A little before Halloween 2011, my Gma (my mother’s mother) was diagnosed with brain cancer. I wrote about my her sewing machine shortly thereafter. Shortly before Christmas 2012, she died.
For a number of of the 14 months between her diagnosis and death, mr. biscuit and I cared for her while she went through treatment. She had a round and a half of radiation. The first was shortly after her diagnosis; the half, towards the end. She had monthly chemo, which she took in pill form. It never gave her any problems. Radiation made her progressively more tired and her scalp tender, but she reacted well to both treatments. To be perfectly accurate, the tumor reacted well. It didn’t do much changing for months and months, and even shrank a little, leaving her free to rebuild her strength and dexterity over and over again.
The tumor’s effects were progressive. Initially, it (probably) caused Gma to lose her balance, fall, and break her right hip. Since Gpa was already in a wheelchair due to a succession of knee injuries, this is when mr. biscuit and I entered the picture and became their caretakers. It was supposed to be a short-term thing, and indeed, Gma recovered quickly from her broken hip. She was walking again, and even driving, when something weird happened and she began to lose control of her right foot. This was initially diagnosed as drop foot and chalked up to the back problems she’s always had, or her hip surgeries, or God know what, I don’t really remember, because it got progressively worse, traveling up her leg, and then it affected her right hand and arm. She started having painful, horrifying, seizure-like tremors in her leg that she couldn’t control or predict or stop. More than one night I wound up standing beside their bed, massaging the inside of her right leg with my big, strong hands because everybody was terrified and nobody had any idea what else we ought to be doing.
In my memory, this downturn happened within the blink of an eye. The space of a few weeks, at most. Is that true? I don’t know, and I haven’t the fortitude to dig through my social media records to more accurately reconstruct a timeline. It feels like a very short time had passed between the time she and Gpa went off for a drive on their own and the day I sat beside her at an appointment with her orthopedic surgeon that was supposed to be a routine followup, and he all of a sudden looked alarmed and said that her symptoms were indicative of something in the brain and sent us to the ER.
While we waited in the cold, very white ER, I entertained her. Impromptu jokes, clever wordplay, silly voices, teasing, riffing on the terrible night-time TV, literally whatever I could think of. No need to be modest: I was on fire. Gma, meanwhile, laughed at my antics, told me to stop making her laugh because laughing made her hip hurt, and flirted shamelessly with the young male nurse who asked her if she was warm enough (her response: “why don’t you come lay down with me and then I will be?”). I called her a shameless hussy and she seemed a proud of the label. Meanwhile, she got a CT scan. Her doctor ordered the scan to look for evidence of a stroke. Instead, they found a brain tumor. Ta-da! And so she was transferred by ambulance to the bigger, urban hospital, about half an hour away. I followed in the car, but first I stopped at Sonic for my third dinner of the evening. I had chicken strips, mozzarella sticks, and 44 ounces of sweet tea. I wasn’t hungry, but I was starving.
From there, hospital visits and uncomfortable phone calls, MRIs, the entire family descending to sit in the waiting room for an early-morning brain surgery that revealed her brain tumor was the worst case scenario, my other grandmother succumbing to MS after fighting it to a stalemate for five decades. At some point, I bluescreened. Life became a constant battle against everything and everyone, including myself. I cried all the time. I swore even more than I usually do. I ate crap, and a ton of it, drank too much caffeine, picked fights with mr. biscuit. I also wrote like a demon, dashing out fiction in a desperate attempt to keep a grip on myself, but it’s all unreadable.
Gma got out of surgery, recovered in the hospital, went into rehab. She had lost the fine motor skills in her right hand, but worked like hell to get them back. She excelled in physical therapy and occupational therapy, perhaps because she was stubborn as hell and uninterested in her own weaknesses. By the time she left rehab, she could transfer into and out of the car and the wheelchair, write clearly enough to pay the bills out of the ancient hatbox where she kept them, tell when she was being bullshitted, all the usual.
