When You Stop Dreaming You Stop Living
As my alarm sounded, I felt like I was accelerating feet first towards a steel colored sky that loomed outside my bedroom window. Every nerve in my body shook with a ticklish pain that I tried to throw off with cat like stretches. Adrenaline rose and ebbed in my stomach. The smell of sour cider began to subside as I fumbled with the alarm clock. His words echoed from my dream. You can never get there again.
It was the same dream I had several months before. I was a jitney, transporting vaguely familiar acquaintances to their desired destinations while carrying my grandpa’s favorite beverage—a gallon of apple cider—throughout the numerous pick-ups and drop offs. My last stop was grandpa’s house to drop off his cider. When I realized the futility of my efforts the car stopped, the cider went bad, and I arrived at the jarring truth that twenty minutes or so of REM sleep concealed. That time I didn’t wake up bawling. That morning my visit is planned.
As I drove to Bridgeville, pungent and acrid wafts of steam rose from my reheated halushki and saturated my car. I saw a boarded up produce stand just down the road from the nursing home parking lot. I shielded my eyes from the winter wind, remembering the tire marks I’d laid down four months earlier while delivering a package here in Bridgeville. As I rounded the top of a hill, two large buildings and one mausoleum appeared in the valley. Before the nursing home signs were visible, I felt her presence, and hear his words. Never get there again because
“Jaime!” My Aunt Trudy’s wail, combined with a sudden gust of frigid air, punctuated the end of my reverie. Jessica, her youngest, was in tow.
“Hey Trudy,” I exhaled. “How’s it going?”
“Oh, the usual,” Trudy said. She waved her hand, scattering the stream of her humid breath. “How are things with school? Are you still taking any classes?”
Trudy owned a mid-sized wire form company in the East End of Pittsburgh. Her business cards and advertisements boasted no job too big or too small; the incipient quotes and blueprints littering her car, kitchen and briefcase, said otherwise.
“Hun, why don’t you consider going into cosmetology like Jessica?”
“Yep,” Jessica’s molars tap danced across the remains of a strawberry bubble. “I’d be glad to help you study if you enrolled,” she said. She beamed, and swatted at a lacquered wisp of platinum.
“Besides Jaime, what good is physics if you’re going to be an anthropologist?” Trudy was no longer looking at me as she buttoned up the topmost buttons of her coat.
Jessica cleared her throat and said, “I think Jaime switched out of that major, like, a year or two ago, right?”
“Actually I switched after my first semester,” I said.
“You might not expect it mom, but I actually had to learn microbiology to get my certification,” Jessica said. She tucked and straightened her shivering arms deep into her coat pockets, and rocked back and forth on her heels as she spoke.
“That’s awesome that your school integrates art and science,” I said.
In my mind, art and science were two sides of the same coin. Tokens minted by our experiences and spent on possibilities.
“Right now I’m learning about Einstein’s theory of relativity. Most people vaguely know it’s got to do with the malleable relationship between time and space, but to get the gist of it you don’t have to be a rocket scientist. You just have to think…”
“Differently,” Jessica smiled.
Four months ago our grandma was moved from a residential unit to the intensive care ward when she began having difficulty breathing. I was the first to find out because I had gotten there before staff made any calls. Unfortunately I had gotten there after they had removed everything from her room.
After peeling tires to get the intensive care building, I barged in on the afternoon mass and began screaming, “Jesus Christ! Where the hell is Mary?” Funny isn’t it? His message wasn’t. Never get there again because it’s too late now. She’s
“Wait hun,” Trudy said. She touched my elbow and quickly pointed her nose and eyes to the right, near a placard announcing a Christmas carols performance in the banquet room.
“I’m just going to take a peak and see if grandma’s here,” she said. She absently tugged Jessica’s sleeve and headed towards the banquet room.
As I walked towards my grandma’s room, even increments of light poured from the open doors lining her corridor. In the second room on the left a man stared at his muted TV while gnawing his gums and issuing silent proclamations with his index finger. Einstein’s family thought he was retarded because he didn’t speak until he was three years old.
In the third room on the right a nurse held a spoon up to a woman’s pursed lips. The nurse attempted to place the spoon in her hand. The woman gently set the spoon on the table and put her hand over her mouth. He failed basic math, not because it was beyond him, but because he was beyond it.
In the fifth room on the left, a hulking, scoliated torso labored about an object. She turned toward the dresser and finished wiping the polish off a silver frame. In the photo, a lithe figure in an A-line dress and sumptuous coif smiled back at her. A young man in uniform stood behind the woman, holding her shoulders. She winked at the young couple. Height, width and time are all relative, almost like locations. The shape of things present and to come is both relative to an outside perspective. The only absolute is light. Einstein tells us that a single molecule of matter has the potential to become an enormous amount of light energy.
Through the sixth door on the left came an impenetrable silence punctuated by sticky, rhythmic gusts and electronic blips. The machines, not the still form on the bed, provoked these sounds. And yet matter strives to be at its greatest potential; when it is at rest.
