A flimsy wall of sanitized white cloth defines the narrow space, pretending to offer privacy. I peer around it at my grandmother, framed in the hospital bed. I grab at the wall suspended from its sterile alloy track in the ceiling and it sneers at me, whispering, “I won’t support you. Let go of me and move on.” I look up, then release the coarse white cotton robe though I want to yank it down and reveal its deception.
I step closer, grasping the bedrails which imprison my grandmother. Although these offer a firm buttress for my weight, they, too, mock me. The bars are not here to help me stand, but to keep my grandmother from leaving the bed. You bastards, my mind whimpers. Where could my grandmother go?
“Gram?” I move closer, my hands trailing the cold bar, but not losing touch with it. Her eyelids flicker, feather soft; two fingers move just as subtly. I move closer still and take her hand. “Gram?”
“Joel, is that you?” Her voice is no longer bold and hardy, booming forth from the short squat woman who told her taller teenage son to bend over fifty years ago so she could slap his face for being disrespectful. “Come closer so I can see you.” My grandmother’s voice, raspy and guttural, is so shallow now that it no longer enfolds me. I bring my face closer to hers, wanting her to see me but not my tear-filled eyes.
“I’m here, Gram.”
Her words come more spontaneously, but still with effort. “I’m going to ask you to do something for me and I don’t want you to give me a hard time.” My grandmother knows me, but I know her, too; as if I could ever give her a hard time.
Until I was six years old, my family lived in Winfield Park, the same small community where my grandparents lived. The collection of rowhouses mushroomed overnight during World War II to provide cheap rental housing. The rows of two-story white houses with green trim and flat roofs surrounded their own candy store; Leo’s barber shop, where Leo gave me my first store-bought haircut; and Winfield Park Elementary School, where I went to kindergarten and the first grade. My mother’s parents had moved here temporarily while they looked for a house. They stayed for almost forty years.
While we lived in Winfield Park, my grandmother was a built-in baby-sitter on Tuesdays and Saturdays, when my mother would waitress and my father, a letter carrier, worked at his second job, sweeping a stationery supplies warehouse. On those evenings, we would all sit in the dark at my grandmother’s house, the only light coming from a 17-inch black and white Sylvania. We’d watch Perry Mason. Even now, its hypnotic theme music transports me to dramatic courtroom confrontations, reflective of the skirmishes between Gram and me while we ate dinner, before we turned on the TV.
We’d all start off together, my sister and grandfather, Uncle Benny and me. My grandmother would eat from a snack table while sitting on her overstuffed, faded gray floral chair and mismatched ottoman next to the kitchen table, beginning only after she first served us. Uncle Benny, a boarder about the same age as my grandparents, had lived with them since before my parents were married. My grandfather was short and round and bald and always seemed to have a dour expression on his face, as though he had just swallowed a bit of the soggy end of the Phillie Blunt cigar he was only allowed to smoke outside. Uncle Benny, who also smoked Phillie Blunts outside, was slimmer and taller and had several more fine strands of hair. He smiled, played gin rummy with my sister and me and took us for walks down County Road (which separated the rowhouses from the pin oaks, maples, sassafras, and fir trees) to where a quiet stream ended in a roaring waterfall, before becoming a quiet stream again.
My grandmother served very tasty dinners for the most part: roasted paprika chicken, mashed potatoes with onions, or her own special recipe for kugel, a traditional Jewish dish of noodles and raisins and cinnamon baked in a mold with a hole in the center like you’d use for angel food cakes. But she always served peas (or some other vegetable) with dinner, too, and forbade me from leaving the table until I had eaten every one of the smelly green pellets, no matter how many hours it took.
“Has everyone finished?” Gram would ask as she started to clear the table, my sister and Uncle Benny already turning their chairs toward the TV.
“No,” I’d answer sullenly, staring down at my plate.
“Well, hurry up. The shows are coming on.” Gram called her favorite soap operas during the day her “stories”; in the evening, they were her “shows”. “We don’t want to miss any.”
