When Yakira entered her grandmother’s nursing home, she bypassed the security guard’s front desk and the three women playing Pinochle in the lobby, flounced straight through the main social hall where a pianist was playing the Peanuts theme song, and entered the East Wing corridor. Room 107 was four doors down.
“Hey, Nana,” she chirped as she shimmied past the half-open door. Yakira had brought with her, perched on one hitched-up shoulder, her L.L.Bean knapsack, which she had lugged the fourteen blocks straight from school. She did this every Monday and Thursday after seventh grade let out. The bag she now dropped in the corner behind the door before marching with a huff over to her chair—that’s how she thought of the rickety wooden armchair with the faded floral cushion, hers—which someone had moved out of place. It belonged on the left side of the bed, facing away from the beeping monitor, away from the door, where Yakira, who visited the nursing home more than anyone else in the family and therefore had the right to dictate such things, could lean over her grandmother’s pale, comatose form and clasp her hand.
Mom had visited earlier in the week; she preferred to sit on the other side, beside the nightstand. She, the woman who seriously had conniptions if Yakira didn’t fold her laundry before stuffing it back into her drawers or didn’t smooth away the lumps when making her bed each morning, hadn’t bothered to put the chair back before she left. Of course.
Someone had also left a novel on the nightstand, Wuthering Heights. Yakira recognized this as her mother’s most used copy—yes, she owned multiples, for reasons Yakira could not fathom—with dog-ears folded down every handful of pages and book jacket torn along the edges. Yakira had tried several times to pick it up herself but had never gotten past the first few pages, the droning prose, the glacial pace, the ridiculous names, yet her mother read it again and again until the pages wore down and most of the words had faded to a dull gray. The inside flap was tucked somewhere in the middle of the novel, a bookmark.
That was just like Mom, wasn’t it? She couldn’t just talk to Nana, her own mother, had to use a book as intermediary whenever she visited. She would fill the time, however long she spent there, reading aloud to Nana, passing it off as actual conversation, because she didn’t know what to say herself. Emily Brontë had written her a script. Yakira didn’t need some old book to reach out to her grandmother.
Dragging her chair back into place, Yakira dumped herself onto the cushion, one leg dangling over the armrest, and declared to the quiet face beside her, “Boy do I have loads to tell you.” She paused to glance at the monitor over her shoulder—sometimes Nana’s heart rate increased when Yakira spoke, probably could sense her favorite visitor’s presence—but no, no change today, so Yakira resumed: “Maura’s switching to public school—you know Maura, she’s that girl I share my locker with. Well, I did, but now that she’s leaving I get my own. At least ‘til the end of the semester. Pretty cool, huh?” She scooped up her grandmother’s hand, slack and papery against the linens, and squeezed her bony fingers.
Truthfully, this afternoon she had bigger news; she’d started with Maura as a way to ease herself into the whole thing, into recounting the story aloud since it was still so fresh. “It’s Mom. She’s been nuts—duh. You know how she is. Totally stuck up. But worse than usual.” Over the weekend they’d had an argument. Like, a pretty big one. Where Mom had sent Yakira to her room and Yakira had slammed the door as violently as she possibly could and the walls had shaken so hard that the mirror mounted on her closet door had dislodged and hit the floor.
“It’s not even like the mirror broke,” Yakira protested to her grandmother now. “It was carpet and only a few inches off the ground. There’s just two small cracks at the bottom, and who ever uses that part? That’s, like, just staring at your knees. She only got mad about it because she’s crazy.” Yakira sighed into the subsequent silence.
A tiny part of her always expected something to happen in those pauses, perhaps for Nana’s thick baritone to suddenly erupt out of her, some unstoppable force, some miraculous awakening, after eight months of dormancy. If she woke up for anyone, she’d do it for Yakira, who visited twice a week after school, rain or shine, unless she had a big test the next day, but Nana would understand about that because she always had strong opinions about girls getting an education. She grew up in Lithuania or Russia or somewhere, and she had to teach herself to read from her brothers’ spelling booklets after they immigrated to America. “You don’t let them keep you from learning, baby girl,” she used to say, “You’re gonna read and you’re gonna read right.”