Her door was closed. I wasn’t as scared as I was when I saw the cider stands and remembering my dream ran to the nursing home to find her room clean and empty. You can never get there again. It’s too late now; she’s waking up and. . . .
“Grandma? It’s Jaime,” I knocked. “Merry Christmas.”
“We’ll be out in a second sweetheart. Just getting her ready,” a nurse called. Moments later she opened the door.
“We had a little accident, but Mary seems to be feeling a little better.” The nurse glanced over at my grandma with an unreadable expression, “Aren’t you hun?”
Grandma stopped fiddling with the side arm of her recliner. “Who are you,” she asked.
“Jaime, your granddaughter,” I said. I heard Trudy’s footsteps approaching.
I heard that a familiar environment is the best thing for people with Alzheimer’s because they are able to preserve what’s left of their memory. When grandma failed to recognize her children, her house was sold and she was sent here—for her safety. For her comfort, they saved a few items. A mustard, flower embroidered plush couch, oval mirror, vanilla nightstand, dresser, and recliner with Seventies inspired crochet throws were all that remained of her living room. Her rusty orange and mustard shag carpet had been replaced by sterile, blue institutional carpeting. The pungent aroma of ammonia and ointment was recreated in her new home.
“How are you ma?” Trudy asked. Her smile froze then trembled.
I had seen that look before at my last visit to her factory several months ago. Trudy’s office sat in the corner of the factory with a one way tinted window to view the machinists and their equipment and another one-way window that peered into the defunct Conrail trestle. The deteriorated retaining walls that once encapsulated the homes of mill workers became overgrown with milkweed, dandelions and graffiti. Paperwork bulged from folders and trays while black and white photos of loved ones, and assemblies of past employees, were immaculately displayed. Quality awards from the Small Business Association were perched in uniform increments along the walls. An autographed picture of Trudy’s favorite golf player was centered on the wall. It was signed ‘with love’.
“So how’s school going?” Trudy asked. She pushed her hands off the mahogany desk and crossed her outstretched legs.
“Hanging in there. It’s a lot of hard work.”
“Yes, I imagine it’s hard. I know what its like to juggle two jobs,” she said. She looked down as she spoke. I try to catch a glance of the picture that faced her on her desk when she looked away from the frame and stared straight into my eyes.
“I still think the best place for mum, grandma, to be is in a home where people can look out for her.”
“I think she’d be better off falling down her stairs, slipping in her shower, or choking on the food she chose to eat,” I said.
My grandma no longer relished consumption. Her recipes were devoured by clumps of dendrites as they choked her memories.
“You want to talk about hard work?” Trudy slammed her hands on the desk and bolted from her chair.
“I’m there every week with pounds of her favorite food that she’ll never eat.” She turned and looked at a golf photo centered on her wall.
“On Christmas we’re getting everyone together to visit. I’ll see you then.”
Only three of us made it there.
“Where’s Joe? It’s almost dinner time,” Grandma said.
The hands on the clock meant more to grandma than the pages of a calendar. Thin, toothless lips smacked viscously while age and powder cling to her papier-mâché skin.
“Daddy went fishing’ mum. He’ll be back soon though,” my aunt reassured her.
When she called for her husband, asked what he’s doing, when he’d be back, we told her that he went fishing. Besides, for all we knew, grandpa could be fishing.
Unlike grandma’s slow, mental decline, his death was sudden and corporeal. A failing epiglottis allowed food to fall into his lungs rather than his stomach. Doctors had given him an ultimatum. He could drink a thick, unsavory shake or continue to eat the food my family brought him until he drowned in it. Faced with the ultimatum, his response was fatally typical: “I’d rather die than eat that shit.”
With palms and chin raised, grandma flipped her sinewy wrists and rolled her eyes up and over.
“He’s not bringing back a stinking fish!”
Everyone in the room gasped. Had she overheard a doctor talking about her husband?
“I told him, the next fish he brings home he’s cleaning for himself.” As her laughter subsided, she gently folded her hands over her protruding belly—which had never fully recovered from her four children—and stared at her wrinkling fingers, as if, once again, waiting for new life.
“Grandma, I brought you some halushki.” I placed the congealed noodles and cabbage on her end table.
“Oh,” she sounded a bit concerned. “Thank you, but I think I don’t want to be smelling like cabbage tonight.”
We all looked puzzled. Grandma smiled mischievously and turned toward Jessica.
“You don’t get it dear,” Grandma said, “But you will.” Her words put an end to Jessica’s gum smacking.
“And you,” she faced me, “You know what I’m talking about.” My nodding was far from confident.
“Trudy, you just don’t get it at all.”
There we were, waiting for Mary to unleash the world’s greatest mystery: her current thoughts.
“Everybody needs lovin’. Without that, you ain’t got crap!” she giggled. “My man can’t wait to see me.”
I was blessed in the anonymity that her disease had bestowed us.
“But I told him,” she smiled, “If you think I’m in any shape for that nonsense, then you must be dreaming.”
Grandpa was right. She’s waking up, and will live beyond her dreams.