We Are All We Have

While caring for her mother post-surgery and her grandmother during her final days, Megan Stielstra wonders who’s really taking care of who.

Megan Stielstra | Longreads | December 2019 | 22 minutes (5,562 words)

I spent last December taking care of my 70-year-old mother after surgery. She doesn’t like being taken care of. She takes care of herself. She lives happily alone in an impeccably decorated condo near Ann Arbor full of art and books and a fireplace that turns on with a remote control. She does Pilates every morning. She visits my 93-year-old grandmother every afternoon. She wears vegan “leather” and doesn’t eat dairy and goes to her doctors’ appointments and canvasses for the Democratic party and Facetimes her grandson in Chicago on Sundays so I can have a merciful extra hour of sleep. We have the same last name; sometimes her former students read my stuff and email through my website to ask if I am related to the Ms. Stielstra who taught fourth grade and totally changed their lives. I’m her daughter, I say. She’s wonderful, they say, and I say, I know.

“I need surgery,” she told me in September. We were on speakerphone, me stuck in traffic trying to get from the university where I teach to my son’s elementary school. In my head was every movie ever made of a child sitting sad and alone because their mother is late to pick them up. The word surgery hit like a baseball bat: I thought of the inoperable tumor in my best friend’s daughter’s brain, my father’s heart attack on a mountain in Alaska, my friend Randy’s emergency quadruple bypass, the cancers that took both my grandfathers, the hip replacement my grandmother had never recovered from, and the tumor they peeled years ago off my ovary. Please don’t let it spread, I thought.

“Not that kind of surgery,” my mother said, responding audibly to my inner monologue. We talk three or four times a week and she knows how I think. Or maybe it’s a mother-daughter thing, our bodies tied together across miles and molecules. Maybe she’s really a witch. “It’s foot surgery,” she said. “Again.”

Five years before she’d had a cyst removed from the bone in her foot and something hadn’t healed right. The pain was constant. She used a cane. She couldn’t drive long distances. She’d been to countless podiatrists, orthopedists, physical therapists. “Looks okay,” they said after X-Rays. “Try this exercise, this ice pack, this orthotic.” She bought special shoes. She bought a stationary bike. Nothing got better and no one could say why. “These things happen as we get older,” they told her, another way of saying It’s all in your head. “I know my body,” she told them, another way of saying Fuck that noise. Of course my elegant mother doesn’t use the word fuck. “Ladies can say shit, damn, and hell,” she always told me, reciting the sentence like it was gospel, like she’d read it in Emily Post. “But they can never say — ” She didn’t finish the sentence.

“Foot surgery is good, right?” I said into the speakerphone. My relief was near-tangible, a thing I could hold to my heart. “Maybe they’ll find out what’s wrong.”

“That’s the plan,” she said. “But I won’t be able to walk for a month and — ” She hates asking me for help. I have a kid and a job and she doesn’t want to bother me even though I tell her repeatedly that it’s the furthest thing from. Of course I’ll be there. This is how we take care of each other.

***

The last class of the fall term was the first Monday in December; mom’s surgery was scheduled for Tuesday. My students could email their final essays, I could Skype final conferences, I could read and grade from Michigan. I’d go back to Chicago for Christmas with my husband and son, then back to mom for the rest of the month. I can see some of you raising your hands: yes, surgery had to be on Tuesday, the surgeon only did surgeries on Tuesdays and after that Tuesday he was taking the rest of the month off, which I would dearly love to comment on but ladies don’t say that; no, my husband couldn’t come to Michigan, he owns an online shop and the holiday season is bonkers; yes, it’s a long time to be away from my kid but he will be fine, his dad is right there, we have an incredible network of friends, Facetime exists, and I am not yet able to clone myself, although offering women the ability to care for small children and aging parents simultaneously (while working, cooking, shopping, sleeping occasionally, gym maybe, sex please, being a good friend and an engaged citizen and a decent human being always, but especially in our current political climate) is the most logical argument I have heard for making a genetic copy of myself.

