The Sounds of Dying

[easy-media med=”7964″ mark=”gallery-yK29eZ”]by Jennifer McGaha

My grandmother’s house was filled with the sagging sounds of dying—the low drone of the oxygen machine, the tapping of her walker on the hardwood floors, the whispering of hospice nurses clustered near the stove, the scraping of cat claws over urine-stained rugs. Pumpkin crouched in corners and under tables, dribbling teaspoons of pink urine. Sometimes, she peed in the bathtub.

“Good girl, Pumpkin!” my grandmother praised her.

Seventeen years ago, when she was still a kitten, Pumpkin had been run over by a truck, and her owners, my grandparents’ next door neighbors, had left her mangled body to heal on its own. Seeing her crawling along, dragging her hip behind her, my grandparents, who had never even allowed an animal inside their home, had gradually lured Pumpkin into their lives with scraps of chicken and bowls of cream. The neighbors accepted the cat’s absence with the same apathy with which they accepted her presence.

Now, Pumpkin and my grandmother had reached old age together. Together, they had become increasingly sparse and feeble, my grandmother clunking about the house with a walker, Pumpkin hauling her crooked pelvis, one foot rubbed raw from the effort of pulling herself along. They stood vigil over one another—Pumpkin warming my grandmother’s thighs and willing her breathing to ease, my grandmother hovering over Pumpkin, stroking her soft black fur and coaxing life into her arthritic limbs.

“Honestly,” one of the hospice nurses whispered to me one day, “I think that if something happens to that cat, your grandmother will die.”

Just months before, my grandmother had prepared the cat’s meals herself—compulsively chopping and heating and reheating hamburger patties, chicken tenders, egg salad, pepperoni pizza scraps. Now, she sat in her chair and delivered instructions to her caregivers as if she were directing a play—“Move Pumpkin’s chair that way, no, not that way, this way. Go cook Pumpkin a hamburger patty. Cook it two minutes on one side, then one minute on the other side. Then break it into pieces with your fingers…”

If Pumpkin didn’t eat all the food placed before her within minutes, my grandmother instructed her caregivers to dump out the food, wash the bowls, then begin the process all over again. If anyone protested, she became angry, indignant, her milky eyes suddenly hot and clear.

“What in the world am I paying you for?” she would say.

Every other week or so, I packed my Keurig, a handful of extra bold brewing packs, a six-pack of Fat Tire, and a toothbrush, and I took a turn spending the night with my grandmother. One night, I arrived to find her distraught because she couldn’t find a chicken dinner that she believed was in the freezer. She sat in her chair, her head folded into her hands.

“It was in there,” she said. “I just don’t know what could have happened to it.”

The chair enveloped her, swathed her in a soft, pink cocoon. A green pillow cradled the hump of her back, and a clear oxygen tube trailed from her nose. She weighed less than seventy pounds, her spine so deeply bent that her chest was concave, her stomach squished into her lungs. In a month, she would be ninety-two years old, and every time I saw her, I sensed the energy slipping from her, evaporating silently, like an early morning fog. I sat next to her in my grandfather’s recliner.

“You have lots of other good things to eat,” I said.

I was chirpy, upbeat, like I had tried to be when one of my kids had to miss a friend’s birthday party. I listed a few options for her: vegetable soup, a grilled cheese sandwich, lasagna, macaroni with beef.

“I just don’t know what she would eat,” she said, gesturing toward Pumpkin’s bowls beside her chair. There were three different bowls, all full of food—canned tuna in one, a shredded chicken tender in another, half and half in the third. In the kitchen, there were more bowls full of canned food, dry food, water.

“I bet she would like some macaroni,” I said.

“Okay,” my grandmother said. “That would be good.”

I heated the macaroni and brought the bowl to my grandmother.

“That looks good,” she said.

She scooped out a spoonful and slung it through the air into Pumpkin’s bowl. Pumpkin sniffed at it, then licked the cheese.

“I’m going to make you a cake,” I said. “A pecan cake with the frosting baked right in the middle.”

“You don’t say,” she said.

For a moment, she was curious, engaged. What kind of frosting? How much? Do you beat it or fold it in? Later, when it was ready, she pulled apart a steaming slice of cake with her fingers. Crumbs cascaded down her blouse. She crumpled her napkin into a ball and handed it to me.

“Pumpkin, do you need some fresh food to eat during the night?” she asked.

Pumpkin had settled into my grandmother’s wheelchair. Her head was tucked into her paws.

“She has food,” I said.

“Pumpkin, are you hungry?” my grandmother asked.

“Are you ready to put your gown on?” I asked my grandmother.


Together, we untangled her Lifeline, pulled off her blouse, and eased her nightgown over her head. As she stood gripping her walker, her hands purple and black from the slightest knocks against the walls, I slid her pants over her slippers.

“I’ll need to empty my spit cup,” she said, “so Pumpkin doesn’t get into it.”

“I’ll do it, Mamaw,” I said.

“And I guess we better get Pumpkin some food,” she said, staring at me hard.

She was a scratched CD, a tape unraveling in the cassette player. I stared at the television.

