Gumma was a classy lady. She got dressed to go out, and did her hair and makeup every day until the last few years of her life. She took pride in her appearance. Manners were of the utmost importance to her. She taught me please and thank you and enforced those words as if politeness was the most important attribute one could possess. You'd think she herself was raised that way, and perhaps she was…
But every family has their black sheep, and for Gumma hers was her brother, Bill. He called himself Wilhem and he lived the secluded, unknown life of a wanna-be drifter. Once every few weeks he'd show up unannounced to collect his mail, which he had sent to Gumma and Da's in order to keep his exact whereabouts unknown. No one knew where he lived. He'd only say that he lived in "Boston."
Uncle Bill was a weird one, to say the least. He was old and unkempt. His teeth were bad, his hair was messy, his clothes were worn through. He used the tractor as if it were a car, riding to the grocery store, bank and liquor store in the breakdown lane at ten miles per hour as if it were normal. He had an odd sense of humor. He told me repeatedly that if I ever wanted to "get back at my mother" I should rub chicken shit on my teeth, ring her doorbell and smile when she answered. I never understood that one. Nor am I sure he was joking.
Communication was not his strong suit. His over-the-phone greeting was, "Ho ho ho, Wild Bill Schmidt here." Whenever he encountered a barking dog he'd stare at it and bark back until it'd eventually walk away, perplexed. He'd write long, verbose letters to Da explaining his activities when he visited (I believe because once Da had the nerve to ask him where he was going all day on a tractor that didn't belong to him). He'd go on and on about how he visited 138 (one of the four properties Gumma and he owned) and mowed only half of the backyard, promising to return next week to finish the job. Or how he'd attempted to get in touch with one of the deadbeat tenants by incessantly pounding on their back door. He punched Tammy's father in the nose once, though I was never told why. He was not a people person.
Although Uncle Bill's odd character frequently embarrassed Gumma, he was her brother. She made him lunch when he'd show up and she always kept beer in the fridge for him. We gave him rides to the bus station, careful not to pry as to where he was going. She never spoke ill of her brother, but I could tell by her body language and red face she was often thinking, maybe he's adopted.
When I was twenty years old Gumma fell and broke her hip. The next day Uncle Bill was hit by a car. As cruel irony would have it, the odd couple of siblings ended up side by side at Middlesex hospital for the next three days. You should've seen Gumma's face when they wheeled Uncle Bill into her room. Her mouth was agape in disbelief and her visible thoughts read, you’ve GOT to be kidding me.
The next few days in the hospital consisted of Uncle Bill yelling non-stop - at the staff and about what he was going to do to the driver that hit him. Poor Gumma alternated between empathizing, ignoring and yelling at him to shut up. She eventually requested a room change, which the sympathetic nurses granted her. Uncle Bill bitched and moaned his way right into a private room.
Being that Uncle Bill was unable to walk and would need time to rest and heal, the hospital suggested that he stay with me and Gumma for two to three weeks. Luckily, I was home for summer vacation so I was able to attend to them both as they recovered. However, suddenly becoming responsible for two handicapped, elderly adults is not as easy as it sounds.
Move-in day started out as a disaster. My father (the most impatient person on the planet) had to carry both Gumma and Uncle Bill from the car into the house, as neither of them could walk. Gumma insisted on staying in her big chair in the kitchen.
"I won't be back until tomorrow," my dad argued. "You'll have to sleep in that chair."
"It's alright. I don't want to be cooped up in bed all day and night," she insisted.
I understood. She had the TV in the kitchen and we'd brought home a commode for her to use, so there really was no reason for her to be upstairs. Plus I think she wanted to be as far away from her brother as possible within the confines of her own house.
"Ok," my father conceded, then moved on to get Uncle Bill out of the car.
Uncle Bill did not like being carried, and so began to complain and yell halfway through the journey. When my father got him to the dining room, he had had it up to here with his uncle's bitching.
"ENOUGH!" my father screamed. "I'm trying to help you, you ungrateful prick! If you don't shut the fuck up I'm gonna drop you on the fucking floor and leave you there!"
My grandmother and I heard this from the kitchen.
"Ed!" she scolded. But something clicked.
Uncle Bill became silent, then we overheard him say, "I'm sorry, Ed. I’m sorry."
I thought that had been a turning point in the life of Uncle Bill and maybe he'd start being respectful, like a person who learned their lesson on a sitcom, instantly changing their ways forever. But no such luck. Once my father left for work he was back to being an asshole.
I moved into Gumma's room to give Uncle Bill mine. My room was right across the hall from the bathroom, so I thought I could just help Uncle Bill "walk" the few steps using me, the walker and a lot of arm strength. I gave him a bell and told him to ring it if he needed me, as I would be just down the hall.
