The process takes many years, or so the doctors will tell you. Genetic predisposition, the diagnostic catch-all and sometimes lethal counterpoint in the argument against nurture, is the most likely culprit. Smoking, medicine's other Great Evil, may increase one's chances as well, though this matter is yet to be proven either clinically or by substantial out-of-court settlements.
The physicians you know as friends will simply shake their heads, casually admitting to the detriment of all confidence in their craft that in fact they have little or no idea what's behind it. It, or much else. Anaesthesia? A mystery. Seems to do the trick, though, doesn't it? Cancer? Tricky. Which kind and how old? The final spectre, Grim Death itself? Now that's a corker. To make sure, we pinch an earlobe, and hope you flex to pain.
A lifetime in development. Pinpoints of plasma and hemoglobin gathering into a hold; a swelling, hidden for who knows how long in the recesses of the brain, challenging the nearby arteries to a contest for space, creating untold traffic in the Circle of Willis. Then--the searing rupture and release. A flood in the mind, and change.
Unknown causes, the doctors will tell you. Of an indeterminable origin.
Nine months ago, my grandmother's complaint to my grandfather of a severe headache was closely followed in his ears by a whimper and thud. He turned, as he tells it, saw her not where he left her, and quickly dialed 911. The ambulance came and bundled her off to one of the several nearby hospitals, whereat she was pronounced alive, unconscious, and unlikely to survive the night.
Which, true to form, she did anyway.
The MRI revealed significant intracranial bleeding, slowed but not stopped by morning, and more antiquated methods of examination discovered beneath her unopening left eyelid a wholly unresponsive pupil. The prognosis of less than a night was extended to the unknown with the condition of successful surgery, to be performed later in the same day following a determination by the surgeon which of the two methods was best: fill it in, or tie it off with a thin strip of platinum wire. The decision would take some analysis and observation, giving my grandfather time to make the phone calls he hadn't yet thought to make.
My uncle and aunt, to start, then my father. My father, unrelated to them by blood, and for eleven years unrelated by marriage to my mother. They had not spoken to each other for the last eight years of those eleven, and yet he knew before she did--for the mathematically simple reason that my mother and her parents had not spoken to each other for the last twenty years, outright.
I had the dubious honor of telling her.
The rift between them opened when I was still too young to understand it, and since then I have determined every source of explanation to be at best significantly unreliable. Allegations of madness all around, evidenced by years of therapy or refusal to get it, various medications or refusal to take them, labels of neurosis, psychosis, depression, paranoia, the entire contents of the DSM flipped through and plundered for any applicable condition, no matter how barely, and the more exotic the better. Something in there for everyone, especially in a family of both therapists and therapied, all slinking around trying to write each other off in the most comfortably technical terms. Pride and spite writ large in the language of Jewish intelligentsia, hurt feelings propped up by doctorate degrees and steadfast grudges. Very strong, very thorough. The common details define a decision made by my mother sometime in the past, from which my grandmother decided there would be no going back.
And she did her damnedest.
The stubborness of Selma is not to be taken lightly. Fifty-nine vertical inches of immovable object. No contact, no phone calls, no cards on holidays, birthdays, or the few anniversaries remaining. My brother and I went unscathed, happily; Selma doesn't fire wrath with a scatter gun. It goes precisely and totally where it's directed. Life for the next two decades went on with them much as it had before, just without my mother. A total split. Two Thanksgiving dinners, two (or rather, sixteen) Chanukas, two birthdays, until there arose the need for three. She's a damn fine cook, mashed potatoes to die for, and an artist with a black forest cake. We played poker and tiddlywinks, talked school and girls, later college and careers. They're excellent grandparents--energetic and fun, creative, witty. I never feared them as I feared other old people, old people like my father's parents. They were always dying, even in good health, mumbling, sad, and distant. Not Jordan and Selma. They were always laughing, and I saw in Selma no trace of regret or thought for my mother.
I am old enough now to understand how very frightening that was.
The doctor decided to tie off the burst vessel. In the hours before the surgery, little nervous jokes went back and forth across the phone lines:
Could they fix this or that other thing, as long as they're in there? Remove a schtickle of frontal lobe, maybe, just to take the edge off? How partial are you to the Grandma you know?
And then, a click.
"That's my other line," my mother said. "Hold on."
"OK." I opened the fridge in the office conference room, pilfered an unopened soda. A unremarkable silence, followed by another click.
Dad? She still called my dad, Dad. Why would my dad be calling her? It took me a minute to realize. Not mine. Hers. She hadn't called him that in years. Her voice picked up where her parents left off. She sounded like a little girl asking, with upturned eyes and a chewed lower lip, "what should I do?"
"Whoa." I said. "That's weird."
"Yeah, this IS weird."
"You better talk to him."
"Call me later, tell me what happened."
The surgery went through without a hitch. Entry to the skull just above the temple, behind the hairline. Permanency of nerve damage difficult to determine; likewise loss of cognitive skills, motor skills, memory, and personality. A host of stitches, one small metal plate and two screws to close. Recovering nicely a day later, to be kept under observation for at least a week.
During which time my grandfather moved into my mom's apartment in the city.
