I can’t quite believe what I’m doing. I should be sitting with my grandma, squeezing her hand while I bravely, physically hold her back from heaven—the two of us beating death together. I should be her strength, as she’s always been for me. The woman I wish I were would watch like a hawk, offering insightful information about the moments leading to this one, to the team of doctors who’ve just come screaming into the room. Like a stoic character from the movies, I’d step aside, but never out of view, as they attend to the wild beeping and the terrifying flat green line rolling across her heart monitor.
But I didn’t sit alongside in a brilliant display of solidarity as they patted at her purpled legs and, in a stunningly synchronized movement, turned her over, all the while, one of them enunciating questions as if she wasn’t dying but was merely from Japan—as if speaking too loudly would help her to understand. As I say, I wasn’t there for her at all.
Instead, as soon as they arrived, yanking out steel instruments and prodding at buttons on machines they rolled in, I silently rose from the nubby chair that had come to mold itself to the shape of my butt over these months, and closed myself inside Grams’s en suite bathroom. There was no lid over the toilet, and so I just sat down on top of the seat in my jeans and pulled my legs up, curling into myself as deeply as possible.
So I’m sitting here, and I keep focusing on just one detail. I’m trying to wrap my head around—trying to buy—the fact that Grams was unable to answer the simple questions, “CAN YOU HEAR ME, MS. SKLAR?” “CAN YOU STAY WITH US, MS. SKLAR?”
This is a woman who always had an answer for everything. A good answer. Like, for instance, the time my mother came storming back into our lives, banging on my grandma’s door as if she were running from a murderer, and Grams said, “Thelma, just shut up. You sound like a freaking idiot.”
I taught her the “freaking” part back in high school. She really took to it. I don’t think she discriminated very well about when it should be used, but thinking back, it really did add a unique flavor to her interactions. The mailman would be distributing catalogs into all the tiny boxes in her lobby and Grams would walk in, and he’d stop what he was doing, gather all of her mail, and hand it right to her. And she would say, “Oh, thank you so freaking much. You are so freaking wonderful to me—thirty-five years you are freaking delivering my mail.” She would give him a big kiss right on the mouth, as this is how she greeted everyone, and leave him bewildered, but charmed all the same.
How can this woman be—in all likelihood—dead, on the other side of this door?
“CAN YOU HEAR ME, MS. SKLAR?”
It comes rolling right under the door, as if trying to scold me out. But all I can think is that she hates the title Ms. She said it was “asinine,” another of her cherished words. She once spelled it with two S’s so that she could use it in Scrabble to get the bonus points, but whatever. I let her get away with it—sort of. Until the next time we played, and I was winning, and she pointed out that my spelling of sincerly was incorrect. Which obviously it was, but I thought she’d let me even the score. “What is this freaking ‘even the score’ bullshit with you?” she liked to ask me. No one needed to teach her bullshit.
“It’s only fair,” I said.
“There’s no such thing as fair. You get what you get; that bitch, Mrs. Hirsch, next door, she gets what she gets. I don’t know why you never understand this, Viv. There is no point to figuring out why or to wasting your energy being upset about it.”
Whatever, Ms. All I can do right now is think how unfair this is and ask why the fuck it’s happening. I pull myself in tighter, but it’s no use, I can’t will whatever powers-that-be to shove me back into the womb. All this willing and thinking does absolutely nothing, but honestly, I have a hunch that my mother’s womb isn’t so cushy anyway.
Get the hell up and do something! I keep telling myself. Don’t just let this happen. But the words fall away like sheets of paper along a swift breeze.
This is even harder to admit than the hiding in the bathroom rather than comforting Grams part, but here it goes: more than anything, I’m pissed off at her. I’ve been sat down and told that after she’d been here all this time for the anemia (which, by the way, is exponentially worse than the image of wan teenage girls who don’t eat enough meat), for the diabetes, for all of that, on top of it, she wound up with a stroke, which took her speech away. But deep down, I can’t stop thinking that if she really wanted to, she could just answer, that she could just ring the nurse and say, “I’m freaking hungry! And don’t bring me anymore of that green Jell-O crap, or I’m going to freaking flip out.”
I did not teach her the “flip out” thing. She got that from Kramer on Seinfeld, and she does a rather convincing impression—shaking her head and jiggling her hand and everything. Or she did. Bruce, my boyfriend, really likes that impression of hers. He’s always asking her to do it, when he’s around, of course … which lately he hasn’t often been. But this is certainly not the time to worry about that.
She’s being what sounds like unsuccessfully resuscitated out there, and I’m in here pissed off at her. If there was ever a time I should give her a pass, this is certainly it. Didn’t she give me a pass when I told her in the fifth grade that I wanted to move in with my best friend, Wendy, because her mother was younger and prettier and it was embarrassing to be seen everywhere with your grandmother? How about when I asked her to stop wearing her “housecoat” out in the street? Didn’t she give me a pass when I failed chemistry? In fact, didn’t she go up to the school and tell that teacher to just give me a D, who would it hurt; didn’t kids with no parents deserve to go to college, and what did she think she was proving by bringing yet another Brooklyn high school student down with the ranks?
Oh, God. My chest is heaving in and out, and yet I can’t manage any air. It just got louder out there. I hear someone using their cell phone like a walkie-talkie, asking for something very complicated. I try to work out the syllables, but I can’t. I manage to get off the toilet, but only as far as pressing my ear to the door, not so far as emerging from it and facing this.
“We’re losing her!” someone yells.
