A Warrior Obliges, 1996
by Lourdes Dolores Follins
When I enter the room, Gramma quietly lies still, her petite frame resting in a mechanical hospital bed. It’s one o’clock in the afternoon and she’s in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit. Her black hair, badly in need of a relaxer touch-up, is fanned out in a hasty bang on her reddish-brown forehead. The tight cornrows my mother braided in Gramma’s hair a week ago are loose and begging to be redone. With nary a gray hair in sight, my seventy-year-old grandmother clutches a used tissue to her chest. Having worked as a domestic worker for most of her life, the fingernails on Gramma’s thick, arthritic hands are chipped and thin. A rustling sound issues from her parched lips, as a clear tube the diameter of a pencil trails from her left nostril. In this tube flows a river of yellow mucus, spent lymphocytes, and tiny drops of blood. This river is flowing from Gramma—from her abdomen, up her esophagus, through her nose, up and over her head, and down the back of the white sheet covering the bed.
We are alone in this pastel pink, cream, and mauve-colored room: Gramma, a born-again Christian and me, her heathen first grandchild. At twenty-six, I’m usually on the go, but news of Gramma’s second operation on her large intestine because she couldn’t move her bowels compels me to stop and visit her. I am the only family member able to visit Gramma today and I am grateful for this opportunity to spend some quiet time with her. Gramma is the only person in my family who’s ever told me that she loved me. Although my mother and stepfather raised me, they were so busy providing for me, they never had time to give me what Gramma did. Gramma’s the only one I remember playing with me when I was a child. Gramma’s the only one who always made time to just be with me.
I can’t tell if she’s dead or alive when I see her, so I loudly say, “Hi, Gramma!” I walk over to Gramma’s bed, lean down and kiss her cheek.
“Oh, hello Lawd.” After twenty-six years, Gramma’s never been able to pronounce my first name—Lourdes—correctly. I’ve accepted this by now and always get a kick out of it. Gramma looks happy to see me, but she also looks like she is at Death’s door. Gramma is usually a vivacious woman who walks several miles a day to get around Staten Island when the buses run slow. Her aura is usually marigold, but today it’s faint as if it’s fading. I’ve never seen her like this; it scares me.
“I jus’ had a surg’ry, yuh know,” Gramma says as I walk around the foot of her bed to sit next to her. Gramma’s usually distinctive and clear “Naw-fawlk”, Virginia voice sounds as if she has a cotton field in her mouth.
A large window is behind me and I am seated to her right. From my chair, I occasionally see nurses, nurse technicians, patients, and visitors pass by. To calm myself and stay present for Gramma, I proceed with the typical line of questioning:
“How are you feeling?”
“Do you have any pain?”
“Are you tired?”
She answers each question wearily. But when I boldly ask: “Would you tell anyone if you were in pain?”, Gramma’s spunk returns.
“Yaas! Oh, yass! I’d say if I was in any pain. Yaas!”
“Okay, Gramma,” I say softly.
“Naw, I don’ feel no pain…” she murmurs. A brief moment of silence ensues. “But I had a pain las’ night,” she offers.
“Oh…?” I gently prod.
“Yeah, I was talkin’ too much. Too many peoples was visitin’ me…and makin’ me talk too much.” Gramma is looking past me, as if a crowd of well-intentioned family members and friends from her church and the Senior Center are in the room with us.
“Yaas…Peoples askin’ meh all kindsa questions… Ya know? And if I din’ say nuthin’, then they thank some’ins wrong wit meh! So, I talk to ‘em….” Gramma explains.
She coughs a bit. Phlegm rumbles in her chest like a thunderstorm and she holds her abdomen so the sutures won’t burst. Gramma sits serenely, lost in reverie, I presume. Her eyes, uncovered by her usual pair of thick tortoise-shell bifocals, are glazed and runny. There is a flaky, white stream leading from the corner of her eye, making its way down her face. Uncomfortable with the silence, I ask, “Gramma, what are you thinking?”
“I jus’ tole you! See! People expect me to do all the talkin’! I’m suppose’ to be restin’! This is a recovery room, see? If I don’ say nuthin’, everybody think some’ins wrong, see?” Her watery brown eyes snap alert and fix upon me. Then she flashes a smile, as if to temper her fiery response.
“Oh!” I feel guilty for making Gramma feel unheard and unseen. As a psychotherapist, I listen to people for a living, but now at her bedside, my skills fail me. I pull my dark brown, shoulder-length locs up into a pigtail and lean towards her. “Okay, Gramma… so I’ll tell you what I was thinking.”
“Okay…” Gramma smiles broadly through her chapped, peeling lips.