We talk three or four times a week and she knows how I think. Or maybe it’s a mother-daughter thing, our bodies tied together across miles and molecules.

Class finished at 6pm in Chicago. Mom had to be at the hospital the next morning. There was a blizzard that night — thanks, Midwest! — so my usual straight shot down I-94 turned into a white-out white-knuckled crawl, the highway an ice rink. I hunched over the steering wheel, eyes locked on the twin circles of my headlights. My dad had taught me to drive in this weather a lifetime ago, before he and my mom split up and he moved to Alaska: increase your following distance, don’t oversteer. Still, I was an exposed nerve.

I got to mom’s at 3am, tripping over a stack of boxes and passing out on the couch. She woke me up three hours later. “Here is coffee,” she said, handing me a thermos. As always, she looked perfect: dark red hair, dark red lipstick, head-to-toe Eileen Fisher. She inherited my grandmother’s tiny French build; I was a full head taller and 50 pounds heavier, descended on my dad’s side from Vikings. “You can sleep in the car on the way to the hospital,” she said kindly.

Who is taking care of who?

I wandered the condo, looking for where I’d dumped my boots. It was still dark outside. The fireplace was on. She’d decorated for Christmas — twinkly lights and pine boughs and ribbon, one part Martha Stewart to two parts Dwell — and had switched her second-floor bedroom to the main floor guest room to avoid stairs. I pointed at the boxes stacked by the front door and said, “Those shouldn’t be there.”

My mother peered over my shoulder to see what I was talking about. “You have to remember to take those.” She read my thoughts and said, “It’s the dishes.”

***

My grandmother collected Spode, specifically the Blue Italian design initiated in the mid-1800’s.

Hers was a working class family — no money for fancy china — but she played the long game, adding a plate or a bowl whenever there was extra money from her job selling shoes (she was also the store accountant, though she was never credited or paid as such because she was a woman and I will be furious about this until the day I die). She displayed them proudly in a glass cabinet in her dining room in Midland; the same town she immigrated to from New Brunswick when she married my grandfather; where she bore four children and raised three after the youngest died at 15 months old; where every morning she drank a pot of coffee and read the financial pages, tracking the stock market, crunching numbers, saving for groceries and her kids’ education, and if there was anything left over — dishes.

They were beautiful; a winding border of blue flowers surrounding a scene from the Italian countryside: trees, clouds, a river, a castle in the distance. I was an only child, often alone in a sea of grownups, and spent every holiday staring at those plates with an intensity that rivaled Charlotte Perkins Gilman and her yellow wallpaper. In the bottom left corner was a blonde girl — I was blonde! — in a hat — I had a hat! — thinking — I thought! She was in a cave. Or maybe under a hill? Whatever. Why was she alone? Did the sheepherder on the other side of the plate not want to talk to her? What had she done to the sheepherder? Or, as I got older, what had the sheepherder done to her? Was she running away from him? Was she running away from the castle? What was she running from?

It took me a very long time to set the table.

When I was in college, I broke one of the plates at Thanksgiving dinner. I don’t remember how the subject came up but my grandfather and I got into it about abortion. He was very Catholic. I was very not. I’d just returned from my sophomore year in Italy where I’d spent a deeply confusing month thinking I was pregnant — one doctor told me I was, another told me I wasn’t. The latter was correct in the end, but I’d already gone through the decision-making process, life flashing before your eyes and whatnot. For some, the choice is devastating. For me it was easy, an exhale. I didn’t say any of this at dinner. I stuck to the bigger picture: safe, affordable birth control; comprehensive sex education; a woman and her doctor. He said something about his faith. I said something about my future and, for emphasis, slammed the table. It felt good. Anger is easier than language. But then I saw my grandmother’s face; the dinner she’d made with such care, the dishes she’d saved for and cherished.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. I held the pieces in my hands. “I love these dishes.”

“I’m glad to hear that, sweetheart,” she said. Her accent danced on the t’s. “Someday they’ll be yours.”

