10 November 2010

4 bottled up

i do not like daylight savings. because, suddenly it is dark at 4:30 and this whole expanse of evening unfurls where not two months prior there was limitless light and sun.

i do not like darkness. it makes me worry. we writers, a lot happens in our heads.

my means of dealing with worry are hilariously primitive. i've taken to leaving lights on at night while i sleep, as if i were a child and a lone lamp were enough to ward off some ghoul intent on catching me unawares. it's an expenditure of energy rendered doubly stupid by the fact i cannot sleep without total dark and, therefore, wear a sleeping mask to keep out the light i have purposefully left on.

at best, this is eccentric. at worst, it is crazy.

there are 47 wine bottles in my bedroom. because in december of 2004, my grandmother fell and broke her hip and four days later, we spent one night together in the north mississippi medical center tupelo hospital during which both of us believed she was going to die.

my grandmother fell on a tuesday. my parents went straight down. they asked me to come on the weekend.

it would be my first brush with true disaster. having watched at least three documentaries on titanic, i felt well prepared.

as a coping mechanism in tough times, people tend to revert to the assigned roles they have within the family unit. characteristically, my mother approaches trials and tribulations as though they were slumber parties. if our difficulty is going to be of some duration, she figures we might as well dig in and do our nails. accordingly, comfort becomes her greatest concern. we must all be wearing warm socks and stay hydrated. in my memories of my mother in hospitals, even when she was not the patient, she is wearing pajamas and a robe.

in contrast, my father just wants to go. he becomes bizarrely possessive of the business of driving people around. if there is a place you need to be, he will take you there. if ever you need to leave a hospital, go to my dad. that man will move heaven and earth to bust you out.

my role within the family is the perfect combination of these seemingly opposed impulses. it is my responsibility to always, always lighten the mood. to hate where we are, but make everyone laugh so long as we're there.

it is a task made somewhat simpler by the fact that our disasters tend to unfold around christmas, when devices of forced jolity abound.

that december weekend, during my drive down to the north mississippi medical center, i stopped at the kroger at barnes crossing mall and raided their christmas aisle for festive things. i did not yet know that there is nothing more depressing than the sight of sad people in santa hats.

at the hospital, i was immediately dispatched to the cafeteria with my grandfather. an assignment with the dual purpose of filling both of us with high-fat food and getting me as far from the hospital room as i could be while still being in the hospital.

comfort and distance. my parents were both pleased.

we sat at a round table in the center of the room, as though we were expecting seven additional people who had not yet shown. with my own money, i bought my grandfather a jello cup. it sat between us, a jolly dollop in an expanse of orange wood that stretched like a football field on either side to further emphasize our poor choice of table.

my grandmother fell on a tuesday. december 13th. she was standing on a stool pulling christmas decorations from a cabinet when she fell.

she does not remember falling. she remembers waking on the floor.

my grandfather wonders how long she lay there. how she managed to reach him in his shop where he continued working because he had not heard a thing.

we sit at that empty orange table, the uneaten jello between us, thinking of how this woman we've known forever, this 75-year-old woman who had never before been broken, had pulled herself across the unmopped kitchen floor and called him on the phone.

she fell on tuesday, december 13th. the day he turned 74.

though he has worked in hospitals his whole adult life, whenever we are in them, my grandfather reverts to the rules of the library. even when we return to my grandmother's private room, he continues speaking at such a low volume that his voice now comes out as a hum that, as a family full of troubled ears, we can none of us truly hear.

this sets everyone on edge.

my mother smiles like a miss. tennessee and my father has that sour look he gets after having ingested multiple cups of bad coffee. they are running on adrenaline and the repetition of the word "pardon?" is a monumental buzzkill.

i encourage everyone to leave. i make it appear they are coming between my grandmother and me and some festivites we are destined to enjoy.

when they depart, i stand at the door of room 204, waving with all my might, as though i have been accorded a tremendous honor and am, consequently, very grateful to be accepting it on tv.

