes got so wide when he was excited. “Hi, Grandpa.” I kissed him. His cheek under my lips felt like a piece of paper that had been crumpled and smoothed out too many times. I told him things about my college life, and when he laughed, the sound from his throat was like air moving through the spaces in between wet gravel, but his eyes crinkled and dripped little pearl tears of mirth, just like they always had. The time went by quickly, and when we left it was very sunny outdoors, and I turned to my father and cried loud sobs and covered my face. He put his arms around me and patted and said “I know, honey, I know,” and I said that it’s just a lot for one day and he said “I know,” and patted, always moving.
“We may be late,” he’s saying now in the van, and I open my eyes and see the olive gray hills of Fremont where my grandma and grandpa used to live. On Oct. 28, A month after I visited him, my grandfather passed away, his death the result of one of the most fucked-up coincidences my family had ever been forced to try to comprehend. We all wore green to my grandfather’s funeral. I was fine that day until I saw my grandma walk into the room in tears. Marjorie Marois McCarthy is the kindest, most selfless woman I have ever encountered. She suffers from increasingly worsening dementia, and the week before the funeral she had to be retold each day that her husband had passed. She walked around the room greeting us and, thanking us for coming, and she cried and said, “He is in a better place,” and I cried too, partly because she was crying and partly because I wished I could believe in what she said. It was almost impossible to watch her wander around the room looking so lost. She said, “He loved you all so much,” and I wondered how many people there she recognized and if she knew who I was. “And here’s your Alli,” Aunt Margie said as she led her over to me. I had already greeted my grandmother, but I knew she had already forgotten, so I put my arms around her. She felt small.
My grandfather was a U.S. Marine, and his service, aside from his enormous family, was the pride and joy of his 80 some-odd years of life. The soldiers folded the flag, and Taps played as a uniformed man we didn’t know got down on one knee and spoke soft words to my grandmother as he handed her the flag and saluted my grandfather’s ashes, encased in an urn with a picture of a bald eagle on it. Classic. “He would have loved it,” everyone said, and I agreed. I remember thinking that day that the dead don’t suffer as much as the ones they leave behind, and for a second, I believed that my grandfather was somewhere in his own form of heaven watching as all of his Kelly-green relatives sobbed over his memory and his photographs and told stories about his doughnut-eating, McDonald’s-loving ways.
Now, three months later, we are driving past my grandparents’ hills, and my father is talking about his mineral collection. Every February my parents travel to Tucson, Arizona, for the yearly gem and mineral show. My father recently paid his first annual fee of $25 and became an official member of the Fluorescent Mineral Society of the United States. Yesterday, he showed me his collection — we both stood in the dark of the hallway, with UV-blocking glasses making little red dents in our noses as my father shone his purple lights and rattled off the names of the glowing rocks: calcite, ruby, fluorite, etc. This one is billions of years old, he says, its layers deposited by cyanobacteria and crushed by tons and tons of pressure. And now we’re holding it. Isn’t that amazing?
Now my mother is driving me to see her childhood home in Sunnyvale, telling me about her biggest moral dilemma as a child. She was with her friends and they decided to try shoplifting from the local supermarket, stealing a package of water balloons and a tube of raspberry lip balm. “Braley Park,” she points, “that’s where your aunt got caught smoking. The homecoming queen lived there,” she gestures to an ugly beige house. “She was very beautiful. I was only homecoming princess,” she laughs. “Debbie Doran, my best friend, lived in 831. Her mother died in a car crash …”
“We don’t have that much time, dear,” Dad says.
“Here’s my house …” Mom’s voice trails, “860. This is my house.”
“Have a bee-yah, son,” dad says, imitating my grandpa George’s Boston accent. This is what he said to every boyfriend any of his five daughters ever brought home, showing them some Irish hospitality by offering them a beer. My mother’s voice: “I jumped off this balcony to sneak out with Cindy that one time … and there’s the pool in the backyard …”
“Let’s go, honey, I’m sorry,” Dad says. As we drive away, she rattles off the surnames of the family that once lived in every house. I wonder how she remembers all of this and if she will ever lose her memory like my grandmother has. Several months later I would find myself in the back of the same Honda van, crying slow tears while my mother and grandmother sang my grandparents’ wedding song in the front seat. Though my grandmother no longer recognizes me, my sister or my cousins, pieces of her memory shine through like the little half moons through foliage during an eclipse — partial, but strikingly present.
My dad glances at his watch furtively. I look out the windows and try to think of my mother as a teenager, and then of myself as a 53-year-old-woman. My mother’s voice gets softer.
“Wow Allison,” my mother says plainly, “I feel really old.”
Contact Allison Erny at [email protected]