Note: This is an expansion of a post I wrote last December.
My grandmother used to give me all sorts of weird shit. She would hang on to the strangest things: plastic bobbles with no clear purpose, rubber band balls, small figurines, the free calendars she got in the mail from the Audubon Society. Born in 1925, she grew up during the Great Depression, and it showed. Raised to conserve, to save, to ration, she was deeply reluctant to let anything go if it had even the slightest chance of being useful. I used to imaginer her as a nesting bird, curved and motherly, lining her home with curios to pass along to her children and grandchildren as she saw fit. She volunteered at a charity thrift shop with her P.E.O. Sisterhood (that’s the Philanthropic Educational Organization Sisterhood, though my dad and sister liked to make rude jokes about other possible meanings of the acronym) and her days there only augmented her tendency to accumulate clutter. She gave a lot of it to me.
My grandmother also helped to give me an excellent college education and a beautiful violin, among many other things. She lived long enough to see me quit classical music but not long enough to see me graduate.
But despite these unimaginably valuable gifts, my grandmother still gave me a lot of stuff, and I hated it. I hated having to feign gratitude when she pressed yet another oddity into my hands. I hated having useless oddities on my shelves, but I also hated throwing it away, because I always felt terrible afterwards. I came to associate her bizarre gifts, small as they were, with an unbearable weight. My smiles waxed and waned. Sometimes I successfully concealed my distaste, but oftentimes I did not.
As both my grandmother and I aged, I reinforced my false smiles with the knowledge that these gifts originated in the deep well of her generosity, misguided as they were. The items accumulated with her years, and mine. By the time she was in her mid eighties, she was shedding trinkets as a tree loses its leaves, first little by little and then all at once.
There was a stack of these objects waiting for me on the coffee table when I went to her house that Sunday morning. I was attending the university she helped pay for but came home for the weekend. I told her I would come over and make her tea. I arrived to find her staggering out of bed at eleven in the morning. She said she didn’t feel well but couldn’t say why. Favoring politeness, afraid of embarrassing my fiercely independent grandmother by fussing over her, I sat her down at the table and busied myself with the tea kettle. I took out two china teacups and filled them. I piled little plates high with cookies, the kind that my mom used to eat when she was studying abroad in England and whose name I never understood. Digestives.
Digestion was not what was happening with my grandmother. I observed her in my peripheral vision and saw the cookie miss her mouth once, twice, again and again. When the Earl Grey spilled onto her lap I looked her square in the face. Tea and crumbs dribbled out of the left corner of her lips. I suggested we move to the couch. When she stood up, her bird body collapsed, now less plump mother and more hollow bones. She could not fly. I lifted the dead weight of her body on the third try and tried to balance it on my hip as my arms clutched her torso. It took us three minutes to walk as many feet.
I awkwardly released her down onto the couch and knelt before her. I prayed silently that I was wrong. I asked her to smile. She smiled and half of her face was brilliant, that half-grin a thousand times more beautiful than any of the false smiles I ever gave her in return for her small offerings. The other half was a grimace. I asked her to raise her arms for me. If she knew what I was doing, she didn’t let on. Her left arm reached out to me crookedly like a broken wing, hovering only inches above where it had been resting on her thigh.
I called an ambulance.
The paramedics knocked my pile of forgotten gifts off the coffee table as they lifted my grandmother onto a stretcher. I left them scattered on the carpet.
My grandmother recovered from her stroke surprisingly quickly. The doctors said that it’s lucky I happened to be there, that any more time could have caused irreparable damage to her ability to walk or talk. She had been wearing one of those Lifeline devices that my mom bought for her, but she was too disoriented—or maybe just too proud—to use it that morning. She went back home, now with a nurse there during the daytime but still living alone. She moved more slowly. Not much else changed. She kept giving me useless stuff I didn’t need, and I kept accepting it, now with a real smile: no reinforcements necessary. Her stroke terrified me and I loved her so much. I needed her to feel my gratitude.
I went back home to visit her again in April of my junior year in college, a couple months after the stroke. The semester would be ending soon, and I planned to spend most of May in my hometown before returning to Los Angeles for a summer research project. The weekend was like any other. I stayed at my parents’ house and went over to my grandmother’s condo a couple of times, watching old movies with her with the volume turned all the way up so that she could hear the dialogue clearly. For the last year, she had been cracking jokes about how each visit might be the last, but after the stroke she didn’t laugh about that anymore. Before I went back to school, she gave me a nightlight, the latest bizarre token from her nest.
The nightlight had a plain white plastic base with a button on it and a clear, cylindrical bulb. It looked like something you’d find in a junk drawer or hotel storage room. I recognized it immediately, though, because she’d kept it in her guest bathroom. It was plain on the outside but when you plugged it in and pressed the button you could cycle through differently hued but equally garish colored light settings. If you pressed the button enough times to reach the final setting, the different colors would flash in rapid succession, giving the bathroom the appearance of disco ball on acid. When we were little, my younger sister and I would run into the bathroom, close the door, and turn the nightlight on to its psychedelic setting, cackling at the absurdity of our grandmother—an old lady!—owning such a groovy object.
Unlike all the other things that she’d given me, the nightlight actually served a purpose in her house. I asked her why she gave it to me and she didn’t answer. She looked away towards the window and didn’t say anything at all. There was a bird outside.
