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A day of sitting with the soon-to-be-dismantled Mr. Weekend (the towering centerpiece of We’ll Make Out Better Than Okay, which leaves La Esquina Dec. 20.) reminded me of a day, in 2005, I spent with my grandmother, who was dying. It’s still hard to think that my grandmother, even in the relative comfort of her own home and not in an anonymous hospital, which setting is exactly where she would die in less than a month, as dying and that I was watching over her. Cataracts and hearing loss were coupled with difficulties swallowing and understandable seizures of fear that she might be alone.
Like Mr. Weekend, she was on her own endless loop, that of the person who knows she is dying and clings to routine as though a regular schedule will make death inhospitable. But Emily Dickinson didn’t write, Because I could not stop for death, death postponed that he would stop for me. My grandmother, unlike Mr. Weekend, could process her thoughts, but her fear wouldn’t let her externalize them. I hope her prayers relinquished the heavier ones.
The finality of that world, of sitting with someone who knows she is dying, stuck in my mind as I listened to Mr. Weekend’s endless loop. The former automated device’s plaintive recorded voice of never having been outside is really not that much removed from a woman’s already small window of the world made smaller, and meaner, by a radio show in which gospel is regarded as a weapon against one’s enemies. Following, with some small incisions, is what I wrote about that day.
I spent yesterday with my grandmother. She’s a religious woman. I am not. When I heard the that line – how to share the gospel with someone you can’t stand – as an intro for a radio show on the Christian station she listened to each day, I wondered which of us was being duped, myself or my grandmother.
It would be my role, of course, as the nonbeliever and cynic, to play the despised if this were a stage play. My character would be perforce to listen to the disembodied voice of a mellifluous man, who, in my mind, looked like he had modeled for American Gothic. Or, like Samuel Beckett, whose work scores the preoccupations of mortality and the absurdity of our processes, dialogues, memories.
The show on how to disseminate the gospel to those one despises ran as I washed up some dishes from lunch. When I returned to the living room, I was treated to the continuation of The Abortion Holocaust. I doubt that the minister, Father Frank, had read that abortions are on the decline and that 87% of US counties have no abortion providers, which fact might be correlative.
It was at this point that I would have muttered a response, if only to balm my own sense of humanity from the unending excoriations of my radio tormentor. Since my grandmother’s hearing and sight are both degenerated, I could have rebutted Father Frank’s wisdom with a cutting comment or two. But the quiet of the little house on the ugly street in the rural town isolated me from a sense that a world even existed beyond the routine of an aged invalid.
Father Frank had a compelling quality to his performance. My grandmother and I were captive – the Hamm and Clov, perhaps – to his voice. I could envision the parishioners as I heard their audible murmurs rise in hushed chorus to his oratory. When he segued from abortion to Teri Schiavo, I anticipated that Father Frank wouldn’t fail to feed me wry bread.
Father Frank, it turns out, was among the cadre of those given a last visit to Schiavo after her feeding tubes were removed.
He even had a perfect counterpoint with which to convey his sermon. As the “bright” and “alert” Schiavo died of dehydration, a bowl of flowers at her head “flourished” from water. A cheaper show for the entertainment value could not be had.
Except maybe his description, had he been there, of Aileen Wuornos’ final moments.
It was mid-afternoon by this point, and my anger at the man’s bile was lulled by the sound of my grandmother’s oxygen machine.
I closed the living room windows as the sun lowered; it had been almost obscenely bright all day. My grandmother nodded, but briefly, asleep. My mother would be home soon.