Greta

It’s funny how names conjure up images. A Brandi is a surefire stripper. A Chad is a gym rat douchebag who says things like, “I’m counting my macros.” And a Greta, well, a Greta is the type of gal who milks cows. She churns butter. She’ll make you a strudel with said milk and butter so good that it will make you cry, and then she’ll slap you across the mouth for crying because she’s one tough strudel.

I once knew a Greta. A real life, butter-churning-cow-milking-mouth-slapping Greta from Germany. Her last name was Von Vueghe (pronounced Von – Vay) and I used to like to pretend I was the fat kid from Willy Wonka and say in a thick accent “Vere did Greta go? Uh oh, she’s going zee Von Vay!”

I know, hilarious.

Greta thought so too actually. She’d laugh at all my jokes when I gave her her bi-weekly shower. I mean, maybe it was because I controlled the shower temperature, but I think she genuinely liked me. She used to send me home with little shortbread cookies she’d wrapped up in a napkin and tell me not to tell anyone else or they’d get jealous. It was our secret.

When Greta came to the home, she was a round little thing. She had a bowl haircut and wore turtlenecks with matching pants exclusively. A uniform, very Germanic in its practicality. Sometimes, if it was cold, she’d put on a little black shearling vest her daughter had gotten her, but that was rare. She had a walker with a pouch on the front in which she’d keep newspapers, sweets, and her knitting. Her feet sometimes knocked against the walker because of the way they sort of splayed out – a knee injury in her 40’s, I think she said.

Weeks after moving in, Greta became fast friends with a Lena and a Sara, also from Germany but different parts. Whereas Greta would have benefitted from a rolling subtitles bar beneath her everywhere she went, Lena and Sara’s accents were almost non-existent. They had been in the States for a while; Sara, I believe, since her teens. Unfortunately, they also differed in that their minds were farther gone than Greta’s. This sometimes made her sad. She was caring to a fault though, and watched after them like a mother goose, guiding them back into place should they wander.

I think she’d always been that way – nurturing. It was like me and the shortbread cookies. She needed to feel useful, that she was caring for someone. She would always ask if there was something she could be doing, something or someone she could be taking care of. If the community garden needed volunteers to tend it, she’d be plucking weeds despite her arthritis. If there was a bingo night, she’d be there first, helping the staff set out the sheets on all of the tables.

The thing is, I asked her once when she had inquired if I needed someone to iron my sweater, “Who is caring for you?”

That’s what shower time became – someone caring for her. Twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays, I would go to Greta’s room with a pile of towels. I knew how many and which sizes to bring: a small one for outside the door; a large one for the bathroom floor; a washcloth for her face; a medium one for her hair; and a large one to wrap around her waist. She never covered her top half – a little quirk that I loved.

She was able to undress on her own, though it was time consuming. So, she often did it ahead of time and greeted me completely nude. “Velcome Erica!” she would say, her breasts and under arm skin swaying in unison as she waved me in. She would shuffle into the bathroom, leading the way. I’d adjust the water, getting it to the perfect spot, and then help her leave her walker behind and plunk down onto the shower stool. Unfailingly, she would say “Oh my!” and make a sound sort of like the Pillsbury Doughboy’s giggle when she plopped in place.

Once she acclimated to the water, I would put the washcloth gently over her eyes and form a border about her hairline with my fingers so that when I let the warm water wash through her hair, none got in her ears. She used to lean back and enjoy the moment. She’d let out a happy sigh as I ran my fingers through her hair and massaged her scalp with shampoo. The skin on her back was taught and smooth, save for a few moles. I would lather it up with eucalyptus soap and massage her achey shoulders.

She’d tell me stories from beneath the washcloth about her life. She’d talk about her old ginger cat or her favorite flowers or this artist she once met who called her his muse and kissed her on the hand which made her very embarrassed. She’d tell me about how she cared for her daughter and worried about her living in a big city far away from her. She tell me about Lena and Sara and how their minds were slipping. She told me how she found Sara wandering the corridor after dinner and brought her back. She told me how much she cared for the world and what would happen to it. She told me everything.

Over the couple of years that I knew her, I watched Greta go from portly to skeletal. Where there once was cushioning for the shower stool, there was now hard bone. Her arms became bruised and sores opened up on her body from her thinness. Sometimes, I would find myself counting the marks on her backside when she led the way into the bathroom. It seemed food had lost its appeal. At meal times she’d stare at it and then offer it to others around her.

