When Nanny Died

April Fool’s was dressed as Death. It came in silently, past midnight, into the hospital room where Nanny was dying. Joyce was catching catnaps on the vinyl hospital chair and didn’t hear the night steal Nanny’s soul away. She startled awake when she no longer heard her mother’s breathing through the layers of her sleep.

“Mother,” she whispered groggily. Her eyes were suddenly wide and she got out of the chair she was using as a bed. Death brought tears to her eyes with its finality. She gasped, “Oh, Momma. I was asleep.” The tears streamed down Joyce’s face and her chin quivered like a child’s.

Nanny had been in the hospital for only two days, but her illness had steadily progressed for more than three years. At first the doctors didn’t know why she couldn’t catch her breath. There was something wrong with her lungs, they knew, but the doctors in Texarkana were still country doctors really. They weren’t equipped to handle the technology of modern medicine. They were better at bedside manner and comforting the sick. When what Nanny had couldn’t be easily diagnosed, the doctor sent her to Little Rock for a biopsy. But the doctors in Little Rock weren’t much better than the doctors in Texarkana. The young intern who did the biopsy, still learning the ins and outs of being a country doctor himself, cut between the ribs of Nanny’s chest and found that the lungs were indeed damaged. Instead of taking a part of the lung that had just started to deteriorate, the intern took a piece that was already badly damaged. So when the specialists in Little Rock looked at the damaged bit of lung, they never could say for sure what had caused it to get that way.

Back to Texarkana and the little frame house on Fielden, Tyson took his wife. He had once been a strapping lion of a man, the product of a farm boy upbringing. He was more of a caged lion now, aging to uncomfortable paces. Tamed by the ever-presence of death that Nanny brought into the house.

As it became harder and harder for Nanny to fill up less and less of her lungs, Tyson took the necessary steps for her slow descent toward death.

He brought the big iron oxygen tank into the bedroom. It was big and silver and hissed quietly, all day long and all night long, as a reminder. The thin, clear tube that followed Nanny around the house connected her to the life of the iron tank’s oxygen and also to the ultimate end its appearance in the house prophesied.

Every week Tyson went to the pharmacy at the Skaggs to get Nanny’s medicine. The pills made her pudgy all over. Her face took on the look of the wise old owl in the Winnie the Pooh cartoons, her sagging flesh filling in for the bushy feathers. Her slim-waisted body, sculpted in the Depression, thickened. Every day when she took the pills she raised the water glass to her mouth, but not too high to interfere with the oxygen that flowed into her nose through the divided clear plastic tube. Every day she gritted her teeth and fought back. It was a Texans-at-the-Alamo fight against the inevitable march of time, but still she was fighting.

While Nanny fought her private war, the summer sun came to dry out the earth in East Texas. The grass turned brown and you could almost see the heat attacking the defenseless ground in waves. The pine trees stood in clusters, evergreen, among the thirsting oaks and pecan trees. Neighbors came out onto their porches with fans and ice tea and sat in rocking chairs in the evening hours. But not Nanny, she was tethered to an oxygen tank by a plastic tube.

“I wish’t I would go ahead and die,” she told her husband.

But Tyson could do nothing. He stalked back and forth through the house, and died a little bit every day, just like Nanny. He longed to get outside and lay claim to his territory again. No. Tyson wanted Nanny to come with him so they could roam together. Instead, through the debilitating summer months and the relative cold of a Texarkana winter, the pair tried to form a new territory. It would be a limited landscape, but lush with love. Affection came closer to the surface than it had ever been between them. But as sure as death’s eminence, even the small portion of territory they had left, the house where they had lived and raised their daughter, was taken away from them.

“I can’t hardly get a breath at all,” Nanny told Tyson on a day when spring had finally broken through winter completely in the last week of March.

Tyson fixed Nanny up to a portable tank that she carried with her on the way to the hospital. From the hospital Tyson called their daughter. “Do you think y’all could come up here for awhile?” he asked Joyce. “I’m here at the hospital with Nanny.”

Joyce and her husband Arnie drove up the next day from Houston. The sun was setting on March 31st as they pulled into the driveway of the frame house, painted white, where Joyce had grown up. Her father was there waiting for them, standing behind the screen door.

“Her sister’s sitting up with her at the hospital,” Tyson told them, pushing open the screen door as Joyce and Arnie came up the porch steps.

“Evening, Tyson,” Arnie said.

