Sunday Stories: Ikebana

by Jade Wilkison

I’m watching my hands playing tidbits of what I can remember from the seven years of piano lessons I took ten years ago.  My grandmother is watching me with watery eyes.  Her left eye a perpetual droop since a stroke five years ago.  Her skin is paper.  Her head is shaved.  Her hands fidget with one another restlessly.  She smiles and motions for me to continue.  But what?  I take her hands to quiet them and rest my forehead against her warm cheek.  I smell her sour hospital odor and remember all the years of rose petal infused hugs and baby powder forever hanging in a cloud around her. I run my hands gently over a scalp that bears no resemblance to the woman who got her hair done once a week at the beauty parlor.  Carefully protected from the rain with a plastic bonnet. Now carefully protected from infection with gauze and traces of betadine.

“Would you like to take a stroll?” Another whisper, and I take her wheelchair around the corridor yet again.  It’s amazing how quickly disease can steal your body.  A month ago, we were celebrating my grandparent’s 50th wedding anniversary. You had your vodka with a twist, cake, champagne.  You wore your pearls.  We laughed at old pictures.  Sepia memories from 40 years ago. Laughing on the couch in your Jackie O dress with a cigarette sharing a secret with Pappy.  I want to know you then. Be privy to murmurs from a life long before me.  Riding the train to Penn Station to dance–catch a show at the Apollo.  Crinkles of crinoline.  Summer and smoke. Blurring into days filled with the garden club; a baby nestled in a basket by your feet. A baby that wasn’t yours but was yours all the same.  Pushing a stroller to Junior League.

Today I am pushing my grandmother around a hospital she recognizes and forgets at once, a brain tumor stealing precious memories.

I wasted too much time. Too busy hurtling myself into an adolescent adulthood, my turn to smoke cigarettes, sip vodka with a twist, laugh on the couch, and dance in the city. I can’t ask you all the questions bubbling inside: selfish.  What was Nana like?  And World War II with Pappy?  Why couldn’t you have children?  Tell me about residency, New York City in the 40’s – that secret. But it’s too late for that.  You can’t speak anymore, not really.  You breathe in deep for one repeated phrase, “home, take me home.”

My heart breaks as we round the corner.  My grandmother pleads with me to take her home.  The elevator dings.  Please Please Please, I want to go home.  I want to go home.  I want to go HOME.  I want to go home.  Please.  Please.  We continue on.  Home.

Remember when I was 5 and I hid in the dining room?  You called for me and called for me.   You ran outside, panicked, began to call neighbors.  Still I wedged myself deeper into the space beneath the side table.  Perhaps hiding from the confusion of living between, I found a small space for myself.  Were you angry?  I only remember relief.  Dairy cows. Barn cats.  The smell of creek in my hair.  A dappled summer, and then to Daddy in the fall.   And remember when Mary Lou Retton was in the Olympics and you made me tin foil gold medals for doing wobbly handstands and somersaults? Do you remember?

And all I want to do is take you home.

Memories.  So many of them, so permeable, so transient.  I want to take you out of this sterile place with death hanging everywhere.  It is ill fitting that this cold, foreign place should be where you are to die.  A blizzard of gauze and gowns.  Confusion reigns!  You, who wants only to be surrounded by daffodils and copper pans.  Me, who wants only, everything.

I want so much.

Quick!  Lets run out the glass doors, hop a plane to Japan! We can study flower arranging, and I can serve you tea.  We can play with the automatic toilet seat warmers! The bidets that can double as a shower if you aren’t careful!  I’ll cut my hair!  We’ll be renegades, me and you. Let us go to Antarctica and pose arms akimbo next to the penguins, and make googly eyes at the gorillas in the Congo.  We’ll hold hands and fly across the sea to Greece, ride mules in Santorini and become statues in Athens.  Just for fun we’ll hike to Macchu Picchu in the mist.  Chew cacao leaves and roll around in the dewy grass.  We’ll laugh in India about your gauze headdress.  Are you a Raja in disguise?  And I will be a Hindu princess!  We can soar to Mount McKinley and flex our wings, glide on currents unseen and drift back to your quiet new England town.  We’ll watch the birds bathing in the yard, cozy in your wood paneled kitchen.  I can make you a grilled cheese and ham.  Cut it into triangles.  Just like I like it. I’ll do it for you.  I’ll let you have another scoop of ice cream.  And put fireflies in a jar by your bed.

Hands in my hands.  Warm and wrinkled.  Skilled hands; lying still in my own.  I bury my face in your palms.  Fingernails ridged and translucent, delicate to the touch. I will memorize the creases of your Estonian eyes.  I will remember the light and warmth that carried me, always.

And I will leave you with promises of spring: bulbs of crocus gently stirring in frozen earth.

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  1. This brought tears to my eyes… It’s reflective of my own experiences with my grandmother, just much more eloquently put.