At first, she tried to quiet her pained moans, but the thin sheets of plywood didn’t offer the dignity she sought. It’s a strange experience being lulled to sleep by someone’s suffering which sounds like meditative humming while also being kept awake by your own sense of inadequacy.
At eight, I slept with the constant knowledge that I was powerless. In the Caribbean, you are quite aware of your lack of power as a child. When you are given that sharp look by your mother in church to keep you quiet, the way you know to keep your eyes downcast ‘when you see big people talking’ or else get a wad of spit in your eye, and you know too that even when adults are wrong, you save them the embarrassment of correction.
Something was wrong with my grandmother, and there was nothing I could do to correct it. My birth in ’91 made her grandmother at thirty-nine, and later in her forties, she suffered terrible, consistent, debilitating pain in her lower belly. The sounds of pain at night were as expected as the cock crowing in the morning—only hers were louder and more rousing as a wake-up call. Before the pain, she was tall and proud and loud with a penchant and a gift for creating austere yet beautifully worded insults. I remember her quarrelling with our neighbour I later referred to politely as Ms Catherine but then secretly nicknamed Okozuna. My grandmother shouted over the galvanized fence, ‘Your pussy wide like the Suez Canal, and these men only using you like a piece of toilet paper. Mash!’
My first thought was what does my illiterate grandmother who hasn’t stepped foot outside of her little town for more than a few hours know about global geography and the Suez Canal and all where it is? Secondly, how the hell does she know about simile and literary device? I giggled with pride and made a note to repeat it to anyone who dared look at me wrong at school. So yes, before the pain, my grandmother was tall and proud and loud with a gift for swearing, but pain changes people. The pain later became too unbearable to think about dignity, and she abandoned her careful hums for whispered prayers; then later she adopted pleading cries and finally screams to no one in particular, demanding death. The pain made her unrecognizable to me, and her deep voice I inherited turned shrill and hoarse; sickness made her small in stature and spirit, and it made my Mama beg. The roles reversed, and I took care of her: I cleaned her vomit and pee and poop and helped her get dressed some days.
‘Lift your arms, Mama.’
‘Merci ish mwen.’
The lady with the hard hands and harder face came to our home every week to knead my grandmother’s squishy belly like play dough. She would rub her with things that stained the sheets green and left their musky scent for days. I stayed by the door during this visit—I did not trust her. Other people came to visit and dropped off food and water, but their eyes held that familiar expression of powerlessness that I warred with myself at night. People came in and out of our cramped, wooden house with the creaking floorboards but could not afford to give anything but kind words and advice and reminders of traditional medicines that could be used. My grandmother’s sickness also moved Okuzana (Ms Catherine now) to send pumpkin soup next door to her enemy. The enemy bent over the bowl and slowly ate the floating dumplings and her words. I watched these things unfold in fascination, and my jaw dropped when on the first day Mama was rushed to hospital by ambulance, I learned her full name was Magdalene Jeanette Lionel.
Over the course of a year Magdalene’s abdominal pain was diagnosed as being caused by ovarian cancer. That was deemed a misdiagnosis and the pain was later blamed on fibroids, intestinal cancer and then reduced to digestive problems. In that time she underwent different surgeries targeting the ailments as they were listed off and later crossed out. Before they settled on the intestinal problems, she underwent several surgeries, including the removal of her womb, a search for irregularities in her intestines and finally the removal of part of her duodenum. After being opened and sewn shut a few times with bits of her taken out, she got sent home and slowly managed to get better. I tried to tell her the things they told me. I tried to tell her to eat better and even tried to cajole her into taking walks where she could watch people’s business and gossip.
‘Mama if you see how Mary house is. If you see her curtains and how the yard dirty. Come and see!’
She never budged.
She was home and recuperating with her voice getting stronger, but then it was my mother who seemed to be sick. I don’t know the details but I do know there were several hushed meetings with Jeanette and her children over how to pay the hospital bills. I do not know how they were paid, but I know now that unfathomable hospital fees are brought to the community drug dealer who assists by sometimes paying half and sometimes the full cost. It is the health insurance that people in the ghetto know and recognize and can rely upon. The District MP may be approached, but the bureaucratic processes, technological terms and long-winded excuses are almost more sickening than the sickness itself. The community criminal with the means and the heart can have the money delivered to your front door by one of his boys, and it will never be mentioned unless you shout his praises yourself. His price is that you never talk about him to police or strangers who come asking questions. The politician’s price is the opposite—you must sing his praises, or he will do it on your behalf. The other avenue, in lieu of health insurance, is the fundraising barbecues. It is an act of desperation and an indictment on a country when someone’s life depends on the answer to the repeated question, ‘Do you want pork, chicken or fish?’
Last year, in the middle of a Covid spike, my grandmother fell ill again, but maybe old age and experience made her less animated in her illness this time. She only closed her eyes, clenched her teeth and swayed slightly in the throes of pain. I did not have to do the cleaning up after her anymore; we had hired someone to do it. I did not have to walk to the community doctor on early mornings to sign up for a number and later walk her to the office or ask around for a ride; I now called the doctor who was a fan of my talk show and drove her there myself. I did not lie in a bed I shared with my sisters and in a room I shared with my parents listening to my grandmother’s hums; I lived an hour away, alone in an apartment with a picturesque view of the Caribbean Sea. Some things changed, but that feeling of being powerless remained. I visited her in the hospital, making sure to bring the things she needed.