“Let me fix you two something to eat and then I’m going to go sit with Mother up at the hospital, too,” Joyce said, coming inside.

“I done fixed something to eat,” her father said.

They sat in the kitchen and ate the fresh green beans and the chicken fried steaks, fried without batter in the big cast-iron skillet that was still sitting on the stove. Tyson munched slowly on the food, taking huge bites that took him several minutes to swallow. He looked frail to Joyce, an old man who had been mugged. Joyce had never thought of him as frail before. He was always the great lion of a man she remembered as a child. The image of him slouched over his plate at the kitchen table, chewing his food slowly and rhythmically like a milk cow chewing its cud, scarred deeply into her memory.

“Are you all right, Papa?” she asked.

“Not really,” Tyson answered her, pausing between bites.

When they were through with supper, Joyce cleared the plates and hand-washed them in the sink. “I’m going to go see Mother now,” she said after she was finished. “Why don’t you stay here with Papa, Arnie?”

“I want to go with you,” Tyson said.

“Why don’t we all drive over there together, Honey?” Arnie suggested. “That way I can bring Tyson back home if you decide you want to stay the night.”

“Let’s go then,” Joyce agreed. Her husband knew she would want to spend the night with Nanny. That was why she had planned on going over to the hospital alone.

The doctors were at their best when Joyce and Arnie and Tyson got to the hospital. There was nothing they could do for Nanny now except bedside banter and consoling the sick. Nanny was propped up with pillows and the life thread still connected her to the oxygen being pumped out of a gadget on the wall by the bed. Nanny’s sister was sitting on one of the two chairs in the room, leafing through a copy of McCall’s.

“How are you feeling, Momma?” Joyce asked as she came into the room.

“I just can’t get a breath,” Nanny said softly.

Nanny’s sister put down her magazine and said, “I’m going home now, I think. I’ll come back up in the morning,” she told Nanny.

“I’ll walk out with you,” Arnie said. “I want to find me a Diet Coke. Can I get y’all anything?” he asked the others.

They each shook their heads ‘no’, and Arnie walked out of the room with Nanny’s sister. When Arnie got back, he heard Nanny say, “You need to get home and get yourself some rest, Tyson,” as he opened the door. “Joyce can stay up here and sit with me awhile.”

Tyson kissed Nanny tenderly on her parted lips. “I’ll be back early in the morning,” he told his wife, and left slowly then with Arnie.

“He’s been worrying hisself sick about me,” Nanny told Joyce after the two men had left.

“Everybody’s worried about you,” Joyce said.

“I don’t see why,” Nanny answered with a bit of her old fire. “I’m dying and there ain’t nothing nobody can do about it. What’s the use of worrying about something like that?”

As they talked, Nanny’s breath grew shorter and she got tired. The nurse came and gave her the last medicine of the night around ten o’clock. Joyce turned out the lights and made herself as comfortable as she could be in one of the vinyl chairs. She watched Nanny silently for more than an hour, listening to her raspy, halting breaths and marking the severe changes in her mother.

As Joyce drifted into that lonely valley between asleep and awake, she saw herself playing with Rudy, her old hound dog, in the back yard of the house on Fielden. Across the half-acre garden a cat was harassing the birds that lived in the birdhouse attached on a pole to one of the posts of the back fence. Nanny came out on the back steps and said, “Rudy, go keep that cat away from them birds.” Rudy left Joyce and ran around the edge of the garden, straight toward the stray cat. But the cat was out of reach on top of the fence post and Rudy had to settle for barking before he came back to play. “That cat just won’t leave them poor birds alone,” Nanny said. She went back into the house and came out with Papa’s .22 rifle. She drew a bead on the cat and killed it with one shot clean through the head. Joyce startled awake and she couldn’t hear Nanny breathing anymore.

At Nanny’s funeral, Joyce thought her father had seemed to shrink. His shoulders were stooped and his chest looked caved in, like someone you couldn’t see had him in a bear hug. Throughout the funeral at the big Baptist church downtown, she kept watching her father and waiting for him to be released from the hug.

Then the preacher started talking about Nanny. Joyce hardly heard the words. Instead her mind saw a picture of Nanny in the kitchen. She stood, slim-waisted again in one of her simple homemade dresses without the oxygen cord, looking through the kitchen window above the sink at her husband out in the garden. Tyson was in his undershirt, his strong arms bigger than Joyce had ever seen, plowing the rows for the corn.

© 2010 Wasted Space Publishing

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