Home > We're All Damaged(11)

We're All Damaged(11)
Matthew Norman

An old woman is making her way across the green space near the bocce ball game. She’s in a baby blue robe and slippers even though it’s already hot out. We watch her for a moment.

“They hate your mother, Andy,” he says. “You know that. Don’t be naïve.”

“Who does?” He gives me a look, like this is a dumb question, which it is. “Fine,” I say. “She’s got enemies. But what’s with the escalation? We got TP’d every few months when I was in high school. Prank calls sometimes. It was nothing li—”

“They didn’t hate her when you were in high school. They made fun of her. She was the butt of jokes. But they didn’t hate her. That’s what people do now. They don’t disagree, they hate.”

“Well, it’s not like she’s bringing some of it on herself, right?”

He doesn’t look at me—his eyes are still on the old lady—and I’m pretty sure I’m a shitty son because I just inadvertently sided with three strange men who called my mother a bitch and vandalized our yard.

“You think the other side doesn’t say things like that?” he says. “Watch MSNBC for more than thirty seconds. You’ll see what I mean. There’s plenty of it to go around.”

Across the street, a car honks in the Bed Bath & Beyond parking lot, and I notice a girl standing outside of Starbucks. She’s skinny in a black T-shirt and jeans. Her hair is dark, and she has a sleeve of tattoos running up her right arm.

“I should get going,” he says. “Are you sure you’re going to be OK by yourself?”

I look away from the girl and tell him again that I’ll be fine, but it’s just dawned on me that I’ve arrived empty-handed. I have no idea what I should have brought with me, but surely I should have brought something. I don’t know what I’m doing, and I don’t know how to behave. My dad’s parents died when I was little, and Grandma Dot died suddenly watching one of the CSIs when I was away at college. This is all completely new to me.

“One thing,” he says.

“I don’t know what Mom has told you, but there’s a chance he’s not gonna know who you are.”


“And don’t be thrown if he asks about Grandma, OK? He gets confused sometimes.”

I try to remember the last time I talked to my grandpa. He called me a few months ago. I didn’t answer because I was at work. I could barely hear his voice mail.

I really hope I called him back.

“But just remember, whatever happens, it’s still just him. Grandpa Henry. You’ve known him your whole life.”

For some reason, I look back at Starbucks. Maybe I’m looking for the girl again, the girl in the T-shirt, I don’t know. Either way, she’s not there anymore.

“Now get out of here,” he says. “I’ll pick you up in two hours.”


Anurse about Nancy’s age named Nurse Sandy leads me from the main registration desk down a long corridor to the hospice center. Each door has a suite number and a person’s name.

We stop at a sign stenciled on a little card slid through a clear plastic sleeve, temporary. “Suite #5, Henry Allen.”

Nurse Sandy gives me the once-over, acknowledging the general state of me. I half expect her to lick her thumb and try to wipe away my black eye. When she opens the door, the smell hits me before anything else, like a slap across the face. It’s raw and sick, and it actually stops me there like a force field.

“And here we are,” she says, announcing us. “Hello, hello, hello.” Her voice is so cheery that she’s practically singing. “How we doing, Henry? Someone special is here to see you.”

There are a bunch of machines beeping, wires and tubes and blankets and pillows and a big, crooked bed with metal rails. Somewhere in the middle of it all is my grandpa.

“Henry? The Cubbies playing today?” She checks some of the machines and jots something down. There’s a baseball game on a flatscreen mounted to the wall. It’s not the Cubs, though. It’s some college game on ESPN2.

She touches his forehead and lifts a strand of errant white hair off his brow.

“You look older,” she says.

I assume she’s talking to him, which is pretty rude. But she’s actually talking to me. “Um, pardon me?” I say.

“The picture. See?” She nods to a shelf on the wall opposite from the TV. There are bouquets of flowers lined up and a bunch of photos tacked to a corkboard—yellowed Polaroids of kids, some old family shots, a few printouts. I find what she’s talking about. Jim and I are wearing hideous sweaters, a Carter Family Christmas Eve tradition.

“When was it taken?” she asks.

“A year and a half ago,” I say.

She’s surprised, I can tell. She thought I was going to say it’d been much longer than that.

“See the remote on the end table over there?” she says. “It works. Just about any channel you can think of. There’s a little fridge against the wall. All the free ginger ale you can drink. Not a bad perk. That button over the bed? The red one? Hit that if you need me. But I think you two will be just fine. Isn’t that right, Henry?”

“Can he hear us?” I say.

She smiles and touches my arm. “He’s just sleeping, sweetie. He does that a lot. It’s all part of it.”

When she closes the door behind her, I watch his chest move in time with the loudest of the machines. His room is nice, less like a hospital room and more like a hotel room. There’s a couch about the size of a loveseat and also an easy chair. I go over to the window and look at all the flowers. There are random vases with lovely bouquets. The biggest one is full of sunflowers. There’s a card attached that says simply, Love D. I recognize most of the names on the other cards—old family friends, a few distant relatives, Nancy’s radio station.

It’s way too dark in here, I decide, suddenly and wholeheartedly. I slide one of the blinds open, and as I do, I nearly knock a coffee mug off the windowsill. I recognize it. “I ❤ NY.” I mailed it to him a few weeks after I left Omaha. I thought he’d like it. I wanted him to think I was doing well.

When I turn around to look at him again, his eyes are wide open and I fight back what would have come out as a frightened yell.

“Grandpa?” I say. I say it again, and he just watches me. His eyes blink, and I try to remember what button Nurse Sandy told me to push. But then he holds his hand out, and I take it. And then he holds his other hand out, and I take that, too. His skin is warm, like anyone else’s skin, and I’m doing my best not to look at the tube in his throat. He touches the bed beside him, and I sit. He finds a wrinkled legal pad and a pencil, and I watch as he slowly writes.

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