“I’ll get it, Pumpkin,” she said, her jaw a rigid line.

She stumbled into the kitchen, her walker clunking as she went. I followed, holding her oxygen tube. In the kitchen, she gripped the counter with one hand and opened the refrigerator door with the other. On the bottom shelf was a row of containers labeled “Pumpkin’s Chicken Broth,” “Pumpkin’s Chicken,” “Pumpkin’s Hamburger.” She reached out and pitched forward. I steadied her, then retrieved the containers.

A few days before, one of the hospice nurses, Samantha, had left me a note: “Please be sure to label anything you add to the refrigerator.” Forty-five years, I’d wanted to say. That’s how long I’ve been coming here. And I’ve never labeled a goddamn thing.

I opened the containers, then stood back as my grandmother, trembling and listing, measured, chopped, stirred, and microwaved according to a system only she understood. Then she stuck her fingers in the bowl and picked apart the food.

“Pumpkin has a sore throat,” she said. “She can’t eat these big pieces.”

Finally, she handed me the bowl.

“She’ll want this next to my chair,” she said. “But don’t put it in front of the heat vent. It will dry out.”

Moments later, I stood in the bathroom doorway while she scrubbed her false teeth, then put them in a Tupperware container. She hung there for a minute, one hand on the sink, the other on her walker. And then she began to moan, her lips trembling, her knees quaking.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I’ve got too tired,” she said.

I helped her into the kitchen, where she collapsed into a chair. Her face was gray, and her chest heaved up and down, her tiny frame rising and falling with each breath. I pulled over another chair and sat down next to her.

“Breathe out of your nose,” I said. “Close your mouth, and take some long breaths.”

Her lips parted, and for just a moment, I thought she was going to laugh. Or maybe I simply wished it. Finally, she spoke.

“Nancy did a bad job raising Clara,” she said. “Clara told me there was enough chicken in there for Pumpkin, and there wasn’t. I guess Nancy spoiled her or something, didn’t make her mind.”

Nancy and Clara were two of her caregivers. Nancy was the mother of another of her caregivers, but not of Clara.

“Nancy is not Clara’s mother,” I said.

“She’s not? But I thought she was.”

My grandmother crumpled in the chair, her body broken in two, her mind a thick cloud. I was filled with love and grief for her but also with something less noble. I wanted to bolt, to call my mother and tell her I was sorry, but I just couldn’t do it anymore.

Instead, I took a long, deep breath and conjured an image of my grandfather lying in his hospice bed, the blue checked quilt tucked under his chin, his face so still I had to touch it to believe he was alive. That last afternoon, I had reached under the blanket and cupped my hand over his. It was cool and crinkly.

“You are going to be with your brothers,” I had whispered to him. “Homer and Jonah and Doc and Weaver. You are going to see them all. And we are going to take good care of Mamaw.”

My grandfather and his brothers had died in the order in which they had been born, and now, two miles up the road, just off Newfound, my great-uncle, my grandfather’s youngest brother, was dying too. His dying was different from my grandmother’s, full of truculence and noise, and there was something about my uncle’s dying that I preferred. Just a few weeks ago, he told me he would take his hospice nurse back in his bedroom with him if he could. When he was a younger man, say eighty-five or eighty-six, he was full of talk like that, big, shocking talk about women and liquor and dogs. Now, he was seeping into his chair, his face gaunt, his chest sunken, his limbs covered with bedsores.

“Can you make it to your bed?” I asked my grandmother now.

“I think so,” she said.

I helped her from her chair and followed her into the bedroom. I pulled the string to turn on the overhead light. The covers on the bed were already turned back, the hospital mattress inflated, the head of the bed raised.

When I was little, I had often slept here, beneath the window overlooking the backyard and the garden. Late at night, when I was full of missing my mother, I would pull back the curtains and watch the corn stalks swaying in the moonlight. In the other room, my brother would still be up watching Carol Burnett and eating popcorn, and through the cracked door, I could see my grandfather in profile, the side of his shaved head, his tanned arm dangling over the side of the recliner.

Now, my grandmother sat on the edge of the bed. I pulled off her socks and slippers and handed her a Kleenex, which she balled into one hand. She reached into her ear and pulled out her hearing aid, which squawked and fizzled in her outstretched palm. I took it from her, and together we raised her legs into the bed. Then she tucked into a ball, the hump of her back pointed toward the wall, her knees dipping into her chest. I pulled the covers around her and patted her legs.

“Goodnight, Mamaw,” I said. “I hope you sleep well.”

She couldn’t hear me, but the rhythms of nurturing, of tucking bodies into beds, of urging others to sleep, were still there.

“Goodnight,” she said. “You go in there and get you some rest.”

In the living room, I turned on House. Tonight there were back-to-back episodes, and I settled onto the sofa, my grandmother’s throw draped over my legs. Pumpkin curled into my grandfather’s recliner. My grandmother called to her from her bed.

“I love you, Pumpkin!” she said. “You’re my sweet girl, and I love you. Get over there by the fire and stay warm. I love you!”

