It was hard to look at grandma across the dinner table. It was sort of like not wanting to stare at someone’s crooked eye. Grandpa had to feed her the mashed potatoes and gravy which caused her face to prune up with every bite. Her dementia had become so bad she couldn’t even tell if she was hungry or not. It was even harder to look at mom. Just the way her face contorted when grandma called her Connie, her cracked out sister’s name. Her face twisted in agony as we ate in silence.
It had fallen on grandpa to dedicate his last years to changing diapers and repeatedly telling grandma they couldn’t go home because they were already there. We sat around the television talking about grandpa’s youth in Tucson. He laughed when he talked about how grandma used to scold him for telling the same old stories about Tucson. But she didn’t this time. Grandma just sat there tugging at her sequined reindeer sweater. Every once in a while she would yell out, “Look it’s cousin Becky!” even though she didn’t have a cousin Becky. Mom cleared the table, washed the dishes, swept, took out the garbage, then put on the coffee. She hardly said a word to anyone. Occasionally she’d ask grandma a question like “Ma, are you cold?” or “Look, Ma. You like Richard Dawson.”
Grandma whispered something into grandpa’s ear and he took her to the bedroom. Mom finally came out of the kitchen and we sat staring at the T.V. on mute. I studied the dark fault lines in her face. Those deep crevices stretching from those desperate brown eyes back toward her hairline. So quick and sharp like cuts far down through the skin into her fluffy brain. The man on the T.V. was swinging a golf club and smiling. He was dressed in white and contrasted the raw blue grass. A woman with a baby walked into the picture and embraced him. Mom stared right through them. I got up to look at grandma’s dusty curio cabinet. Grandpa wanted us to drive up from Columbia just to talk about giving it to mom. He said they were full of things he could no longer care for because her condition was taking all of his time. He even kept the light inside of it turned off which gave it this sad abandoned appearance. I looked through the double glass doors and stared at the fragile collection. Years of collecting tiny plates with the names of states and countries they had vacationed to like Mexico and Texas. There were at least a dozen hand blown glass elephants on every shelf, which were grandma’s favorite animal. On the bottom shelf were shoes of mom and my uncles and a really cool crystal bell from grandma and grandpa’s wedding. There was an assortment of pictures, glass figurines and vases. I was particularly eager to have the centerpiece which was a tiny tea set. Grandma caught me playing with it one afternoon after school when we didn’t live so far away. It was porcelain and decorated with winter calla lilies. She told me it was too dear, too precious to play with, that it was a gift from her mother and one day mom would get it and, hopefully, pass it down to me. Grandma laughed after she scolded me and eventually she and I had a tea party with the set. Caught up in my reverie my eyes refocused making me suddenly aware of my dark reflection in the glass door. At first, I didn’t recognize who was staring at me, I thought it was mom or grandma. My reflection was ill and uncomfortable, tormented in a fragile trap until I heard a click and it vanished. Grandpa had shut the light off in the bedroom. This cabinet and what remained would now be mom’s responsibility.
Grandpa came back out and sat with us. He picked up his coffee and told us not to worry about grandma, that she was fine. He sat next to mom and held her hand like a strange child.
“And don’t feel bad about her calling you Connie. She keeps calling me Phil all of the time.” He laughed. Phil was grandma’s first husband. Mom looked at grandpa and said nothing but managed to smile.
We left after another round of coffee at the kitchen table. Grandpa said we should make another trip to come get the curio cabinet when we have more time to pack everything. Mom agreed. On the way home mom seemed to be doing better but she was still quiet. We pulled onto the highway towards Columbia, home. Mom rolled down the window just a bit and lit a cigarette.
“You ok?” She didn’t answer me. A few mile markers later she exhaled a purple veil of smoke and stuffed her butt out the window. She had a pained look on her face which reminded me of my reflection in the cabinet door. I thought about how grandpa must feel being married to someone for 36 years and caring for them in every way –every single way- through illness, breast cancer, 4 children, foreclosure, and finally dementia and at night when she calls out for help from some black pit of fear she screams the name of another man.
“I think, uh.” Mom stammered finally. “Yeah. I’m pretty sure I burned the meatloaf. Did it taste burned to you?