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Why We Write: In the Presence of Living

Until the summer my grandmother was dying, my children were the only people I had ever watched sleep. I used to lie beside them at nap time, taking shallow breaths, while I waited for a thumb to fall away from a mouth or for a jaw to drop open: the signal that they had drifted off. I willed them unconscious with all the silent concentration that a white-knuckled passenger in the back row uses to fly a jetliner. Sounds from outside the room seemed magnified then; a distant door slamming or a slightly raised voice threatened to wake them. In the presence of my sleeping grandmother it was altogether different. Even nearby noises—a car starting in the lot outside her window, the phone ringing—seemed curiously muffled. A neighbor down the hall conducted mysterious business in his home office, but his voice sounded as if it were coming from far away. I adjusted the fan toward her bed and covered her legs with the sheet. I watched my grandmother’s breath enter and leave her body and willed it, not to steady into the even metronome that accompanied my children’s dreams, but to stop.

She was dying at home, and home was a shady one-bedroom apartment crowded with books. The shelves in her front room were heavy with story collections from the forties and fifties, the works of Shakespeare, Beowulf, The Adventures of Augie March, and tomes that promised cures for back pain, leg pain, and, though they did not promise but implied it, the indignities of old age.

She kept a handful of favorite books in her bedroom, as well as the latest reading assignment from the literature course she’d taken at the local community college for the last sixteen years. Volumes of contemporary poetry sat next to Portnoy’s Complaint, Dubliners, The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, and a long-ago gift from me: An American Childhood by Annie Dillard. My grandmother’s all-time favorite book was Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. It came up so often during discussions of my writing (she liked a lot of my work but I was no Isak Dinesen) that I often teased her by intoning in a nasal imitation of Meryl Streep in the movie version, “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” She always laughed.

Early in the summer I had thought to bring my laptop over and work while she slept. When she woke she’d call my name. Sometimes she needed help getting up from the bed into her chair. Sometimes she just wanted to make sure she was not alone. I brought my machine into the back room and showed it to her. She was suspicious of computers. I told her I was working on a novel. She brightened and urged me back to work. She wished me luck.

Luck was just one of the things I needed. I write about the challenges of parenting wild teenage girls, and late-life love, and the dramas of living in a close-knit community. I asked myself who could possibly care about such made-up stories when this flesh-and-blood woman I loved (who had secured her own release from the hospital with the firmly delivered words “I’m not interested in staying safe, I’m interested in staying sane”) had received a terminal diagnosis? Her decline was so swift that each day rendered yesterday’s arrangements obsolete. The nursing student my mother hired to pop in twice a day to help with the washing up became the home health aide to administer baths became the person to sleep on her couch at night became the twenty-four-hour companion who meted out morphine at two in the morning. All within a few days.

I arrived one morning midway through the summer and found my grandmother sitting on the edge of the bed. Josie, the night helper, stood beside her. I bent to put my arms around my grandmother’s waist. This was how we lifted her onto her legs: one, two, three, hup. Josie waved my arms away. No more. It took me a few moments to understand. Sometime during the night, it seemed, my grandmother had lost her ability to stand. She sat. We waited. She was groggy, as if she had been woken from a deep sleep. After a while we lifted her legs into the bed. Josie left to get her bus. My grandmother dozed. I reached for An American Childhood and read the opening paragraph:

When everything else has gone from my brain—the President’s name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family—when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.

She’d loved these words as I did, but I doubted she’d have any use for them now, if she could even hear them over the Morse code of pain that her body was sending her. For most of the rest of that day, and the days after, it was hard to gauge how conscious my grandmother was. Her eyes opened only partially, if at all, and when they did she seemed to be gazing at something far beyond her quiet bedroom.

My mother came to take over, and with only an hour left before I had to pick up my youngest child from camp, I headed to a reservoir located near where she lived, just north of San Francisco. The sunny fire road was patrolled by biting blackflies that I had to jog to outrun. I was sweating by the time I reached the path around the lake. I worked the muscles in my legs hard, charging in and out of shadow and leaping over roots and rocks. My grandmother’s life was falling away from her like acorns from a chinquapin, and music, literature, and art seemed to be the lightest of objects. They made hardly a sound when they hit the ground. My mother was singing to her when I left. She had been holding her hand and singing in the voice she used with me as a child when I had a fever. I stumbled and my hand clutched at the spongy bark of a redwood.

As a writer who was also the mother of two small children, I was no stranger to the nagging fear that time spent spinning tales might be better spent spinning lettuce. In the presence of my grandmother or my children or even the blue-bellied lizard that skittered over the path and into the brush, the balance seemed to tip decidedly toward lettuce. The next day, when I got in the car to go to my grandmother’s apartment, I left my computer at home.

“As a writer who was also the mother of two small children, I was no stranger to the nagging fear that time spent spinning tales might be better spent spinning lettuce. In the presence of my grandmother or my children or even the blue-bellied lizard that skittered over the path and into the brush, the balance seemed to tip decidedly toward lettuce.”

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Why We Write: In the Presence of Living (March/April 2011)

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