Strange Thanksgiving

I woke up to the text message that my boyfriend’s grandmother had fallen and was in the hospital. My first thought was, “Oh, no, Grandma!” My second thought was, “Well, there goes Thanksgiving.”

I’m very fond of Mike’s grandmother. She turned 93 recently, and while a bit frail, she is sturdy and sound. She lives alone and, with the help of her children and her Mormon congregation, she is relatively self-sufficient. She’s tall and lovely, opinionated, and strong willed. She’s a Republican Mormon woman who hates Donald Trump. She is very physically able, strong if slow-moving. She speaks in long breathy whispers, struggling to get air and achieve volume.

My first time meeting her and, well, all of my boyfriend’s family, was 18 months ago. Mike and I had been dating for 4 months by then. On a Saturday afternoon, we packed my kids into the car, drove to their small Utah town, and met the family in a busy Mexican restaurant. We piled in around each other at a round table, the kind where you have to scoot from the sides around and into the center, and there is no way out for that back person unless everyone else gets up. It was Mike and I, my two sons, Mike’s mother and her boyfriend, Mike’s sister and her husband and son, and then grandma, and she was seated right next to me. She had clearly done her homework on me before arriving.

As the kids chowed down on chips and salsa and made loud dinosaur noises, and as Mike chatted with his mom and sister over the table, Grandma leaned close to me, her voice a thick whisper, taking on breaths every half sentence.

“So, Chad, do you mind (breath) me asking you a personal question?”

I smiled at her. “Of course not.”

“If you are gay, (breath) then how is it (breath) that you were married to a woman?”

Oh, Grandma jumps right in, I thought. I gave a canned, rehearsed answer, as this is a question I’ve been asked a lot over the years, about how religious expectations trumped my common sense and reasoning, about how I’d been promised a cure, about how my ex-wife had known I was gay before I came out. I saw Mike’s mom and sister leaning in to hear my answers. The idea of their son dating a man who’d been married to a woman, one who had children, must have been jarring to them. They seemed to accept my answer, and Grandma and I had spent the rest of the meal talking, sharing, bonding. And over time, Mike’s family grew as fond of me as I was of them.

Over the past 18 months, we’d had many long visits with Mike’s family. I’d grown close to them. And so the news of Grandma’s fall, resulting in a cracked pelvis and a broken elbow, was horrible. I woke Mike up with the news, and we talked about the best way to handle the day. Our fridge was packed with an uncooked turkey, red kale, white mushrooms, brussels sprouts, sweet onions, and red peppers, and sacks of potatoes, bread crumbs and the rest sat on the counter. My sons were off with their mom for the day, so we made plans instead to do Thanksgiving dinner the next day and instead go to visit Grandma in the hospital. Mike’s Mom had been up all night with her.

And so, in late morning, we drove an hour north and arrived at the hospital. The place was scarcely staffed, with no one at the front desk and only a few nurses on staff to keep things running. We found Grandma’s room and entered, seeing Mike’s mom sitting to the side exhausted and Grandma in her bed looking more frail than I’d ever seen her.

My heart skipped a beat briefly. Back in 1997, I’d sat at my Grandpa’s bedside for weeks, every day, leading up to his death. And in 2009, I’d seen my own Grandma grow frailer toward the end, fully blind and with little energy though she kept her sound mind and her determined spirit right to the end. They were both beloved to me, and losing them had been devastating. Seeing Grandma in bed now, covered with blankets, with electronic monitors attached to her, broke my heart. We each gave her a light hug and she weakly gripped our hands, then she fell back into a deep sleep, her mouth open fully as she breathed heavily, under the influence of the nauseating pain medication.

Mike’s mom told us how Grandma had removed her emergency monitor briefly the night before and then had stepped into her garage to retrieve something. She’d fallen and then, unable to get back on her feet due to the injuries, had pulled herself across the room on the floor to the phone, where she’d called her daughter for help. Later, they couldn’t get her into the car and had had to call an ambulance to get her to the hospital.

Mike’s mom looked exhausted, but she remained friendly and witty, as she always is. She’s in amazing shape, thin and fit, and has a keen mind and an inquisitive nature. She’d recently graduated college, after going back for her degree in her fifties. I respect her immensely. We warmed a plate of food we’d brought for her out of the fridge and chatted about Thanksgiving, about my sons, about her new granddaughter, for a period of time. She invited me over a few days later to celebrate my birthday.

