Words Before Dying
by Jennifer Christiansen
“Grandma has had a stroke,” Mother announced to her oldest daughter, “and you don’t need to come home.”
As her life stretched across the edge of a century, a blood clot had stolen Grandma’s ability to swallow. Strength remained in her translucent, thin-skinned hands which swiftly seized the feeding tube like illegal contraband. She would choose to die from starvation rather than subsist through an ethical lifeline, a plastic tunnel engineered in some sterile life-support manufactory.
Starvation was ironic. A banquet of remembrance would need to suffice as her final course. Ida Griffin was raised in northern Pennsylvania by German proprietors of a butcher shop and meat market. About the time she began to menstruate, she scoured sheep blood from pine board floors on her hands and knees, hiding the evidence beneath her bed, ignorant of this rite of passage. By sixteen she found employment at the Pittsburgh Nabisco Factory where she traveled by trolley to hand-dip lady fingers into vats of milk chocolate. Word of her aptitude spread north. She was hired as a short order cook in one of New York State’s first diners, Pickups on Union Street in Olean. Idy sealed her infamous flaky crust over hundreds of aluminum baking tins in this yellow diner below the tracks. Her pride was baked into apple pies, cloverleaf rolls, and crème puffs, “made from scratch,” she reminded. So Mrs. Griffin continued her career as the cook at St. Mary’s Convent. For over twenty years Sister Corona, Sister Thomasina, and the merciful novices in black wool habits were tickled by her cinnamon pecan rolls and peanut butter cookies. They provided her with a pantry of ample ingredients, including a pair of fifty gallon bins for flour and sugar.
Afterwards, five days a week, she boarded the 3 PM Blue Bird Bus to Allegany where she trudged up Sherwood Hill to prepare the family supper. On hot July days she stood over the GE frying Swiss steak, boiling new potatoes, and baking rhubarb pie. “One of these days my ship will come in,” she’d say, as sweat trickled down her rosy cheeks. Although she never learned to drive, she regularly entertained her pinochle card club by serving percolated Eight O’clock Coffee with petit sandwiches, iceberg wedges with a slice of tomato, and bread and butter pickles on her finest Fire King dishware. During her last winter she passed along a hand-written recipe for coconut macaroons to her only great-granddaughter. Now, in her final April, she hungered for a last breath of life.
Grandma was transferred from the hospital to her daughter’s home. The five granddaughters stood silently around her bed in what was once a teenage haven; memories of summertime yellow walls, white wicker furniture from Sears and Roebuck, and an octagonal glass terrarium drenched with condensation clashed with these final moments. Our staff of life has set sail.
Mother rummaged through the bathroom closet looking for the right spot to hide the valued morphine. The closet was a plethora of expired cosmetics and greasy remedies saved from her employment at Stegner’s Pharmacy forty years hence. Mother was stingy about doling out more narcotic than she thought was necessary.
“I think that Hospice worker stole the holy water font,” she complained.
“Say what you want. I know it was in here.” Bobby pins, Goody barrettes, pink spongy rollers, hair nets, metal nail files, a jar of Desitin, a bottle of Red Roses perfume, and shards of Palmolive bounced away from her searching hands. “I can’t find that font.”
Mother whined on and on as if some blessing would be lost if the magic font never reappeared. Grandma didn’t need to hear complaining on her death bed. God knows she had heard enough helping her only daughter raise five girls five years apart. After years of ironing bedclothes, chasing laundry to and from the clothesline, and making sure the girls had birthday cakes decorated with boiled frosting and confectionary roses, surely there could be more respect.
The gasping, gurgling urgency of Grandma’s pleas for release sent the four younger sisters out of the room. The oldest stayed.
She dipped the Crestfield cotton washcloth in a Pyrex bowl filled with fresh water, squeezed the excess, and laid it upon Gram’s sweating forehead. Into each other’s blue eyes they looked and waited. Waited. She refreshed the towel and patted her grandmother’s capillary- laced cheeks, chin, and neck as delicate and pale as rice paper. Upon her crown she twirled the silver- white tendrils as softly as cottonwood takes wing on a summer’s day. Remembering the days when she slurped cherry popsicles while Gram stood by the ironing board sprinkling water on wrinkled bed linens, she dipped a pink sponge into cool water, swabbing her dry, withered lips. Lips that offered comfort food and second helpings, soft urgings to forgo the diet and enjoy a slice of life.
Gram’s whispering blue eyes wept beggar-like for peace. The oldest one clasped her hands, her slender pink fingers worn with age, her skin a topographical map of rivulets and shores weathered by benevolent labor. She sang the Prayer of St. Francis, Be Not Afraid, Oh God our Help in Ages Past, and “Let all those who seek, let them come to the water.” These melodies sung by her shaking voice were a way of returning blessings for over four decades of physical and spiritual nourishment.
She kissed her lips, quivered, “I love you, Grandma,” swallowed a ball of fire, and walked into the hall.
Mother’s body was half-hidden by the bathroom cupboard doors, opened wide for examination as she relentlessly searched for the sacred stolen font. Grandma was dehydrating. Beneath the cabbage rose coverlet the bag of urine rippled with beet-red blood.
Mother asked, “Did you find the holy water font? It’s an antique, you know.”
The oldest replied, “No. I didn’t even look, Mom.” She paused. “Holy water comes in other forms.”
Mother sighed, “Oh damn you. You just never did understand.”