Years ago, when my children were little, they would call to me after I had tucked them into their beds, one, then another, then another—three shrill voices pleading at once. They wanted water, needed to go to the bathroom, wanted me to hold them. I was tired, my arms aching from the weight of them, my feet throbbing, and I would close my eyes and will them to go to sleep. Now, it seemed as if those years had never happened, like maybe I had dreamed them or that my children had suddenly been erased and replaced with this.

When the last episode of House was over, I made my way to the back bedroom. So many people stayed in this room now that I couldn’t keep count. There were bedrolls and tubes of Sensodine and stacks of medical bills and a crate of extra oxygen tanks. I propped open the door and crawled into bed, pulling one of my great-grandmother’s quilts over me.

My great-grandmother, my grandmother’s mother, had raised ten children in a tiny cabin with no indoor plumbing. Finally, in the 1980’s, her children convinced her to move to a double-wide trailer just a few hundred yards from her cabin. In her late eighties by then, she set up her quilting loom in the living room and continued to make quilts for her children and grandchildren until she went to the nursing home just a few months before she died. Now, my grandmother had just two sisters left. Her oldest sister, Edith, was in a nursing home in Waynesville, and she remembered my grandmother only as she was long ago, a shy, wavy haired girl in hand sewn dresses.

“Adeline’s here,” her daughters would say when we visited.

“Adeline’s here,” Edith would repeat, her expression a vast, empty space. “Adeline’s here. Hey, there, Adeline.”

And then she would begin the other litany that ran perpetually through her mottled mind.

“Jack Harris loves me,” she would say of her husband who had been dead for many years. “Jack Harris loves me.”

My grandmother’s younger sister, Bea, the one born just after her, lived up the road in a tangle of grandkids and great-grandkids and great-great-grandkids, teenagers with babies and propensities for meth and anything metal that might be traded for meth—the gutters on her house, her furnace ducts. My grandmother and Bea used to talk on the phone for hours every night. Now, Bea was no longer able to follow a conversation. Instead, she mimicked the rhythms of speech—her voice lilting up and down and pausing before dissolving into chuckles—a funny story without words.

I drifted off to sleep to the churning of the oxygen tank. The next morning, the sunlight came through the window and cast a warm stream over the bed, and in the dreamy glow of the new morning, I could hear the light, rapid clipping of my grandmother’s slippers on the floor, the click of the oven door, the metal whisk hitting the glass bowl, the hiss of sausage hitting the frying pan. And then I heard a dragging noise, the sound of the walker being pulled across the floor. I jumped from the bed and ran to my grandmother’s room.

“I can’t find my socks,” she told me. “And I need my slippers.”

She was a thin vapor in her nightgown, her arms covered with chill bumps, her feet dangling from the edge of the bed. She had pulled the walker to her, but it was at an odd angle. I straightened it, then helped her with her socks and shoes and pulled her robe around her.

“Good morning, Pumpkin,” she said as we passed the cat, the oxygen line trailing behind us. “Did you sleep well?”

At breakfast, my grandmother smashed a prune into sugary oatmeal, smeared Country Crock and Welch’s grape jelly onto a slice of Sunbeam bread. With every bite of oatmeal, she took a different pill—a diuretic, a blood pressure pill, a thyroid pill. My grandmother had grown up on a farm, and when she was a child, breakfast had been full of steamy biscuits and fresh pork and jabbering siblings. Later, after she was married, there had always been hot coffee and oatmeal, scrambled eggs, two coal-head babies and a smooth, adoring husband.

“Give me a little more hot water for my coffee, baby,” my grandfather would say, and she was there beside him, the kettle poised in the air, her hair in curlers, her slender calves a sigh beneath her robe.

Now, in the stillness of morning, the ghosts of her family gathered around her, the cat resting by her chair, my grandmother’s mind found a vivid spark.

“Jennifer, do you remember that time we took you to Ruby Falls over in Tennessee?” she asked.

I thought for a moment, and here is what I saw: a dark elevator shaft, my grandfather’s gray pants legs, a miniature village tucked into a rock wall. I am standing on a ledge, pulling myself up, peering over the edge. The rocks are cool against my belly.

“Not very well,” I told her. “I must have been very little.”

“Oh, you couldn’t have been more than four years old. You hung onto Papaw’s pants legs the whole time.”

And there it was—the slippery fabric beneath my fingers, the groan of the elevator dipping beneath the earth, my grandfather’s warm hand resting on my head, the cool, dripping water, the dark, musty earth.

“There were hiking trails,” my grandmother said. “And all sorts of exhibits. Do you remember?”

Again, I tried. But there was nothing else. Not even my grandmother in the elevator. Maybe she was somewhere close, somewhere where I couldn’t see her—in the dark back corner, perhaps, her arms folded demurely in front of her, her hands swishing the lint from my brother’s shirtsleeve. Or maybe it had been too crowded, and she was just above us, waiting for the next elevator, her delicate fingertips pressed to the buttons, a blue vinyl bag dangling from one shoulder. Or perhaps she had gone down just before us and was waiting by the water, her body a shimmery silhouette against the dazzling falls.

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