My mother moved in with her father, a man of strong Italian heritage and the well founded idea that men do not need help, nor do they need doctors or hospitals or modern medicine. She moved into his house when he refused to move, and refused to return to the doctor after the issuance of multiple diagnoses, all contradictory when medicated, and to which the doctors were referring to as ‘the trifecta’.
He had been given less than three months to live. My mother moved in, quit her job to care for her father despite the abundance of offspring he had available to him. It is partially the fault of her inability to say no, probably due to an extreme ability to feel guilt, and mostly to her unspoken love of being miserable. I don’t mean to imply that my grandfather, or caring for him, would particularly make her unhappy. More, it is the fact that she gave up everything else to care for him, that is what would make her happy. The selling of her and her current husband’s house to move into the large, mostly abandoned farmhouse with him, her giving up her job to care for him full time, her freedom (not that she did much in particular with it when she did have it), all of these things she calls me to complain about. Some people find a new obsession, my mother looks for her next depression.
She’s found it and wrapped it around herself like a second skin.
The farmhouse, it’s the house she grew up in. She knows that one day, she’ll inherit this house, too. And even later, after that, she knows she herself will die here, after her father, and her mother, and possibly even her husband, who is grossly overweight and unconcerned about his health. Perhaps I am wrong about that statement, but I have seen him eat on enough occasions, and heard his opinion on enough things, to believe that I am not.
There is something very humbling about watching a person die. There is something about the situation, something reminds you that you are very much made up of living material, fragile and decomposable. Organic. As you watch a body fail, systems set up to protect you dissolving and deteriorating, the pain of simple movements bringing on a desire to end it all, those moments scare us. They scare me. They remind me that I will die, I will be this person one day, and I hope that I have loved ones who will be with me, but I also wish that they would not have to experience me in this state of decomposition while still alive.
Maybe by that time someone will have mastered aging and we can all be young again.
Maybe by that time I’ll be decomposing somewhere, too.
Regardless, my mother moved into the house she grew up in to watch her father die.
I’m not sure when he died, he was dead in the chair when I showed up. It was Saturday, my day off. My own children weren’t there. One at a friend’s house, the other stayed home to play some game or another, both at an age where neither one was interested helping family with domestic chores anymore, like making sauerkraut. It was a ritual we performed, hypothetically in September, but if often drifted into October, and sometimes into November. I hadn’t felt like fighting with my children, knowing that if I had won, it would be a loss, all of us miserable as we scraped heads of cabbage over a madalin older than my grandfather.
I should have pressed the issue, should have forced them to participate in our family ritual. I am glad I did not. We make the kraut outside, mostly because it can be such a mess. There is no way to keep small shreds of cabbage from going everywhere. Where we shred the cabbage, there is a juniper tree, a small copse of them, actually, all overgrown beyond practicality, shadowing the house and dropping their flat, disky evergreen boughs into the gutter, and into our buckets of salted, mushy cabbage. I pick them out as much as I can. My grandfather loves those trees. My mother does not care, but her husband hates them, and eyes them when he cleans his chainsaw in the building across the driveway.
My grandfather does not help this time. He always helps. He doesn’t feel good, my mother says. He’s sleeping. I understand, and work harder. He could respect that, and he’d earned a break in my book.
The smell in the house was weird, though with a house that old, predating my grandfather by several decades, it was hard not to have some odd smells from time to time. I did not go in, not at first, the work was all outside, even though it was cold, and misty rain teased us constantly, protected from the worst of it by a red maple tree, a friend of all of us, my childhood spent under it, and some of my adult life, too.
By the time I first saw his body, I had been there for over an hour, inside for the first time to pee and for another container of pickling salt.
My grandfather, for my entire life, has always been larger than life, and somehow, even in death, is still such. He is slumped at the table in the dining room, because a house this big and old obviously has a dining room, complete with a plastic chandelier so covered in dust it has become a permanent part of the fixture. The table is square, a table he had from his railroad days, after his time in the service. A good, solid oak work table, that he had converted into a family table as his family grew and the small table he and my grandmother had received as a wedding present was no longer large enough. It was always covered with a tablecloth, the oak protected and hidden from the damaging gaze of children and grandchildren.
