It Means Grandmother

Daphne laughs when Shilpa tells her that she prefers to spend her Friday evenings surrounded by grandparents, veterans, and retirees rather than her own age group.

“I know you don’t believe it, but I prefer watching TV with you rather than hanging out at the club,” Shilpa defends.

Daphne clicks her tongue, indicating that she finds Shilpa’s claim absurd. Shilpa inserts a disc into the DVD tray and then plops onto the floor by Daphne’s worn and well-loved armchair. She crosses her legs, turning her radio down in preparation for the inevitable interruption.

During the theme song, Daphne raises the topic once again. “You’re young. You need to be out there enjoying life. You know the crazy things I got up to at your age?”

“I’ve heard some of them,” Shilpa responds, grinning at Daphne who mumbles in return.

“I never should have told you about my dancing days.”

“I was referring to your polyamory days.”

“Oh, you kid,” Daphne says weakly smacking Shilpa’s arm. The radio chirps and Shilpa’s legs spring her upwards, a symptom of classical conditioning.

“I’ll be back in a bit, Daphne.”

When the door to Daphne’s room closes, Shilpa meets with frightening silence. At nine p.m., everyone has retired for the night, so the halls are abandoned, dark, and vaguely haunting. Shilpa cracks her knuckles to undercut the eeriness of the quiet and navigates towards room 203 for what is likely a request for a glass of water or, due to the fiber-heavy meal at dinner, a brisk trip to the restroom.

Shilpa knocks twice on the door to Leila’s room before gradually turning the door handle. Leila immigrated from Turkey in her fifties, so they communicate through body language, hand gestures, and the vocal range of Leila’s grunts. Tonight, judging by her pointing and squirming, Leila needs the restroom. Shilpa brings her walker to the side of the bed, and they shuffle through the motions on autopilot, each step in their routine a mastered duet.

Though they pry, Shilpa never tells the residents why she picks up every available shift. In such a selfless role, it seems insensitive to admit that her work ethic is solely money-driven. She assumes that her income status is obvious; most people do not choose to work at a nursing home where they hardly make a dollar over the minimum wage. If she did reveal her motivations, Shilpa suspects the residents would misunderstand. The majority do not share her same financial background with monthly room and dining plans priced in the mid-thousands. Shilpa has no idea how they can afford it, and it has dawned on her various times throughout her two-year stint that she will never be able to finance her own mother’s long-term arrangements with the same level of care that she, herself, provides. Shilpa shakes her head outside the warmly lit bathroom, gazing through Leila’s filtered blinds. The steady hum of evening traffic is drowned out momentarily by a groaning flush. Shilpa turns back to Leila, her body already morphing into its natural position as a crutch, a net, a frame.

Once Leila is tucked carefully under her two layers of blankets, she sends Shilpa off with a grateful hand squeeze and a wave of affection for the old lady snuggled under her covers envelopes Shilpa. This brief sentimentality is always accompanied by guilt, and Shilpa swallows it as she reads the most recent notification on her phone.

Her small bubble of family in the States sporadically receives delayed news of her ammachi’s declining health. Normally, Shilpa waits until after her shift to respond to her mother’s innocuous inquiries about geriatric care, but she can sense her mother’s anxiety through the screen; her texts are unsaid pleas for reassurance. Her mother must have heard disappointing news.

Shilpa walks into Daphne’s room, firing a tolerant response followed by a heart emoji. The old lady’s raspy voice cuts through the sitcom’s awkward laugh track.

“I hope that is a fine young man you’re coordinating with after you leave,” Daphne suggests wickedly.

Shilpa shoves her phone into her pocket and offers a good-natured smile.

“Nope,” and then changing the subject, abruptly, “What are they up to now?” Shilpa asks, sprawling to the floor from exhaustion. Daphne, a dedicated M.A.S.H fan, recounts the synopsis of their current episode, and the two of them spend the rest of their Friday night gnawing on caramel taffy and trading anecdotes of shenanigans from their twenties.

On Monday night, Teresa finds Shilpa cross-legged on the floor in an empty hallway.

“Are you okay?” Teresa asks, slowing to a stop in front of their breakroom.

Shilpa, one of the younger caregivers of the facility, earns a little more leniency from her boss. Still, she waits to attempt any of her more controversial antics until after five p.m. when their offices are vacated.

Shilpa glances up, dazed, her sleep deprivation painted clearly on her face. “I’m just tired.”

Shilpa’s only breaks from the nursing home are days she has class and cannot work an eight-hour shift. Though her lectures are intellectually intensive, they provide some reprieve, occurring outside the confines of endless hallways and stale, recycled air. Her lust for the outside makes her feel a bit like a vampire, absorbing the exuberance and vitality of her classmates. Unsurprisingly, spending days at a time in a uniformly gray and drabby nursing home can get a bit depressing.

“This is your sixth day in a row, right?” Teresa checks. Spring break means accepting last-minute shifts. This is the longest Shilpa has consecutively worked, and the back-to-back shifts are getting to her.

“Yes. And I need a break,” Shilpa says, sulking further down the wall her back is resting on.