I take a breath and exhale slowly, because I feel that at any moment, I will begin bawling. “I was thinking about how you must feel being here in the hospital for as long as you have been here…”
This time, it had been three weeks. For the past month, I was afraid that my grandmother—the only one I have left—would die in the hospital, due to some ‘unforeseen complications.’ You never know what can happen in a hospital these days, especially if someone is old, working-class, Black, and female, I think. Whether they were true or not, I’d heard too many stories about working-class or poor Black elders being mistreated or ignored in hospitals across New York City because the medical staff didn’t believe their complaints or thought they were being ‘dramatic.’ I shove aside my fear and apprehension and keep talking.
“And I pictured you outside, walking down the sidewalk…with your hair done-up how you like it. With a little bit of a bang on your forehead and curled nice….”
“Yaas,” Gramma nods with pleasure and seems to envision it as I do.
“And I see the sun beaming down on your shoulders and you smiling… I see you smiling, looking up and saying, ‘Praise the Lord!’ for the sun.”
Tears begin to well in my eyes because this is what I want to see Gramma doing. This is the life she lived before she was rushed here because of another intestinal blockage. This is what I know she wants to be doing.
“Now the sun, it’s not too hot, you know? It’s warm enough so that you don’t need a jacket and you can walk around…” I glance over at Gramma, who is drifting off to sleep.
“Eh?” Her heavy lids lift a bit and her eyes roll around in her head.
“I’m gonna let you sleep. I’m gonna sit here and write about you while you sleep.”
“Okay, Lawd….” Gramma continues to snooze, unabashedly snorting, wheezing, and snoring all the while.
I take a look around me and notice the background drone of the ‘volumetric infusion pump’, an electric IV. Wow, I think. Things have changed since Mom was here in 1987. The liquid solutions used to simply and quietly drip into your arm back then. Now they are nosily pumped into your body.
We sit like this for ‘a good lil’ while’, as Gramma would say. Me, the solemn and scared granddaughter, and she, the hopeful and faith-filled grandmother. Despite the long struggle she has fought for her health over the past two years, Gramma remains without complaint.
Then, like an oasis, enters Sister Jayne. She is a beaming, oatmeal-colored, older Black woman in a denim dress set and a tightly curled auburn wig. As she draws nearer, I discern a reddish aura about her. This is a woman who loves and strokes people, I think and I am immediately in love.
I introduce myself as Gramma’s granddaughter and Sister Jayne introduces herself as a fellow churchgoer. She shakes my hand politely, yet firmly. I explain that Gramma is dozing off and on and remind her that Gramma had another surgery five days ago. She nods her head with a look of understanding on her face.
A swollen, scaly hand creeps up Gramma’s chest to dab at the wad of sputum that comes up as I speak to Sister Jayne. Her eyes open to behold Sister Jayne and a smile spreads across her face. Her face takes on a glow similar to Sister Jayne’s and suddenly, Gramma is alive. Gramma transforms before my eyes and she is talking like she did before she was admitted to the hospital.
The two women converse amongst themselves. Gramma refers to me every now and then, but otherwise, she is completely engrossed in her conversation. While she and Sister Jayne talk about Gramma’s two operations, their faith in the power of God (whom they alternate with Jesus Christ every now and then), and a trip that Sister had recently taken, I study Sister Jayne. She is a sturdy, pear-shaped woman of about sixty, with her loose neck draped in gold chains and an assortment of gold and precious stone rings adorn her manicured hands. She speaks with authority about the power of God and informs Gramma and I that she knows him well.
“Ah wanted to retire after forty-five years of workin’—yes, forty-five!—because Ah was tired an’ He made a way. The Lord will do that, yuh know!”
Then she recounts how her twin—“yes, mah twin!”—sister had intestinal surgery, too and how The Lord saw her through. Gramma is so animated and her voice so clear that I think we are back at Mt. Calvary Holiness Church. As she tells Sister Jayne that this surgery was worse than the first because it made her stiff, her puffy hands flutter and hover in the air like hummingbirds, punctuating her speech all the while.
As they praise the Lord a bit longer, Sister Jayne says seriously, “Sistuh Hines, Ah want a word of prayer with you,” and she produces a small glass vial of Holy Water from her expensive leather purse. She removes the black top, pours some of the water on her right hand, and places her right hand on Gramma’s forehead. Sister Jayne rattles:
Keep Sistuh Hines safe,
Hear her prayers an’ the prayers of those who love her, Heal her, oh Lord!
“Yaa-aa-as, Jesus!” Gramma bears witness as Sister Jayne prays over her.
Ya know we believe in ya, oh Lord!
We know that You are the only one who can take her to the otha side, oh Jesus!
“Hear me, Lord,” Gramma entreats her god.
We praise yuh name now an’ forever, sweet Jesus!
Take care of your chile’ an’ make her well!”
