Genetic memory and my time spent waiting for her

Illustration by Ellery Lloyd

By Dylan Greer

My mother lives in room 166 of the East Wing in St. Mark’s hospital, the area known as the “nostalgia ward.” Her mother lived in 127. When the doctors diagnosed my mom they told me the disease was genetic and to watch out for potential warning signs, misplacing things and confusion of time and place. They said the same thing to her when we visited her mother here 20 years ago, and gave me the same instructions that they gave her: keep a journal, retrace your steps as often as possible. Remember.

The road up through the mountains was looser then, covered with dirt and branches windswept to the ground. It was dotted with potholes that were filled with water from the previous night’s rain.

“Is Grandma losing her mind?” I said. My mom adjusted the rearview mirror and glared at me from the driver’s seat.

My sister, Shannon, leaned over and said quietly, “I heard that when people get really old like Grandma, they start rotting before they even die. That’s why all old people smell like Play-Doh.”

“Old people don’t smell like Play-Doh,” I said. “They smell like medicine.” The road got thinner and looser as we continued to climb.

“Yes they do! And you can always tell when someone’s about to die because that’s when the smell is the strongest.” We swerved to avoid a pothole and scattered rocks into the pines.

“Both of you stop it.” My mom’s voice cracked like a snare drum and we shut up. “Your grandmother is really sick and she needs our support right now. Neither of you would be here if it wasn’t for her so show her some respect. How would you feel if someone said you smelled like Play-Doh?” My mom slowed down to take another switchback and our Chevy Suburban crept over the yellow dividing line as we turned.

“I wouldn’t mind,” Shannon said.“I like Play-Doh,”

St. Mark’s was cold and smelled like juniper trees. Cedar and gin. The fluorescent lights colored the green and purple veins snaking across my grandmother’s arms and her tuft of white hair moved to the artificial breeze of the fan. The room had a curtain that slid from its center and curved around grandma’s bed to separate her from her roommate, Ruth. Ruth’s side of the room was set up with easels and acrylic paints. She had three half covered canvases next to her bed and they all showed the same spot along the lake.

“Mom?” My mother walked up to the bed and sat down next to it. Grandma stared straight at me. “Mom, it’s me. Alison.”

“Alison is my daughter’s name,” Grandma said.

“What’s wrong with Grandma?” I asked. I knew she could hear me but I wasn’t worried. We talked about her the way we talk about pets.

“You look familiar,” Grandma said to me. I shifted my feet and looked at my mom. “Did we meet at Harriet’s house? No, that can’t be it. You must be one of Michael’s friends.”

“Mom, this is James. He’s my son. Your grandson.” She studied my face with sunken eyes that seemed to have gone hoarse from years of screaming. She tried to raise one of her arms, trying to reach me, but was having trouble so my mom held her hand and lowered it back to the bed. “James, why don’t you take your sister to the waiting room.”

I took my sister by the hand and led her into the lounge where old people knitted and watched Jeopardy on the box television. Ruth’s finished paintings hung on the walls and I found myself drawn to the one over the fireplace. The water looked like it was moving.

“Did you smell that?” Shannon said. “It was real bad too. I’ll bet she’s almost dead.” I turned to face the room.

“How can you talk about our Grandma like that? All you do is make jokes and tease me and you don’t even care. You never even knew her. Why are you here?” I don’t remember now if I shoved her or if she shoved me, but I remember her crying.

“I need to go to the toilet,” she said, and I took her to the bathroom and waited outside the door. After she was done, we walked back to the lounge and I watched the people. I don’t know how long we were out there watching people come in and out of her room with pillows and machines, but it had gotten dark before she came out. Her red eyes matched the construction paper name tags on the door.

“Mom?” I asked.

“She’s okay. Just sleeping.”

“Can we see her?” Shannon said. She was wearing light blue denim overalls and a red shirt.

“No. We should let her rest,” my mom said. “We’ll be back tomorrow.” We never went back. The last time I was in that hospital was that night, and my mom drove us down the same road that I’m driving up now. My car is newer and better than the suburban and rides gently over the now paved road.

St. Mark’s windows glow green at night, but the red neon cross shines over them from the wall of the office. I park my car under it, and squint at it as I get out and enter the hospital.

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