by Cameron McLeod Martin
My Grandmother; or, WHEN IN DOUBT LIVE IN DOUBT by Cameron McLeod Martin

Often when I think of her, I think of her asshole. Rectum, sphincter. Or, as I put in an abandoned poem once, “blind ugly iris.” Thinking of an eye, trying to wrench my own eye somewhere more pleasantly metaphorical. Her asshole looked back at me as I wiped her clean, having just become incontinent, having just shat herself and the bed with its elaborate draped headboard and pink sateen sheets.  

This may or may not have followed the first and last dose of morphine (her dry mouth begging for water). I have a hard time remembering, a hard time wanting to. The timeline, the details. She was in at home hospice, dying of pancreatic cancer, and despite the array of drugs made available to her caretakers, including myself, for managing her pain, she mostly insisted on subsisting on aspirin alone. I remember a homemade chart (was it hand-drawn, an Excel spreadsheet printed out?) meant to track the medications that mostly weren’t administered. I remember a succession of nurses, not seeing their faces more than once, maybe twice. I remember getting her to the bathroom once with difficulty, leaning her against my shoulders, my arms braced under her armpits. The thinness of her arms. I remember that she wouldn’t let me stay to ease her down onto the low pink porcelain toilet, that she sent me away. And I remember her voice calling me back from the other room when she couldn’t get herself back up again. 

She was my father’s mother. She’d had five children, only one and half of whom were reliable at any given time. So, though only nineteen and drifting after a difficult first year of college, I’d been pressed into service. I didn’t mind so much. It was something to do, engrossing and meaningful. Near to the white hot heart of mortality, grief. Never mind that it broke me. 

I remember feeling grateful for having already had, by then, a fair amount of anal sex. The anus as object of desire, little fleshy bullseye, and thereby somewhat emptied out of repulsion, disgust. That same abandoned poem: “Desire recalled does not occur.” But it helped. I wiped her clean and slipped in a Compazine suppository, anti-anxiety, for her own comfort but also for ours, then wrestled on an adult diaper, ‘wrestled’ because I didn’t know what I was doing, that the diaper had resealable tabs designed just for this, so I pulled it up her legs like underwear, which she would never wear again. 

She could be a real asshole. She called me retarded once, called California “the land of fruits and nuts” repeatedly, made me listen to Dr. Laura and Rush Limbaugh in the car—though this sketchy inventory of events and habits doesn’t quite get at her specific caustic quality. It was kind of awesome, in a way, how absolutely nasty she could be. Sublime like lightning: dangerous, captivating, bright. 

Recently, I learned her first married name was Terribile. Terri-bile, not terri-ble. I read it wrong at first, liking the easy irony too much to catch my mistake, but the suggestion of vomit works just as well and accuracy, or as close as I can get to it, is important to me. She never talked about that first, fast, fraught marriage, and neither did anyone else in our family while she was alive, but I learned from my father after her death that she was married and divorced before she met my grandfather, who was dead before I was born; that her first husband was the biological father of my dad’s eldest brother, my worst uncle with stiff competition; but I hadn’t known the name. Hadn’t seen the marriage license, dated two days after her eighteenth birthday, a little over a month before my worst uncle was born. My father and I are barely speaking lately, but I called him when I found the marriage license, letting new details reinvigorate an old conversation. I’d forgotten her birthday, and never knew my worst uncle’s, so he put that two and two together for me. “She never really talked much about it,” he said, “but I got the impression she needed to get away from her dad quickly.” Why she needed to get away from her dad, as soon and as officially as she could, I can only speculate, but it can’t have been good. 