A few months later, my grandfather sent me a letter. In beautiful looping handwriting, he told me he had been thinking about our “discussion.” He spoke about it with his priest; prayed on it, even. I have much to figure out, he wrote. I’ve read that letter a hundred times. A man of his generation, his naval service in World War II, his years working on his father’s farm, his relationship with god — and he listened. He was trying to meet me, maybe not in the middle, but somewhere.


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Fast forward to my college graduation. The ceremony was at Navy Pier, a 50-acre tourist attraction on the lakefront full of shops, theatres, restaurants, and exhibition space. In the center was a 150-foot Ferris wheel inspired by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition Ferris Wheel, designed to rival the Eiffel Tower. My grandfather stood beneath it in his suit and tie, staring up. “Do you want to ride?” I asked. I don’t do heights but I did that day. Way up in the sky, I showed him the city I loved. I showed him Hyde Park, the teaching job I would start that fall. I showed him my future.

When he died, Grandma bought a bunch of canvases and set up a painting studio in the basement. She tracked her investments every morning and watched Anderson Cooper every night. I’d call when I was scared or angry about the world: living overseas while America bombed Iraq, teaching during No Child Left Behind, losing my home in the recession. She taught me that caring for each other is an act of resistance — we are all we have. At her church in Midland, she’d started a group of women that cooked and served lunch to mourners after funerals. Bringing people together around good food made with love — one small step towards healing.

Grandma taught me that caring for each other is an act of resistance — we are all we have.

The first time Grandma fell, mom closed her condo in Ann Arbor and moved to Midland to take care of her after hip replacement surgery. Grandma wanted to stay in her house so they spent a year preparing: new bannisters, a stair lift, a special shower with a built-in chair. The second fall a few years later made the final decision: she was in her 90s, her body too broken, too much for my mom all alone. We went to Midland to prepare the house again, this time for sale. With an industrial roll of bubble wrap, I packed up the dishes: dinner plates, salad plates, bread plates, bowls, cups and saucers, vases, candlesticks, a butter dish, a gravy boat. “She wants you to have those,” mom said.

I thought of my apartment in Chicago: the active 10-year-old boys, the pit bulls, the dining room table forever covered in laundry. I couldn’t fit a desk, let alone a china cabinet. “I don’t have the space right now,” I said, but it wasn’t the whole truth.

I was scared I would break them.

Anger is easier than language.

***

Mom’s surgery went fine, but so had the one five years ago. It was the healing that worried me, how something so supposedly routine turned into a medical mystery. We’d know in a month; stitches out, swelling down. For now — rest.

We’d been home for a day when I heard my mother crying. I found her in bed as the doctor ordered; flat on her back, foot elevated. After she assured me she wasn’t in pain, I attributed the sobbing — not her typical delicate tears, but full-on face contortions and dripping snot — to a generous post-surgery dose of Norco. She doesn’t drink. She doesn’t eat sugar — a half ounce of chocolate and she’s wired for days — and here she was on industrial pain-killers, laptop on her chest, watching the live stream of president George H. W. Bush’s funeral at the Washington National Cathedral.

“You don’t even like that guy,” I said, reaching back through my memory to the early ’90s. I was in high school and just starting to pay attention: his inaction on the HIV/AIDS Crisis, the invasion of Iraq, the nomination of Clarence Thomas, and the first time I heard the name Roger Ailes, who would go on start FOX news.

“His policies were awful,” she sobbed. “So many people died.”

“Mom — ”

“But he was a person. A person.

“Mom — ”

“There’s so much death in this world.”

I thought of my first acid trip, sitting on the beach and utterly devastated that the beautiful sparkling ocean before me would someday dry up. My friend Joy took care of me. She made me hydrate. She put a tapestry over my head so I wouldn’t get burned. “It’s okay,” she said, petting my arm. “It will all be okay.”

“It’s okay,” I told my mother. “It will all be okay.”

She relaxed for a second, then sat up like something bit her. “Is Sarah remodeling right now?” she said, referring to my friend in Chicago who had recently bought a house.

