Hold Close Your Family

Greer came home from Ithaca for Thanksgiving. We all had gathered at Celia and Dave’s on the Thursday. The aunts, uncles, cousins. Celia cooked. She cooked every year.

We have a large family. Complicated. Blended in a way different from the way we speak about some families nowadays. More complicated. Maybe not. Though cousins marrying cousins seems strange to some. Not in a good way, I think. Celia is my cousin. And she married Dave, my younger brother. Our grandparents were cousins. I think that’s an old country thing, from when families were large and communities were small and tight. Insular, protective, with good reason.

 “Hold close your family, Gert,” my mother always told me. “We do that. We women do that.”

I think of Celia and me. Our mothers. Our Aunts. Our daughters. “We are the stitching that holds the sweater together,” my mother would say.

Greer didn’t feel well. He didn’t look good, but we all told him he looked great. He had grown a beard at college. Dave said it was an affront to the flag, the country, the troops. It was 1969. We passed Dave the cranberry sauce.

Greer ate very little and took a nap before going out to see some friends. Celia made him see the doctor the next day. It was mono. Fatigue, swollen lymph glands, fever. He wasn’t hungry. Just tired. Pain in all his bones.

I will say this before I say any more, just to get it out. On the Mother’s Day after that Thanksgiving, just before dawn, my nephew, Greer, died. Or, he ‘passed’ as my older brother, Max, the writer, prefers to say. He believes died is too harsh a word. Too organic sounding, he says. He lives in Toronto. We hardly ever see him. He doesn’t do Thanksgivings.

Greer went back to school on the Monday after the vacation. The symptoms persisted, then worsened. He went to the infirmary. The doctor there ordered blood work and called Sloane Kettering where she had a colleague. Then she called home and spoke to Celia.

Celia was making dinner for Dave. When she heard the doctor’s voice, she sat down in the chair by the telephone table in the hall, next to the cabinet with the bottle of J&B and a shot glass Dave would drink from when he got home from work.

When she heard the doctor say she was from the college, she began to sob. She said, “No.” Kept saying no, listening to only some of what the woman was saying. She heard “Kettering,” though.

She called me, still crying, grasping for breath, as she told me. It sounded bad. I said maybe it wouldn’t be, that he’d get the best care there, whatever it is.

“Yes,” she agreed.

I sometimes imagined Celia and myself growing old and wrinkled together, living in a two-bedroom condo in Florida, on a cul-de-sac with palm trees, like our mothers did, with a broad screened-in veranda, and baby alligators in the lake we can see from our backyard.

Greer died before the sun came up. When only the blue-gray light from the east came in through the window in his room.

Kettering was a grim place. The walls were painted with grime and sadness. There was nothing there that looked anything like hopeful. If we saw hope one day, the next day it was quickly dashed against the walls, the windows, and the floors.

We bought him a radio for the table beside his bed. Friends sent letters and cards to him. Wished him well.

The treatment was experimental. Alkaloids made from plants. Periwinkles and crocuses. Colchicine and vincristine. There was nothing else. Experimental sounded promising. We trusted them. We needed to. We knew nothing. They knew everything.

He lay in a bed in a room paid for by a government grant. It had one window which looked out on First Avenue.

I read that Paul Ehrlich, in the early 1900’s, studied experimental treatments for cancer, using the alkylating agents. They say he had a sign over the door to his lab, “Give up all hope, oh ye who enter.”

The drugs killed his cells. Any cells that divided fast. The cancer cells, his bone marrow, skin, hair, mucous membranes. His body just stopped making new cells. Red and white blood cells, platelets. His body stopped growing, stopped healing itself.

He was nauseous all the time. They gave him peppermint drops for it. They gave him antibiotics and platelets to replace the ones that the drugs had killed. But the cancerous cells spread.

We stayed with him as much as we could. Taking turns sitting by his bed, going out for coffee or a cigarette. Standing by the window in his room looking out at the traffic. Watching the lights on the corner of Sixty-eighth. On nights when it rained, the lights spread out in streams on the dark, wet streets.

For weeks, Celia sat at the end of the hall by the radiator. Her arms folded across her chest or wrapped around herself. She looked weary. The hallway looked weary. She came to his room, several times during each hour, standing by the door, taking the measure of his condition. Taking the measure of what she could endure. She’d then turn away, back into the hall, or she’d come in and touch his hand or his cheek, feel his forehead, her own headed bowed.

“Would you like to sit in the chair?” Sometimes she did.

“Are you alright?” I asked her once. She looked at me. That was foolish of me to say.

Each night we drove home on the highway along the East River, crossing into the Bronx and up home, past the racetrack. We didn’t talk. I drove and she looked out the window on her side. We kept the radio off. There was so much to think about. Greer, of course. And other things, too. It seemed like everything was falling apart. Russia, missiles, Cuba, the bomb. Kennedy and his brother, King, Vietnam, riots in the streets. There was so little for us to hold on to. We felt powerless. We were powerless.

“Oh, Gert,” she’d say to me. Not looking at me. Speaking to the window. Watching the boats on the river.

There were no words to be said. Only grief. As when my own son, the year before, had been hit and killed by a driver as he knelt on the side of the road fixing a flat tire in the dark. She’d suffered with me in my own grief then. Too much to bear. Too much to bear alone.

We’d put our things down on kitchen counter and Dave would ask how he looked today, what did the doctors say, how was he feeling? I’d take Nico out for a walk and let the two of them talk. I don’t know what they said. I left them alone. Then I’d go home and to work in the morning and pick Celia up the next afternoon.

One evening, as we got ready to leave, the nurse, a woman in her fifties, I thought, told us that his fever was very high and that maybe we should stay. We watched as they fitted an ice pack as big as a mattress, under him, to bring the fever down.

She said, “If he makes it until dawn, he’ll be okay.”

“If?”

In the first gray light of day came through the window, when the nurse came in, she called out for the doctor, we woke in our chairs. He had not made it. It would never ever be okay. He had died there while we slept in chairs by his bed.

We drove home. The two of us.

And when she saw Dave standing, waiting for us in the kitchen, “We’ve lost our boy,” she said, and held on tight to him.

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