That night I awoke to the sound of moaning. I scrambled out of bed and found Uncle Bill on the floor halfway to the bathroom. He had been attempting to crawl, but had lost his strength so now it was up to me to muscle his body up off the floor.
"Why didn't you ring the bell?" I asked him, annoyed.
"Oh shut up, you bitch," he responded. My mouth fell to the floor. He had never said anything like that to me! He had always been nice. Weird, but nice. Was his sudden dependency making him combative? Did he fear vulnerability so much that it caused him to lash out?
Not knowing how to respond I paused, turned, and stormed back into Gumma's room, slamming the door. You've got to be fucking kidding me! I thought as I paced back and forth trying to decide how to react. I was livid, yet stuck in this situation. I envisioned him alone, on the other side of the door, helplessly trying to pull himself along the carpet, and my heart broke. My pride subsided. I couldn't leave him. He must feel so emasculated, the last thing that needed to get involved in all of this was my ego. I opened the door, went downstairs, got the commode and brought it to him.
"Come on," I said, pulling him to a sitting position, "push yourself up with that arm and I'll pull you up with this one, then I'll pull the commode under you and you sit."
He didn’t respond.
"Ok, 1,2,3," I continued and he cooperated.
The two of us were able to lift his body off the floor enough to awkwardly shimmy the commode under his butt. I handed him a role of toilet paper.
"Call me when you're done," I instructed and walked back into Gumma's room.
I sat on the edge of the bed. It’s gonna be ok, I told myself. I imagined my poor, infirm Uncle taking a shit on a port-a-potty in his sister's hallway, and I couldn't fight the sadness. I started to cry, and it felt good. It felt appropriate and necessary. The relief actually made me smile, and the tears let up. I wiped my face with my hands and heard Uncle Bill call me. I went to him. I brought him his walker and carefully helped him stand. Bending his knees and moving his legs with my hands as he held himself up on his walker, we were able to get him to the bed without falling.
"Do you want something to drink?" I asked.
“Yes, please," he said.
I went downstairs quietly, so as not to wake Gumma, but she was awake.
"I'm getting Uncle Bill some water," I told her.
"Oh, may I have a cold drink?" she asked, as if she had been sitting there parched for hours, waiting for me to come down.
"Of course!" I poured her a tall glass of diet coke with ice.
"Oh, thank you so much!" she said and took a series of huge gulps. "Give Uncle Bill a cold drink too," she said, as if diet coke would heal them both.
"He tried to crawl to the bathroom himself," I gossiped. "I had to pick him up off the floor."
“Oh, for goodness sake," she sighed, embarrassed. "I am so sorry. You are so good for doing this and I'm going to make sure you get paid for it." I felt so guilty when she offered me money for familial duties.
"No, no, that's not why I said it," I argued.
"I know it's not," she defended, "But you deserve it. You earned it.” … Well, I couldn't argue with her there.
The next day I had to take Uncle Bill to a doctor's appointment in Hartford. He asked to stop at the McDonald's drive-thru on the way. I obliged. I handed him his food and continued to drive. He tore open the straw to his soda with his teeth, even though his hands were working perfectly fine. Ending up with some wrapper in his mouth, he proceeded to spitball it onto the dashboard of my fathers Cutless Sierra.
"What the fuck!?" I exploded, "look at that!" I gestured to his disgusting wad of saliva paper, stuck to the dash.
"Oh, shut up you bitch," he answered. My head almost exploded. How fucking dare he treat me so disrespectfully when I was doing so much to help him! Again, I didn't know what to do. My only method of coping was to fight anger with more anger. So I yelled.
"Fuck YOU, you fucking asshole! I will leave you on the side of the road!" My voice cracked as helplessness made its way to the surface. I floored the gas petal to show my anger, and weaved in and out of traffic to get this trip over with as quickly as possible. He remained silent. He ate his food. He left the spitball on the dash, as if to say "fuck you" without words. Eventually, on his own time, he wiped the spit soaked paper wad off the dashboard and onto the floor of the car.
We arrived at the doctor where a nurse assisted Uncle Bill out of the vehicle and directly into a wheelchair.
"He should be about an hour," she informed me, but I had no intention of returning. I drove to a payphone and called my father.
"What an ungrateful piece of shit," my father confirmed after I told him what happened. "Well Punkie, you're just gonna have to try and ignore it. Just don't talk to him," he offered, but I was not backing down.
"I'm leaving him there. Fuck him. Let them deal with it," I rebelled, half thinking my father would applaud my decision, because I knew it matched his instincts as well.
"You can't leave him there," he burst my bubble. "I know it sucks, Punkie, but it'll be over soon," he leveled with me. I sank. I desperately wanted to leave him there and come out as the winner of this battle, but I followed my father's advice. I returned to get Uncle Bill and we rode the half hour home without speaking.