I’ve tried to write about her before, here and there, more and less successfully. Recount the story of her death, its aftermath, which remains the hardest part for me, the most intangible and unsatisfying. How I lived alone in her house after she was dead and buried and everybody else had gone, slept in her deathbed, was surrounded by her things, which I felt no affinity or fondness for, until I couldn’t take it anymore and fled. How the last straw, or somewhere near it, was finding the unmarked cardboard box that held the plastic vault that held her ashes. Left without notice on a sideboard in her formal sitting room. The small couches upholstered in fabric that looks just like blue china. The Royal Daulton figurines she maniacally collected coldly watching me in their rigidly windblown porcelain dresses, inseparable from their bodies. That period lasted such a short time, really, probably just a few weeks, but I was as miserable, as vastly hopeless and alone, as I’ve ever been, and it felt endless in the moment. 

What I guess I’m trying to say, what I’m trying to work through now, is that I don’t know why I keep writing about her, thinking about her, dreaming about her. It bothers me a little. We weren’t exactly close. We had so little of substance in common. I don’t and didn’t find her especially admirable or interesting. She didn’t much like or understand me, and the feeling was entirely mutual. She wasn’t kind or warm like my mother’s mother, who would often ask if I’d found a partner yet and seemed oddly invested in getting yes for an answer, and I think about her comparatively little, haven’t written about her at all. I find it frustrating, confusing, annoying that I can’t get the woman out of my head, that you can choose your family but, also, you really really can’t; that the same, for better and worse, is true of obsessions, subjects, dreams.  

Concerning dreams, I wrote this loose sonnet a little while ago after having yet another one about her: 


I’d meant to write a poet’s novel but I’m playing with this ratty box instead, like a kid or cat,  
eating roots on toast, not as mushy as I’d like. My thumb a little burnt and dyed with beet juice. 
Butter greasing, lubricious. What a drag to have to eat all day without a moment spared for
pleasure. Eat to live, don’t live to eat my grandmother always said, cajoling me to join  
the clean plate club. She made draperies for a living, scolded for sport. In my dreams  
she’s still alive or resurrected and it’s surprising but also inevitable, obvious. In one she’s 
appeared in my apartment, tsking at my blinds. They’re fine, I say. Functional. The rent is cheap. 
But she isn’t having any of it. In principle I appreciate excess, but she has terrible taste. 
I brace myself for whatever neo-Victorian buffoonery she’ll press on me: tassels, cascades,  
box and butterfly pleats, Bishop’s Sleeves, fringe and braids and ruffles. But then she returns  
with something surprisingly tasteful, modern, stylish. Clean lines, youthful, fun. Which feels worse, of  
course, execrable, just what she was going for. She gave so meanly, luring little flies with  
puddles of beer. I don’t speak to her son. It’s new. I swish estrangement in my mouth, feel the burn. 
Just sitting here, my ass asleep, minding my own business, repeating the family name until meaningless. 


WHEN IN DOUBT LIVE IN DOUBT someone almost said to me recently. Something else worth repeating until the mind moves on. Pithy, dubiously achievable axiom akin to Zen koans, St. John of the Cross aphorisms. In her book Viability, the poet Sarah Vap quotes and misquotes and further misquotes St. John of the Cross, making an aesthetic virtue of distortion through repetition and pastiche. At a reading I attended years ago, in response to an audience question, she quoted one aphorism in particular, the book’s epigraph: “Where there is no love, put love—and you will find love.”  

“But how do you do that,” she said, mock-exasperated. “I don’t know.” In her hands the gnomic, already-impossible advice becomes increasingly unwieldy:  

Untenable? Where there is no love, put continuation or put increase or put proliferation—and there you will find the love untenable. Language is not infinity. Language is not hopeful. There is no rupture in language. Language is always doing. Language is never undoing. I admit that I had hoped to ‘love’ and ‘be loved.’

                                                                                                —John of the Cross 

Put everlastingness. Put unendingness. Put relentlessness. Put algorithms and put operations. Put them everywhere you turn. You will become the field gesturing. You will become fishbones and guts, you will become strewn across the pavement. You will become the bruises along the mind. You will become the weapons-grade membrane. You will become the animals of actual mercy. You will become actual dead animals. You will become dead.