“She’s updating,” I said, along for the ride. “New appliances and — ”

“You call her right now and tell her she needs a bidet.”

“A what?”

“A bidet. It’s imperative.”

I was impressed she could get her mouth around imperative. When I’m on drugs I can’t do more than two syllables. “Like, the thing on the toilet?” I said.

“It’s called a commode,” she said.

“It sprays water up your — ”

She cut me off: “You call Sarah right now.” The laptop, still broadcasting the presidential funeral, had slid to the side of the bed. The ceremony played, muffled, as I called my friend, and continued playing as she listened patiently to my mother talk about plumbing fixtures for your ass without saying the word ass because, of course, ladies don’t say that.

There are so many ways to care for each other.

***

After I submitted grades, I pretended to write, but I mostly watched Parks & Rec. I shopped and cooked — no dairy, no gluten, no meat — and mom said she liked it even though I got orange sweet potatoes and she likes the white ones. I went to yoga classes, trying to remember my body. My son texted a daily stream of animal gifs and links to the songs he was learning on the guitar: Queen, Tom Petty, The Clash. I sat on mom’s floor and we talked: things she wanted to do after she healed, things I wanted to do after everything slowed down. “When will that be?” she asked.

I didn’t know.

After lunch, I’d drive the half-hour to the assisted living community in Ypsilanti where my grandma lived. She’d be waiting for me: pressed sweater-set and full makeup in her wheelchair. My mother had made the room perfect. The walls were lined with her paintings and framed pictures of her children and their families. Next to her bed was a black-and-white photograph of her youngest son, my mother’s brother Gary, the one who died. “I’ll see you soon, Baby,” she said cheerfully to the photo, and just like that, I believed in heaven. It happened that fast and that completely, decades of doubt excised in the wake of a mother’s faith.

While I was loading the car, I got a text message from my son: Are you coming home soon? It had been two weeks. Two weeks is nothing. Two weeks is everything.

Sometimes she was razor-sharp, the woman I’d grown up with. “Do you know what that man did?” she’d say, pointing at CNN. That man was the president of the United States. “He is awful,” she’d say. (I think she meant asshole but ladies — well, you know.) Sometimes she was sentimental, asking about my son, showing me pictures of my cousins’ kids. Sometimes she didn’t recognize me at all. “Why are you here?” she’d ask, her voice hot with fear. “Where is Ruthie?” I’d remind her of mom’s foot surgery: she’s fine, she can’t walk for a month, she’ll be here for Christmas, do you want to call her on the phone? Once she asked if she could go home. Mom had told her they’d sold the Midland house to pay for this room and its round-the-clock care, but I didn’t know if I should remind her. I’ve been teaching memoir for 20 years: the truth is not always safe.

We’d go up and down the halls, me behind her, pushing the wheelchair or, if she felt strong, walking alongside her as she worked the wheels herself: dining room, living room, game room, greenhouse. It was a lovely facility, bright and sunny, its walls full of enormous framed photographs of local buildings to bring the outside in. She’d wave at her neighbors and their families, joke with the staff. Everyone was kind. I thought of the year my mother spent trying to find this place, the months on the waitlist, fighting with the insurance company, selling property, the work and privilege it took to be here. “Thank god I’m retired,” mom said. “This — ” she gestured at the stacks of paperwork on her kitchen table; bills, hospital records, insurance policies — “is a full-time job.” I had similar stacks on my own table in Chicago; my son and I both have pre-existing conditions. I didn’t know if my teaching contract would be renewed after the spring, and my number one fear was losing our doctors.

“Megan, look,” Grandma said as we neared the end of our walk. There was a photograph near her room that she particularly liked: six three-story buildings in a line, painted the colors of sherbet. Each had a storefront at street level cut just out of the frame; the focus was on two floors of windows and, above that, the sky. “Look,” she said, insistent, clamping her wheels so I couldn’t move her. I didn’t know what she wanted me to see. Maybe seeing wasn’t the point.