He could have been sleeping. The first thing that struck me as wrong, though, was his placement. He only sat at the head of the table. It didn’t matter if it was just him and me, or the whole family, or just himself. He had a seat, a chair and a position at the table, and it was his. That was not where he was, not where he belonged.
I approached him softly, worried I would wake him, but he was so still I could not help myself. The wrongness of where he sat, and his stillness, his body slumped over, his head resting in the crook of his elbow, he could have been sleeping.
He was very dead. I couldn’t bring myself to touch him, his mortality scaring me regarding my own. He didn’t move, and neither did, not for a long moment suspended like that last drop of water hanging onto the faucet. Like that drop of water, once I was moving, I was falling, and fleeing from the source, the canning salt, or pickling, the two were interchangeable for this situation, long forgotten.
My mother chided me for overreacting, mad at me for even suggesting that he was gone. I insisted, but she brushed me off. His meds, she said, made him sleep heavy. He was sleeping, he had taken to sleeping at the table, for he couldn’t be comfortable in his bed anymore, and she was forbidden to enter it, even in his infirmary. He slept at the table now, she told me, he found it more comfortable.
I wasn’t convinced, but she was having none of it. Either way, I did not enter the house again that day. We finished shredding cabbage, finished salting and mashing it, then salting and mashing it more. We bagged it and stored it in the crawlspace that lead to the old well, finished for the most part for at least the next six weeks. We finished, and I left to retrieve my children.
They pushed me off, offended at my embarrassing display of affection, but I was so very happy to see them, their youth encouraging me, making me feel less vulnerable, more defensible. I hugged them until they couldn’t stand it, but I need it, to feel alive again, to feel alright.
I waited for the call, for the grief and tears and funeral plans. I waited for it all night, and all day the next day, and when I did call, my mother acted as if nothing was amiss.
I returned Sunday afternoon. Had I imagined the entire thing? Was it all my own fear of mortality? Was I really that insensitive?
My step-father’s mother was over when I got there, it was dinner time. Did I want to eat, they asked me. There’s plenty of food.
The smell, at first, was french fries and bacon. BLTs for dinner. The smell in the dining room was fetid, and bacon, because bacon stains the air for miles and hours. My grandfather hadn’t moved, but his skin, today it was grey, purple splotched where the underside of his arm was visible, and his cheeks. He faced the other way, to the wall, and I refused to bring myself to see his face in death. Were his eyes open or closed? His mouth? I could only imagine, I couldn't bring myself to look.
My mother, her husband and his mother all ate, oblivious to his corpse at the table. They had fed him, too, a plate in front of him.
What could I say? It was unbelievable. It was atrocious.
They ate, talking as if there wasn’t a dead man at the table with them.
He’s sleeping, my mother told me. He sleeps a lot lately. It’s his meds. They make him tired. He’ll eat when he’s ready.
Really? I ask her incredulously, wondering if this is some type of sick gaff, though I know it is not. I cannot understand what is happening, cannot begin to comprehend the situation I find myself in. He’s dead. He’s been dead, probably longer than two days. He’s dead, you need to call for the coroner or an ambulance or something.
I’ve seen dead bodies before. Twice at work, both times where a man who took his own life with a gun to the head. One was clean, one was not. I have, thankfully, never found a decomposing corpse, though others who had done my job before me had in the past. With a dead body, there is something, a spark, or something, it’s hard to describe, but something is missing that was there when the body was alive and the person was inside it. Perhaps it’s a soul, I cannot say for sure, but when it is gone, on a basic, instinctual level, people know.
The ones I loved, sitting at this table, they did not know. Were they too close? Was it too hard for my mother to let her father go? Whatever this was, it was not healthy.
My step-father does not tolerate my questioning of my mother. He has a hot temper, always quick to judge and quick to jump, quick to bark. He will not hear words once he gets like this, and barks louder than others to drown out anyone else’s voice.
The world is crazy, everything at this meal, it is craziness, and I cannot comprehend what his happening. My mother’s husband hits the table and it bounces, silverware jangling. It shifts my sleeping (dead) grandfather, just a bit, but it releases a pocket of decomposing gas that brings my stomach into my throat with the obscenity of it’s stink. The smell is beyond anything I have ever smelled in my entire life, and I will never forget it.