“I’m done, Gram. I really don’t want any more,” I’d whine, one hand propping my head up, my elbow on the table. I’d look everywhere but at my grandmother, everything but the actual words already acknowledging defeat.
“You’re not done until those peas are gone. We’re not throwing away good food.” Some nights, she made reference to starving children in Asia. Other nights, they didn’t matter. “And, you are not to leave the table until your plate is clean.”
Many times, I watched Perry Mason while still eating, filling my mouth with up to half a loaf of white bread, one slice at a time, to envelop the peas and conceal their taste. No one ever defied my grandmother.
“What, Gram?” I ask, bent over her bed.
“I want you to say Kaddish for me.”
I slip into my poker-face mode, not reacting while I process her request. I’d never have expected this from a woman whom I had seen in a synagogue only once in my life: at my bar mitzvah sixteen years ago. But my grandmother has always been fiercely adamant about identifying herself as a Jew, at least culturally if not religiously.
Technically, it wouldn’t be kosher. According to Jewish tradition, I know that one would say the prayer for the dead in only seven situations: for a son, a daughter, a mother, a father, a sister, a brother, or a spouse. I know this much, but I can’t say that it’s not allowed for other relationships. It doesn’t matter, anyway. She’s my Grandma. I should argue, though. Be optimistic. I shouldn’t simply concede, validate that she’ll soon be dead.
“Sure, Gram. Whatever you want.” Hadn’t she always tried her best to give me everything I wanted? Hadn’t she acquiesced to the operation because I coaxed her into it after the doctors said she had to have it? And, yet, Gram always got her way. The operation was a success, yet…
“I promise, Gram.” I should sound softer, more comforting, but my grandmother and I know each other. Instead, my tone sounds like, “I already said I would; you don’t have to tell me again.” And she knows that I’ll say Kaddish for her when she dies. She closes her eyes and sleeps.
I’m not ready to let go of her gnarly, nurturing hand yet, so I stay a little longer. I watch her chest, her two large bosoms that pillowed my head as a child when she held me; they’ve shrunken, just as she is smaller. I watch her chest as it rises and falls, rises and falls, in a slow, shallow cadence. She sleeps beneath a clean white sheet which projects neatness rather than warmth. I look away reflexively, still concerned that she might see my eyes misting over with emotion even as she sleeps. Behind her, a technological display of sound and color adds its soulless voice to those which mocked me earlier: Beeps and chirps, red numbers, and delicate green lines trace her mortality coldly across monitors.
I can’t stay forever. I should get back to work, so I withdraw from the stainless steel rails, back past the white cloth apron which protects casual passersby from emotional splatter. I wander numbly back through the maze of hallways painted blue and bright yellow and mint green, past patient rooms each with its own cloth wall, and nursing stations and lounges and elevators. The pervasive hospital odor of disinfectant-camouflaged gloom gives way as I burst into the fresh air past the hospital’s sterile sliding glass doors and my lungs fill with sunny crispness. But my heart still carries the weight of Gram’s request. The irony overwhelms me as I make my way across the parking lot to my small tan Toyota. It’s a tiny car, a social worker’s car. And I’m returning to my office at the nursing home where my grandmother now lives.
Arriving at the contemporary and fresh-smelling nursing home where I work, I leave the heat outside in the parking lot and walk purposefully into its lobby, anxious to leave the recent trip to the hospital behind me. But, before I bury myself in any of my responsibilities, the administrator asks me to come to his office. The hospital has called, he tells me. My grandmother is dead.
I stand alone in my empty rust-carpeted living room at 8:30 in the morning. My wife and baby son are still asleep. I’ll kiss them goodbye on my way to work, in a minute. First, I have an obligation to fulfill, a promise to keep. I stare out the sliding glass door past the used-brick patio, past the small plot of grass, beyond this world, not looking at the prayer book in my hands open to the Mourner’s Kaddish.
“Yit gadol, v’yit kaddash shmei rabbah.”
Joel Greenwald devoted several years to helping the institutionalized elderly before finally settling down and helping manage Philadelphia’s mental health system for over 25 years before retiring.