Coughing and Strawberry Jam
By Milena A.
The hacking cough came suddenly. At first it was just a little bit at dinner. She's choking on her food, we told ourselves, dismissing my grandmother's illness like some dismiss their dog's whine in the middle of the night. It was a nuisance more than anything else, her illness measured by the dishes she broke after dinner, or the number of times she interrupted the news with her moans. My dad would roll his eyes, and I would imitate him. We're two of a kind, I would think, and if he could roll his eyes over the coughing, than I could roll mine right on over, too.
The fact that she stopped coming to church was a shock, but easy to get used to. She never sat with us, anyway - dad wouldn't allow it. Sometimes my mom and I would smile and blow her kisses from across the altar, but my dad would return her waves with a cold glare. I give her everything, he would always say, and how does she repay me? By meddling in my affairs. He would always say this loud enough so that she could overhear the conversation from the next room. I disagreed, but could only muster a look of disgust that I targeted at the half-eaten bowl of cheerios before me. Dad...., I would sometimes scold, in a sing-song voice to take away the edge. My mom would always leave the room when he got like that. She had learned not to disagree. Her sing-song days were over.
Soon my grandmother was confined to her bed. Bronchitis, the doctor said, and we breathed in relief because bronchitis happens to everyone, right? I started coming down to say goodnight and to ask her how she was feeling. If I got through Hitler and Stalin, she'd cough out, then I can get through this! I didn't dare ask why she was fighting to stay in a world where she was unloved and unappreciated. I bit my tongue and would murmur, 'love you.' Not 'I love you,' that would be overdoing it. The I was reserved for my mom and sister and for any boy who happened to glance my way twice.
I started to remember the days when she first came to live with us. I used to sit on her bed and play cards with her, and not cringe when she kissed me with her wet lips. We'd laugh about how I loved to run around naked when I was little, and would always shock the neighbors. She'd tell me about the time she was chased by wolves in the forest, and how her apartment had been a hospital during World War II. Those were bad times, she'd remind me, but I got through it. Hitler couldn't bring down this lady!
Little things started getting on my nerves. She'd always correct my fragmented Polish- I hated that. And she'd ask if I were cold, every time she saw me. No, grandma, I would explain with strain in my voice, if I were cold, then I would put on a jacket. She'd get insulted if I didn't finish every bite of my potatoes, even if I had been given more than anyone else. Suddenly my dad's point of view didn't seem so far-fetched. If she'd stop nagging, I told myself, we would have a better relationship. If she tells me to put on a sweater one more time, I'm going to scream! And sometimes I did. Right through my bedroom door, because I didn't have the nerve to do it to her face.
I loved how she'd be the first to laugh at my jokes over dinner. I hated how she expected me to speak in Polish the moment I got home. I loved her stories. I hated how she'd lick the spoon before putting it back into the strawberry jam. Finally we settled into a pattern of polite dislike. Our relationship was one between a boss and an employee on the verge of getting fired. I was the boss, of course. I had the advantage. When I was in a bad mood, I could escape to school or to the gym or to my best friend's house. She had no one but us, isolated in a world of English-speakers that banished their grandparents to nursing homes and hospitals smelling of rubbing alcohol and death. I didn't treat my grandmother like this, she'd sometimes say, forgetting that we weren't really listening to her in the first place.
As I lay on her bed last night, feeling her shaky movements through the old mattress, I realized that it was the first time we had lay together in years. My mom and sister and I stayed with her, talking and laughing and feeding her medicine, self-conscious and embarrassed that we had sided with the man that made us feel like crap every other day of our lives. She told us about the war, and about the time she was chased by wolves in the forest. Her old stories seemed fresh and exciting to this new audience, and we gasped and ooed at all the right places. Pictures of us covered her room, even pictures of my dad who banished his mother-in-law's memory even before she got sick. We are her life, I realized. And I'm going to shower her with the love she never received. Yes, grandma, I am happy that you came to live with us. Thank you for looking out for us. I admire you for everything you have lived through. And yes, grandma, I love you. I just don't know why I didn't have the nerve to tell you before.