I hear the first whimper in my sleep, and my brain tries to work it into a dream. It’s just a puppy, sleep on, sleep on. But the second cry is louder, more insistent. My eyes pop open, dry and bleary, searching for the red numbers on the VCR that will tell me how long it’s been since the last time she cried.
It’s the third time tonight. She’s off her schedule; I shouldn’t have to get up until 5:00. Maybe she had a dream and she’ll doze off again. So I wait. I think about the Trigonometry homework I still have to finish. I remind myself to wear sweatpants tomorrow so I don’t have to change for PE. As I wait in the dark, listening for a sound I hope not to hear, I slip quietly, slowly, warmly back to sleep.
But she cries again and my eyes fly open. This time, I know it’s no use. She needs something; she’s hungry, maybe wet. I crawl out of my comforter cocoon and stagger down the hallway toward her room, a bare-bulb night light guiding my way. I used to sleep in the room with her, but her sounds–her airy breathing, the rattle of her wet mouth–kept me awake. Now I sleep on the couch … when she let’s me sleep.
“Nina?” she says.
“I’m hear, Grammy.” I kneel next to her bed and feel in the dark for her hand. “What do you need?”
“It hurts.” She swallows and I can tell her mouth is dry.
I turn on the bedside lamp and check the chart on the nightstand. It’s only been three hours since her last pain pill. The prescription says she can have one every four to six hours, but the hospice nurse says to keep her comfortable. I shake another pill out of the bottle and fill a glass from the water pitcher.
“Sit up, Grammy.” I struggle to raise her while she winces against the pain. It’s the most help she can give me. I wedge a pillow behind her and she eases back, wheezing from the effort.
“I’m so much trouble,” she says.
I put on what passes for a smile these days and slide the pill into her mouth. “Oh, whatever.”
“You’re a good girl,” she says. “I don’t know why you stay with me.”
“Don’t be silly. I wouldn’t leave you. Where else would I go?”
She takes a sip of water and hands me the glass. The wrinkles in her forehead deepen, and I wish I hadn’t said that. We both know she won’t make it much longer, and I’m not old enough to live on my own. When they first diagnosed her, we thought she’d have years.
“You’ll be married with beautiful babies before I’m gone,” she’d say.
I’d pretend to gag. “You mean I’ll be in residency. Or I’ll already be a doctor and discover the cure for cancer. Then you’ll be with me forever!”
I was fifteen then. Her cancer has grown faster than anyone expected. In a year and a half, I’ll be eighteen, but she won’t last that long. Foster care looms large and bleak on my horizon. I can’t think about it. I don’t have time with everything I have to do–taking care of myself and Grammy and the trailer and school.
Maybe foster care will be better. Less work, for sure. But I can’t imagine life without Grammy. She’s been my grandma, my mother, my only family. I watch as her eyelids fall once, twice. Another minute and she’s breathing softly through her open mouth, pain-free for the moment. I coat her lips with Vaseline then creep back to the couch and snuggle into my blanket hoping sleep will take me fast. I don’t want to worry about tomorrow, or the next day, or what’s going to happen to me. I also don’t want to think about the letter that arrived last week.
It’s still lying on the counter. If I opened my eyes, I could probably see it. But my eyes, just like the letter, remain firmly closed. I haven’t heard from my father in six years. I don’t want to hear from him now. Grammy would have opened it right away. She says me going to live with my dad would be the answer to her prayers. Her prayers, not mine. Dad’s not the salvation I need. He left my mom for a better job a long time ago, and I can’t forgive him for that. She was a mess, I know, but still … you don’t leave people when they need you. And Mom needed him. Bad.
I burrow deeper into the couch, pulling the comforter over my head. If only it could block out the thoughts whirling through my brain. Trig, Grammy, empty fridge, scholarships, Dad, foster care. Round and round, the thoughts chase each other, fighting for top billing. The foster care people, dressed like Grim Reapers, stand silently to the side while Grammy tries to answer a trig problem and Dad wrestles a giant refrigerator. I’m actually pulling for my Dad, which I think is odd, when something bangs against the side of the trailer.
I sit up fast, blinking in the pale morning light. With relief, I realize Grammy slept the rest of the night. That’ll be good for her. The heavy knocks come again at the door and I untangle myself from the covers. It’s time for the nurse to arrive and for me to take a shower and get to school. I unlock the door, thinking again about sweatpants, but it’s not Nurse Grayson shivering outside the trailer.
He looks older, saggier. There’s gray around his ears, but he has the same kind eyes, the same gentle smile. He looks deceptively nice for an abandoner.
“Nina?” His eyebrows meet over his too large nose. “Wow. You’re … so grown up.”
Kids do that when you’re not around for six years, I think. But I don’t say it. After a minute I invite him in, mostly because all the heat in the trailer is going out the door.
“How’s your Grandma?”
“Not so great.” I cross my arms and stare at him. “What are you even doing here?”
His eyebrows scrunch again. “Bess wrote and asked me to come. Didn’t you get my letter?” He follows my eyes to the counter where the letter lies unopened. “Ah.” He rubs his grizzled chin, and I realize he must have driven all night to get here at seven in the morning. “I guess you have a right to be angry.” A frown tugs at the corners of his mouth. “I made a mistake, Nina. I never wanted to leave you.”
“Me?” I yell. “What about Mom. How could you leave her?”
“We were already divorced,” he says quietly. “It’s not like the job in Columbus broke up our marriage.”
“She needed you!”
Dad shakes his head. “She needed help. For years I tried to help her, but she didn’t want to change. She just wanted the drugs.” He turns away, staring out the frosty glass on the door. “She definitely didn’t want me.”
I throw my hands in the air. “Who cares what she wanted? She needed you and you left her.”
He turns back to me, and I see his eyes are full of tears. “I should have stayed, but not for your mom. I should have stayed for you. And if you want to be mad at me about something, be mad at me about that.”
“Forget it.” I turn my back on him and walk into the kitchen. “If you’re here to take me away, you can leave right now. I’m not going anywhere.”
“No, that’s not–”
“Just leave. I don’t need you.”
“Yes, you do,” says a soft, wheezy voice.
“Grammy!” I whirl around and scoot past my father in the narrow living area. She is just outside her bedroom, hanging heavily onto the door frame. “You should be in bed.”
For once, she doesn’t argue, and Dad helps me get her back into her room. She’s shivering, so I turn on her electric blanket and tuck her in tight. Dad watches as I shake our her breakfast: eight different pills and a strawberry Ensure. He watches as I write what I’ve given her on the chart. He’s still watching when I kiss Grammy’s head and turn to leave the room.
“Micheal,” says Grammy.
I turn back. “What do you need? I can get it.”
She ignores me and my father steps around me to her bed. “What is it, Bess?” His voice is quiet, almost like in church.
“How long are you staying?” she asks.
He looks at me, first. He seems embarrassed. “I have two weeks off, but I can take sick leave if … I can stay as long as necessary.”
Grammy pats his hand. She heard what she wanted. All I heard was the ‘if’. If two weeks isn’t enough, he can take sick leave. If Grammy’s still alive in two weeks. If he can’t take me away by then.
“I’m not going to live in Columbus,” I say.
“Maybe I’ll move here.”
I wonder … would he really? Would he do that for me? I’m not sure. “I don’t need you.” I sound like a broken record.
“Maybe I need you.”
Dorky as that sounds, he actually looks serious. Can I trust him? Would he really stay? I guess I’ve got at least two weeks to figure it out. He’s still staring at me so I roll my eyes. “Oh, whatever.”
Grammy smiles and closes her eyes.