In that time on the edge, we asked one of our sons to watch over his grandparents during our absence. Here is what he wrote.
by Julien Sandifer
I asked Grandmere why she threw my copy of King Lear in the washing machine. “Because it was dirty of course!” Then she went tottering off to chop some rose heads in her garden. Well, that’s her, my Grandmere. Eighty six years old, losing her eyesight and her memory and various other brain cells, plus she can hardly walk. But she still lives in this chateau on the vineyard she has run for thirty years, and except for the rose garden, her life is one fierce battle to hold on to her thoughts and her domain since most of the people here keep reminding her she isn’t the queen she used to be.
My parents asked me to keep an eye on her for a few days this summer when they had to be away. I was also supposed to re-read King Lear. Until it got washed, that is. But no matter. It wasn’t hard to see that the play was getting acted out all around me, for as soon as my Cordelian parents left, all sorts of Regans and Gonerils tried to take over.
Okay, my Grandmere is not the easiest person in the world to take care of. She’s used to running the whole show and the commanding way she still carries herself can sometimes make you forget that she really is a “poor, bare, forked animal.” The doctor told her she has to walk with a cane when she goes outside to pick flowers, but of course, she’s way too proud to do this. She prefers to pick up speed and collide with a bush. It was a pretty nasty cut one morning, so as I patched her up I told her roses were my passion (big fat lie) and that the next time she went dancing in the thorns could she bring me along. She thought that was just so charming, she promised to take me everywhere. I had barely dusted her off when a Regan showed up. “How many times have I told you NOT to go outside without your cane! You know you’re going to end up in a nursing home if you keep this up!” That’s typical Regan talk.
But she doesn’t listen to threats. They took her driver’s license away but one day she got in the car while nobody was looking and backed up into a pole. I assured her the pole was in the wrong place, and that I’d be happy to ride my bike to the village to buy the cigarettes she desperately wanted. But Goneril arrives and reminds her she’s going blind. For good measure, she hides the car keys. “If you want to kill yourself, that’s your problem. But you’re more likely to the kill the young mother of three young children.” I can see Goneril’s point, but man, I think she could use some work on her delivery. If she had said, “Idle old woman, that still would manage those authorities that she hath given away,” I doubt it would have hurt so much.
So, constant supervision is the watchword around here. My grandparents take tons of pills, so Cordelia lays them out carefully each week in two huge calendar boxes. One morning I found Grandmere taking apart the entire thing. “Oh dear, people are doing this all wrong, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” Then she dishes out a week’s dose into my Grandfather’s glass. I went into my best stealth maneuver, trying to put the pills back in their rightful places without making Grandmere feel bad, but a Regan flew in and grabbed the evidence. “See? You are unfit to take care of yourself. Do you want to KILL yourself and Papa too?!”
When the Gonerils and Regans come on stage, death and funerals seem to be their favorite topic. “We really need to talk about your funeral.” “What does it matter? I won’t be there.” “No, really. What kind of music do you want? Have you made a list of people to invite? And how about the flower arrangements?” I hate the way this subject makes Grandmere go all quiet, not like herself at all. I feel a surge of anger but realize a fight is not going to get us anywhere, especially when you’re seventeen and people would say you’re a fool and go mind your own business. The problem is, this is my business, I promised the Cordelia’s to keep things steady ‘til they returned. “Flower arrangements!” I shout. I know it’s lame. But I jump up and shout some more. “Roses! Dahlia’s! Sweet Peas! We got ‘em all! You’re the Queen of the Flowers!” Grandmere is looking at me with her confused blue eyes, I can see her thinking, “Oh this darling boy, he has really lost his head.” “Come on, if you want to talk arrangements, let’s go look at the arrangements Grandmere put in every room in the house! Maybe she can make flower arrangements for OTHER people’s funerals!” Goneril exits then, she’s sure I’m vacant upstairs. But the way I see it, timing is everything. What’s the point of pushing funeral plans on someone who needs every scrap of their energy just to stay alive?