Yakira’s mother barely ever came to visit, probably twice, three times a month at most, which maybe wasn’t terribly rare, more than Nana’s two sons, who lived out of state, but it wasn’t as often as Yakira, which meant Yakira loved her more. As if Mom even had the right to visit, besides which, given what she had done. So if Yakira’s grandmother would suddenly start talking again, it wouldn’t be for Mom.
Thirty minutes into the visit, a nurse with a trolley rapped on the door—“Just here for some maintenance, dear, I’ll be quick”—just as well for Yakira, who had run out of interesting news and had resorted to updates about the twins (they were just learning to write), which, if anything, was probably boring enough to send Nana deeper into her coma.
Though the nurse insisted she could stay, Yakira ducked into the hallway for the duration. She peered in from the threshold to watch the nurse jot down vitals from the screen until someone, a raspy, unfamiliar voice behind her, intruded to say, “You Stephanie’s kid?”
Yakira turned her head for a glimpse over her shoulder: washed-out eyes and short wispy hair, so gray it was nearly colorless, and folds and folds and folds of loose skin. A beige sweater, as pallid as the rest of her, and a knitted skirt told Yakira she was not a member of the staff, likely a resident. “Yes,” Yakira said shortly. She returned to her vigil as the nurse inside the room whipped something out of the bottom drawer of her trolley, a syringe, and gently squeezed the air, plus a drop or two of liquid, out the top of the needle. She injected its contents quick as you please into one of Nana’s tubes.
Yakira had turned her back completely, a nonverbal request for solitude that most people would have understood—how much more obvious could she get?—but this woman, after a beat, remarked, “Mm. You look just like that lovely mom of yours.”
Yakira heard that all the time; she hated it. She stared hard into the room, tried to follow the trail of transparent liquid as it flushed through the IV and into the crook of her grandmother’s elbow. As soon as the nurse packed away her supplies, took a step toward the door, Yakira lurched forward, away from the presence still hovering behind her, and into the safety of the room. Nana was lying there waiting for her.
Reclaiming her seat, Yakira tucked her hand back between her grandmother’s fingers, leaned in to whisper, “I’m still here, Nana.” Before she could even sit back, that voice, that breathy, grating voice from the doorway behind her: “You’re a sweet girl, visiting like this.”
Yakira locked her gaze on the wall ahead of her. “Yeah, okay. Could you leave us alone, please?” She clung to her grandmother’s slack fingers with both hands now, unconsciously drawing them to her own chest. Poor Nana, forced to put up with people like this, unable to fend off bored, pushy residents who tried to insinuate themselves into other people’s lives. Nana could have continued to live at home with them; until the stroke, she’d been staying in the guest room just fine. Surely she wouldn’t have required so much more attention. And well, if she did, so they could have hired a bit of extra help, maybe. Didn’t people do that all the time? If Mom had cared about Nana at all, she’d never have sent her here, abandoned by the people who were supposed to care about her, by the one person, her own daughter, who ought to love her best.
After a minute or two of silence filled only with the sound of her own molars grinding into each other, Yakira realized the stranger had finally let her be. She released her grip and watched the color slowly return to her grandmother’s fingertips. “Sorry, Nana,” she murmured, wincing. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” Her grandmother’s heartbeat plugged steadily on.
In the subsequent quiet, well earned and much appreciated, she found herself unable to fully enjoy her triumph. A tug kept drawing her eyes to her mother’s book on the nightstand. Yakira did not like to think she lied, not to herself and certainly not to her grandmother, but there was something, a nagging sensation behind her ears that felt suspiciously like regret, that she had been trying to ignore since she had arrived. Over the weekend, after their fight, Yakira had been certain Mom would ground her from seeing Nana. But when the subject came up before school this morning, a timid question posed before she dashed out the door, the tension around Mom’s eyes had softened and she’d murmured, “I would never stop you from visiting Nana, Kiri.”