“Oh, yaa-as!” Gramma chimes in.
As I sit and wonder where I fit in this scene, I realize that I am witnessing two warrior women doing what they do outside of strain and strife—share knowledge and love each other intuitively. Although I don’t know Sister Jayne, I know that she too may have lived a life of great sacrifice, struggle, and courage in the face of racism, verbal abuse from husbands, unwanted sexual advances from white male employers, misogynoir, and more recently, poor and failing health.
Although I was initially worried as I watched Gramma oblige Sister Jayne and talk with her for as long as she did, it’s now apparent to me how affirming and necessary it is for Gramma to speak with her fellow warrior.
Breaking this spell, Michelle, a white Patient Care Technician, enters and announces in a thick New York accent that it is “clean-out time.” The three of us are jolted back to the reality of where we are and why we have gathered here together. Gramma still can’t move her bowels.
The technician methodically empties the bright yellow drainage from Gramma’s nasal tube, the catheter for her brownish-yellow urine, and three small, elongated egg-shaped containers filled with a suspicious-looking reddish-yellow fluid. Flashes of the technician’s splotchy, pink skin appear before my eyes as she moves quickly, urgently. I can’t tell if she’s rushing to get out of our way or if it’s the end of her shift. In the middle of this rush of movement around her, Gramma coughs a bit and gently excuses herself in her “Nawfawlk” accent. Even in the hospital, Gramma is ever the lady.
Eventually, Michelle leaves, whisking away Gramma’s fluids for analysis and the three of us are alone again. Gramma and Sister Jayne continue to talk about the strength of God and how He always has a plan for you.
“It may not always be what you want it to be, but He always makes a way!” Sister Jayne chuckles. I smile and nod back. I, who don’t believe in the Christian version of God, but rather the version of my African and Indigenous ancestors, bear witness to their testimony.
“Ya know, I’m not suppose’ to talk so much,” Gramma finally says. Fifteen years ago, my jaw would’ve dropped! But seeing how I am grown, I show some couth and look on impassively as if Gramma read my mind.
“Well, I was about tuh leave yuh anyways, Sistuh Hines,” Sister Jayne says with a smile in her voice.
“Aww-right, Sistuh. It was nice of you tuh come an’ visit.” Gramma’s face is still aglow, but she is showing signs of fatigue. She has leaned back in the bed and the corners of her eyes are drooping now.
“Alright, take care,” Sister Jayne replies. “Continue to do well in school,” she motions to me. Politeness and respect for my elders prevents me from telling her that I completed a master’s degree— three years ago. I simply nod and smile back, like I have been for the past half hour. Sister Jayne then leaves the room.
I turn my attention back to Gramma. The glow is gone and she looks haggard, even more so than when I first came in.
“Gramma, why don’t you rest?” I suggest firmly.
“Naw, I’m alright…” Gramma replies in the same cotton-mouth voice as before.
“But Gramma, I heard what you said about not talking so much, because it tires you out…and I understand that you feel like you should talk when people come in, but I see that it wears you out.”
Begrudgingly, Gramma ponders what I said and slowly allows her eyelids to rest. “Okay…” she exhales deeply. I get up from my chair and move it back to the opposite corner of the room.
“Hey, Shor-tay!” A bear of a Black man lumbers into the room and it suddenly feels much smaller. As he comes closer, Gramma sits up on her elbows and painstakingly turns to her left, in the direction of his booming voice. Realizing that he is referring to my grandmother, I groan inwardly. I know he is coming to move her from the bed to the recliner in the room with us. I also know that this process isn’t going to be quiet.
“Gramma, I’m gonna go before they kick me out.” I lean over the bed and press her swollen hand lightly.
The bear is moving about, preparing the recliner.
“Oh, okay…oh wait, Lawd! Look over there for my powder pad,” Gramma says urgently, as if she is going on a date. After searching her drawers and not finding it, I tell her that I’m leaving.
“Oh. Okay, bye, Lawd,” Gramma says disappointedly. I get the sense that her disappointment is more because I couldn’t find her powder pad than my departure.
“Hey, Shorty!” The nurse’s aide begins. It’s my cue to exit.
Walking down the hall and out of the hospital, I begin to breathe again. Sister Jayne’s prayers seemed to revive something in Gramma. All of my fears have been allayed. My Gramma is going to live.
Lourdes Dolores Follins is a Black queer femme who comes from a long line of intrepid Black women. She comfortably straddles the worlds of academic and creative writing. Lourdes has been published in Rigorous, Watermelanin, What Are Birds, HerStry, Feminine Collective, Writing in A Woman’s Voice, and elsewhere. When she isn’t writing, she’s a psychotherapist with QTIPOC and kinky people. Check her out at www.lourdesdfollins.com and @DrLourdesD on Twitter.