I wrote this in an essay two years ago. It is about my grandmother:
One morning two years ago my grandmother blacked out in her kitchen. She fell and hit her head. She was taken to the hospital across the street in an ambulance. She was treated and released. She moved in with my mother for a few weeks. Then she moved into an apartment in an assisted living facility a half mile from her house.
I was living in California when my grandmother fell. I didn’t see her until a few months after her accident. I was too poor to buy a plane ticket. I worked a lot and saved up some money and finally bought a plane ticket.
The last time I had seen her she was the same person she had always been. She was very intelligent and friendly and humble. She was energetic and optimistic. She was very fancy.
My grandmother was born in Austria. She grew up during World War II. As a child she and her family spent a lot of time in hiding. She didn’t have much to eat. She lost her teeth. She didn’t have a normal life again until the Russians liberated Vienna.
Her father had a little Jewish ancestry in him. He was not a practicing Jew. He tried to escape Europe but was captured. He was executed by the Nazis.
My grandmother met my grandfather while she was still in Europe. He was an American. He was a journalist and was in the Air Force. They dated for some time. She wanted to marry him. He wanted to marry her too. He hesitated because he felt he was too sad to marry her.
My grandmother left Austria and flew to San Francisco. She was eighteen years old. She taught herself English. She married someone else. She married him because he didn’t hesitate to ask her to marry him.
This made my grandfather very sad. He went to my great-grandmother in Innsbruck and asked for my grandmother’s address. She was sympathetic. She liked my grandfather a lot. She gave him my grandmother’s address in the United States.
He wrote my grandmother dozens of love letters. He told her he had been a fool. He told her he had made a huge mistake.
My grandmother received his letters. She decided she didn’t love her husband as much as she still loved my grandfather. She wasn’t married long. She got divorced. She married my grandfather instead.
My grandparents traveled the world together. They lived in Austria and Germany and Argentina. They lived in Baltimore and New York City. They had four children. My grandfather became a journalist for the New York Times and wrote about train travel. His clippings from a voyage on the Trans-Siberian Railway are framed and hung in the hallway of my grandmother’s house.
I never met my grandfather. He died of a heart attack five years before I was born. My grandmother and my mother and my uncle have told me that he was a very kind and intelligent man. He was soft-spoken and melancholy and liked to be alone.
My grandmother moved into a condo a few miles from the house where she and my grandfather had lived. Her condo was across the street from the hospital where my sister and I were born. She decorated it with things she had collected from her travels with my grandfather. My grandfather had hundreds of books. My grandmother kept them. They fill an entire wall in the living room.
My grandmother lived in this house for thirty years. I have been coming here for twenty-seven of them. My grandmother’s house has never changed. It is very nice and comforting. There are beautiful paintings on the walls. There are pictures of her adventures. By the door is a picture from six years ago of her standing near the pyramids in Egypt. On the adjacent wall is a picture of her river rafting when she was well into her sixties.
Her coffee table is wrapped in a thin layer of leather. There are intricate markings carved into the leather. She told me she had it made in Peru many decades ago. Across from the coffee table is a fireplace. The carpet is very soft. It is the only carpet I have ever liked walking on.
My grandmother told me that when I was a little baby she brought me over to her house. It was the first time I had ever been to her house. She told me she held me in her arms. She said I had soft eyes. She said my grandfather had soft eyes too.
Twenty-seven years later I left New Orleans feeling rotten as hell. I came north to my home in Virginia. I had nowhere to go. I moved into my grandmother’s house. I had not been there in two years. No one had lived there in all that time. My grandmother has not been back since the day she was taken away in an ambulance.
My mother is in the process of moving to New York. She has been storing her furniture at my grandmother’s house. When I arrived every room was filled with tables and chairs and dressers. There were dozens of cardboard boxes on the floor. It made me sad to see my grandmother’s house look like that.
My sister and I collected every foreign object and stacked them in my grandmother’s bedroom. After an hour the room was filled. We turned off the light and shut the door. We made the rest of the house look the same way it had looked for all the many years we had been coming there. We put up Christmas decorations too.
After Christmas my sister went back to Tennessee. My mother flew to New York. Now I am alone in my grandmother’s house with my cat. I am alone in a town that feels like a small constellation of haunted houses that are inside an abandoned amusement park.
Today I left the house for the first time in a week. I had not seen another human being in just as long. If I did not talk to my cat I would not have heard my own voice either. Outside the sun was setting. It was very cold. The wind sailed through my clothes. It made my bones ache. My face went numb.
I drove a half mile to the assisted living facility where my grandmother lives. She is eighty-nine years old. I had to knock loudly for her to hear me. Her hearing is bad because she had hit her head. She answered the door smiling. She was leaning on a walker. She opened her arms and hugged me. I hugged her back.
She was much smaller now. She had almost no energy. She was very sad. She said didn’t want to be alive anymore. We sat on her couch and talked for a long time. I had to raise my voice so she could hear me. I don’t like hearing myself talk like that. I have to talk like that or else my grandmother and I can’t talk anymore.
She told me she was glad that I was taking care of her house. She said it made her sad that it had been empty for so long. She asked me how I filled my hours. I told her I was reading my grandfather’s old books. I told her I took a lot of baths.
She looked at the clock and told me she had to be downstairs for dinner. Before we left she asked me to unscrew the caps to all the water bottles in her refrigerator, and then gently close them again. She said her hands were too weak to do that anymore. I helped her turn off all her lights. We took the elevator downstairs.
We stopped outside the dining hall. My grandmother rubbed my shoulder and patted my back. She asked me to bring stamps with me when I came to see her next. She said she had some letters to write. She said she can’t write letters as well as she used to because her hands are too weak. She said she would try anyway. She hugged me. I hugged her back.
“And please keep writing me those letters,” she said. “You and your sister are the only reason I’m alive.”