Baby Fishmouth: A Family Unit’s Comical Failures to Communicate

My mother took the cancer news well (from what I heard), which is to say she asked my grandma if she should be there, and my grandma said no, there’s nothing really for you to do, and no reason for you to come, and my mother called three days later to tell her she was on her way in a rented car, from Minneapolis.

I’m thankful my grandmother called to tell me while my mom was on her way, because I would’ve called to check in over the weekend, and if my mom had picked up, would have likely frozen, or reacted negatively in another way.

We have a rule, my grandmother and I, only obliquely referred to but in place nonetheless, that we don’t spend too much time talking about her daughter/my mom, because the tone of our conversations change when we do, and the direction of our moods shifts with that change.

But we’re also the only people who truly understand. We are the only people who have seen her consistently over a period of years and both comprehend and remain utterly baffled by her.

Sometimes, I’m shocked at how bitter my grandma sounds, how resentful. Some lumps parents are just supposed to take; that’s what comes with being a parent. At least, this is the overwhelming message perpetuated by the Parenting Cabal. Children don’t always take what their parents say as gospel, and they will scoff and scorn their parents’ ways. It’s the parents’ job to be bigger, to let that roll off their shoulders.

Where I’d remind anyone else of this, sometimes Grams gets a pass. She’s allowed to be a little bitter about her daughter, and she’s allowed to be a little resentful about her son. None of us in this family are very good at hiding, or showing, our feelings, as improbable (and impossible?) as that sounds.

They infuriate me, my family. I wish it was in the “oh-ho-ho, how funny these crazy fools are!” unconditional kind of way, but more and more it’s in the “my uncle sent a group text at midnight Eastern about my grandma’s medical emergency” vein.

One of my fears about having children is that they would turn out as my mom and uncle did. After her husband’s suicide, my grandmother went back to school to be certified as a substance abuse counselor, in effort to help other families like hers, and hopefully prevent tragedies like the one she experienced.

During this time, her son moved across the country. Her daughter got pregnant in high school. Neither would talk to her, or to the other, about their father, about their feelings, about any of it. The one thing my grandmother wanted for her family, the debrief, the healing, not one of them was willing to grant. So she worked with others, for twenty-five years. She missed choir concerts because the nights they were held she was leading group therapy sessions. She saw clients and dictated notes on the other days. She took care of me as often as she could, because if I wasn’t with her, I was usually left alone, or with a babysitter.

I know my grandma like I know my own mind. We’re the only two who’ve consistently spoken to each other, in depth, about anything and everything, for the past thirty years. The woman laid the foundation for nearly everything I know. She has formed so much of the way I think, the way I examine things, my endless quest to know backstories and contexts. Meanwhile, as she gets older, those things matter less to her, and it’s me reminding her of the nuances in human experience and condition.

This writing is all a kind of mental preparation. She asked if I would look into FMLA allowances to come and stay with her. I’ve already told her I would be the one to be with her if she needs anyone or anything. I’m the youngest and most agile of anyone around her. I don’t have a medical background, but my brain is speedy enough to help process the information she’s being given.

And yet, the thought has occurred to me that going to stay with her, for her, might have a terrible outcome. I’m someone who needs 7 hours of sleep, sunshine, and a vacation every 6 months to feel whole — and I’m thinking of going to give my time and energies not just to work but to someone very ill and in need of both physical and emotional support?

I can’t even provide emotional support for myself right now. Last week was spent in fits and spurts of quiet, impeccably stoic sobbing wherever I happened to be. Under the best circumstances, the women in our family have a long, storied — one might even say infamous — history of being an absolute outrage when together. I’ve gone out of my way to excuse myself from gatherings that would put the three of us together (at one point, four), for too long, knowing the outcome would be detrimental for everyone within a 30 mile radius. Putting two of us together, under duress? It could be totally fine, it could end up in a structure fire sparked from spontaneous combustion — there’s no way to know.

The best I have, the Ben Kenobi Hope snuggling in the back of my chest, is that I’ve outgrown my tendency toward petulant tantrums when she gets too exacting, as demonstrated by the Great Brat Kerfuffle of 2015 (to be detailed at another time). The tightrope I’m teetering on in my brain, though, is that when people don’t feel well, when they’re tired and in pain, they are generally near their worst.

My preliminary plan: plenty of easy-to-consume shakes; maybe I’ll pick up a record player, so we can listen to my budding collection; keep the house as clean as I’ll ever get it to her standards (spoiler altert: No).

Common knowledge tells us to go as prepared as possible into situations we’re anxious about. As a Virgo, as my grandmother’s granddaughter, I wouldn’t dream of doing anything else.




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