My mother snaps at me to be respectful, that everyone farts occasionally. It’s his meds, she tells me. They make him gassy. I need to be more respectful.
My step-father’s mother gives me the look, one she reserves for misbehaving grandchildren and people who disrespect the name of the lord.
Everything is broken, but it’s all me. No one else can see the dead man in the room? How is it possible? I cannot understand what is happening, something is broken, but is it me? I question my own sanity at this point.
I call my husband in the car on the way home, but he doesn’t answer, and he doesn’t return my text.
I find myself back at that old farmhouse, decades older than my grandfather. He still sits at the table, his skin covered in spots now, sickly purplish-green spots the size of half dollars all over his arms, and on the back of his bald head.
I look down, and my heart stops. My hands are covered in spots, not like his. My hands are covered in flat growths, brown spots, the largest the size of a quarter, dozens of them on the backs of my hands and up my forearms. Covering my arms. I touch them and they feel foreign, like stage makeup, but I they hurt when I scratch at them.
Panicking, I scratch them anyway. My grandfather’s body shifts now, gases escaping, the smell burning my nose, my eyes watering from the acidic fumes. His arms move, his head falls to the table with a dull, wet, sloppy sounding thud. His arm, the one that was bent, it stretches out, towards me, reaching out, the muscles bulging under the decomposing skin, the smell is unbearable.
My eyes burn, tears falling, and I am afraid, so afraid, though I know he is dead, he cannot harm me. I know he is dead, I know the stages of death, and I know what happens to a body as it rots, but this movement, unnatural and beyond the grave, it has my heart in its grasp and I cannot breath, cannot move, cannot make a noise. My heart wants to stop, so it beats harder, as hard as it can, but I still cannot move, rigor mortis prematurely set in. My terror has my throat constricted, and I am powerless. It is like I am a child again, afraid and fearful, powerless and vulnerable.
His hand stretches out, his fingers throbbing, pulsing, his arm stretching towards me, his face hidden. Thank god, his face hidden, I could not, I cannot, if I had seen his face. I cannot.
The gases are moving his body now, and gravity, and he is sliding out of his chair slowly, inevitably. His hand reaches for me, as if requesting I grab it and catch him before he falls, but I cannot move. As gravity pulls his body to the floor, his head turns and I see his eyes, so clouded over that they appear grey. They were open, why were they open. I wished they had not been open, that I could unsee his large, bulbous nose half caved in from where it had pressed against his arm for days after his passing.
His arm reached for me, his fingers clenching and unclenching, reaching for me, begging me to grab them, to stop him from falling. His body made a distinctive splatting noise as he hit the floor, and the smell, oh god, the smell. I thought the smells he had been releasing were bad. This smell was a whole new level, another hell I had descended down into.
It was then that I was able to move again, his hand disappearing under the edge of table to join the rest of his body. It moved as if it were in slow motion, or perhaps it was my mind, trying to process things, or trying to protect me somehow from this visceral exposure.
I left, I fled, I ran and I didn’t look back. I drove away, my grandfather’s dead, grasping hand chasing me no matter how fast I drove away.
I never got the call, not the next day, nor the next week. He never had a funeral, and no one else seems to notice. My mother still cares for her father, lives in his house and cares for a stubborn Italian patriarch who doesn’t trust doctors.
I never went back, either. Is he still there, decomposing on the floor? Did they move him to his forbidden bedchamber? Is he buried in the dirt floor of the basement?
I can’t bear to go back, I can’t bear to ask. I still see his hand, reaching for me, his eyes, clouded with days of death and decomposition, and I wonder sometimes, when I’m alone and scared, if I should have grabbed it.
These spots on my hands and arms, they cover my legs now, too. They won’t go away, but no one else can see them. They itch fiercely, and it is all I can do to keep myself from scratching them bloody. The doctor gave me medication, not for the spots, the growths. They are ugly and I hate them, I wish they would go away. Maybe one day I will remove them myself. Maybe next time I’ll grab his hand.