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Published on August 26th, 2011 | by Rettig to Rumble

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Wheels of Grief

In March 2007, my Grandmother died. Before she did, I spent two nights sitting cross-legged on the dirty hospital floor outside her Intensive Care Unit room, staring through the window at the reflection of the machinery that she was attached to. If I bent my head down at just the right angle, I could see part of her face. The nurses who worked at the station nearby initially asked me to wait in the designated waiting room down the hall but they quickly saw that I had no intention of listening to such an asinine request. They settled for me keeping out of the walkway. So there I sat. Staring. Waiting. Hoping.

The hospital staff finally insisted that I relocate to the main hallway when they began performing CPR on her early Friday morning. Knowing that her bed was against the far wall of her room, I hurried down the hall and around the corner, abandoning all manners as I pressed my ear against the wall that separated us, pushing my entire body into it, tears streaming down my face. Doctors, nurses, delivery men, people carrying clipboards and mothers leading their children by the hand all walked by looking at me, but no one dared say a word.

With my ear against the wall, I heard every single thing that happened in that room. I heard the doctor calling for the paddles. I heard the nurses reporting “no response.” I heard the machines beeping irregularly; finally, I heard the irregular beeping change to one long solid “b-e-e-e-e-e-p.” I listened to this for an eternity.

When the doctor who had been working on her appeared in the hallway, he looked around at my mother, my aunt and my uncle, trying to decide who the main point of contact was. He walked past them, straight towards me. In a lowered but steady voice he said “We have been giving her CPR for the past 15 minutes with no response. Do you want us to keep trying?” He looked directly into my eyes. My family was huddled around, but no one spoke. Without breaking our gaze, I replied, “No. Please, no more.” He put his hand on my shoulder, continued to look at me for a long moment, then turned and left.

When I was born, my grandmother was among the first to hold me. As her first grandchild and only granddaughter, her loving and protective embrace encircled me and persisted for the rest of her life. She bathed me when I was a child, fed me, clothed me and did everything in her power to make sure that I never went without. Yet we had a connection beyond the customary sacrifices parents and grandparents make for their children.

We were like sisters, sharing absolutely everything with each other: our deepest secrets, our hopes and dreams, our laughter and our tears—even our clothes. Growing up, I regularly chose to spend holidays visiting her. During spring breaks while my college friends were busy dancing topless on bars in Mazatlan, I was with her. Even in the last few months before she died, I took vacation time from work to be with her, just sitting by her side, adjusting her oxygen tubes and brushing her hair.

At her funeral, the Rabbi distributed the small black ribbons that we pinned to our clothes before he recited Psalms. Once he finished speaking, I was to deliver her eulogy. But when it was my turn to speak, my throat was so constricted that the words had to cut their own way out. When they finally sliced past my lips into the air, they cracked and fell to the ground, together with my heart and my spirit, shattering into a million pieces.

For weeks after her funeral, I was ship adrift. Lost in the fog of grief I floated through the open water, beckoning to no one, sails lowered. My hull was punctured and I was taking on water, sinking deeper and deeper into the cold ocean of despair.

At some point during the throes of my borderline incapacitating bereavement, I decided to collect all the strength I could muster to throw my skate bag into my car and drive to the rink. Session skate was over when I arrived and there was only one person left inside—a staff member. She recognized me and let me in. I asked if it would be alright if I just skated a few laps before she closed down. She said that would be fine as long as I didn’t mind her vacuuming.

I sat down on the round, carpet-covered bench and slowly put one skate on. I twisted at the tongue for a while, eventually lacing it up. I stared into space. The vacuum hummed in the background. Eventually, I grabbed my other skate and put it on. I stood up and stepped out onto the polished floor. I rolled around for a while, not moving my feet. Finally, I picked up one foot and crossed it over the other one. Then I did it again. Suddenly I began picking up speed. I pushed harder and harder until I was flying around the rink. The air whistled and roared past my ears as if they were two seashells. Stride after stride, I pushed myself faster and faster, lap after lap until I could go no more, collapsing onto the wooden floor, wheezing.

The vacuum had turned off some time ago. The rink was silent save for my panting breaths and the barely audible jingles occasionally humming out from the video game machines. After a few minutes, I heard a voice from behind the skate rental counter. “Feel better?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes I do.”

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