Hospitalization is about signs, traditions and meanings, and there are things that should never be said. The tiny dresser next the bed said a lot to those visiting. Her dresser had Johnson’s Baby Powder, bay oil, deodorant, lotion, Vicks and toothpaste all placed on a lace doily next to a vase of flowers. A full dresser is a sign that this woman has family that cares and wishes to show it, even in this small way. Those with a bare dresser must have no family or must have done something irredeemable to be hated so intensely.
There were eight women in the ward, separated by thin sheets which, when drawn open, signalled that they were open to visitors, curious gossipers and maybe even questions. The curtains were closed if they needed privacy or if they were not in the mood. My grandmother stayed there for weeks and broke the bed because of her weight. She stayed there without taking in fresh air and with no real conversation except with the meek lady next to her, who unfortunately died five days after she arrived. My grandmother, after the second week there, started speaking strangely and whispered to us that the nurses were trying to kill her. Her eyes grew distant and glazed, and the only thing that remained of her was her penchant for swearing. She bestowed those gifts on us. I tried to rouse my grandmother from her seemingly endless reverie by baiting her with phrases sure to incite a remarkable display of anger.
‘Mama, Rudy steal the $700 you have under your bed. He say you dying just now.’
I expected a slew of loud curses that would shock the prim and proper medical professionals and create much needed chaos in the sombre room. My Mama only shrugged and looked past me. My uncle, a tall man I had never seen cry before this time, looked at his mother, shook his head and walked out to the running tracks. He walked along the red, rubberized lanes of the George Odlum Stadium which serves as the home of the St Jude’s Hospital. At first it was considered a makeshift hospital and a temporary arrangement after a fire destroyed the original building ten years ago, but now there is no more pretence. This is the hospital now. The hospital stadium is a strange place to be a patient. You look out the window and witness young people laughing, running with their able bodies, a testament to superhuman agility, strength and speed while you, a patient, lie in bed painfully reminded of your failing vessel. Even the track seems to be laughing and daring you to walk along the lanes and maybe even jog—all this when you can barely breathe lying down. Psychologically, it must have an effect, but who has time for psychological problems when you’re hoping to save your limbs and life with no money.
The hospital had burnt down on September 9 2009, and my firefighter father was there when it happened, trying to save a patient who was tied to the bed. He tells the story of a madman bound to a wireframe bed. His limbs were tied tightly at the four corners, and it was extremely difficult getting him out. He suffered burns to his hands by the time he got the unconscious man outside the burning building, and then that poor, mentally ill man died. I do not remember much of the day when we went as a family to the Governor General’s residence where my father received the Silver Medal of Honour for his act of bravery. I only remember that I had never seen my father in a suit before, and it was two sizes too big and, now that I think about it, probably borrowed. I remember also that it was the first time I saw him cry.
I remembered that day as I looked at my uncle shuffling across the 400-metre finish line, hiding his tears. The two men I have known all my life also cry when they feel powerless, and that made us related beyond blood.
The nurses came to me every day I was there, signalling me to come outside or into a corner or into a room; they whispered secrets, hoping I would air them on my show or somehow get them some help. I hosted a morning TV show every weekday, focused on politics, sex, corrupt politicians, gender issues, domestic violence, single mothers, and we (the viewers and I) tried to solve some of these issues in small ways. I made sure to speak French Creole every day during the show because it is the only language my grandmother fully understands. I got so bold on live television and internet streams, I’d repeat some of her sayings which were my favourites.
‘God don’t need to wear long pants to go to work’, and
‘Men there to take! Take mine, but I am coming for yours!’
The nurses watched my shows and thought I could help. They told me that there was one kettle being shared across several wards which was detrimental to the health of the patients. They told me that the ceiling drips and that the only X-ray machine did not work. They told me about the lack of resources and about the overtime work. They looked at me pleadingly, and I, again aware of my powerlessness, could only ask questions and move my head in different directions; up and down to show I understand, side to side to show my disdain, up and hold to look at the mould on the ceilings and head down to stare at flooded tiles and hide my shame.
A hospital is not only a building, but also an environment of hushed voices and good English, confidentiality agreements, shuffling papers, ringing phones, hidden tears in tight hugs, all occurring under the distinct spell of concentrated bleach. The only person who does not abide by the rules of quiet is the one who is in too much discomfort to care.
One such lady present in the ward had no baby oil or any powder or any flowers on her tiny dresser next to the bed. She spoke of her daughter in Dominica who had a good job in government, but nobody believed her. She shouted what all of us were thinking but were too scared to say. She stood up suddenly, and her small breasts were flat against her chest, but her voice boomed.
‘Move me in that stadium! Up to now, y’all cannot finish the hospital. Thieves! All of dem is thieves!’
A new state of the art hospital was promised by successive administrations, and all failed to deliver. Nearing elections, the construction material mysteriously disappeared from the work site with more money being borrowed and less work being done. The woman continued to swear and curse, but she made too much sense, and her anger was warranted, so the nurses let her do what they could not. They let her go on while they pretended to be deaf and smiled while their heads were bent and gave imperceptible nods when she gave a maypwi that especially hit home. After a while, they made half-hearted demands for her to settle down, so they could save face, but chaos is contagious, and the room woke up. Sick people sat up in their little cots and began talking about the injustice and corruption of the current government.
‘Can you believe all that money they take?’
‘Dem man don’t have a heart?’
‘In St Jude’s I make all my children.’
My grandmother’s eyes cleared then, and she joined them, voice raspy but louder than I had heard in a long time.
‘These politicians are fucking dogs that need to bury under the jail.’
I smiled at that, only because I knew then that she was going to be fine, then said a small prayer of gratitude and wondered whether God even owned any pants.
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