My mother called me on Friday night. This was one of those calls when she opens with a "I haven't been keeping you up to date on some things," which means that someone is very ill and she can no longer hide it from the children. This time it is my grandfather. She told me that he has been having a series of strokes "for a few months", but his health has reached a stage where my grandmother can't be the first line of care anymore. My aunt has arranged a transfer from a hospital in Ontario, California, where they have been living for some time now, back to the family hospital in Albany. Once he's there, a regiment of nuns will make sure the proper arrangements are made. There was a small brief about the finer points of this plan, but at this point I was shoving a large pile of feelings into my brain so I kind of lost track of things.
Really, none of this information had anything to do with me. I'm sure this is exactly what my mother thought when she was hearing all of this news pouring out of her side of the family, and then dutifully keeping it to herself. But then, any health concerns in my family are kept internally until it reaches an unignorable proportion, and then the dam holding back the information has to burst. When it does burst, I become the villagers down in the valley struggling against the deluge. The impression is that I will be better off getting it all in a sudden burst instead of having bad news trickle down over a period of time. We tend to fucking disagree on this point.
"How old is he?"
"What?" I ask because I'm not here. My wife is asking me this question twenty minutes later.
"Your grandfather. How old is he?"
"He's your mother's age. At least, my grandmother is. I think he might be older? I'm not sure all of a sudden."
"Well, he's got to be getting up there then."
But is he? Is he really? Because in my head, he's just finished building the porch on Greenway, reading a book a day in some deck chair. He's just bought a crappy old boat on the inter-coastal, and he's going to fix it up as a hobby. He's hiding from my grandmother so he can bum high-end cigarettes off of me. He's making my wife laugh while we're sitting around the picnic table out back.
And he's this way in my head because I've seen him maybe every third year for the last two decades or so. And I am at least six years older than I think I am. I'm not sure when time started dilating like this, but when the logic breaks down it is just as jarring as the first time it happened. This is mixed in with the idea that nothing has changed in the valley since 1986, because that was when the plants closed and time stopped and we're all living as refugees in a future that doesn't want us.
I am killing myself with every misplaced thought. Yes, the last decade actually happened. Yes, my grandfather is old, and he is old enough to have these health problems, and these health problems are bad enough that he needs medical staff at the ready. And it will be him and then it will be my parents and then it will be me, because that is how time works. And if things go really well, my brothers' kids' kids will be able to write these same words in fifty years while I'm stuck in some hospital bed.
I need to create new ways of thinking about such things, because I'll break myself working this paradigm.
*He's had multiple strokes I guess?*
This is the text from my mother's sister's daughter on Saturday. This is the way true information is spread in my family: conspiratorial back channels, hushed secrets in basements, and drunken rants over cigarettes. *Yeah, that's the info I've got too. I didn't know about any of this until last night.*
*I will let you know if something happens.* This is a oath and a creed. This is what I need to hear sometimes.
This is my older brother's text message I receive while I'm wandering around an abysmal mall in Racine trying to distract myself. He didn't get the call until a few hours after I did, and he's got his own high-end concerns at the moment. I'll tell him that I don't have anything new, and then we'll do this little dance repeatedly over the next few days. Growing up in a house of silence and misinformation has made us both hyper-sensitive to being left out of the loop. We do this because we are afraid, and we need the comfort of knowing that we have each others backs in times like these.
"They're going to wait and do it on Monday."
This is my mother on Saturday night. They tried to get him ready to fly home, but the doctors at whatever hospital out west said they were concerned that he wasn't healthy enough to make the flight. They think he won't be unable to make the flight on Monday either, but they're going to reevaluate it then and see how things go. My mother is not taking this well, but militantly refuses to stay on topic when I ask her if she wants to talk about it. No one in my family has ever taken me up on an offer to "talk about it".
*Any news from NY?*
This is my wife again, but this time it is Monday afternoon. We're both at work, and I'm trying not to think about not hearing anything while I'm not hearing anything. So I tell her I haven't heard anything, and then get back to thinking about not hearing anything. Sometimes I feel that this is the price that I pay for not living in the valley anymore, but then I remember I would probably be in the same state if I was still there. I wonder about the kind of call that I will eventually receive, either from my mother or from the cousin underground. And then I try to get some work done instead, which totally happened of course.
The call I did get was the best of all reasonable calls. My grandfather actually seemed to get better during the flight, and arrived in Albany in good spirits. The nuns have him now, and that also makes him very happy. They're going to run some tests and see where things are.
"He's a thousand times better than I thought he was going to be" my mother tells me. "I don't know if it's because he's happy to be home or what, but he's in good spirits." I'm glad she was able to say those words to me. But there are things that I'm sure she's not saying as well. I know that she's not telling me the true impact of the strokes, or what the concerns for the next few days and months are.
At that moment, with her on the other end of the phone, it dawns on me that this is her way of coping with the situation. She's not hiding information out of malice, or even a notion of how she should be handling things with her children. By not giving words to the situation, it cannot fully defeat her. While I may disagree with her coping mechanism, at least now I understand it a bit better. It is still going to piss me off to have to get important information through indirect angles, but maybe that is the compromise that needs to be made so that she doesn't have to cry every time we talk about bad things. There is something to be said for that.
And it is not like I can do anything about it anyway. I don't have the power to stop time, regardless of my brain's refusal to process its passage correctly. I can't work anything to prevent the inevitable outcome. I'm along for the ride, just like the rest of us.