Konstnären Hilary Goldberg sitter vid R:s sjukhussäng och minns ett storslaget liv.
There was a tube down her throat, and her arms were in restraints. Her chest lurched. Eyes rolled back. A mechanical force inflated her lungs. Our damned bodies, fleeting, aging, riddled with perpetual need. She survived a holocaust to be this, a tortured balloon in handcuffs. Nurses said the drugs meant she wouldn’t remember. Never forget.
A neurologist declared her brain dead. Only, she wasn’t.
Hospitals have a Board of Ethics. They wear suits and meet around an obscenely large boardroom table when necessary. They asked my grandfather if my grandmother could make her own medical decisions. He turned to me and asked my opinion, I said, yes. He said, I don’t know.
Later in rehabilitation, my grandmother said she had three boyfriends in Brussels when she met my grandfather. That he was relentless, and she wanted to go to America. They met on the black market both working a currency exchange. She made her shirt from a parachute, but it looked like fine silk. Her long dark hair curved across her brow – like Veronica Lake, my grandfather said. The story we grew up with was a quixotic tale of a jitterbug contest and courting, chocolate in exchange for cigarettes. I took her out to eat and all the other soldiers bought her drinks, he said. My grandmother, 83, was done with that older story, and caustically repeated, this man was a real killer. He’s a real killer.
She was a chanteuse and a raconteur. Her father was a coal miner, and her mother was a tough woman from Sosnowitz, Poland. She was beaten for being left handed, for misbehaving, for not looking like her mother. Her name was Rosine. When she hid out on a farm during the war her name was Rebecca. She wore an R initial around her neck for almost as long as I knew her. The R was lost in the final weeks of her life spent in and out of hospital rooms, getting scans, getting stuck, giving up. She didn’t care. Je m’en fous.
I wondered where my irreverence and anti-authoritarian disposition came from until my grandmother was in the hospital. Then I understood.
1946 my pregnant grandmother went to purchase a crib at the furniture store. The owner of the shop told her that he wanted to marry a foreign woman just like her. My grandmother said she had a sister, just like her, she showed him a twice-exposed photograph someone took of her in a mirror, and lied that they were identical twins. The shop owner began correspondence and paper work to bring her sister to America, but his wealthy family pressured him to stop.
My grandfather brought her sister to the U.S. (I have a sibling, a sister, and she was beside me for all of this and more, so this debt, this indebtedness, was fathomable as much as formidable. They asked my grandfather if my grandmother could make her own medical decisions. He turned to me and asked my opinion, I said, yes. He said, I don’t know. This man was a real killer. He’s a real killer.)
He arrived at the hospital with a baseball glove for the birth of his first child, and fainted in disappointment when he learned he had a daughter.
And in 1952, the 5-year-old girl, asked that only English be spoken in their American household.
My grandmother painted on canvas, wine corks, rocks, tiles, and in the end pillows. She painted mimes and butterflies. Later palm trees, clowns, and finally angels. She made angels for the nurses at the rehabilitation center and mailed them as a thank you. When she painted angels I built a towering paper-mache cave and painted that. She was dying and I was teaching myself animation.
We are a people who survive by storyline. It’s all we hear and what we retain, not dates, not names, details and levity and longing. I thought it would be gradual, of course I did, we romanticize by nature, she would age and shrink and go from cane, to walker, to wheelchair. Instead it came in two waves, the first was the kind she could stand up after, and the second she could not. Not without assistance. Assistance was not for her. Taking orders and following directions, a life of restriction was not for her. She tried it for us, but it was not for her. A nurse had shown me these waves, drew then inside a pair of lungs, and said her heart was weak, the fluid would rise, and she would drown. He was a year and a half early for such tales of woe.
Those final months, I was ashamed for the frustration I felt spoon-feeding her. I knew she had done the same for me but that was a disparate pairing – to welcome someone new to the world or that place we had found ourselves in the end. She babbled, spat, refused to use her hands, remembered her hands, made demands in multiple languages, she was struck with delirium from a bladder infection while the nurses assumed she had dementia, she submerged and resurfaced, another medication fuck up for the pile.
They found pills under her bed. We said whatever you want, we will help you, but what do you want?
I didn’t understand the subcutaneous defibrillator. It must have been exhaustion, but I couldn’t comprehend what would happen if her heart stopped. Would the machine keep restarting it? No. It wouldn’t. It didn’t.
My mother spoke to her as her eyes rolled back and she went unconscious. Rosine! She came to and laughed. Asked for a cup of water. De l’eau. She was laughing. She took a sip of water, and closed her eyes one last time.