I killed my grandmother.
At her request.
“I’ve researched it,” she said. “It’s not a bad way to shuffle off.”
She grinned. “As far as dying goes.”
She was in her late nineties. Everything about her was old except her mind.
Understanding and intimacy had skipped a generation in our family. I swapped wary circumlocutions with my distant parents, but I could not be anything other than honest with my grandmother. The one time I tried, she hit me with a string of words I didn’t even think she knew.
So now: “Yes but—” I began.
“It requires, of course, some assistance,” she said, “if the mess is to be minimized. The body consumes itself to survive, and its functions thus become erratic.” She might still have been in the long lecture hall, back in the day when professors actually lectured.
“However”—she smiled again, that signature smile that students had loved, radiant, ironic, understanding, forgiving—“many of my functions are in that condition already. Erratic. I would prefer not to give whoever would find me, probably you, the unpleasantness of disinterring me from my own waste.” Her voice was clear, incisive, low. Once she’d been a large and imposing woman. Now, she was shrunk into an osteoporotic shell. “And sips of water ease the intensity.”
I know about starvation. Ministers learn the varying ways of death.
“You do realize, Zett,” I said, “that my job is to affirm life, to preserve it when I can, not to abet death.”
I was sitting on the sofa next to the chair I’d gotten for her, the one that lifts you up and down when you push buttons. It took a large bite out of my modest associate’s salary. I wouldn’t have used it any other way.
Her electric chair, she called it.
Smile. “Yes, I know.”
She’d lent me money for seminary; encouraged me to change schools, not to give up when I faced none-too-subtle gender discrimination. That was years ago. “If you still believe in all this,” she’d stipulated. “If it’s what you really want,” she’d said.
It was what I wanted. I’d gotten far enough to see that institutionalized religion wasn’t necessarily the same as religious vision, but I wanted to understand that vision.
“I have had life and you have certainly encouraged it,” she said now. “Prolonged it, I would say. But this—” she waved the stick and claw that was her arm and hand—“this, you must surely agree, is not life.”
This was her world now: her living room. A pleasant space. Her chair with the up-and-down buttons faced a window that looked out on a low wall of evergreen bushes and, over that, to the street that ran obliquely past her front yard. You could watch cars putter or zoom by. A block away stood a large white frame house like the one she’d been born in. On the farm. On the dining table. Cardinals made their commotion in the bushes. Runners pranced or pounded by.
All of it was blurred for her, as was the huge flat-screen TV she rarely watched because everybody mumbled (“as we ancient deaf people say”), and what she could decode offended her by its cultural and verbal illiteracy. The print of her books was drifting ash, even with her thick glasses and the lighted pancake-sized magnifier that bent, like her own spine, over her shoulder. When the chair decanted her gently onto her feet, pain stabbed her back. She gasped with it. Sometimes she didn’t make the bathroom in time. Food often nauseated her. Even the nightly Dewar’s had lost its appeal.
“This,” she said again, “is not living. To refuse my entirely reasonable request would be truly to abet death. Reverend.” She leaned on the word and grinned.
I grinned back. “Reprobate,” I said. “Do you really want to add suicide to your list of sins? Not to mention inciting murder.” But I was scared all the same.
“I don’t think the Big If”—her name for God—“is so legalistic. And nor do you.”
She’d nailed it, of course. Her conditional unbelief was part of why I’d taken all the religion courses I could in college. That, and to examine some notions I’d vaguely imbibed from our family’s sporadic church attendance. I’d gotten hooked—“called”—and seminary had followed.
“But honestly, Zett, it’s not all that easy. I mean, sips of water won’t stop the things that happen when your body gets desperate. ‘Functions becoming erratic’ is a nice euphemism.” She hated euphemisms; her speech was precise and elegant, as if she chatted regularly with Jane Austen, which, in a way, she did. “It won’t be anything like what you experience now,” I said. “You’ll have pain and hallucinations. You’ll become something other than you.”
She looked out the window at the street. A car went by, sun arrowing across it. “Do you think it would be better to wait for kidney, liver failure, or pneumonia to kill me? After dementia has done its work? Do you find that a more acceptable way to meet whatever you believe we meet when we croak?”
I lowered my eyes. I couldn’t look into hers, direct as they were, even with the blue film of age on them. I said to my hands, “What you want me to do is—”
“Assist me out of death. I can ask no one else. They wouldn’t do it. They wouldn’t understand. And the medicos”—she didn’t have a lot of use for doctors—“have their lawsuits to mind.”
“But don’t you see? You’re asking—-”
“Clearly. A very great deal,” she said. “I am asking you to wrestle a conscience shaped by convention. I know. I’ve thought it all out.”
Of course. She always did.
“But there are, you see, compensations. You said I would become something other than myself in the process. And that’s right. I will. But not for long. I am not asking you to sacrifice your youth and strength and energy to monitor the lengthy disintegration of someone you care about. I am not asking you to perform the enormous, the impossible task of pushing away memories of an incoherent collection of old bones and mottled skin and pee and shit to try to reclaim the woman you once knew—ack!”
My hands were very young then, the skin on them smooth and tight as a glove. Not like hers.