there is not much i want to remember about what happened that night. by the time my parents returned in the morning, i'd already worked out a sanitized version in my head. i knew how it would be told. i knew the phrase "gran said 'porno'!" would be the punchline. and i knew there were things my parents should never know.

what i chose to remember is the bottle of light.

there are 47 wine bottles in my bedroom now because there was one in my grandmother's hospital room that night. because all of this was happening during the christmas that my father discovered he could stuff lights in glass bottles and make pretty, when my grandmother fell getting her decorations down, it was only natural that he grab a bottle for her bedside.

it was a fairly simple thing, but apparently no one had ever seen anything like that at the time. the bottle of lights sat on a plastic chair by the bathroom, an object so full of glory that, in a room with very limited furniture, it warranted the last available place to sit down.

every single nurse who walked through the door would ask, HOW did you do THAT? even nurses who had heard the story before would ask again. again and again and again. tell it again. like it was a miracle rather than a simple matter of coaxing a string of standard christmas lights down a glass bottleneck.

i cannot tell you how sick i was of hearing about these bottles by the time my grandmother fell. my father is not shy in his enthusiasms (this is a trait we share), so the magic behind the bottle of lights had been dispelled for me early on and was, subsequently, dispelled again and again.

but this was more a question, in my mind, of faulty execution. it was a well-publicized fact that i abhorred colored christmas lights and those that blinked. for years, my father and i had warred over our christmas tree in this regard. we switched the dimmer back and forth between blinking and constant with such frequency that it once became lodged in a space between and for several days the lights would stay solid only to spastically pulsate at random in a scheme we might have enjoyed had we been drug-addled and dancing.

my mother rectified this one morning by stripping all lights from the tree.

thus, thanks to this complicated history with christmas lights, as i stood in my grandmother's hospital room that saturday (the bottle of lights having taken the last available chair), i was very nearly certain that my father had spent the whole season stuffing colored, rapidly blinking lights into bottles as an elaborate means of annoying me.

it's funny then, that the bottle of lights is what i like to remember about that night in the hospital when my grandmother and i both believed she was going to die.

at 3 a.m., they finally came to get her for a test for which we had been waiting all afternoon. as they wheeled her out, we bid one another farewell with manic good cheer at a volume entirely too loud for such a small room.

we felt we should embrace. years later, during the only conversation we ever had about that night, we would discuss this. how we had not embraced. how she was wheeled off and i was left there, both of us feeling in the emptiness between us that we had gravely erred. we had let go without first holding on.

the rest of the night i sat in that hospital room alone in the dark with that fucking bottle full of blinking lights.

but somehow it helped. knowing that light was there.

i don't know when i started saving bottles. somewhere in the mess of people i love being hospitalized late last year, i suddenly found i could not throw them away. eventually, i did remember that night in the hospital. that feeling of being alone, in the dark, with light. maybe that had something to do with it. i really don't know.

i just know there are 47 bottles in my bedroom. red, white, andre, apple belgian beer, prosecco, vodka and a particularly unfortunate merlot/cabernet blend.

i wish i had thought to devise a labling system. maybe put stickers on the bottoms along with the story of their drinking. it's an impulse rendered totally unnecessary by the fact that, without even trying, i recall the origins of most. my memory being the creepy thing it is, i remember who i drank them with, what i was wearing and what we had for dessert.

this is the story of my life in this last year as told through empty bottles. interesting. a little strange. ever lovely lovely.

and so, on the nights when it is dark at 4:30 and an expanse of evening unfurls where not two months prior there was light and sun, this is the light i turn on. the 47 bottles in my bedroom. in their glow, i fall asleep.


Lara Ehrlich said...

Wow. These just keep getting better. And I'll admit that my sleeve is a little damp now.

Linda said...


mak said...

This is a gorgeous piece. Btw, I thought it was just my family who hates December. I take small comfort in knowing others also have the Christmas Curse.

oline said...

aw, thank you. and yes, december is rough!