I love Greek coffee. I love its thickness, and my tentativeness. Like a lover, it demands that I go slow, that I be careful, and that I savor it (#NotAllLovers). I called it Turkish coffee once, in Greece, and got a good shouting at. Everything that happens in Greece is Greek. It’s a mistake that I made only once. But that first time that I visited Greece, I’d never had a lover, and I didn’t even try the coffee. I spent the entire time desperately wanting a cigarette.
I was trying not to smoke. Somehow, in a world of chaos, that seemed like the one thing that I could control. But was I more in control if I chose to smoke, or if I chose to not smoke? Is one more in control when embracing desire or when denying it? I didn’t know, but as much as I desired a cigarette, and as easily as I could have procured one, I needed something to stay the same. I had recently stopped smoking, and I could control whether or not I started smoking again.
I left school, my senior year, at the end of November. My grandmother needed hospice care, and there were no other options. Nobody else could survive without working. She was my favorite person anyway, and I realize now, that I was hers.
Out in the Florida woods, at the end of a pitted, sand road named after my grandfather, was the house he’d built. He left Georgia and joined the Navy at 14, when his mother couldn’t feed him anymore. At 34, he knew how to be a Swabbie, but not how to build a house, and the house reflected his experimental approach. Still, those woods were his, because he got there first (that is, ahead of other white people, and by the forties, whites had long murdered all of the Native occupants of those woods).
I still associate the wet air, the damp heat, and all the nasties of the swamp with freedom, relaxation, peace. Growing up, I was sent to my grandmother when I needed to go. Like now, I had trouble fitting into real life. I visited her often, and she always accepted me without question. I still see Florida as a refuge, no matter how politically backward it is (although it’s admittedly improving). The very air feels like safety to me.
My grandmother spent a few weeks in the hospital, and another few weeks in a nursing home, recovering from surgery. I spent ten hour days with her, relieving the nurses who couldn’t attend to everyone anyway. As I did it, I knew that the wounds I was excavating in myself wouldn’t ever heal. But I believed the alternative to be worse. I still do.
Our trip to Athens, for her alternative cancer treatment, lasted only two weeks. We were sent home two weeks early, because the Greek doctor didn’t want her dead in his care. While we were there, I cooked according to a prescribed diet. I’d never cooked before, had refused to cook, and I rarely cook now, although I’m quite good at it. My cooking is forever imbued with trying to prevent the collapse of my world. As such, it will never taste right.
They took me around Athens, to the Acropolis, to the sea, to a nightclub. I was by far the youngest caregiver, and everyone wanted to be my parent. Young men whom now, I might eye with suspicion, were tasked with escorting me, and did so, honorably. I was given Greek food, educated about Greek culture, and encouraged to experience more, more, more. And I desperately wanted to, experience that more. But I was not there as a tourist. I was there to do what I believed was right, what my family needed, and what I needed. My grandmother slept for 23 hours a day, and still, I hated to be away.
I tried to bring her home, and she made it to New York, where, in the middle of a snow storm, I used all of my impressive aggressive tendencies to get her onto our grounded plane that was barred to passengers. Before 9/11, these things were more flexible. For hours, I went on and off the plane, bringing her things. I brought her milk, which she’d not been allowed in Athens. She savored it, like I do Greek coffee, but was too weak to speak. At that moment, watching her die, I knew that her diet didn’t matter. What mattered was cushioning the fall, as much as possible.
Just before take-off, seven hours later, she whispered that she didn’t want to be a burden. We weren’t going to her home. We were going to mine. I told her that she couldn’t be a burden, because we wanted her there. I so wanted to tell her that I loved her. I’d never said the word love, to anyone. It’s not something that we say in my family. It stuck in my throat. I like to believe that she knew.
She died between New York and St. Louis. I did all the things that people do, when someone dies on a plane. I told the flight attendants, watched their attempts at resuscitation, and let them move me around, avoiding the excited, sad eyes of the other passengers. I talked to the police and to the coroner. I called my mother, waking her up, to tell her that her mother was dead. At first, she didn’t believe me.
When my parents met me, coming off of the plane, which you could still do back then, I hugged my mother. I hadn’t touched her in nine years. I didn’t want to touch her then, but I knew that she needed something, and I’d been supposed to bring back her mother. A hug seemed like the least that I owed her, and since then, I’ve always hugged her. I rarely really want to. But I didn’t want to regret not doing it. I went home and started smoking again.
Since then, I’ve been back to Athens five times. Every time, I carry with me the card for the hotel at which we stayed for those two weeks. It has an attached bar. I plan to savor a Greek coffee. Each time, I don’t do it. I don’t go anywhere near that hotel. I don’t go within two miles of it. But I will. Next time.
Today, there was something that I so wanted to tell my grandmother. Most of the time, her death is just a shadow, lingering around my life, lending its weight to all that I do. But sometimes, I actually think about it. I wouldn’t do it differently, because it was the right thing to do. It was the only thing to do. But they should never have let me do it. I’d make the same choice now, but then, I didn’t understand the consequences. I was seventeen.