My grandmother is dying. Like, actively dying – right now in the other room.
In all fairness, she should have died decades ago. A lifetime smoker with positively zero dietary restrictions (despite her seriously perfect 36-18-36 measurements – and yes, you read that correctly, her waist was fucking 18-inches-small for much of her long life), my grandmother should not be alive. She lost her leg to blood clots when she was 68, has suffered several heart attacks, was given “less than a year” to live more times than I can count, oh – and she also has leukemia.
I assume you’re wondering why I’m writing this while my grandmother lies dying 20 feet from where I’m sitting. Quite frankly, it’s because I’m trying to look busy. Deaths are strange for me. I don’t seem to have the reaction that everyone else does. I am not sad. I am not bracing myself against the moment when my grandmother takes her last breaths. In fact, I want my grandmother to die. She is in so much agony that I would seriously kill her if I thought I could get away with it. But there too many people around.
I come from a large southern family, and my grandmother is beloved in the town where she lives. Literally dozens of people have been coming to pay their respects. They walk through the door, sit next to her for a few minutes in the bedroom while she sleeps, start to freak out, and then come out and scan the common rooms looking for someone who can make them feel better.
I am not that person.
I am a sociopath. This is not to say that I hate my grandmother or that I’m immune to the circumstances. It’s just that I’m not emotionally connected to them (yet). I have a very realistic perspective about death. I am not clinging to hope or trying to convince myself that Grandmother is at peace. And the reason for this is because I know she’s not at peace. As I write this, she is terrified and in tremendous pain. Her current resting state is the result of phenobarbital and nothing more.
But most people don’t want to hear this. Most people will do just about anything to shield themselves from the ugly aspects of dying. Most people want to cling to the belief that “Grandma isn’t afraid,” and “Grandma can’t wait to get to Heaven” and that’s fine. I understand that my personality type renders me uniquely qualified to bear witness to some of the more gruesome aspects of life, and that not everyone can deal with the truth.
I am not friendly and I am not good at pretense. As a result most of Grandmother’s visitors are steering clear of me. This is perfect because I don’t particularly feel like talking to anyone. My body language makes it clear: Please leave me alone. Everyone seems to get it. Everyone, that is, but Joy.
Joy is the 49-year-old girlfriend of my 22-year-old male cousin. She is positively loathsome. And it’s not because she’s 49 and dating my cousin. Nor is it because she talks in the third person, is constantly inserting herself into family gatherings, refers to my grandmother as “grannie” (something she loathes), claims to be a “mystic,” consistently reeks of pachouli oil and Cool Ranch Doritos, likes to awkwardly wax rhapsodic to anyone who will listen about her “past life” “as a drummer”, or because she has a hyperactive untrained off-leash labrador named “Jaws” that she falsely claims is a service animal.
No. Joy is loathsome because she is a hug-taker. Every fucking time this woman walks into the house, she makes a beeline for me and tries to force me into an embrace. I hate it. I’ve been told this perspective makes me “not nice.” In this day in age, people – women especially – are expected to accept hugs whether they want them or not. To deny a hug is seen as rude or even cruel. But I disagree.
There is a huge difference between people who want to give a hug and people who want to take a hug. Hug givers are typically genuine in their motives. They are pure in their desire to connect and respectful of other people’s boundaries. But hug takers are not. Their hugs never feel good. Their energy is always stifling. They always, always want something. And they assume their presence is never in question.
Joy is a hug taker. Entitlement permeates every cell of her being. She is neither authentic nor intuitive. That I don’t want a hug never factors into her decision-making. It would never occur to her to care.
My sister thinks it’s hysterical. She stands in the corner, bites a hole in her cheek to keep from laughing, and watches as Joy repeatedly presses her fleshy torso against my unreceptive frame. For some reason, her hair is always humid.
“You doing ok, P.J.?” Joy wants to know. But she doesn’t really.
Joy doesn’t want to know that in a few hours my grandmother’s sedatives are going to wear off. Or that when it happens, I will be the one to crawl into bed with her and hold her while she cries. Joy doesn’t care that my aunt Theresa and I take turns relieving my mom at night, soothing our beloved matriarch as she begs for her own long-deceased mother (my great-grandmother). Or that we bear silent witness as she screams “I don’t want to die” over and over again.
Joy isn’t interested in the well-being of my mom, who has cared for Grandmother almost single-handedly for the past decade – recently transforming her home into a full-time solo hospice center. Or that the guilt she carries for being slightly relieved by the imminent circumstances is perhaps more crushing than the loss itself.
Me? I don’t experience these things. As a sociopath, I am all but immune to guilt. But not my mother. She has stopped eating. She can hardly breathe. My focus should be on her well-being. Instead, I find myself unwittingly upholstered in breathy damp skin, my sister now (smartly) nowhere to be seen. The fact that Joy refers to me by my grandmother’s nickname only adds to my detest.