For the following week I did as my dad suggested. I didn't engage my sick Uncle anymore. I continued to empty his urinal and bring him food, but I didn't say any more to him than necessary. Ignoring each other worked well, actually. It made the time go by faster. And, as if God were helping to ease my burden, Uncle Bill's physical health improved quickly. He was able to walk on his own after a few days, then up and down the stairs by himself. After a week he announced he wanted to go home and asked me to drive him to Hartford. I was ecstatic and said sure, when did he want to leave? As soon as possible, he answered, so I dropped everything and we left.
"Am I taking you to the bus station in Hartford?" I asked, confused since we always just dropped him at the bus stop nearest our house.
“No, the Hartford hotel." The pieces of the puzzle started to come together when we pulled up in front of the dilapidated building.
"Help carry my things inside," he ordered, gesturing to the two large black garbage bags he used for suitcases in the backseat.
"Ok," I said skeptically, opening the back door while eyeing the rundown motel. I shifted my focus to the garbage bag I was about to transport. Uncle Bill had failed to tie the hefty bag strings, so it was open and I saw inside. What the fuck? I opened the bag a little more. It was full of fast food napkins. "This is just a bag of napkins?!” I shouted to my crazy relative who was halfway to the door.
"Just bring it!" he commanded. You have got to be fucking kidding me, I thought as I lugged the bag of garbage inside.
"You owe two months rent," the woman behind the bullet proof glass yelled to Uncle Bill. He ignored her.
The inside of this obviously rent-by-the-hour roach motel looked like it was decorated by a 1970s pimp. Bright red wall to wall carpet that looked badly in need of vacuuming lay on the cramped lobby floor. A gaudy, gold-framed mirror hung on the wall, as if to dare people to take an honest look at the choice they were about to make. It reeked of cigarettes, mothballs and headaches.
I followed Uncle Bill up a narrow flight of stairs hugged by two walls like a secret passageway. We got to the second floor and proceeded to his room, which was protected by a heavy, black door that looked like it used to restrain prisoners in solitary confinement. He opened it and I followed him into chaos.
"You've been robbed!” I blurted, before thinking.
His small cell-like room looked like a tornado had hit it. Papers, clothes, take out boxes and trash covered every inch of surface. All of the cabinets in his kitchenette area were open, as if someone had rummaged through quickly looking for something. His single bed sat out of place in the center of the room, its sheet half pulled off it, exposing the cheap plastic mattress. God, I couldn't believe this burly hoarder was related to my grandmother.
The land lady appeared in the doorway. "You're two months behind on rent, Bill," she repeated to my Uncle.
"I know, I know!" he impatiently responded.
"He's been in the hospital," I offered, trying to help. She looked at me. She was around his age, maybe mid-to-late sixties, and, though she looked like she had lived, she had a softness about her, as if her hard days were in the past.
"I'm his niece," I introduced myself.
"I didn't know you had family, Bill," the woman said. I liked her. She made this horrible place seem less like a freak show.
"I'll get you your money tomorrow," he answered.
Feeling like my job here was done and fearing that my car had been stolen and sold for scrap metal, I dismissed myself. "Ok, Uncle Bill, call us if you need anything." Automatically, and out of obligation, I gave him a hug, which he was clearly not expecting. "Nice to meet you," I said to the lady, then slipped past her and out the door.
Uncle Bill died a few years later while Gumma was in a nursing home recovering from a broken pelvis from yet another fall. My aunt Mary Jo, and cousins Elizabeth and Mary and I went to the home together to deliver the sad news. Elizabeth and Mary never went to visit Gumma, though they lived less than a mile from the home, so I knew she'd know something was up when we all walked in together. But I am more of a pessimist than she was.
Gumma was seated in her wheelchair out front of the nursing home, as if she were planning a roll-away escape.
"What a nice surprise," she exclaimed, seeing us all walk up. We gave her kisses and hugs, then Mary Jo knelt down beside her and took her hand.
"Bill died today," she said sympathetically. Gumma looked shocked.
"My brother Bill?" she asked. Mary Jo nodded and Gumma broke into tears. Seeing my grandmother cry broke me, and I turned to my cousins and started to sob. Be there for her, the God voice in my head told me, and I swung back around, knelt and took her other hand.
"I'm so sorry, Gumma..." I hugged her. We both sobbed. "I love you," I said. Her sobbing was intense. She sounded like a small girl or a wounded bird. High octave and hurting. The sound of Gumma crying made me weep that much harder. But Gumma quickly pulled herself together.
"Oh, I'm sorry," she apologized for her emotions and wiped away her tears. "I'm just so glad to see you all.”