Soon enough she started passing on her showers, too. First she’d skip it once a week and then multiple weeks in a row. Everything ached now, not just her shoulders. She couldn’t undress herself anymore but was too embarrassed to accept help. She often fell asleep fully clothed in her recliner and would end up wearing her little uniform multiple days in a row until a nurse gently prompted her to let us help her change. Sponge baths in her bed were easier, so that became her new routine for a while, though they didn’t offer her the same kind of relaxation and mental care that shower time once had.

Overall, she was fading. It often happens like that — over a long stretch of time and then all at once, like a shot. You don’t know what is going on inside until it’s upon them. Just like that.

I came on to my shift one day and an ambulance was outside the building. Walking through the lobby, I discovered that it was Greta the EMTs had with them. I came up alongside her and she grabbed my hands from the gurney they had put her on. She told me that there were cookies on the counter of her apartment she wanted me to grab. Taken aback, I said, “When you come back you can give them to me!” but she just took my hand and in a bittersweet, knowing way kissed it.

And after a few days, she didn’t come back. My sweet, motherly Greta who would gladly milk the cows and churn the butter should you ask, went the Von Vay.

Turkey Leg

The click of the machine pumping morphine into Grandpa’s arm is consistent. In contrast, his breathing is ragged, and every so often he lets out a pained moan that comes from low in the throat and sounds like a death rattle. We’ve heard it at least a dozen times now but it still makes me jump a little. This is what we’ve been doing. We sit silently, all of us in gowns and gloves, like some kind of familial Haz-Mat team, watching his chest rise and fall. We hold our own breath every time his chest collapses and exchange glances, wondering if it’s his last exhale.

Still, amid the clicking and whirring and moaning and nurses chatting just outside the door, my mind is singularly focused. The only thing I can think right now, is about turkey legs. Yes, turkey legs. The huge ones you get at theme parks or renaissance fairs. They’re big, greasy, and browned to perfection. They usually come in a foil bag—the same kind that you get from the bakery when you’re too tired to really cook and pre-buttered garlic bread calls your name. The turkey legs are easily big enough for two or three people, but hell, we came all this way didn’t we? We’ll each get one! I’m thinking about turkey legs because my grandpa’s arms used to remind me of them.

He’s always been a muscular bear of a man. Short, yes, but nothing about him small. His arms would always show from the elbow down, tanned from mowing the lawn on a riding mower or taking a drive out to some back woods road only he knew about to watch white tail deer come and go. They were freckled by the sun and covered in wispy, nearly imperceptible hairs. And the skin was always wrapped so tautly over his huge muscles. They looked just like those turkey legs.

Now though, I don’t recognize these arms. They aren’t turkey legs. They’re chicken legs. They’re small and cold and the skin is far too loose. He’s been indoors for the better part of a month so they’ve lost their color as well. These look like boiled chicken legs that have been set out on a paper towel, puckered by water. They aren’t right.

When everyone has left the room to stretch their legs, get coffee, go to the bathroom, I stay behind. I pull a chair up close to him and watch him for a while. I watch his arms. His chicken legs. Though we’re not supposed to, I remove my glove and rub the loose remains of muscle gently as if the skin-to-skin contact might bring color and plumpness back to them. Like they might inflate like a pool toy, happy and bright again.

They don’t.

After a while, I cover his arm up with a blanket. I whisper to him, “That’s okay. You just get warm. Get better and you’ll be able to come home for Thanksgiving.” I rest my head gently on his chest and listen to his heartbeat. “I’ll make all your favorites and you can just sit in your recliner and watch the game. Deal?” But his ragged breath is the only reply.

 

………………………………………………………………………………………

 

In the coming days I stop promising candied yams and sweet smells. I stop promising whatever ball game is on TV. I don’t say that I’ll cut my hair short like he prefers instead of letting it hang like a mop. I don’t tell him that I’ll move home, right upstairs if he wants. Instead, I start making a different kind of promise. I promise him that if he’ll let go, if he’ll just slip away, it will be okay. I promise him that dying will be good for him. That he won’t be scared and alone but filled up, whole and blissful. I promise that when my family leaves the room and I stay with him, he can just let it all fall away. All the noises and pain. I promise that if he lets it, death will be as nourishing and warm in his body as a giant turkey leg.