***

Google told me there was an Amazon Return Locker in Ypsilanti. Mom had things to exchange; I could drop the packages there after visiting grandma and save her the postage. While I was loading the car, I got a text message from my son. Instead of the usual videos of sheep acting weird, he sent words: Are you coming home soon? It had been two weeks. Two weeks is nothing. Two weeks is everything. He and his dad had picked up a Christmas tree and were decorating the apartment. They were going to see the lights at the Lincoln Park Zoo. They were waiting for the Holiday Train, part of the el that the Chicago Transit Authority decks out in a gazillion colored lights. Santa uses it to deliver food baskets to community organizations across the city and if you catch it, you can ride along.

Soon! I texted. I’m happy you’re having fun!

I wanted to rip down the sky.

Mom asked for help with something and — I’m not proud to say this — I picked a fight, icy and passive aggressive. It started small, something about the dishwasher, but I blew it up to a tsunami, stomping out of the condo. One of the many things I’ve had to interrogate about myself during those weeks with my mother is my own ableism. I could leave the room. I could leave the house. I could walk into the grocery store and pick out my own goddamn potatoes and never again will I take that privilege for granted.

Near the end of my walk with grandma, she stopped her wheelchair in front of that same photograph: the buildings, the windows, the sky. “Megan, look,” she said. Some of the windows had open curtains. You could see inside people’s apartments. “Look,” she said again. I am looking, I thought. I looked yesterday, and the day before, and I have to return all that stuff and if I don’t leave now I’ll hit traffic and —

I want to reach back through time and kick myself in the head.

It was the one thing she asked me to do.

I mapped the route to the Amazon locker, following the GPS though streets I hadn’t seen in 25 years: Huron to Cross Street to Oakland. I turned an unexpected corner and there it was — the house where my high school boyfriend lived during his first year of college. It looked exactly the same; a spark away from one serious bitch of a bonfire. I’d like to tell you that I pulled over for research purposes, to wax poetic about the literary connections between memory and place, but no. I felt it coming, lighting before thunder. It had been building all day, all month, all year and this — my 18-year-old heartbreak, of all fucking things — would be the catalyst. I made a very illegal U-turn, parked in front of that rat-trap of a house, and turned off my car.

I cried because I missed my kid. Because I was cruel to my mother. Care is so deeply tangled with grief. I cried because my grandmother was dying and I should have listened better, been there more, talked about things that mattered like were you scared when you came to this country alone and did you know the shoe store was paying you less and I’m so sorry about your son. I cried because I didn’t get to ride the Holiday Train. I cried because motherhood is your heart on the outside of your body. I cried because I am afraid for my son in this mess of a world; climate crisis, gun violence, children in cages. The government was shutting down. A judge in Texas ruled the Affordable Health Care Act unconstitutional. It was the fall of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing and my students were writing about sexual assault. They’d written about it the year before, during Weinstein, and before that, during the Access Hollywood Tapes, and before that, because this has been happening since the dawn of time. I teach creative nonfiction; the world enters the work. I started rape crisis training to better teach your children. I read your daughters’ essays and sit down to talk with my son. I do breathing exercises in my mother’s bathroom so I can bring her breakfast without throwing the dishes against the wall and dumping this all in her lap when she needs to heal. Like so many educators — and doctors and editors and bartenders and stylists and sisters and friends, any of us who listen as part of our job — I carry stories that aren’t mine to tell. I give referrals to counselors or authorities, recommendations of books and essays and poems by women who survived. I needed those books and essays and poems. I need them still. I shake with rage. There’s so much we don’t ever say.

***

When I was 15, I didn’t make the volleyball team. That was a smart call on the coach’s part. I sucked at volleyball. More importantly, I didn’t enjoy it. I wanted to belong to something and hadn’t figured out that the something mattered as much as the belonging. Soon I would find theatre, music, debate — volleyball would cease to exist — but the week I didn’t make that team was a pit of teenage despair. I cut off my hair and locked myself in my room and listened to the Pump Up the Volume soundtrack on repeat. My mother wanted to help and of course I wouldn’t let her, so she bought a roll of Life Savers and slid them under my door. I remember staring at the words on the wrapper on the floor: life saver. I kept that candy for years. It was melty and gross but I still carried it around; city to city, apartment to apartment, relationship to relationship.