                                                                                                —John of the Cross 

My grandmother was religious, but not Catholic, and though I can’t say for sure, I doubt she ever ran across anything by John of the Cross. She definitely didn’t read poetry, besides the psalms and Robert Service, “the Bard of the Yukon,” writer of “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” A tattered copy of his collected poems always sat on the table beside the chair she always sat in at the cottage, where she always spent her summers. She was a creature of habit, regularity, rigid complacency, practicality. She liked things to be straightforward, refused to accept when they weren’t. 

I, too, admit that I had hoped to “love” and “be loved,” that I have attempted to substitute love’s absence with continuation, increase, proliferation, both conscious- and unconsciously. I have attempted to become the field gesturing, whatever that means, to respond to relentlessness, unendingness, to put up with frustrating, impossible, inescapable words and people by letting them be. Letting them become stranger. To let them lie and rise and lie again, bruises along the mind, strewn across the pavement, made-up and weapons-grade. My grandmother became actual dead animals. She became dead. I’ll become dead. She taught me that, in a way, in more than just my mind. This is normal, not a tragedy. It happens every day. Language doing, always, undoing nothing, undoing nothing at all. 

When she finally died, I was sleeping in the basement. In “the shade room,” remnant of her career as a drapery maker, hoard of so many slats and blinds and bolts of thick fabric meant to keep the light out. It was damp down there. I was uncomfortable on a cot. I was sleeping sort of deeply.  

“I think she’s dead,” my worst uncle said, waking me with a start around dawn. I was too fresh from sleep and bleary-eyed to be surprised, though she wasn’t meant to die for weeks. Whatever that could mean. I went upstairs with him. Her mouth was gray and agape, her elbows bent and stiff, rigor mortis setting in enough that she no longer looked quite human, like herself. I’ve often privately wondered if my worst uncle put a pillow over her face, thinking in a self-congratulatory way that he would ease her suffering, really just wanting to get it over with, get back to his life, but I sort of doubt it. I know it’s irresponsible to baselessly speculate, but he’s dead now too. Whatever else is true, she was dying. She could’ve gone any time. My dad had had to get back to his job hours away, and he was shocked by the news, remains indignant that the hospice nurses didn’t give him the notice he was promised, that he couldn’t get back and be beside her at the end, though he forgets that, even sleeping in the basement of the same house that she was dying in, I wasn’t there either, not really. 

I remember the hospice people giving us pamphlets, telling us about the grief counseling available to us. I remember thinking my dad would probably benefit from that, but I was fine. We weren’t that close. I probably wouldn’t need to grieve. Earlier that summer I’d watched and loved the Emma Thompson adaptation of the Margaret Edson play Wit, about an intellectually uncompromising and emotionally austere scholar of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets who’s dying of ovarian cancer, before we knew my grandmother was dying of a different kind of cancer, and it felt to me like more than adequate preparation. Early on in the play, Thompson’s character says: “I know all about life and death. I am, after all, a scholar of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, which explore mortality in greater depth than any other body of work in the English language.” Part ironic distance, part arrogant overconfidence. Later, reflecting on her ferocious teaching style: “Did I say (tenderly) ‘You are nineteen years old. You are so young. You don’t know a sonnet from a steak sandwich.’ (Pause) By no means.” I wanted to be her when I grew up.  

I gave my copy of the DVD to the hospice nurse I liked best, told her she’d really like it, especially the part where Audra MacDonald, who plays a nurse, is so much more human and warm than the doctors. I was nineteen years old. I was so young. I felt I had a pretty good handle on things. I was pretty sure I knew what it all meant, or near enough. I knew a sonnet from a steak sandwich.  

I had entirely missed the point. 

Cameron McLeod Martin is an essayist and poet living in Moscow, Idaho. Their work has previously appeared in Fence, Sonora Review, Afternoon Visitor, & Change, and elsewhere. They hope you have a wonderful day.