Shilpa clocks in for work the next afternoon fifteen minutes later than usual. She received a seventy-dollar parking ticket that morning when she carelessly left her car in a thirty-minute parking spot in her rush to class. Her boss messaged her an hour later, asking to cover for a call-out that afternoon. Shilpa, despite her body’s resounding disapproval, begrudgingly accepted the shift as her salvation and punishment.

The days are bleeding into each other. Shilpa cannot identify when separate incidents occurred since her schedule consists of falling asleep immediately after she arrives home and waking up an hour before her shift the next day with only time for a quick shower and a granola bar. She registers that she is in Lincoln’s room once he waves a hand in her face, demanding her to start his shower.

Lincoln is one of the residents with enough money to make up for his middling consideration. He pays for showers, though he is fully able-bodied, but Shilpa does not mind this. If anything, it gives her body a rest. This time, an unusual agitation follows his sharp movements. The space between them grows cold and tense when he opens his mouth.

“What took you so long? My shower is supposed to be at two-ten sharp.”

“Sorry, Lincoln, I was a little late to work. It has been a day.”

“I pay for these services, so you better be on time. Or else I could do it myself.” Shilpa resists the urge to roll her eyes.

“I’m sorry, really. I’ll be on time for the next one.” Shilpa opens the shower curtain, and Lincoln bounces up from the toilet seat, catching her off guard.

“What are you doing?” he demands, grabbing the curtain from her hand so the crinkled plastic is out of reach. This behavior is uncharacteristic of Lincoln, and Shilpa pauses, unsure where his temper stems from or where it will lead.

“Opening the curtain so you can get in for your shower,” she explains plainly. Residents get frustrated all the time. It is an unfortunate aspect of any customer service job. Still, aggression is not something Shilpa expects.

“You do not open the shower until I say so! You are rushing my shower that I paid good money for!” Lincoln’s face is turning red. He opens the curtain himself and steps inside easily. Stunned, Shilpa does not pull the water diverter until Lincoln shoots her an intimidating glare. He continues to grumble about his disappointments.

“I see why you work here. None of you are competent enough for a better job. Instead, you are stuck here when you should be doing something useful with your life.”

Shilpa remains silent, but the shame is deafening. Her repressed anger ignites an internal interrogation. Why is she working here for such little pay and appreciation?

Lincoln penetrates her self-beratement. “I bet your parents are disappointed that you ended up here,” he remarks as he turns the water off. “You should not be getting a dime for this kind of service today. Count yourself lucky.”

Shilpa diligently helps him dress and dry his hair. She gently massages creamy lotion into his back, appeasing any residual inflammation on his end. When she finishes, Lincoln appears pleased. 

“Look what happens when you try. This is the type of service I expect from you.”

Shilpa says nothing. She throws her gloves in the trash and then shuts the door slowly, beelining towards the restroom. In front of the mirror, she cries.

Her radio blinks on and off. Her sobs match the rhythm of its robotic chimes. Shilpa stares down at her reflected image, counting around eleven residents in her head who require assistance. She washes her face, tightens her ponytail, and stores the guilt in her back pocket. She has no time for inconvenient emotions.

At ten p.m., far later than she would usually put her to bed, Shilpa heads off towards Marnie’s room. Shilpa’s brain shut off in the chaos of the hectic evening, but with time to breathe, she checks her phone. Seven missed call notifications from her mother hoard her screen, and Shilpa sighs.

Shilpa launches into profuse apologies as soon as she enters Marnie’s room, but the seventy-nine-year-old woman waves them away.

“You look like you have been through it, honey. Put the nightgown down and come take a seat.”

Shilpa obliges, too fatigued to maintain any professionalism, urgency, or dignity. She collapses on one side of the couch and feels the previously buried emotions rising in her gut like bile. She presses her face into her hands.

“Oh, honey, what’s wrong?” Marnie asks, concern embedded in her inquisition.

It is a reasonable question, likely unintending to unearth loose tears, but Shilpa cries softly anyway. She has spent her entire day asking that of others.

“I feel like I’m failing everyone. They all think that my best isn’t enough. And I’m beginning to believe them.” Shilpa struggles for air. “I want to give more but I just have nothing left.”

“A failure? No, no.” Marnie brings Shilpa’s head to her shoulder and strokes her hair in precise and predictable repetition.

“You are so generous and giving for putting up with us old folk. Teresa and you were running around the building today. I saw you and heard your little feet pattering over me.” Marnie gestures to the top floor and laughs sweetly.

“I know we don’t make it easy, but we appreciate it. You should be proud of yourself. Your family must be so proud to have such a patient and helpful daughter,” Marnie states certainly.

The kind words make Shilpa cry harder, her sniffles growing louder as she muffles her gasps. The two of them sit like that for a few minutes, Shilpa crying into Marnie’s shoulder as Marnie hums a familiar and unfamiliar tune. Eventually, Shilpa heaves one last self-pitying shudder before coaxing Marnie off to bed.

On the walk over to her car, Shilpa calls her mother back.

“Seven missed calls, really Mom?” Shilpa cannot help the annoyance in her tone.

“She had a bad fall.”