It was the knowing: if I let her, she’d take care of me.

She was watching television when I got back from Ypsilanti. She had her foot up on pillows, perfect in full make-up and black cotton pajamas. “Do you know what that man did?” she said, pointing at CNN.

“He’s an asshole,” I said.

She heard something in my voice and looked up. “What happened?” she said. I was swollen and splotched from crying in my car, a walking case of measles.

My son remembers the woman who taught him to paint, who got down on the floor to play Legos. I remember the woman who called me in 2016 on the day she cast her ballot — ‘I voted for a woman!’ she said.

I sat on the floor by the bed. “Do you remember the Life Savers?”

“The what?”

“In high school. You put them under my door.”

“I don’t — ”

“I never said thank you,” I said. I started to cry again, which made her cry, too. We sat there crying. Our hearts are outside of our bodies.

“Okay,” she said finally, wiping her nose, smoothing her pajamas, back to business. “How can I help?”

When I was 18 I had called her from a hostel in Italy, scared I was pregnant. When I was 28 I called her from Prague, scared of getting married. When I was 31 I called from Chicago sobbing because I’d just had a baby and he wasn’t eating and I was scared I would jump off the roof. “How can I help?” she always said. Then she’d get on a plane.

“I’m supposed to be helping you,” I said.

“Fuck that,” she said. “We help each other.”

It was a perfect moment. I tried to memorize it: fireplace blazing, snow falling, lights twinkling. “You said fuck,” I said.

“No I didn’t,” she said

“You did, I heard you!”

“I would never,” she said, winking. “Ladies don’t say that.”

***

Grandma didn’t want to leave bingo. “Not yet,” she said, when I appeared at her elbow. “I’m winning.” It was the day after Christmas and the place was hoppin’; tinsel and candy canes hung over everything, someone played carols on the piano, great-grandchildren in red and green sweaters ran screaming through the halls. It was the Holiday Train without freezing your ass off.

“Mom’s here,” I told her. “And Caleb.”

She pushed back her wheelchair and said, “Let’s go.”

I’d gone home to Chicago for Christmas and drove back the next morning with my son, singing Queen in the car at the top of our lungs. He changes the part in Bohemian Rhapsody that goes nothing really matters to so much really matters and I want to cry but instead I do the air guitar solo. We picked mom up in Ann Arbor, her first steps outside the condo in a month. She used a walker. Her grandson held the doors. I got them settled in the communal living room and went to bring back Grandma.

The four of us sat around an enormous Christmas tree, blinking red and green. Mom was on the couch, her foot on a chair. Grandma teared up when she saw her. A month is everything. A month is nothing. My son remembers the woman who taught him to paint, who got down on the floor to play Legos. I remember the woman who called me in 2016 on the day she cast her ballot — “I voted for a woman!” she said. “In my very lifetime!” — and again after the election. I told her that I didn’t want to get out of bed and she told me I had to, that we are all we have.

On the way back to Grandma’s room, I stopped in front of the photograph of the buildings. “This one is our favorite,” I told Caleb. He went right up near it, almost nose-to-glass, that childlike instinct to climb inside the art. “I see why you like it,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

He pointed to the yellow building, third from the left. In the bottom center window, no bigger than a fingernail, was a sign.

It said: resist.

***

I unpacked the dishes the week after the funeral. It was almost May, our hard-earned Midwest spring. Every night was a lightning storm, the days all growth and green. “There was a new green shoot of her life, sprouting,” said Ramona Ausubel in an essay on writing about grandmothers, and here I am, looking for perfect words. She died quietly after a month in hospice. When mom called to tell me, my first thought was of the photo next to her bed: I’ll see you soon, Baby.