After a while, the nurse came in to check on Grandma, and ended up staying in the room for 45 minutes, chatting and laughing with us. I could see her trying to figure out the relationship between Mike and I… were we brothers, cousins, roommates, boyfriends? She casually mentioned her gay daughter and her wife, and I confirmed that were indeed partners. The nurse reacted with such joy and enthusiasm, leading to a long discussion about gay family members and how parents react to their children coming out. Mike’s mom talked about Mike’s coming out, 17 years before, and how the world had changed. I talked about my sister, about me, about my nephew and niece all coming out, and about my work as a therapist seeing others do the same. The nurse talked about her daughter. As grandma lay there sleeping, gasping in as much oxygen as she could, we talked about biological theories regarding homosexuality, and found reasons to laugh, and it was strange and somehow delightful.

We left the hospital and made our way home. I folded some laundry while Mike went ahead and cooked the turkey for himself, and while it was cooking, we started watching Sense8 on Netflix, simply because Mike hadn’t seen it before. 3 episodes later, Mike pulled the turkey from the oven and ripped off large chunks of meat for himself, laying them in strips on a plate. I finally got hungry and made myself a slice of toast with almond butter, then mixed together a concoction of plant protein, plain Greek yogurt, almond milk, chia seeds, and frozen cherries, stirring the mixture up and eating it by the spoon. We watched one more episode, binge-watching at this point, as I licked yogurt off a spoon and Mike ate one more slice of turkey, and then one more.

And Thanksgiving, well, it was strange. My typical family chaos moments, with dozens of people swarming through the house and the kids needing lots of attention and my mom cooking for hours upon hours in the kitchen and everyone collapsing into couches as their bodies digested massive amounts of food, none of that was here today. But Thanksgiving was about gratitude. I’d spent my day with the man I loved, showing support to his family I love, and talking about things I’m passionate about. So while it was weird, it was a pretty damn good day.

 

And I have a lot to be thankful for.

Grandpa, at the end

My grandfather was a stubborn man. He’d always had a rebellious streak, and a quick laugh, and a sharp temper. I have distinct memories of him visiting us in Missouri, when we were young children. While Grandma made home-made donuts in the kitchen, he sat with us to play dominos or cards, cracking silly jokes that made us laugh, spouting nonsense.

“Well, I’m about to play my eight. You know what they say. Eight, skate, and donate!”

It was hard to watch him, there at the end. I had just received my mission call, and he had been a big part of my life the last several years, ever since Mom and Dad’s divorce. He’d been there for all of the key moments, along with Grandma. When we left Missouri, he gave us a place to live at first. When my step-father grew abusive and the later divorce got ugly, he and Grandma kept Sheri and I distracted and out of the courtroom. They were there at each of my Priesthood ordinations, when I starred in school plays, and when I graduated high school. In a few weeks, I’d be leaving for two years, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But tonight, I sat at Grandpa’s side in the hospital.

“Chad. Chad-a-lad.” He called out softly, his voice thick with confusion. Just a few hours before, he hadn’t recognized me, I’d been a complete stranger to him. He was in and out of lucidity lately, the dementia setting in. Earlier today, he’d thought he was back on the farm as a child, and in the afternoon, he’d assumed he was in a bathtub on an airplane in the sky. It was heartbreaking to see him like this.

I got up out of the small twin bed they had wheeled in next to his hospital bed. “Hey, Grandpa, I’m right here.” I placed a hand on his arm, squeezing slightly.

“Chad, I have to use the bathroom,” he said. I took two steps toward the bathroom and turned on the light there. After my eyes adjusted, I found the small bottle they were using to collect his urine and returned to his bed.

“Of course, Grandpa,” I smiled.

“I hate that I can’t do this myself. I’m not some child.” His voice took on a tone of derision as I pulled his blankets and sheet down around the bottom of the bed. He had only one full leg now, the other having been amputated at the knee a few years before due to complications from diabetes. (His prosthetic foot and wheelchair both sat against the wall at the opposite side of the room).