Mom even offered to drive her there after school, between shopping for shoes for the twins and dropping off forms for the pediatrician to sign, but Yakira preferred her routine, the fourteen-block walk, the mature solitude of it all. “At least take a jacket,” Mom had said, though the sun glowed white through the window, “It’s supposed to rain later.”
Yakira propped her chin on the bed sheet beside her grandmother’s shoulder. “I wish she’d just drop the act of pretending she cares,” she grumbled, as if saying the words aloud would convince her of their veracity, would subdue the guilty uncertainty that made her voice stumble even as she said it, the recognition, however deeply buried, that this was her boldest lie yet.
“Aw, hon, your mom loves you plenty.”
Yakira bolted upright, twisting to face the doorway as that—that—that woman sauntered inside.
“I was eavesdropping,” the woman explained as an afterthought. As if that hadn’t been abundantly clear.
What do you know? Yakira thought with a scowl. Had she been there the day Mom decided caring for Nana would be “too much work,” which as far as Yakira was concerned could only translate as, “I don’t love her anymore,” and meant that this whole awful situation was entirely Mom’s fault? (Never mind that time, years ago, just after Grandpa died, when Nana had pushed for exactly this scenario, had insisted, “If I ever become a burden, I want to burden someone who gets paid to care for me, not my own children, you got that, Stephanie?”)
Yakira didn’t realize both her scowl and her thoughts had manifested outside of herself until the woman said, “Aw, hon, sending your gran here ain’t got a whit to do with how much your mom loves her. It’s about how much she loves you.” She tried to pat Yakira’s shoulder but Yakira bunched up her posture to roll her shoulders forward and out of the way. “When do you want your mom to take care of your old gran? When she’s picking up groceries for your dinner—she does cook you dinner, doesn’t she?” Face hot, Yakira shrugged. “Or when she’s taking your twin sisters to their dentist appointments? Or when she’s looking for another math tutor for your brother after the last one moved to, oh, where was it, San Francisco?”—it was San Diego—“You gonna help her change your gran’s catheter and give her a sponge bath when she needs it?”
Yakira stared at the floor. “How do you know my family?” she grunted.
“Your mom talks about you all. She’s always saying how proud she is that you come visit as often as you do. Makes her feel there’s someone she can count on, really helps her out.”
Hearing that padded distortion of reality, the fancied-up version of their life that someone might tell a stranger, one in which Yakira took on basic responsibilities to ease her mother’s burdens, made the guilt in Yakira’s stomach worse somehow, hotter and thicker and deeper, until it hardened into shame. She shoved the feeling away, grasped futilely to retrieve the self-righteousness she had always worn like a cloak of security, but it had fled beyond her reach. The cavity it left behind filled with something rigid and irrational, something that told Yakira, in a voice that sounded desperate even to her, “No, no, you know you’re right! All this lady’s heard is one side of the story, Mom’s side. And maybe Mom was Nana’s daughter and maybe she had all those years of loving her back in the day when she was a little girl herself, but you’re the one who used to spend all that time sitting with Nana when she first moved in with you, between the times Mom took her to all her appointments, and you’re the one who visits now, when nobody else puts in as much effort. Maybe things were different once, but at this point Nana belongs to you most of all.”
Agitation drove Yakira to her feet, swallowed suddenly by the compulsion to hit someone or throw something, and then there it was, her mother’s book, resting neatly on the nightstand, a reminder of Mom’s most recent visit, it didn’t belong here in Yakira’s space, and Yakira snatched up the book carelessly enough that the makeshift bookmark slipped and the cover fell open.
The title page had a note scrawled in pen, faded, in messy half-print. Some of the ink had smudged from the number of times fingers had paged past it, but it was still more or less legible.