He slept on the futon in the guest room. She made him breakfast. Showed him how to use the three remotes for the TV, stereo, and cable box. Did not tell him about surround sound and the DVD player. Dragged him by the arm and had to teach him how to use the washer/dryer, because Gran had been washing his shirts for nearly half a century.
And they talked. One can only imagine about what, where they started. So. The Berlin Wall came down. That was pretty neat. And then there were the nineties. How'd those work out for ya? Right, the divorce. That was probably pretty rough. Oh, Dad, I heard you had cancer again for a bit. Yes, yes I did. Got anything to eat around here?
Or words to that effect. I don't know; that week was entirely between them. The reports that came through were sparse and non-specific. Mom had determined to tread lightly. Grandma wasn't yet awake, and no one could be sure what to expect other than that she surely wouldn't die. Not for a moment did anyone really expect she would die. Too stubborn. Entirely too stubborn.
She came round in record time. Mumbling to start, and as grumpy as ever, complaining of a problem with balance and later much lamenting her appearance. Swollen, a patch of hair missing, a railroad track of a scar over an impressive dent. One eye that still wasn't opening and might very well never again. But as the best part of a week revealed, she was still determinedly Selma, minus a very minor percentage of her former vocabulary and plus a tendency when walking to pull slightly to the left. Slowed but by no means stilled. And asking for makeup. Tough old bird.
Eight months passed. Phone calls never dipped below once a week. My mother journeyed out to see them once a month, drove from the city to "the house." Her term. Never exactly "to see my parents," or "visit them," not precisely, but going to "the house." Like Usher. Too many things buried in the walls, or under the stairs, that creaked all the way down to the half-sunken basement where stacks of her childhood memories slept on high shelves under blankets of dust. I'd seen them. Boxes of photographs with tilted, rotting lids. Drawings on thick heavy paper the color of neglect. Journals with curled up corners sticking out beyond the edges, all her years in the house of her mother reaching up to the ceiling in uneven, sprawling towers of haphazardly piled blocks. They strained against the ceiling tiles at the top, warped the boards at the bottom. Pushed outward from the base of the house.
Competed for space.
They received the invitation the first week of November. The last week of October was one of heavy deliberation over the point of whether or not to extend it. Three generations of my family had not been gathered in one place at one time since well before the last of my baby teeth dropped out; we scarce thought time-space could contain such a singularity, and knew full well the risk of placing that weight on the universal fabric. Some things are simply too unnatural.
They accepted on November 21st. One week's notice. My mother called me at 12:30am of the 22nd to deliver the verdict with a telling mixture of imprecatory wisdom and fatalistic resignation. "Well," she said, "the grandparents are coming to Thanksgiving."
I had not seen them since it happened. They buzzed up from downstairs; I went to collect them. Gramps had put on a few years in nine months, and lost a couple inches worth of bone mass. He'd been scared. Crazy as Selma is, he loves her like nothing else. They'll go within months of each other. He wore a fedora, she wore some wide-brimmed affair with a red satin band. The same height and build as my mother, the same coloring. Not that they'd ever really know, but approximately the same skills in the kitchen and a similar love of gardening. On the left lens of her glasses was a mask of translucent scotch tape. But both eyes were open.
Mother and daughter greeted each other with the uniquely uncomfortable, forward sort of enthusiasm that rings false even when it isn't. Happy to see you, terrified you're here. Light conversation only--there will never be revelations. Acceptance without understanding is the best they can expect or indeed tolerate. Mom bustled about the kitchen making final preparations; Selma asked her if there was anything she could do. No, just relax...I'm OK...she doesn't know I can cook...
But there we were. Two grandparents, aunt and uncle, mother, brother, me. Having a glass of wine, chatting about careers and college and girls and tiddlywinks. Selma unable to see much out of her left eye. Gramps unable to see anything at all from his right, having lost it years ago. For a complete field of vision between them, they have to stand next to each other. Two little people. Not ten feet tall if stacked. He rarely left her side but for a moment when she wandered off to look at the apartment. And I had a word with him.
"So," I said, and nothing else was needed.
"I know. Really. I never thought I'd see the day. Never. This is so great. I can't believe it. It's wonderful."
He meant it. The eye he had left might have cried had he another glass of wine in him. All those years she wouldn't let him talk to his daughter. What he sacrificed to her stubborness, her pride. What he finally got back, so late he could not have expected it. Just a year ago she had decided to return to my uncle or simply discard all the baby photos she still had of her own two children. We had to assume that Jordy could exert some greater influence over her, now her skull was short a section. Or perhaps old age finally gave them a real smack, asked them to whom they would turn when the time came. And it was coming.
"Why now?" I asked.
He shrugged, shook his head. "Her brain exploded. If it's more than that, she'll never say."
They left fairly early. No driving at night. They shouldn't be driving at all, obviously, given the limitations of even their collective peripheral vision. Mom slumped into the nearest chair, sat just for a few moments before dishing out another round of desserts. Relieved or saddened, more likely both. It would always be a combination of things, always be patchwork. What had been an emptiness gave way years ago to nothingness. Hard to want anything back at all after that. Fool me once.
But there had been something. A change, a development, after twenty years of silent stasis. Dripping hollows out a stone. Water finds the cracks. Some things cannot be contained. They crack, and burst, and flow.