“You’re definitely not a kid,” I reassured him, not knowing what else to say. I helped him fold his hospital gown up, so he could access his genitals, then helped him line the bottle up. He took it from my hands. “I can do this part myself,” he said with anger.

I turned my back, respectfully, as he prepared to pee. This was my fourth night in a row sleeping here in the hospital with him. I worked just downstairs, in the cafeteria, and it was easy for me to come and spend the evenings here. Grandma had asked me if I was sure I wanted to stay again, and I’d told her that I absolutely wanted to, it was the only thing I knew to do to help. She was home sleeping now and would be back first thing in the morning, along with another steady stream of company, some who Grandpa recognized and others who he didn’t, depending on how lucid he was throughout the day.

“Oh, shit! Oh, damn it all to hell, I can’t do anything right!” I swiftly turned back and saw that Grandpa had missed the bottle, sending urine spraying all over his hospital gown and sheets. Feeling heartbroken for him, I stepped into the hallway and flagged down the nurse, telling them what had happened inside.

Thirty minutes later, in fresh bedding, Grandpa went back to sleep, and I took a seat back on the bed, unsure if I’d be able to sleep again. I had a stack of comic books near the bed that I could read, but I didn’t know if it would help.

Grandpa had been such a proud man. Now he lay next to me, one leg gone, humiliated over being unable to pee by himself. He had tubes and wires connected to him, monitoring him. He was in his early 80s, and this wasn’t how he wanted to be, not at all.

In these later years, Grandpa’s life and been dominated by struggles with diabetes and heart disease, exacerbated by other health struggles. A few years before, he’d survived major heart surgery, yet on the drive home, Grandma had been in a horrible accident with Grandpa in the car, one that broke her neck (she recovered well) and put them both back in the hospital. But Grandpa had started declining after that.

Growing up Mormon in a small Idaho farming community, Grandpa had lost his father at a young age. He was the youngest of several siblings, and he’d grown up as the man of the house, supporting his mother however he could while balancing his life with just a bit of rebellion; he’d never served a mission, had had a habit of smoking, and he could be quite the prankster. Then he’d settled down with Grandma and, over the next five decades, raised four daughters and a son. He was a good dad, and a wonderful grandfather, despite that temper of his, one that lit quickly and burned out just as fast, and he was beloved by his family. He would be very missed once he was gone.

I dozed for a few hours, and the next morning, Grandpa didn’t recognize me again, wondering why there was a stranger in his room. I left, to shower and sleep a bit before I had to work hours later, and I couldn’t get him out of my mind. I thought of how he would put his small granddaughters on his feet and dance around with them while singing, how he took Sheri and I to the Dutch Treat Cafe for French fries and Iron Port Cherries, how he came over on Saturday mornings after our move to make us pancakes, how he’d pop his dentures out at his grandkids to scare them. What a life he’d led, and what a legacy he’d left behind, with five children, a few dozen grandchildren, and even more great-grandchildren. What a simple, happy, profound life he had lived.

Grandpa died just a few days later. He was surrounded by his wife and children. I wasn’t in the room. The last words he’d spoken to me were, “Hey there, Chad-Boy.” He’d spoken to me after not recognizing anyone else for hours, his eyes settling on mine, speaking with a smile as he pointed his finger right at me. He went peacefully, his breathing slowing, his eyes opening wide to something unseen, some vision of whatever lies beyond. He smiled, he closed his eyes, and then he let go, leaving his body behind in a room full of people who loved him.

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Woman in Pieces

Woman

“You don’t understand! They will kill me if they find out! They might be listening to this call right now! You don’t know what they are capable of! They watch me, everywhere! They have cars on the roads, they hide in alleys, they listen to every word and every sound! They cut up my dog!”

She spoke swiftly, in a rush, as if all of her words had to be used before she ran out of time.

“They did! They did! I don’t care what you say! They cut up my dog!” She stopped to sob for a moment, taking several deep breaths as tears flowed down her face. “I don’t know! I can’t un-see it! I don’t know who they are! But they cut up my dog and I can’t ever get him back! It’s my fault!”

I curiously looked around the corner of the hospital waiting room, where the woman was sitting, speaking on a courtesy phone in the lobby. Several people around her were looking distressed as she kept speaking rapidly, every sentence out of her mouth ending in an exasperated exclamation point. People began to move away, not sure what to do or say.