“‘To Stephie,’” Yakira read aloud, and then, acutely and uncomfortably aware that reading this note would be an infringement on someone else’s privacy—her own mother’s!—she paused to glance around the room. The old woman, mysteriously, had disappeared, leaving Yakira alone with her own form of indiscretion, as bad as eavesdropping, worse even. She turned back to the note, spoke in a whisper because, even if the remaining company was not awake to overhear, she felt too guilty over her intrusion to want her voice reaching even un-listening ears: “‘To Stephie. My favorite book when I was your age. I hope it gives you as much joy as it did me. Something we can share forever. Happy birthday. Love,—’” Right before the last word, her voice stuttered to a halt, the curly signature at the bottom staring up at her: “Mommy.”
The empty room, suddenly small, too small, filled with the steady beep-beep-beep of Nana’s heart. Yakira’s own heart pattered out a staccato storm against her ribcage, rang in her ears, and why was Nana so calm? For the first time in Yakira’s life, it struck her that she didn’t know this comatose woman. It had certainly never occurred to her that Nana might want someone to read to her, yet here they were, here it was, a book Nana had cherished for years, a love Mom and Nana shared, a love Yakira had always shunned. She felt more the interloper now than the woman she had hated for intruding.
Carefully, she closed the book and set it back on the nightstand. She did not know where to replace the bookmark; that much damage she could not undo. At this moment she did not feel she deserved to sit here with her grandmother, not after assuming for so long that this room, and the right to come here, belonged exclusively to her. Perhaps her grandmother did not belong to her at all. Certainly, she belonged more to Mom than she ever could belong to Yakira.
Throat dry, she returned to the bedside to slip her fingers under Nana’s hand, to kneel, to draw Nana’s hand toward her. “I’m so sorry about… I’m just sorry, Nana,” she whispered and kissed her grandmother’s knuckles.
Retrieving her knapsack from the corner, Yakira slunk out of room 107, through the East Wing corridor, the social hall—the piano was silent—and the lobby, where the trio of Pinochle ladies were still playing away at their card table.
Outside, it was pouring and her mother’s minivan, unmistakable, was idling by the curb. Yakira stood a moment, immobile, surprised by her mother’s presence and then somehow not surprised at all. Then she stepped into the downpour, soaked and shivering by the time she tossed her knapsack into the backseat and climbed into the front. Mom had turned on the seat warmer, so as soon as Yakira sat down the heat began to radiate up through her thighs.
“Why…” she started, but trailed off.
Mom shifted out of park and pulled away from the curb. “You forgot your jacket,” she replied.
Yakira wanted to say something else, an apology—like I’m sorry for being a brat or For thinking you didn’t care about Nana or even I’d like to help out more around the house—but the vulnerability required for that kind of honesty, the embarrassment, silenced her as it wound around her esophagus. It was so much easier to apologize to Nana.
They were turning out of the parking lot when Yakira, staring straight ahead at the rapid back and forth of the wipers against the windshield, found her voice just enough to croak, “Thanks.” For giving up a lot to take care of us, she thought but, when Mom tilted her head and opened her mouth to ask, hurried to add, “For, for picking me up today.”
Mom reached over the gearshift to clasp Yakira’s hand, and Yakira’s palm began to tingle where she had, minutes earlier, clung to Nana’s fingers. All three of them were in the car just then, herself, her mother, her grandmother; hers and Nana’s fingers intertwined, and Mom’s two sturdy hands cradling them both. “I wouldn’t make you walk home in this weather, Kiri,” she said.
“I know,” Yakira sighed. She fiddled to adjust her shoulder strap. She closed her eyes, sank into the noise: the heavy thrum of raindrops rapping against the roof of the car and the crisp tick-tick-tick-tick-tick of the turning signal as they pulled up to a stoplight, steady, steady, steady as Nana’s heart beating between them.
Shira Lankin Sheps graduated from Hunter College School of Social Work with an MSW in clinical social work. After working in the clinical field, marketing and photojournalism, she decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community. She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience. Shira is the founder, Publisher and CEO of The Layers Project Magazine.