She let the silence go on. Into it, the world dropped its random noises: the sudden skitter of a squirrel in the tree outside, a kid yelling next door, a motorcycle’s explosive acceleration. I wasn’t sure how much of it she could hear.
“It’s not just convention,” I said finally. “It’s—for me it’s truth.”
“Truth!” She almost spat it, the syllable high and creaking and cold. “Convention is not truth; it never has been. It’s a shibboleth invented by a society to protect itself. Initially, of course—” she eased down to the lecture-room voice again— “to order chaos. To organize reality. And regulate human impulses. Necessary if we’re to function at all. But always to be distinguished from truth. Always in need of interrogation, renegotiation. And indeed,” she said, “you could argue that the common weal, the social order, is best served by eliminating such as I am. Why take up ICU space and equipment and human energy for someone who will die soon anyway?”
“That’s not up to you or me to decide. Especially not me. My mandate is to teach, heal, baptize.”
“And that is precisely what I’m asking for—healing. From this incurable deterioration.”
I shook my head emphatically, as if to dislodge the idea from hers. “Zett, you can’t mean this.”
But I knew she meant it.
She knew I knew. Her lips relaxed into a smile. “I’m not quite non compos. Yet. My object is to avoid that.”
“You want to die? Seriously? You’re saying you want to die?”
“No, of course not. No one does. What I want is to stop dying.”
“I can’t do it. I can’t—kill my own grandmother.”
“You mean you won’t.”
“All right,” I said. “I won’t.”
“You have thanked me in many ways for what you say I have done for you. Yet this one thing, this one essential request, you are prepared to deny me.”
“Because I love you, damn it!”
“I know you love me, Nell.” Pause. “What I am asking is that you widen that love—push it beyond your own feelings of need and comfort and custom, and come into mine. Didn’t he say something about new wine splitting old skins, your Jesus?”
“I am not Jesus! How can I decide what’s new wine and what’s—”
“Sour grapes?” Smile. “No,” she said. “No, you are not Jesus. You are a human being dedicated to being a vessel of his vision. So imagine him. Here. Don’t you think he’d take my part? Don’t you think he might say, all right, old woman, let’s just set you free right now? Look at me, Nell.”
Her face was a dry bed of wrinkles. Like she had cried many rivers. “Do you know,” she said after a moment, “I loved a man once. I don’t mean your grandfather—well, not in the same way. This man took a manuscript of mine and published it under his own name. Didn’t even mention me in the acknowledgments. Then he dumped me, I like to think from guilt, but it might have been that he’d gotten what he wanted from me. It received quite a lot of critical attention, that book. Won awards. I have never known such pain as that. I thought of suicide. But in the end—I can’t explain this—the intensity, the concentration of that pain somehow woke me up to life. Not just the pretty parts of it, the roses and the honors, but life itself, its substance, brutal and terrible and ferociously beautiful. And I did the work I did.”
The teaching. The brilliant teaching.
She smiled a little. “Irony of it is, I’d have given him the manuscript—gladly—if he’d asked. Or even if he hadn’t—if I’d known he wanted it that much. My point is that he didn’t understand love as I did.”
She shifted in her chair, and I watched pain knot her face. She closed her eyes for a moment, took a sharp breath, and then said: “What is happening to me now is different. This is not life.” Her eyes shone. The river beds ran and gleamed.
I had never seen her cry before. I couldn’t speak.
She fumbled in her sleeve for a tissue, blew her nose. “Think about it.” And then the smile, luminous in the tears. “But not too long.”
I thought about it, and I prayed fiercely, like I’d never prayed before.
Was she being selfish, making her own rules, forcing my will to them, manipulating my love? Did she realize it?
Or was this really new wine to split old skins? As they split your skin for your new vision, Christ?
Can you drink of my cup?
Uncurtained windows at three o’clock in the morning.
My sweat, the taste of tears.
God, deliver me.
Even today I’m unsure how I got there. One moment you’re at the edge of a chasm, looking down into unending darkness, and the next moment, you’re on the other side, and you can’t see the bridge that brought you there.
All I know is that at some point I stopped thinking about universal principles, and I thought only about her. I imagined myself as her, trapped in that shrunken, failing body. I imagined locked windows and doors and groping for freedom. And something split in me.
So I killed her.
She was tough, and she took a long time with her starving, even though she’d begun as little more than a skeleton. Her distrust of medical institutions notwithstanding, she’d insisted on home hospice care—at her age and with her many failing organs that wasn’t too hard—so I wouldn’t be blamed for her death. But I killed her. I gave her the pain tablets one of those medicos she despised had prescribed for her arthritis. They were way too strong for her body by then, her body that had become a membrane thin as a spent rubber band, thin as the moaning that came out of her coruscated mouth, thin as the moan that I couldn’t stand to hear.
I watched her subside. Watched the dry riverbeds of her face crawl once and then settle into a remote nothingness that was not her. I wish I could say I felt peace and freedom. But I didn’t. I felt—nothing. Only stilled.
In the days and years since, I have sometimes felt close to her. Sometimes with a stab of joy. Sometimes a stab of pain. I have sat by many death beds and, I think, given comfort.
And I have sometimes glimpsed, like far-off fire or some unreachable dawn, a love that subsumes and consumes everything.
It burns my eyes.