“Listen to me! No, listen! They cut off my food stamps first! They can’t do it, but they did! They said they needed proof of where I live, but then they said they didn’t! They got the proof then said it was never there! They don’t want me alive! They won’t even feed me! And they cut up my do-ah-ah-g!”

She began wailing louder this time, fully histrionic, her gestures getting wilder. She was small, skinny, likely only 30 but looking much older. She wore a baggy black coat, frayed jeans, and a new-looking pair of tennis shoes. Her brown hair fell loose on her shoulders, and she wore no makeup. Her face looked lined, as if she’d had several years of hard drinking and perhaps methamphetamine use. I wondered who she was talking to so frantically.

“My dog, my dog, my dog!” Her voice grew strangely quiet with conspiracy suddenly, and she started to look around frantically. “Listen, I think they are watching now. They’ve been trying to drive me crazy for years. Years! In every different apartment. They’ve watched me, messed with me, tried to kill me.” Then she shouted again. “They tried to poison me! I don’t know what kind of poison, every kind of poison! All of them! Poison!”

The mental health professional in me starting doing an auto-diagnosis. If this woman wasn’t currently high on drugs, she was very likely an untreated paranoid schizophrenic, or was suffering some kind of psychotic break in conjunction with a medical condition. I wondered if there was even anyone on the other side of the phone. I saw a nurse, an employee across the room, dialing a phone for assistance.

Her voice went dangerously low again. “Listen, I don’t have long. They killed my dog. They killed my dog! They killed my dog. They cut him up. They want me to be next.” She yelled, then went quiet again. “I’m at a hospital. Now, I don’t know where. I don’t have food. I–I’m going to need help. Listen, you can do it. You can help me. They are after me.” And then a powerful shout once again. “They tried to poison me! They killed my dog!”

I watched the worried looks on the faces of the few people who remained in the room. My brain shifted back to years ago, when I was working with the extremely mentally ill in various hospital or drug treatment facilities. I considered walking over to the woman to ask if she needed help, or to de-escalate her, but the hospital had staff for things like this. And sure enough, a security guard walked down the hall and took a seat near the woman.

“They’re here,” she whispered, ever so softly, then hung up the phone. She immediately shifted her energy and turned toward the guard with a bright smile on her face, no sign of distress at all. “Hello, officer, how can I help you?”

The man had a kind face. He looked weary, like he was at the end of a long shift. “Hello, ma’am. You sounded pretty upset. Anything I can do to help you?”

She made her voice sugary sweet. “Oh, no. Well, I’m just going to go to the bus stop. I seem to have forgotten where I am. I just, maybe you could help me get to the right place? I’m not sure I can walk.”

“Well, I could get a wheelchair and do that, take you outside to the stop. It’s not far.”

“Oh! Sir! You’d do that for me!” She batted her eyes briefly. “That plus a sandwich and a few dollars? That would absolutely wonderful.”

“I’m afraid I can only get you to the stop, ma’am.”

“Well, fine. You just get the wheelchair and I’ll step outside for a cigarette and wait for you.”

Apparently forgetting that she couldn’t walk, she got up and walked through the double doors and I quickly lost sight of her. The nurse looked toward the security guard.

“Thank you!” she exclaimed. “I couldn’t listen to how they cut up her dog one more time!”

Within a few minutes, the hospital was back to normal. The woman never returned for her ride in the wheelchair. I wondered where she might go next, and if she still thought people were watching her. Then I realized I had been watching her. I wasn’t trying to poison her, nor had I killed her dog, but my gaze probably hadn’t helped.

I left the hospital shortly after that, and I worried after that poor woman who was in so much pain. She’d left a piece of her with me when she’d departed, I realized. She must scatter pieces of herself wherever she goes, and then wonder where she left herself later.

the Death Desk

On the day my best friend died, his family was hundreds of miles away. His fiancee, Elias, was upstairs in a hospital bed with a bruised liver, a broken nose, a concussion, and Kurt had no next-of-kin in the hospital.