Shilpa pauses in front of the car and runs a hand down her face. “How bad, Mom?” Shilpa asks, tampering any panic down until necessary.

“She’s hospitalized.”

Shilpa does not bother with her usual beginning-of-shift tasks. Her feet instantly propel her to Marnie’s room. The door is skewed open, and Shilpa abruptly stops at the sight of Marnie’s petite form. Marnie is lying on her bed, looking shockingly frailer than she did five days ago when she was nursing Shilpa’s spirits on her couch. Protein milk cartons cover the surface of Marnie’s bedside table. There are wilting sunflowers on the other side.

“Oh, Marnie.”

Marnie’s head hardly moves, but her eyes trace Shilpa’s path to her. She smiles, a reassuring sight, and whispers, “Don’t worry, darling.”

“How do you feel?”

“I feel old, really old for the first time in my life, but I’m happy.”

Shilpa smiles. “I’m happy, you’re happy,” she says.

Shilpa moves to Marnie’s side and lightly brushes the back of her hand.

“My daughter came to say goodbye. She just went to pick up my grandkids, and then she’ll be back here.” Marnie’s eyes water. “I love that baby so much.”

“She’s lucky to have had you. To always have you.”

Marnie’s eyes gleam in response. “I am going to see my Harry again. My Harry in heaven. He has been waiting for me for twelve years. He always said I took way longer than him to get ready.” Marnie sighs dreamily. “He was right.”

This is not Shilpa’s first encounter with death, but she has yet to master what to say in the face of it. Fortunately, Marnie does most of the talking, gifting her jewelry and furniture that Shilpa will never accept. Instead, Shilpa makes her love known the only way she knows how. She makes Marnie tea just the way she likes it: two Splendas and one cream. She brushes and braids Marnie’s hair and ties it with pink ribbon, her favorite color. She lifts her left leg onto a pillow and rolls a fuzzy sock onto the other. Shilpa ensures Marnie is as comfortable as possible before she leaves her with her family.

Shilpa takes conscious deep breaths as she closes the door. Finality feels wrong when you know it is the last time. Her phone buzzes, and she checks it for a distraction. She is met with budding nervousness in her chest. There is one text from her mother: “Call me.”

Shilpa waves to her mother from the veranda, dry and humid air wafting between them. It is a sweltering, sticky afternoon in the village, but her mother and aunt decide to take advantage of the clear skies to pick up medication for her ammachi. Shilpa, still recovering from the jet lag, volunteered to stay home with her younger siblings so they could leave. Her mother steals another glance at Shilpa, one that she identifies as concerned and reluctant, but her aunt pulls her mother onto the seat of their electric scooter, speaking vibrantly but not loudly enough to hear.

Shilpa heads inside.

The house looks the same as it had when she lived there. She cannot remember anything from those early years except her blue yo-yo, cashew biscuits, and the television she was not allowed to watch. She did not think she remembered the layout of the house, but when she arrived two days ago, it took shape in her mind naturally, those primitive memories surfacing from her subconscious.

The hospital finally permitted her ammachi to return home. This was not a good sign, since the feeble lady was practically in a coma. Everyone in the village knew what this meant, so Shilpa, her younger siblings, and her mother booked a last-minute flight abroad.

Shilpa sits across from the sleeping body and thinks of Marnie for a guilty, selfish second. She had so much time with other people’s grandparents and no time with her own. A stifled sound suddenly arises, and Shilpa rushes forward. Her ammachi’s eyes are closed, but words—at least what she assumes are—tumble from her unmoving mouth. Shilpa looks around the unfamiliar, stuffy room, her limbs yearning for some way to bring her ammachi extra comfort. The reckoning that she does not know her ammachi’s favorite color, let alone how she likes her chai heightens her indecision.

“Would you like anything?” she asks, pointlessly. There is another garble in response, and Shilpa helplessly squints at her ammachi as if she could read her lips. The guilt, the same one building and churning and vibrating in her gut, heart, and bones over the two years that she spent at the nursing home implodes. Shilpa had been running away from the truth: she does not know anything about her ammachi, and now, finally reunited at her deathbed, it is too late to learn. Shilpa cannot possibly bring her any ease, and her ammachi will never know how much she cares. Shilpa shuts her eyes tight, but the tears leak out anyway. It isn’t fair that the woman lying in front of her is practically a stranger while she knows the habits and preferences of ninety other grandparents like the back of her hand. Despite being directly by her side, Shilpa has never felt the distance between them more. Two thoroughly separate lives unaltered and untouched by each other.

Shilpa holds her ammachi’s hand and nervously, wearily whispers, “I love you.”

The proclamation is a surrender. She cannot remember ever directing those words toward her ammachi, and a righteous part of her believes she was holding out for a moment between them when it would feel correct, even earned. The reality of their unborn relationship, its dismal and cursed fate, burns any romanticism Shilpa reserved. Over and over, Shilpa pleads, “I love you.” She is unsure if her ammachi can understand her English. In fact, she very much doubts it, but she hopes that something as stupid and silly and powerful as love can translate her meaning. Without anything else to say to each other, Shilpa hums a soft tune that brought her peace once and hopes that her grandmother will find her own.