Grandmother used to say, “P.J., describe the day.” She’d say it when she picked me up from school, the events of the afternoon expected in detailed reports.
One trip has always stood out. The time the school bully shoved me on the soccer field and I didn’t fight back. To this day, I am haunted by this memory. I can’t make sense of it. I remember the feel of the grass as I hit the ground. I remember looking up at the girl who dared me to fight, her frame nothing but a silhouette backlit by the sun. I remember letting her win. But it’s not the events at school that have branded this day into memory. It’s the fact that I lied about them to my grandmother.
“Grandma, you should have heard it.” I said to her. “This girl started to push me but I stopped her and said, ‘Don’t even think of putting your hands on me! You may not want me as your friend, but you definitely don’t want me as your enemy.’”
Grandma was proud. “Good for you,” she said. ”That girl should know better than to mess with P.J. Brock.”
Those words have always haunted me. It was so unlike her to be proud of anything confrontational – Grandmother hated anything that wasn’t ladylike. And it was so unlike me not to fight back. And the fact that I lied about it – why did I do that? Better yet – why did I feel badly about it? I’d always wondered. And today, I found myself wondering once again.
“Why did we do that, Grandma?”
My stroll down memory lane was abruptly interrupted by the sound of glass hitting the kitchen floor. Joy’s off-leash fake service dog had discovered my mother’s cats, and had chased them through the house until they ended up on top of the kitchen counters, sending a dozen or so bowls crashing to the ground.
Here in the south, people don’t like confrontation. My mother certainly doesn’t. This is why she has never discouraged Joy from stopping by unannounced. In classic steel magnolia style, Mom has traded her position of grief-stricken-daughter for gracious hostess – thereby passively accepting Joy’s insistence that her dog be given unfettered access to the house without exception. And allowing Joy to answer the door as if the house belonged her her. And standing down each and every time Joy insisted on “alone” time with my sleeping grandmother, as if in some twisted reality she believed she was entitled to it.
I watched my mother now, as she knelt on the floor collecting broken glass – an unapologetic Joy unable to help due to “bad knees.” I looked at mom and suddenly my intense and utter hatred of Joy came into full view.
Joy wasn’t here because she loved my Grandmother or wanted to pay her respects. She wasn’t here to console Grandmother’s six children, 37 grandchildren or 11 great-grandchildren, and she certainly wasn’t spending hours slopping up the offerings at the catering table because she wanted to support my mother.
No, Joy was here because she wanted to be my mother: a woman whose own mom was dying, and to whom was awarded all the rites, and attention, and fuss that accompanied such an event. Joy wanted a piece of the action. She too wanted to be consoled and worshiped. She was here to collect.
And I was done playing nice.
“P.J., you really look like you could use one of my hugs!” Joy said leering toward me once again. I rested my hand on the fleshy spot of Joy’s chest, under which I assumed her collarbone was somewhere suffocating.
“Actually, Joy I can’t stand hugs. What I do need, however, is for you to either leash your dog, or take it home.” The house fell completely silent as Joy struggled to stammer out a response.
“He’s a service dog,” she said, looking desperately around for someone to intervene. “He gets anxious when he is on a leash and I am too anxious to leave the house without him. Besides, Grannie loves him so much.”
I studied Joy, trying to decide whether she actually believed her own bullshit before realizing it didn’t matter.
“Leash him or take him home. And keep him out of Grandmother’s room.”
And with that, I walked out of the kitchen and into the room where my grandmother would die six hours later. The room where all of her children would gather at her bedside, where her grandchildren would kiss her cheeks, her great-grandchildren would sprinkle flower petals, and where my mom and her sisters would sit alone one last time with their mother in silence – everyone else having left in unspoken and unanimous understanding.
Well, almost everyone.
I closed the door to my grandmother’s room and stood in front of it, physically blocking Joy from walking back inside. She’d been dead all of 15 minutes.
“It’s time for you to leave now,” I said. But Joy disagreed.
She believed she should also be allowed beside my grandmother’s deathbed – after all she “felt” just like a daughter. Joy insisted that my mother needed one of her hugs. That “grannie” would want her there. That grannie would want the dog there (seriously).
I can’t really fault her. I’m sure that Joy’s tactics are typically effective. She’s used to getting her way. People will do almost anything to avoid confrontation, and there’s no doubt that Joy uses it to her advantage all the time. Had it not been so gratifying to watch her struggle, I might have been pissed off.
But instead I calmly stood in front of my dead grandmother’s door in silent indifference, watching Joy squirm and cajole. It took some time, but eventually she began to realize that no attempt at self-pity was going to result in my surrender. And so I watched as Joy finally began her dramatic shuffle back down the long hallway, glancing longingly one last time at the buffet table before walking out the front door. My sister suddenly appearing from the kitchen, thoroughly entertained.
“No one messes with you, Kitty,” she said, calling me by yet another familial – and wholly southern – nickname.
I smiled to myself. “No, I guess not.”