The last time I talked to my mom about my grandmother, her mother, we discussed her annual trip out to the East Coast. My grandmother had a beach house in Delaware and went every summer for at least a month. She had lived in California for decades but maintained her connection to the mid-Atlantic, where she married my grandfather and raised her children. She buried her husband and one of her sons there, too, after they each died at impossibly young ages. These summer trips were much more of a lifeline than what she wore around her neck, and we knew it. I always thought that the year she didn’t go to the beach house would be the year she died.
My grandmother was scheduled to have heart surgery. She already had a Pacemaker beating time in her chest due to her congenital heart murmur. The surgery was risky at her age, but it had to be done. We chatted on the phone the night before and then she passed the receiver to my mom, who lowered her voice and said that my grandmother might not heal from the surgery in time to make it out to the beach house that summer. I asked her to call me when my grandmother was out of the operating room.
My mom called me early the following morning. When the doctors began the surgery, they discovered metastasized colon cancer. It was everywhere. They found it near her heart, the Pacemaker still pumping blood faithfully through her wrecked flesh. My grandmother had avoided her colonoscopy too many times to count. I wondered if she felt the cells multiplying inside her. Maybe she didn’t want to know. The doctors told my mom that my grandmother would have maybe six extremely painful months to live after the surgery at best. They asked my mother to make the call. They could wake up my grandmother or not.
My mom did the right thing.
As she went into the operating room, my grandmother had asked my mother to tell my sister and me that she loves us.
Did she know?
I thought of my grandmother’s lifeless body on the gleaming operating table and dead birds and hurled the nightlight at the wall.
After my grandmother died, I got rid of most of the trinkets that she gave me. I had fallen deep into the rabbit hole of trendy simple living blogs and decluttered like a woman possessed. I kept a worn silver ring, which was the only subtle piece of jewelry I ever remember her wearing. My grandmother’s modus operandi when it came to jewelry was more is more; thick ropes of jade swung heavily from her neck on most days, and her wrists and hands were always dripping with gold. I kept two stained-glass birds and hung them in my dorm room window to catch the light. A reminder of my own flightless mother's mother, forever grounded in a Baltimore cemetery. And I kept that stupid nightlight, packing it in my suitcase when I graduated and moved across the country.
I moved three times in my adopted city and the little light followed me into every new bedroom. For a cheap piece of plastic, it was practically indestructible. Every time I looked at the nightlight, I wondered why I held on to it. It’s ugly. I never plugged it in—what use would I have for it? Light pollution from the city streamed through my windows at all hours of the night. The nightlight failed the popular test I came across on so many minimalism blogs; it was neither useful nor beautiful. It didn’t “spark joy” à la Marie Kondo, either. In fact, the nightlight reminded me of my grandmother’s death, of the day when I expected the plastic to shatter and instead it bounced onto the linoleum floor of my dorm room to bear witness to my grief. Its failure to break engendered a pang of resentment in me, as though it had failed to reflect the destruction wrought by the loss. I had shed so many belongings for reasons far more trivial than this. I wanted to get rid of it. I couldn’t get rid of it.
When I left my city to stay with my parents for a couple of months before traveling, I packed up the nightlight yet again. I wrapped it in a sock and shoved it into a sneaker, even though I knew it would remain intact regardless. I arrived in my hometown, the same city where my grandmother lived and died, and performed the familiar, seemingly pointless ritual of unpacking the nightlight and selecting a space for it on an available shelf. I looked at it and sighed in exasperation at my own absurdity. I would finally, finally leave it behind this time, I thought. No way was I hauling a nightlight I don't even use on my backpacking trip.
A month after I made that promise to myself, flames leapt over the hills behind my parents’ house. The wildfire racing west reached us in four hours rather than the estimated twenty-four. I threw my journals, laptop, and passport into my backpack and flung it into my car. We rounded up our cats and dogs and loaded them in alongside the photo albums, my dad’s maps, my mom’s firebox. I kept the engine running, poised to flee. There was no evacuation notice. My mom pounded on an elderly neighbor’s door and was horrified to discover she and her caretaker had both been asleep. As she dragged them to another neighbor’s waiting car, I realized with panic that I’d left the nightlight in my bedroom. I bolted up the driveway and up the stairs to grab it off the shelf.
Back in the car, I clutched the nightlight and twisted out the driver’s seat window to watch the flames lick the crest of the foothills less than a mile away from us. My dad roared that it was time to go and we flew towards the freeway. My hands shook on the steering wheel just like they did when I followed my grandmother’s ambulance to the hospital.
We arrived at a hotel hours later, the only one with electricity, an available room, and a willingness to look the other way on their no-pet policy. I sat on the edge of the bed, smelling like smoke and ash, and cradled the nightlight in my hands. I tried to plan what I would do if my childhood home was gone in the morning. I imagined watching the news, pictured my parents’ distraught faces, and came up blank. I went into the bathroom and stared at myself in the mirror. No window, just like the bathroom where my grandmother used to keep the nightlight. No dim glow from the street outside to illuminate the tiny tiled chamber. Then I knew what I would do.
I would turn off all the lights and plug in that stupid nightlight. I would press the button until I reached the disco-ball setting and garish lights bounced off the hotel room ceiling. I would shriek with joy and the cats would dive under the bed and the dogs would bark and my parents would look at me like I’d gone crazy. I would dance and jump on the bed and lift my arms like the bird she used to be. And I would feel a sliver of hope.
And then I understood, after all those years, why I kept the nightlight.
I thought of her and finally slept.
In the morning, the house was still standing.
I packed up the nightlight and took it with me when I flew to Spain.