It took us a long time to sort out what happened, and I’m still not sure we have all the details. There was a minor accident on a windy road on a Sunday afternoon. Kurt had been driving, and he was a good driver. We still don’t know what happened. The car went off the road and stopped in a ditch, the airbags deployed, and cars stopped to get help. The ambulances came and rushed both men to the hospital. And when they arrived, Kurt was pronounced dead. As I understand it now, the impact of the seatbelt triggered some internal bleeding and by the time they realized what was happening, it was too late to make a difference. Kurt died peacefully they told me.

But that Sunday of the accident, no one knew what was going on. The hallways were full of Kurt and Elias’s loved ones, mostly friends, who were all waiting to hear what had happened. I tried asking a few of the nurses on the hospital floor, but they really didn’t have any idea. One nurse acted like she knew things, telling me that Kurt was actually still alive on another floor before realizing she had mixed her cases up. But Kurt didn’t have anyone with him and I wanted to see him if I could.

I was instructed to walk down to the morgue, several floors lower. It was a Sunday afternoon and although the hospital was busy, it was much quieter than it would be during business hours. Kurt was down there by himself, and his parents, siblings, and children were all several hundred miles away.

I was directed to an isolated door in a lonely hallway, where a sign told me to push a bell and wait. For some strange reason, I thought of the scene in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy and her friends approach the Emerald City and ring the doorbell, the man in green with the long red whiskers leaning through the door to deny them admittance. I laughed to myself, knowing Kurt would love that association right now.

OZ

A kind social worker came to the door. She’d probably been back there watching YouTube videos on her phone or perhaps playing Solitaire. I quietly explained that my best friend had been killed in a car accident just a few hours before and I wondered where he was, if there was a report on what had happened, and if I might see him.

The woman closed the door while she looked into the case, and was gone for just a few minutes. She came back and looked sad. “Kurt’s body was here just a few minutes ago, but the medical examiner took him to another building for examination. Although they probably won’t work on him until tomorrow, he will stay there tonight, and there isn’t any way for you to get in to see him. It’s against state law. Immediate family could have seen him here, but we were told they wouldn’t arrive for a few days. You might have been able to see him before, but probably not since you aren’t direct kin. I’m so sorry.”

I clutched my hands nervously, fighting back a wave of grief. “Is there someone I could instruct the family to call to ask questions?”

She nodded, placing a consoling hand on my arm. “Of course. Just have them call the Death Desk.”

I raised my eyebrows in surprise. “Pardon?”

She smiled, awkward. “I forget how weird that is, but that’s what we call it. The Death Desk. There is a really nice woman who works there during business hours. It’s her job to answer questions to family members. There is a weekend helper as well, but they might want to wait for the main woman to get back tomorrow. She’s really good.”

I laughed, in spite of myself. “The Death Desk? You couldn’t call it the Information Desk, or the Family Resource Line, or the Bereavement Department… you call it the Death Desk? That’s terrible!”

She shrugged. “Yeah, that’s just what they call it. Look, I don’t mean to overstep my bounds, but do you need a hug?”

I walked away from the isolated morgue door and walked down the hall, bewildered and amused somehow. The Death Desk, honestly. I had a sticky note in my house with the words “Death Desk” followed by a phone number for the family to call.

I stopped in the hallway, reflecting on the massive loss in my life without Kurt in it. We texted constantly. I would have pulled out my phone right now and sent him this story and he would have laughed in that fantastic full body laugh of his, and said something witty in response. God, but this loss was staggering.

I sat down in the quiet hallway, flourescent lights buzzing over my head, and just breathed for a minute. I wondered where Kurt was now. Not his body, but Kurt, all the things that made him him. His brashness, his laughter, his directness, his passion for life. Growing up Mormon, I believed in an afterlife, a continuation of the spirit into a Heavenly existence surrounded by love. And despite the loss of my faith, I tend to still lean that direction in my thoughts. The soul is energy and energy transforms to new forms, it doesn’t just expire. Water freezes or evaporates, but it continues to exist in some form. Kurt, he must be out there, somewhere, in some capacity, all his amazingness present.

Perhaps he stood at the bedside of Elias, perhaps he was checking on his sons, perhaps he was on his favorite mountaintop looking at the expanses of Earth around him, perhaps he stood next to me in this very hallway laughing with me about the inanity of a Death Desk.