by Lisa Walter
A story that examines aging parents and family responsibilities
She shuffles, not over to the side because that would make sense, but right in the middle of the sidewalk. Wrinkly flesh spills and sags out of her purple sweater. It’s a hundred degrees in the middle of summer and I swear to God she’s sporting wool. I try to be patient, squashing the urge to pull her flabby arms and yank her out of the way so people can pass. It might even get us to Walgreens before midnight.
And then she stops, just stops in the middle of the sidewalk, her frail body like a heat mirage shimmering on the cracked pavement. Maybe she needs to adjust that awful thin hair, tuck it under the cheap orange scarf she’s wearing. Grandma Bea has unknowingly caused another traffic jam as people stop short or swerve around us and I have to wait for her to do…whatever. I wait.
My husband thought this was a great idea, a chance for us to have some alone time and get to know each other better. I didn’t buy it. And what did he say before I left? “It’ll be good for both of you. Bea wants to spend time with you.”
That was hilarious! For starters, Bea doesn’t even know who I am. She called me Joy twice before we even got into the car. “Grandma, I’m not Joy. I’m Ellen.” Repeat.
It’s not that I blame her. She’s 92 and flirting with dementia. Of course she wants me to be Joy! It’s a great name – much better than Sorrow, don’t you think? But it hits a raw nerve. Obsolescence is an ugly beast. It leaves you feeling used and discarded, like last year’s favorite dress gathering dust in the closet. Anyone can rub salt on the wound without ever knowing it, even a confused old lady who swears your name is Joy. Especially a confused old lady who swears your name is Joy. I am not Joy, Grandma. I am me, disappointingly Ellen.
We finally make it to the promised land, the cool air conditioned haven of Walgreens. Bea shuffles in the middle aisle while I ask her what she wants. A can of tuna? Maybe some soup? Milk and crackers? I see a woman once beautiful, now standing alone and confused in the middle of a crowded aisle. I see the woman I will become, tiny and lost as the rest of the world consumes her. The thought scares me. I want to grab her wrist, hold it over our heads and shout “We are here! We are here! We are here!” at the top of my lungs like the Dr. Seuss book and hope there’s a Horton out there that hears this Who.
A teenage stock boy comes up behind us, stopping short and almost running into us. We mumble our quiet apologies. Sorry, ma’am. I didn’t see you there. Sorry I’m in your way, sir. So sorry.
He walks around us and does a double take, looking back and grinning at both of us. He is thin and gangly with a mop of blonde hair and eyes the color of summer sky. He reminds me of my own son.
“Your grandma?” He has really seen us now. His voice is gentle, almost tender.
“Awesome. Enjoy it, ma’am. You don’t get it back.”
He nods and goes about his business, leaving me standing with Bea, wondering why a teenage boy wants to play wise old sage in the middle of Walgreens. No matter. He might even be right. I suppose it is “awesome”. There used to be reciprocated love and recognition with Bea. I’m doing a good thing. Bea needs me.
I look back at Grandma, stooped over and messing with the knot on her scarf. Her wrinkly old face is intense, frustrated and angry because undoing a knot should be so simple. Pride keeps her from asking for help, so I reach over. “Let me help you.”
She swats at my hand. Fine. I sigh and throw a can of soup into the cart. We are here, Grandma. We exist here together and we’re doing the best that we can. It’s a Joy-less occasion with just you and me. Disappointingly Ellen.