On my birthday, my grandma loses her speech. Her caregiver thinks it might be a stroke. She is rushed to the ER and I visit her there hours later when her speech has returned and she uses it to introduce me to the nurse. She’s Romanian, she tells me, delighted. This is my granddaughter, she tells her with the same grin. More doctors and nurses wish me happy birthday than friends. My grandma has not had a stroke, but there was a temporary blockage to her brain and it could happen again or differently or worse.
Weeks later, we swim in her building’s pool. There is no shallow end, just four feet of clear blue water straight across. My grandma pushes her walker to the edge, then lowers herself one step at a time. I follow. A great benefit of remote work is the time it allows for morning intergenerational swims.
In the water, my grandma tells me the doctor said that next time she has a medical issue, she’ll get care at home. Mom already explained: she’s signed up for palliative care should she need it. No more surgeries.
Tell me, Bubbie says, Where’s home?
It’s not a deep, philosophical question. She means it literally.
Upstairs, I say, pointing toward her apartment.
She screws up her face, waves her hand.
I used to have nice homes, she says. I remember. When I was a kid, she lived in a house with a pool in the backyard.
I mention the apartment building in Miami that crumbled to the ground and she says she heard about it. I tell her I’m so glad she isn’t in Florida anymore, in an old building like that. I know she feels differently. She misses the sun, her gleaming white condo, her independence. She mentions how scary the collapse must have been for the people who lived there, how painful. Can you imagine? We both nod, let our eyes fall to the water. Our conversation—about death and dying, where she will live, the type of care she’ll get—is over. We swim-walk along the wall back the other way.
Before the pandemic, my brother Scott used to come swimming with us. He brought his son with him, then just a doughy baby in awe of the blue, the way it caught the light. Sometimes, my mom joined us. Once, there were eight of us: Bubbie, me, my best friend, my mom, my brother, my nephew, my sister-in-law, her dad. Children aren’t allowed in the building anymore, not during the pandemic. Only I keep coming to swim.
Me: I’m coming over tomorrow to take you to the cardiologist, the heart doctor.
G: Great, we’ll go swimming.
Me: No, no, we have to go to the doctor.
G: You have a doctor appointment?
Me: No! You do!
G: I do? Who is going to take me?
Me: Me! I’m going to take you to the doctor’s!
G: Oh. OK.
My grandma’s heart and pacemaker are doing fine. Still, the hallway to the patient room is so long and she breathes so hard, grasping for air after five, ten minutes. I watch her chest rise and fall. I am scared of so much—car accidents, geese, giving her Covid, watching her fade, forgetting the sound of her voice—but to say so would be selfish. Instead, I say things like, What are you doing Tuesday? Want to go swimming?
Bubbie walks along the wall of the pool and back again, the water sloshing around her shoulders. I bounce by her side.
Let me see you swim, she says.
I don’t know why she asks me to swim, but maybe I cramp her style when I hover so close. Maybe she wants to see me move the way her body was once able, swift and strong. Or maybe she feels like she’s holding me back, like I could be doing something more.
Beautiful, she says when I return to her side.
On my grandma’s birthday, Scott and I visit. I make a cake with raspberries spelling out 91. It’s all we bring. Bubbie is not particularly good at receiving, only giving, and we have learned not to try. Happy birthday, we say, and the caregiver takes pictures of the three of us. Bubbie has me cut her a piece of cake and tells me to take the rest home. There’s no ER visit on this birthday, but there probably should be.
My grandma, we find out, fell the night before her birthday and has a deep bruise on her shoulder and arm. Her caregiver hid it from Scott and me. Mom fired the caregiver, for that reason and others. Now it’s seven a.m. and there is no caregiver. I am over to cover the day shift. It’s not safe for Bubbie to be alone. She only walks well in the water.
I help her up so she doesn’t fall. We are careful. Once she’s up, I make her bed. While I fix the sheets, a siren goes off, screeching. I stare at Bubbie.
Under the bed, she says.
I pull the device out: a Life Alert box connected to a flat, white pad that I must’ve set off with my foot. I search for an off button. There isn’t one. I go into the living room with the device, fumbling. All Bubbie ever has are close calls and false alarms and for me, now, a real one.
When I return, she asks, Did you turn it off?
I can’t figure out how, so I put it behind a pillow.
We both laugh. How am I the one caregiving here? Several minutes later, I yank the battery out and it finally quiets. The device sits on the dresser, dismantled, an animal with its guts laid out, waiting for me to understand the world better than I do.
There’s a water aerobics class going on when we get to the pool. Bubbie never knows if the pool is available or not and neither the new caregiver nor me think to check the schedule. The class instructor says we can swim in thirty minutes, when the class is over. We sit on the side of the pool and watch the women lift and kick and twist.
One woman hangs on near the edge of the pool and Bubbie nods in her direction. She’s scared, she tells me. She knows because she always hangs on like that, too.
Bubbie gets in the pool first. Half the class is still lingering in the water. She splashes my feet and a few minutes later, I lower myself in. I always find the water cold at first. I stand on tiptoes, my shoulders protruding out. It’s not cold, she tells me. 3, 2, 1. I dip my shoulders into the water. I can’t believe the countdown trick worked.
A woman from the water aerobics class greets my grandma in the pool. Perhaps because she sees me, she mentions my mom.
Your daughter is so wonderful. I see her all the time. The doctor. I can’t remember her name right now.
Yes, that’s my daughter. She’s my youngest. I have three.
Oh, I thought you said six.
No, my mom had six.
Wow, that’s something.
They’re all gone now.
Oh, you’re the last one around?
Yeah, I had it hard at thirteen.
This conversation is taking a turn the woman doesn’t understand, but I do. It happens in slow motion for me. I am standing in a swimming pool, watching my grandma explain a fact she used to bury, a truth she used to hide.
I was at Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen. Auschwitz!
Oh, that is hard…
No, that’s not the word… that was… that was inhumane what happened there.
Well, I’m going to swim my laps now.
We keep swimming, too.
The pool is ours alone today. Bubbie walks along the wall while I bob up and down, trying to warm myself. I used to be a good swimmer, she tells me. I know. I lift a leg against the wall to stretch. She tickles the bottom of my foot. There’s not much other conversation. We spend forty minutes in our usual trance: bouncing, stepping, walking through water. We don’t float. It’s not in our nature. I tell my grandma I have work today and she says we should get out. I nod. How long will we be able to swim like this? She grabs the rails, lifts her body, and pulls herself into the rest of her day, week, life. I follow, wrapping myself in one of her thick towels, sure and unsure of what comes next.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Brisbane City Council/Flickr Creative Commons