Eight hours before my grandmother died, the youngish, curly-haired doctor sat at the foot of her bed and told us she didn’t qualify for hospice. When he got up to leave, my grandmother smiled coyly and shot him a few pleasant but nonsensical syllables that mimicked the inflection and rhythm of speech. The hospice doctor patted her leg through the cotton sheet. She batted her eyelashes at him.
She was constantly flirting with young men. Waiters, store clerks, her grandchildren’s boyfriends. She used a cheery wink and upturned face to hide her dismal hearing. Profoundly hard of hearing since her early fifties, my grandmother spent the next forty years faking her way through conversations. She perfected the visual cues of comprehension, as if by imitating hearing, she would.
Four hours before she died, they moved my grandmother to a room near to the nurses’ station, where the blue-scrubs-wearing professionals could keep an eye on her. Although, it seemed to me they were keeping a better eye on the equipment to which she was connected than her actual frail, thin body in the bed. The oxygen monitor on her finger kept slipping, setting off ear-piercing shrieks that she couldn’t hear.
They readjusted the monitor and left, surely wishing she would stay still. She was never still, though. She cross-country skied and ran 10Ks. She played tennis and golf. Even talking was a sport. Listeners stepped back as she reenacted the return volley when recounting the winning point. The recipe for her beef and broccoli stir-fry involved recreated gestures of chopping, stirring, mixing. The motions themselves as memory.
One hour before my grandmother died, she was moved to a recliner beside the bed. Sitting upright helped her lungs, saved her from the sensation of drowning. They adjusted her monitor, her gown. She thanked them in her new gibberish and ran a hand through her short white hair.
She always swam with her head above the water, keeping dry the hair she was forever curling and fluffing. Even during summers at the cabin—where not only was there no electricity with which to curl or set her hair, there was no one to see if she had—she glided through the lake with her modified breaststroke.
Twenty minutes before she died, my grandmother leaned forward in the recliner and cupped her hands, bringing them to her face as if she were scooping water from the lake. Cup, scoop. She swiped her hands across her forehead, cheekbones, chin as if wiping them clean. Cup, scoop, swipe. After washing in water that I could practically see, she dried her face with the hem of her hospital gown.
My grandmother’s ablutions had always tended toward the simplistic—bar soap, rough towel, quick movements. Lipstick was her one nod to femininity. As innate as a reflex, she would take the pale pink tube from her pocket (never a purse or handbag) and apply a thick, florid coat. No mirror necessary.
Ten minutes before my grandmother died, she tugged and smoothed the sheet on the bed in front of her. I watched the hands—knotted, spotted—that had showed me how to roll out a pie crust, how to whittle balsawood, how to play bridge. She had tried to teach me to fold a fitted sheet: make a pocket, tuck each edge in, stretch, fold. But my sheets are always a wrinkled bundle on the linen closet shelf. I never had enough muscle memory to replicate her motions.
My grandmother pulled the corners taut and patted the bed—her signal that indicated completion. Then she pushed herself out of the recliner, batting away my help, and climbed into bed. Her oxygen monitor slipped again. Someone responded to the sound, readjusted the monitor, and checked the machines before leaving the room silent.
Two minutes before my grandmother died, she pulled the sheet over her legs, smoothed the white cotton on her lap, and leaned back against the pillow.