Katya’s House by Shana Graham
“Can we count the widows in Florida?” In her lyric essay, “Katya’s House,” Shana Graham contemplates the untold and unremembered stories of the residents of the hospice where her grandmother and seven other women spend their last days. Her experimental form follows her subject. “How did any ‘rules’ of story make sense,” she asks in her author’s note, “when widows slump on couches in hospice homes like Katya’s house, still seeped in fragments of stories, conflicts, secrets, desires that would never be known or completed?”
In her patchwork of recollections of her grandmother and impressions of the widows in Florida, Graham employs stream-of-consciousness (“The night Grandpa Charlie died Grandma asked me if I would sleep with her in her bed I did….”), vivid setting and scene (the widows drooping on the couches, dialogue from the plump aide with the comforting Haitian lilt), sensory details in the present (the “air glistening with humidity” and far-off buzz of a lawnmower on the patio), sensory details from the past (“the taste of sweet and sour sauce off the wooden spoon” when her grandmother made meatballs), and reflection.
What do the widows’ stories mean to the writer, who’s poised “on the precipice” herself, preoccupied with “an imminent divorce, a marriage gnarled by betrayal and addiction”? How can she make the widows count, as they spiral outward from Katya’s house to more widows in “little houses on Whispering Palm Drive and Springtree Road and Flamingo Lane” and the widow in line at the Seattle food court, all of them about to disappear? Randon Billings Noble’s new anthology of lyric essays, A Harp in the Stars, closes with an open-ended collection of writers’ meditations on the form. “The implied or literal gaps that define lyric essays invite the reader to participate,” Sarah Minor writes, “not in answering a question, but in expanding and specifying the ask.” —CRAFT
In Katya’s house there are eight women who will never leave. They are splayed across a big, black, L-shaped couch in various states of beatific decline at two o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon. They are arranged haphazardly: Some dozing and drooling, chins slumped to chests. Some rag-dolled on the cushions with limbs at awkward angles and sweet, vacant stares. They are wearing lipstick just because it happens to be daytime. The sharp, south-Florida sun blazes through a wide window, flaring their faces with garish halos of light, imbuing them from inside out with an ethereal glow.
There’s some soapy drama humming along on the TV, some scorned brunette, some men with secrets, but none of the women are really watching. One of them watches me, instead. Her eyes alight with an anguished mix of tenderness and longing, like a little girl might gaze at a puppy dog. The others watch nothing, it seems. Faded into some static-screen memory-land of their own minds, perhaps as real as that show, this room, any room.
Or maybe I’m wrong. What do I know? Me of my tanned limbs, my relative youth, my ability to glide with cavalier grace into and out of this room at will. Maybe it’s not longing I see, but knowing. Maybe not absence, but bliss.
Grandma was screaming for days and days before she landed here. The strong one, the stubborn one, the matriarch of our great, wide, Jewish mishpacha. Screaming and crying and fighting off aides, doctors, her own children, in thrall to whatever terror she glimpsed inside. And now here she is, here in this little house converted to a hospice, presided over by the beautiful Katya. Here on this couch in Katya’s house.
Her head hangs slack. Her mouth ajar as she snores lightly, red lipstick smeared across her dentures. Her eyelids droopy and purple, translucent. Her orange hair a thin fuzz upon her spotted scalp. What do I know? Who am I to speak of absence or of bliss?
I am here to visit Grandma for the last time.
Can we count the widows in Florida? There’s one over there, wheeling her walker up and down the weary aisles of Festival Flea Market, fingering half-price eyeshadow compacts, skin creams, her hands shaking as she reaches to place them back in the bin. There’s another, sitting at that same booth at Bagel Tree with her lipstick-stained coffee mug and untouched crossword, gazing out into the parking lot like she’s waiting for something to rise from the sizzling pavement that no one else can see. There’s Ruthie who’s somehow a foot shorter than she was the year her husband died, padding around her home in slippers, defrosting banana bread for guests who’ll never arrive. And Meryl who used to win all the mah-jongg tournaments until cataracts made the tiles cloud and haze, their delicate symbols dancing together like newly minted ghosts.
Can we count the widows waiting in doorways for the mail to arrive? Waiting in the rows of little houses on Whispering Palm Drive and Springtree Road and Flamingo Lane, bright green grass and tennis courts and clubhouses and ambulances. Waiting until one by one they disappear.
