Saturday, December 29, 2007

Going to Graceland

I just came back from a trip to Memphis. It was my second visit to the flat city on the Mississippi River. The city has wonderful barbecue, which I ate, and a dreary airport, at which my flight from Minneapolis landed. Brad’s mom picked us up and drove us to the family home in Germantown, a pleasant suburb of shopping malls and gated communities built around a charming small town.

It was Christmas Eve. Houses were decked in bulbs and wreaths. But the streets were quiet with anticipation.

A Christmas Day surprise. Christmas is so predictable for many people. Awake, they wander downstairs to the living room, pour a big glass of eggnog, and start to open the wonderful gifts that Santa brought. The Christmas tree aglow, tiny bulbs cast a soothing light on the boxes taped in red and gold. For the Jew in me, it’s always been just another dreary day when everything is closed so you have to go see a movie. But this was my second year of enjoying the Christmas spirit, filled with coffee cake treats and gifts to be revealed.

After a few hours of unwrapping and warm thank yous, we retreated to a Christmas dinner with corn pudding and turkey and stuffing and cranberry Jell-O mold. It felt like a second Thanksgiving. It was wonderful. Then I wandered upstairs for a short tryptophan nap. Later in the afternoon, we went to see the film Juno, and then returned home for a lazy evening.

Asleep for an hour, I was told to wake up! We were headed to Graceland. Just after Midnight, I pulled on my jeans and the same shirt I wore all day, wrapped myself in my red vest and got into the truck. After an hour on the road, driving by shuttered shopping centers and dozing Starbucks, passing sleepy houses along the quiet road, we arrived. I sent a couple of emails along the way from the back seat of the Toyota pickup.

We arrived about 1:30 in the morning: Graceland Nursing Home, Oxford, Mississippi. It was quiet, but the lights were on. We rang the bell and peered down the hallway behind the glass door, watching from outside in the frosty Mississippi air as a blonde woman in a brown nursing uniform — a small speck in the distance — slowly lumbered toward us. From the other end of the long, dim hallway to her arrival at the front door easily took two minutes. We followed her back and into the room where Brad’s grandmother had been alive only an hour earlier.

I see dead people. A dead woman lay there. Later, I told Brad that she didn’t look so good. That she looked very, very dead.

I had met her a year ago. Although she had been very feeble at the time, and barely knew who her own grandson was, she was polite and offered me a warm hello. This time, her face was as white as her hair, her mouth was frozen in the shape of an egg, and her thin body was draped with a red nursing home-issued acrylic blanket.

I remember seeing my own grandmother when she died many years ago. She, too, looked like a sack. But she had been a robust, loving, funny person. She had managed the Thriftique, the store operated by the Cleveland Council of Jewish Women. She walked to work everyday, made amazing stuffed cabbage, told stories about the people she knew and the experiences she had, bargain shopped at Bernie Schulman’s, and lavished her grandchildren with gifts and food and unconditional love. She also snuck cigarettes, had heart attacks, ate fatty foods, and died of kidney failure. Being in the hospital waiting for her to die had been a horrible experience. And once she died, her body in the hospital bed, if I hadn’t known who she once had been, to me she would have been only a waxy encasement, mouth open, eyes closed. I knew, looking at Brad’s grandmother under the red blanket, she had been much more than a body.

The funeral director drove in from Tupelo and spent some time chatting with Brad’s mother and telling her about making funeral arrangements. And then we asked the late-night nursing staff for some trash bags. They returned with a handful of heavy duty Hefty’s, dark orange, like cinnamony pumpkin pie. We pulled clothes — housecoats, old pantsuits, dresses, undergarments — off the hangers and stuffed them into the bags, along with shoes, teddy bears and random holiday decorative items that we found in the closet.
I pulled down the photos of relatives, mostly people I’d never met, and set them in a box. The snapshots were taken at various stages of her life and their lives. In some of them, she was with grandchildren and nieces and friends. All reminders of a life that was filled with meaningful interactions. And now she was lying in a hospital bed, dead, with her family around her pulling down her last possessions and putting them into trash bags at 2:30 in the morning.

The funeral director asked us if we might step out of the room so he could get her ready. While we stood in the hall, he moved her to a gurney and covered her body in a furry red dead-person body cover with the name of the funeral home embroidered on the side. Then he wheeled her away. We walked back to the parking lot and returned to Memphis, and I hopped back into bed again before 4:30 AM.

I’m glad I had the chance to meet Mary Wells in 2006. I won’t remember her like this. And I know Brad and his family won’t remember her like this either. On Christmas night, she vacated her body and moved on. Hopefully, far from the dreariness of the nursing home with its hallways and smoking lounge and attendants who looked like they’d rather be sweeping the aisles of Wal-Mart than the bathrooms of Graceland where residents pee and miss the toilet.

Already, I think she’s closer to being the woman she once was. The family came into town two days later to relish memories they had of much better times and of a grandmother who was a special person to all of them.

I don’t think of my own grandmother as the cold body in the hospital bed. I still think of her as a warm spirit who added so much to my life and, in many ways, made me the person I am today.

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