Grandma has been gone six months and it sneaks up on my mother, the sadness and the joy. Sometimes she calls me crying; ‘Are you sure I’m not bothering you?’

Services were held at the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in Midland, an open, sunny space filled with her children, grandchildren, and the congregation she’d been a part of since she came to the United States in 1945. Afterwards, we gathered in the kitchen around plates of chicken, potato salad, and macaroni and cheese. There was coffee. There was laughing. There were women who knew my grandmother, who made good food with love for people who were hurting. They were with her when she buried her child in 1957, her husband in 2003. “You’re her granddaughter?” they said. “She was wonderful.”

I know.

The dishes were in boxes, stacked in a corner of my dining room since I brought them home at Christmas. I opened the windows to let in the sun and unwrapped the bubbles. There were the winding blue flowers, the castle, the girl in the cave. Our dining room table only sat six, but we brought up card tables from the basement and bought tablecloths at Village Thrift. It would be tight but that’s okay. My son was in the kitchen folding napkins. My husband was on the porch, grilling salmon my father had sent from Alaska. Soon people would arrive, packing around that makeshift table. There’d be wine and bread and discussion. We’d meet, if not in the middle, then somewhere.

***

Mom still uses a cane, but she says it’s getting better. She moved her bedroom back to the second floor. She likes her new physical therapist. She’s hoping to drive to Chicago for her grandson’s 12th birthday, and if she’s not ready, I’ll go get her, a straight shot down I-94. Recently I was in town for Thanksgiving and she came with me to the grocery store. “I want to pick out the sweet potatoes,” she said, and in response to what I’d thought but hadn’t said aloud: “Don’t worry, honey. Your potatoes are great.”

She really is a witch, I thought.

“I heard that,” she said.

A store associate near us was stocking lettuce; it took me a moment to notice that she was crying. “Excuse me, are you okay?” asked my mother, and the question set her off; face contortions, drippy snot. “I’m so sorry,” she said. She was my age, mid-40s, obviously mortified to be crying at work. “How can I help?” mom asked.

The woman told us that her mother had died the month before. She’d made it through the funeral and everything seemed okay, but now that life was supposedly back to normal it would hit her out of the clear blue sky: she’s gone, she’s gone. My mother nodded. Grandma has been gone six months and it sneaks up on her, the sadness and the joy. Sometimes she calls me crying; “Are you sure I’m not bothering you?” she always says. “Didn’t we talk about this?” I tell her on speakerphone, and I pull to the side of the road and listen. It’s okay if I’m late. It’s okay if I break. It’s okay to say things. It’s okay if it hurts.

We went back to shopping. Mom passed the flower section and bought a bouquet of purple lilies. “These are for her,” she said. “They’re your grandmother’s favorites.” And then, because her foot was hurting, she went back to the car to rest while I went up and down the aisles, looking for the woman who had lost her mother.

This is how we take care of each other.

* * *

Megan Stielstra is the author of three collections, most recently The Wrong Way to Save Your Life. Her work appears in the Best American Essays, Tin House, The Believer, and on National Public Radio.

Editor: Sari Botton

* * *

Also In the Fine Lines Series:
Introducing Fine Lines
Gone Gray
An Introduction to Death
Age Appropriate
A Woman, Tree or Not
Dress You Up in My Love
The Wrong Pair
‘Emerging’ as a Writer — After 40
Losing the Plot
A Portrait of the Mother as a Young Girl
Elegy in Times Square
Every Day I Write the Book
Johnny Rotten, My Mom, and Me
Everything is Fine
Barely There
Bracing for the Silence of an Empty Nest
To Grieve Is to Carry Another Time
Game of Crones
Father’s Little Helper
Whole 60
Conversations with My Loveliest
What is Happening to My Body?
Keeping my Promise to Popo
Hello, Forgetfulness; Hello, Mother
Old Dudes on Skateboards
I’m 72. So What?
Learning From Perimenopause and a Kpop Idol
The Art of Losing Friends and Alienating People