The night Grandpa Charlie died Grandma asked me if I would sleep with her in her bed I did I bent shyly into those sheets and she clasped me to her like a girl like a lover and we held each other and we rested and we slept I’m here I’ve got you I’m here I’m here.
Nettie! Nettie! Your family’s here to see you! Nettie! Wake up and see your granddaughter.
The kind, plump aide tries to rouse Grandma, her Haitian lilt round and comforting, melodic. And Grandma stirs. Her eyelids flutter. Her neck strains sideways, taut cords struggling to lift a head that now appears impossibly weighty, unwieldy for the fragile body beneath it.
A human head weighs on average twelve pounds, but when tilted forward, its weight on the cervical spine can be as great as sixty pounds. The cervical spine of a ninety-six-year-old widow is arid and stenosed, brittle as a sandcastle left to weather the wind and sun.
Grandma’s head drops, again. Hangs cradled near her armpit.
Nettie! Don’t you want to see your granddaughter? Nettie?
Out to the little back patio we wheel her. Thatched chairs with bright, sea-blue cushions. A new box of Kleenex. The buzz of a mower on a golf course in the distance. The air glistening with humidity, a thousand-thousand invisible raindrops burning across our cheeks, our tongues, making our eyes sting with our own sweat. Something about it tastes heady and alive. Almost more than alive. Like this swampy, dank, gator-breath land is impassive to death. Has mastered some sped-up, soaked-earth version of regeneration where the afternoon rains crash in with their blinding wash—Renew! Alight!—and pelt everything away so life can emerge, again, cleansed and corporeal and shimmering with new day.
Grandma, I’m here. I’m here, Grandma.
And you know what? She smiles. She smiles and, faintly, very faintly, she says my name.
And what I haven’t told you is: I am faltering, as well. I am probably already dying, as well. Or may as well be. Haven’t slept for days. It’s not tomorrow until you sleep, right? Touched down in Fort Lauderdale relieved by the momentary respite from my own impending wreckage. That I might come here and forget myself and tend to her, instead. My failing marriage, my body charred and numbed by all the pretty potions that take away the pain. Yeah, I do know something about absence and bliss, after all. Absence that feels like bliss and flirting with the sweet and star-streaked edge of a chemical bliss that feels dangerously close to absence. Don’t tell Grandma. She doesn’t need to know. I, her strong one, her bold one, her stubborn one, the one who’s just like her, even looks so much like her. It’s better that she doesn’t know. It’s better she never knows that I am broken, too.
Can we inscribe the stories of the widows in Florida? Hear them and catalogue them, avow them and record them?
I see: An endless scroll, a stiff and yellowed parchment. A Torah, inked with tiny, elegant letters that stretch into stories large and small.
I see: So many letters swimming across pages. So many letters straining to spell so many lives. Whole entire lives! So many singular details. Big hopes, fierce and imperfect loves, dejections, dreams. Strivings and failings. Secrets never spoken. Children, jobs, houses, cars. Dinner parties. Funerals.
The taste of sweet and sour sauce off the wooden spoon while she stirred a simmering pot of her famous meatballs.
The white plastic lawn chair in the backyard where she cried in the cool dusk air while the crickets started up.
The times she excused herself from the dinner table to go freshen up and pulled open the top drawer of the bathroom vanity that hid her little glass ashtray, her partially smoked Virginia Slim, and stole a few furtive puffs.
That one time she stood by the sliding glass door in late summer, the sun filtering in and blanketing her in perfect warmth, and felt simply and indescribably at peace.
And thoughts. So, so many thoughts. Hours and days and years of thoughts, vast internal solar systems, all lit up and sparkling and blazing into great, wide stories. Whole entire lives.
Can we inscribe the stories of the widows in Florida? All the chapters and all the moments. All the tiny, fleeting thoughts. And if we don’t, where do they all go?
What happens to all the stories when you’re sitting on the couch in Katya’s house?
It’s one of those stories Mom has recounted hundreds of times through the years, always good for a laugh. We were in Grandma’s kitchen in Boca. Crisp white tile, doused in sunlight, smelling like oatmeal and antiseptic. Drugstore calendar stuck with an upside-down troll magnet to the fridge, marked up in small, shaky script with doctors’ appointments and card games.
I was sixteen or seventeen. Grandma sat at the table and I stood behind her, massaging her delicate neck, her shoulders, the bronzed, silken skin of her arms. She always said I gave the best massages, though I’d never thought myself particularly adept at them. As I pressed and kneaded, she closed her eyes, let out a sigh, then nearly a moan.