Because I was so tired of failing, and so deeply weary, I never really posted about last spring’s struggle to construct my bodice. It was a long and terrible struggle. I tried to work with piping, I tried to do a trick with velcro to make it a back-lacing bodice I could get into by myself. It took me a solid month and three fully constructed failures to get it mostly right, and even then I wasn’t completely happy, just out of time. I finished it with 36 hours to spare before I had to perform at Scarborough. I did some corrective work before CRF this fall, and was a lot happier with the results, though I’m still not satisfied. Errors in the construction led to more wear and tear than should be showing after only two faires. The back is sloppy. The straps are either too short or too long. I don’t even like the style anymore–I want a doublet-style bodice. It’s just not right.
We left Gma and Gpa in the care of my cousin in August, after 13 months of caring for them. We were unemployed, but a friend had a spare room in a newly purchased townhome, so we we were able to get by with a little fudging, a bit of temping, and a lot of luck. The two of us hunkered down and tried to deal with the guilt, depression, poverty, and lingering emotional trauma of the past year. I hid in bed a lot. I cried a lot. I thought fixedly of nothing, and I did it a lot. Then, in October, our luck turned. I started at Carolina, where I did really well. Around Thanksgiving, the seventeen thousand applications and resumes mr. biscuit had sent out every week finally paid off, and he got a job. I also got a job–a steady one I actually enjoy, unlike the crappy, very sporadic temp work that had kept us afloat. We stopped hibernating. We started to feel like things were going to be ok.
Things were not going so well for Gma, When the family gathered for Thanksgiving, she had trouble with complete sentences and had all but lost her hard-won ability to transfer in and out of the car. From there, her decline was rapid. She couldn’t move much, even when she was uncomfortable. She couldn’t remember words. She couldn’t tell you what was wrong, or if indeed anything was wrong. The last time I saw her, in the nursing facility that I had long since come to love, despise, and fear, she spoke maybe twice, and that to say “mhm” for yes when I asked her very specific, easy questions. When she wanted to say “no,” she would give me a very pointed look and I would laugh and say “OK, OK.”
That last time we saw her, I brought her a selection of faire costumes I had made so she could see them and touch them. I had shown her pictures, but I wanted to really show her what I’d made with the two sewing machines she had given me over the years–the one she bought for me, and the one that had been hers. A lot of what I brought her was new: the caul I made out of gold organza, black lace, and Swarovski crystals, the black velveteen and light yellow fleece cloak I’d finished only a couple of weeks before. I brought her my hat, and when I put it on her head she smiled a bit.
I also brought her my bodice.
When I picked my bodice up off the pile to show it to her, her intake of breath was audible. It had narrow gold sleeves (also new) still attached; the gold satin of the (old) hanging sleeves reflected the overhead lights. I helped her lift up her good hand so she could feel it, rub the velveteen and the satin between her fingers. mr. biscuit laced me into it so she could see how it looked on. As she held it, I talked a little bit about my struggles to make it, but eventually I ran out of things to say and just let her hold it.
She held onto it for a very long time.
The last time I saw my Gma, she was hugging mr. biscuit goodbye. She looked at me over his shoulder and waggled her eyebrows suggestively. She died about a week later, three days before Christmas.
Later, I learned from my mom that Gma had learned to sew from her mother. They made patterns out of newspaper for the suits, prom and wedding dresses, and various commissions that they made. Gma was, I’ve been told, an excellent seamstress. The only creation of hers that I know I’ve seen is my mother’s wedding gown. The last time I saw that gown I was in high school and had no idea what I was looking at, but in my memory, it looks bespoke. Which is to say, it is beautiful, elegantly constructed, and sturdy, and though far too small for me and sort of itchy with old lace, it was a pleasure to wear. I’ve never sewn with my Gma, or my mom; only with friends, whom I pity. I am a vicious hellbeast when sewing. I swear and cry and throw things and make a gigantic mess, and I hate every second of the whole stupid process. I thought, while I was making it, that stupid bodice was going to be the final straw that drovee me insane. It didn’t, but only just. And honestly, when I was done with it, it was fine. In the end, when I could put a little bit of distance between myself and the horrific events surrounding it and its constructions, I even made it better.
I didn’t think it was beautiful until it made Gma gasp.