Money is another issue. Grandmere is to used to paying her bills and giving people presents but one problem with losing brain cells, she started adding extra zeroes on her checks. My Cordelian father had a pile of problems to fix after that episode and now he spends a lot of time taking care of her bank account. But he doesn’t say THAT to her. No, he sits down and talks in his most soothing voice, “Maman, voila un petit moment, juste nous deux…tu veux un coup de main…?” and such like, and he shows her every paper even though it takes much longer that way and she doesn’t seem to understand or remember a fraction of what he says. When he leaves she gets very weepy and sighs and says, “When is that darling boy coming back, he loves us truly, we miss him so!” Still. The next day she’s furious: “Get your parents on the phone, they have lied to me and stolen all my money and credit cards!” My Dad warned me this might happen. “I have an idea. Let’s look in your wallet. That’s where Dad said you can find money.” “I might as well die this minute, so I don’t have to witness my own children lying to me!”
It’s really painful when she talks like this – the sort of blow below the belt that set me wondering what was going on in King Lear’s mind when he banished the people who loved him most, who he loved the most, too. “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.” Could she really mean that?
“Come on, Grandmere. You know in your heart Dad only wants to help you.” “You’re a darling boy. But the rest of them!” “Let’s take a walk… we can water your flowers.” “I’m too tired.” “Look at this amazing place, you need to savor your time on this planet, think about all the great things you’ve done.” “I can’t think. My brain is full of holes.” “Then just trust me on this. My Dad loves you.” “What’s your father’s name again? See? It’s like walking in the dark!” “What does his name matter? You can see his face, right? Just think of him as the one who’s always there.” “Where is he now?” “Well, the one who is ALMOST always there.” “Yes. He always was my favorite child. Don’t tell anybody I said that!” “Who would believe me? Every day a different one is your favorite!”
She listens to me, cheers up for awhile. Why? Because I’m not a threat to her kingdom? I’m only seventeen, just a fool around here.
Night time is coming on and Lear says it’s not safe to linger outside. This house has about a thousand doors and shutters to close up, so we start the rounds. The huge, two hundred year old main gate, is the last ritual. Grandmere sticks close to make sure I don’t forget to round up her three dogs. “Guard dogs,” she calls them but actually they are totally useless. They growl at the family, but when weird strangers come by demanding to sharpen our knives, they prefer to take a nap. “Are all the dogs in?” “Yes, Grandmere. See? Marquis, Izzi and Raisin (his name is a good indication of the size of his brain.) “Wait! There’s a dog out there, it’s Marquis!” I strain my eyes in the darkness as she points. “That’s a tree stump.” “No! It’s my dog.” I dog-whistle at the tree stump but it doesn’t move. She pokes me then: “You have to admit, it does look like a dog.” How could you not smile at that? “You’re right, tree stumps can be deceiving. Come on, the nurse is coming, let’s get you to bed.”
With Grandmere set, I figure it’s time for a little fun. “Grandmere, don’t close this one door I’m just going for a little swim, I’ll lock it up when I come in.” “Okay, dear. Have a nice splash.” Wow, the stars are so bright and the water looks delicious. I hear a clink behind me. Lear has locked me out. Patience, fool.
Waiting for Raisin to start barking, I think about King Lear. Why in the world did he demand such a crazy statement of love from Cordelia? “What can you say to draw a third more opulent than yours sisters? Speak.” Why couldn’t he just look at everything she’d done for him and see her love in all her actions? I think about my Grandmere and her big character and all her pride. What an awful thing, to feel your smart brain start to fill up with holes. To be approaching old age, to know you’re losing control of everything, to be not only afraid of dying, but afraid of dying unloved and alone.
We go through it all again the next day. She says “what’s the point of living?” as she always does and I walk her in her garden and repeat my usual line: “If you kick off, who’ll take care of your roses? ” This time she says, “Why, you will, darling. You adore roses.”