And then she cried out, This is better than sex!
Out on the little back patio behind Katya’s house, I stand behind Grandma, slumped in her chair, and begin to give her a massage.
My fingers brush her neck, her shoulders, skin so soft, diaphanous, hundreds of tiny creases and bruises blooming in pink and purple clusters. So careful, I am. Her bones, her frame, insubstantial as a small child’s. Press and circle my thumbs against the fallen base of her skull.
And I can feel her stir. Grandma’s skin sighs, releases. She lifts her head, just a little, then a little more. Holds it up, herself. That heavy head upon her sandcastle spine, leaning into my thumbs, my hands. Skull lifting and skin sighing, releasing. Human touching human. Creature touching creature. That secret language that still, somehow, penetrates the static. Tunnels through the void.
My fingers: Grandma, I’m here. I’m here, Grandma.
And wherever Grandma is, deep in that impending forever absence, that blissful tunnel to nowhere, that couch in Katya’s house: I’m here. Thank you. Thank you. I’m here.
And what I haven’t told you is: Three days after I fly home from Florida, I’ll sit on my back porch in Seattle at 3:00 a.m. on a November Sunday, fingers chilled and shaking, high, so high my head’s ablaze with my own static and neon sirens, and Grandma will speak to me.
I’ll have just read an article about Robert Frost’s celebrated, but widely misunderstood, poem “The Road Not Taken”—how everyone gets it wrong and thinks it’s about nonconformity, individualism, the free will to chart one’s own singular story and destiny. But really, according to Frost, he wrote the poem as a semijoke for an indecisive friend. Both roads were ultimately no different, interchangeable. “A commentary,” according to critic David Orr, “on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives.”
This truth will strike me at that moment as perfect and profound. Perched on my cold porch stoop, my husband snoring in our bedroom upstairs. Lingering on the precipice of my own divergence: an imminent divorce, a marriage gnarled by betrayal and addiction. And desperate for all of my choices, my years of struggle, to mean something, to have led somewhere, when all I could see looking out on my slashed and burned wood was black void, a great wilderness of nothing.
And I’ll hear Grandma whispering through my own static, my absence, my burning grandiose nowhere: That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. All the roads are the same. All the stories spiral and entwine. Yours, mine. The same.
Millions of tiny letters and words, dancing and swarming and blurring together. Dissipating into and out of static. Traveling along one road or another to that couch in Katya’s house.
And that’s okay, sweet girl. It’s all okay.
Oh great world full of nothing. Grandma. My whole and broken heart. I touch your neck. Your skin sighs. I’m here. You’re here. Let’s walk.
I see the widow at the Festival Flea Market food court, waiting in line at Pita Nosh to order knishes. I watch her from across the room, scanning the display case, eyeing, discerningly, the crusty, doughy mounds—potato knishes and spinach knishes and kasha knishes. Her coral, V-neck T-shirt tucked into long shorts, a white hoodie tied over her shoulders, gold bracelets and earrings and gold braided chain around her neck. Her face ruddy and angular, defined. Long nose and wide forehead and strawberry coiffure. Big, dark eyes. She is beautiful, not in a delicate feminine way, but in a way that demands you to see her, feels potent and large despite her small stature, despite her age. She looks like Grandma. She looks…like me.
She catches me staring at her. Motions toward the old man in front of her in line who is taking far too long deciding which knish to order. Shrugs and rolls her eyes in an exaggerated gesture of annoyance, and we both laugh.
I walk to another stand and buy myself a can of Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda with a straw in it. I plan to join her at one of the little white tables with red chairs that are set around the room. I plan to sit with her and share my soda and steal a few bites of her knish. To ask her to tell me all her stories. To sit and listen for as long as it takes.
But when I walk away from the soda stand, I can’t find her anywhere. I look all around the food court, I walk all the aisles of Festival Flea Market. I don’t leave until they shut the doors and shoo out the final stragglers at five thirty in the afternoon.
But I never do find the widow. She has disappeared.
SHANA GRAHAM is a Miami-based writer, producer, and community builder. She is currently a Lawrence A. Sanders Fellow at Florida International University. Her work has appeared in publications including The Los Angeles Review, Utne Reader, Litro, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse. You can find her on Twitter @_supershana_.
Featured image by Leif Christoph Gottwald courtesy of Unsplash