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Stage Fright

By Monica McGuire

Stage Fright ArtMy mother and I take the elevator to the third floor and make our way down the hall. “You go ahead,” she tells me. “I need to talk to the nurse.”

She says this breezily, completely confident that her thirty-one-year-old daughter knows what to do.  I don’t. I drag my feet. Maybe if I walk slowly enough my mother will somehow get to my grandmother’s room first.

The hallway smells of mashed potatoes, gravy, and mystery meat; nothing like the sweet, yeasty scents of my grandmother’s Kansas kitchen. I feign captivation as I wind my way down the hall, pausing to watch the green birds tweeting in their golden cage, turning to watch the tropical fish swimming to and fro. As I walk, I ponder each hazy country scene secured in a frame as if I might discover the next great artist of our time.

But still I arrive at my grandmother’s small room before my mother. I linger at the threshold, unsure what to do or say without my mother here.  I scan the room: two chairs, a bathroom with the door half open; a window with the curtains drawn (despite the daytime hour); a wooden dresser with framed family photos; and my grandmother lying under a handmade quilt in her twin bed. The quilt is pulled up snug under her chin. I think of greetings past: her wide smile, floured hands, fierce hug and the way she made me feel utterly cherished.

My mother is still AWOL, so I cross the room and sit in the wooden chair next to the bed. It creaks; I cringe. My grandmother’s permed hair is pressed flat against the pillow. Her pale blue eyes, now faded, leave behind a dull and detached gaze. Without her playing the role of grandmother, I feel lost. How do I play granddaughter if she isn’t grandmother?

I need to say something.  “I am Monica Michelle,” I whisper, hoping my grandmother might remember how she used to pray daily for everyone in her family by their first and middle names: John Maurice, Jane Elizabeth, Patrick Michael, Susan Marie, Maureen Ann, Thomas Ralph, Christopher Michael, Monica Michelle…

I press on with small talk, telling her about the weather and the things I’ll do while I’m here visiting our family.

“Who are you?” she asks. “Where am I? Why are you here?”

“I’m your granddaughter,” I soothe.  “Monica Michelle. We are in your room at Catholic Eldercare in Minneapolis. You live here now.”

“When can I go to sleep?”

My mother breezes into the room before I can answer. Like a gifted director my mother coaxes my grandmother out of bed and into a chair, doing her best to infuse my grandmother’s day with activities other than sleep. While I am overcome by stage fright, my mother assumes the role of hair and make-up artist; lovingly combing my grandmother’s hair, then smoothing lotion across my grandmother’s wrinkled face. I wish I knew my role the way my mother knows hers.

The next time I visit my grandmother, I go with my Aunt Marnie. She tosses her winter coat across the upholstered chair and climbs right into my grandmother’s bed, not even asking my grandmother to sit up. She puts her head close to her mother’s and whispers into her ear. After awhile she pulls back the covers, stands up. “Your turn,” she tells me.

I am relieved to have someone tell me what to do. I lie down next to my grandmother and snuggle in behind her. She is smaller than I remember. Boney. Our size feels more similar then it has a right to.

I rub her back.

“Oh that feels good. That feels nice,” she says over and over again like the soft purr of a cat. After a while her foot bumps against mine.

“What’s that?” she asks.

“My foot,” I say, nudging her foot with mine. “Now we are playing footsie.”

She smiles and lets out a small laugh.

“You used to rub our feet all the time,” I tell her.

“I did?”

“Yes. You were so good at it. You took a class in reflexology; you rubbed our feet whenever we asked.”

My grandmother’s body softens as I talk. And though I cannot see it, I know there is a smile on her face. She seems pleased to hear that she was once good at something, even if it is not something she can remember.

We grow quiet and my memories drift. I am 6-years-old again. Tangled in my flannel nightgown, snuggled up with Grandmother on the pull-out couch in my parent’s basement. She knows I am scared to sleep alone and lets me curl in.

I stare now at the back of my grandmother’s head. Taking in each individual strand of her white, not quite curled, hair as if it is a blade of grass, the bark of a tree, or the vein of a leaf.

Lying together my grandmother and I are as close, maybe closer, then the many nights I begged my way into her bed when I was young. But I know this is not one of those nights. I let my mind wander again.

I am eight. We are in Kansas, sitting on her bed. Her long arm slung over my shoulders as her large, farm-girl hand cradles my hip and pulls me close. She tells me stories and whispers in my ear. “I love you,” she says.

Then I am twelve. Lying in bed with her, listening to her advice. “Don’t get married until you are at least 25.”

I took that advice. I remember now that frosty night in January during my twenty-seventh year, the warm flickering glow of the fireplace, and the one hundred guests seated behind my partner and me.

My grandmother wasn’t one of them. She wasn’t invited because my very supportive mother did not want anything to mar our day. What if my grandmother stood up and demanded to know why two women were getting married? I know no one would have thought less of our ceremony if my grandmother had questioned the proceedings, but how would she enjoy it, not knowing where she was and why she was there?

Even now I can feel her absence on that day.  I see the lace shawl I wore; the shawl painstakingly made from the lace of her wedding dress and I try to ease the pain of her absence by reminding myself: I was the only grandchild who wore my grandmother’s legacy on my shoulders.

My cheeks grow red and hot now. I am struck by the reality of my younger, self-centered mind. I wanted my grandmother there even though her memory loss would have made it wholly uncomfortable for her. My ego does not want to own it, but my heart knows it is mine to keep.

Fatigue settles in. Four years have passed since my wedding and I now have a 6-month-old son who demands my presence for multiple nightly feedings. I lie here with my grandmother thinking she has the right idea. Maybe the two of us could sleep, curled up together for a day, or two, or three; my grandmother receiving the human touch she so desires and I receiving the sleep I so desperately need and both of us better off for finding these things together.

The next time I visit my grandmother I sashay into her room; confident that my Aunt and grandmother have modeled everything I need for this moment. I am no longer an extra. I am Granddaughter with a capital “G.”

“I am Monica Michelle,” I say giving her a kiss, “Can I lie down with you?”

She smiles, rolls to her side, and moves over a bit, so happy to be allowed to stay in bed.  I climb in, breathing in the slight scent of hairspray. I rub her back and she snuggles into me.

“What’s wrong with me?” she asks.

“You have memory loss,” I tell her.

“I do?”

“Yes. It is okay that you don’t remember.”

She sighs and moves closer, perhaps happier now that she has an explanation for the terrible feeling that has taken up residency inside her. I start talking, telling her about all the wonderful times we’ve had together, doing my best to fill her memory with mine.

Monica McGuire is a mother and writer living in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

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