My eyes bulge, but it’s like I’m listening to a made-for-TV movie that I can’t stand to watch but can’t stop commenting on from the next room. Don’t they always use that line, We’re losing her! Couldn’t they have come up with something more original for such a pivotal point—the finale—in Gram’s life? This is a woman whose parents put her on a boat to New York—in diapers—with a stranger, to escape the Nazis in Poland. Surely with an opener like that, she deserves a stunning ending.
“Get the paddles!” the same voice yells.
The paddles? This is just unacceptable. Don’t they always do this, too? If I weren’t so paralyzed here, wedged in between the sink and the enormous metal garbage pail, I’d go right out there and tell that woman to do a better job. I would go out there and yell my head off at them all—if I could just bring myself to leave this bathroom.
Suddenly I realize there’s no talking at all now; it’s all hushed silence with syncopated sounds, like something out of Blue Man Group. At least Grams would appreciate that. She called it Blue Guy Group, but whatever, she still calls me Vicky sometimes. Or called me Vicky. No, that doesn’t sound or feel right at all; I refuse to change my tenses.
I hear wheels screech past the bathroom door and then clanging, way too many footsteps, and finally an awful lot of metal scraping against the bedrails. “Get it! Get it!” another voice yells.
My heart is in my throat.
“Don’t lose her!” the first voice instructs.
“No pulse. I’m not getting a pulse.” This news comes through in a Puerto Rican accent, which I know comes from a bitchy, muscular guy, whom I can picture very clearly.
“No pulse,” a softer female voice assents.
Another voice I can’t place confirms it.
My eyes are screwed tight. I hate them all. I hate my mother for not being here, for making me not even want her here. I hate my father for dying. I hate my grandmother—how could she just let this freaking happen? And I hate myself. In fact, I hate myself most of all.
There are two minutes of whispery silence, during which I cannot make out any words. I am on the toilet again, this time praying to a God I never seem to make time for except in moments like this. My hands are pressed together, because I’m pretty sure this is the way to do it in crisis. Please, please, God. Please do not freaking let my grandmother die. She is all I have in this world.
I squeeze my eyes shut so tightly that colorful geometrics pass beneath my lids. I feel my head wobble a little, like an enormous energy has overtaken me, and I think, I really think that something celestial, something spiritually powerful is happening. I breathe, taking in a wonderful gulp of air for the first time since the monitor began to scream.
Everything is going to be just fine. The words come to me, just like that. And there it is, a higher being. God, Hashem, as they used to teach me as a little girl in pigtails, has come down to help me and Grams. He understands that I am more culturally Jewish than practicingly so, and he forgives me and this is how he shows me. By giving us another shot.
I open my eyes, stand, place my hand on the doorknob. I draw one last fantastic breath, and prepare to greet a revived Grams with a funny line, something witty that she would appreciate.
“Well, I hope you can get all that over again because the camera wasn’t roll—” I look up and see that I had it wrong. God wasn’t with me. Grams’s eyes are closed, the machines—these things that had been such a part of the landscape of our lives—are already being wheeled out to sit in some storeroom.
Everyone looks up. They hadn’t realized I was in there.
“Viv? Viv, I’m so sorry. Your grandmother, Ms. Sklar, has passed on.”
I look at this woman, this doctor, who had all these fancy tools, and all that training, yet couldn’t find a way to do a simple job—to save my grandmother, the person I shared my home, my life with. I feel nothing but hate. God has failed me; this woman has failed me. There is nothing in all this universe, with its designer frozen yogurt, its buses that run on water, and its bottomless supply of items costing only 99 cents, there is nothing, in what I once considered a truly miraculous place, to believe in anymore. “Do NOT call her Ms. ever again,” I yell as I climb into bed with Grams, the way I did as a child, the way I still do sometimes, when it’s a rainy Sunday or just a long, lazy day. I put her hand over my head, close my own eyes, and crazy as it sounds, I fall asleep.
© 2010 Daniella Brodsky
Under Kavia’s guidance, Viv begins to process her grief and rebalance her life. She faces her mother, gets her career back on track, and even shares some meaningful moments with Len, her handsome new neighbor. Every prediction seems to speak directly to Viv’s life, and so far, the stars haven’t steered her wrong. Then the stars tell Viv that the bond she has forged with the insightful yet guarded Len isn’t meant to last. Len has become her greatest source of security and comfort, but just as she settles into his arms—and into his heart—Kavia insists that a relationship with him is dangerous. Now Viv faces a choice: should she follow the path that’s been written in the stars, or trust herself to write her own story?
Witty and honest, Daniella Brodsky’s charming new novel is a powerful tale of moving on, letting go, and keeping the faith—in any form it happens to take.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
In so many ways, Viv’s life is in a holding pattern that she can’t or won’t change. When her beloved grandmother dies, Viv appears to have lost the glue that’s held her together, and her faith gives out completely. As she searches for something to believe in again, Viv finds hope in a most unlikely place: with Kavia, an alarmingly perceptive astrologer. Viv is skeptical, but under Kavia’s guidance Viv begins to process her grief and rebalance her life. Every prediction Kavia makes seems to speak directly to Viv’s life—even the one about meeting Len, who quickly becomes Viv’s greatest source of security and comfort. But just as she settles into his arms—and into his heart—Kavia insists a relationship with him is dangerous. The stars haven’t steered her wrong yet, but Viv has a choice to make: follow the path written in the stars, or trust herself to write her own story?
Questions For Discussion
1. What do you learn about Viv in the first scene of the novel? How do her thoughts contrast with her lack of physical act see more