“Are we dead yet?” Irene asks. She appears to be sinking into the center of her railed bed. Her eyes, engorged by circles of angry flesh, remain bright. Over the last few weeks, Anita has gone from Irene’s daughter to “that nice lady” who listens to stories and calls the nurse to request medication when Irene’s face twists like clay from the pain.
Irene, my grandmother, is the only patient in this small facility in Southern Toledo, Ohio who has a room of her own. She is not wealthy, nor is our family well-connected. Quite simply, Irene gets what she wants. When she was admitted, she had a roommate like everyone else. The staff blames medications for what happened, but my family knows better.
What little I know about my grandmother’s past, I’ve pieced together over the last decade. I know that she was born during the Great Depression and grew up with parents who had developed the habit of hoarding. Her nickname was “Danny” in high school, and she has a lasting fondness for literature that began when she was young. I know that she drew topographic maps as a young woman and had trouble finding humor in life by her mid-twenties.
There are rumors that our family, the Dankowskis, raised the rye for Sobieski Vodka in Poland, and Irene once said this legacy gave her an impressive tolerance for booze – a tolerance that ultimately led her to overconsume and drive a Ford into the glass windowfront of a bar. After verifying that she hadn’t killed or severely injured anyone, she revoked her own rights to both libations and driving; the local courts agreed. When her husband wouldn’t stop drinking with her, Irene quit him.
Irene dated a carpenter. She sold fancy undergarments at a department store. She took measurements and made biting comments after her wealthy customers had checked out. She met her best friend at this store, a friend who is still by her side.
“You know your grandmother?” the best friend once asked me.
“Yep. I know my grandmother,” I said.
“Well, she was as bossy then as she is now, ordering us to grab her lunch and whatnot. She didn’t have seniority, but she had a way about her.”
When she was first transferred to this facility, Irene’s roommate refused to lower the volume on her iPhone when she played Candy Crush or Solitaire, which was constantly. Irene reviled the dinging, scraping, shuffling of cards, and even the celebratory ditty that accompanied a win.
She complained to staff. Staff did nothing. She yelled and screamed. She was given mood stabilizers. At a time when others would’ve thrown in the towel and purchased earplugs, Irene made what I believe was a calculated decision. She waited until it was dark on a Tuesday night, and she called the police. When someone answered, she said, “I’m going to stab the woman in the hospital bed next to me.”
I can’t say that Irene taught me many lessons, but the one she tried to teach me was consistent: “Don’t let people tell you no.”
I had been embarrassed. I was ten or so, tasked to carry a half-eaten, still-dripping watermelon into the grocery to return it. When I tried on my own, I was told no, so Irene stepped up.
Despite some pushback, a full refund for the watermelon we’d mostly eaten was issued. She had even scored a few coupons from the clerk for her trouble, and she waved them near my nose.
At that young age, I remember thinking that my grandmother was just returning the watermelon to see if she could. The simple memory repeated in my mind so often that I wrote a short vignette about that day many years later. Irene was delighted when she read it, affirming, “That’s me! That’s me alright!”
Irene can’t walk. Irene has congestive heart failure, and her blood vessels break in response to a tough stare. Irene’s legs are a deep purple, and her skin is like crepe paper. She wasn’t doing much better when the police entered her room a few weeks ago.
Annoyed that it took them over an hour, she repeated the threat. A young officer patted her down reluctantly and paused, confused, when he reached her left armpit and the tip of something sharp scraped against his palm. A sharpened pencil poked out menacingly. A nursing home shank.
I wasn’t there when he found it, but I imagine her contented grin when the staff rolled her bed out of that room.
“No, Mom, we’re not dead,” Anita says.
The door to Irene’s room is ajar, and a parade of women shuffle by. Residents who can still walk, and whose lungs can tolerate the noxious joy of cigarette smoke, are lining up for their daily cigarettes. When a woman complains about how slowly the line is moving, Irene chuckles. I imagine that if my grandmother smoked, she’d be doing it right here, by her very own window.
She smiles at the nice young lady who takes care of her now and says, “Good! I like this room. Mind closing my door on your way out?”
Jen Knox is the author of After the Gazebo (Rain Mountain Press) and The Glass City (forthcoming, Hollywood Books International). She is a writing coach and the Leadership Initiative Coordinator at Ohio State University. Jen’s short fiction can be found in The Best Small Fictions 2017, Chicago Tribune, Istanbul Review, Literary Orphans, Room Magazine, The Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly, and The Saturday Evening Post. Find her here: www.jenknox.com