Most of the memories I had of my Grandma while growing up consisted of her being restricted to a hospital bed. I remember holding my mom’s hand as we walked into her hospital room for the first time, with a “Get Well Soon” card gripped in my hand. I was a little too young to understand what was going on, but mom explained to me that Grandma was really sick and being in the hospital would make her feel better. She had her good days and bad. On the good ones, she was able to laugh and chat with us like nothing was wrong. I’d pull up a chair next to her and we would play games like Tic-Tac-Toe and Dots and Boxes. We wouldn’t visit her on the bad days.
After a while, those bad days became more and more frequent. Her health took a drastic turn for the worst, leaving her in a coma from which we weren’t sure she would recover. Our options at that point were pretty slim, but my mom wasn’t ready to say goodbye yet. She refused to give up without finding another way to keep her with us. That’s when the strange machines appeared.
I came home from school a few days after we learned the news, and when I trotted past our guest room I noticed some fancy-looking equipment with wires and tubes set up with a large TV monitor. In the middle of the mess was my Grandma in her hospital bed. The tubes and wires were connected to her and she had a helmet on top of her head that made her look like an alien from outer space.
“What did you do to Grandma?!” I cried out in disbelief.
My mom popped up behind me, her face lit up with excitement.
“Don’t worry about all the machines,” she waved her hand away from it like it was no big deal. “We’re going to have Grandma back!” My face wrinkled with skepticism as I contemplated if this was some sort of sick joke.
She tried to explain it to me in words I could comprehend, but it all soared in one ear and exited out the other. Only as I got older did it finally somewhat click into place. My family found a company that was testing a new, top-secret system they had created, and Grandma had been selected for a 10-year trial. After all, we really didn’t have much to lose.
As the 10th year was just a day away, we were celebrating a couple of milestones in the household. Not only was Grandma turning the big 100, but on that same day her trial was being renewed for an additional 10 years to keep progressing the functionality of the system. Because of this machine, she had been with us all this time to be apart of major life events, which we had thought she’d never be around for. However, I was slightly hesitant to see her because it had been a while since I had come home to visit. I wasn’t sure what to expect.
I approached her door and knocked gently as I carefully pushed it open. The TV monitor beside the hospital bed flickered to life. The image on the screen displayed Grandma sitting in a leather armchair with her leg crossed. She looked just as beautiful as I had remembered, with a crisp, ironed jacket, fresh perm, and tastefully done make-up. She gave me a small grin and motioned me in. I advanced closer to the screen trying not to think about her physical body lying next to me when that’s not what I was interacting with.
I held up the birthday card I had been eager to give her. Since I couldn’t be with the whole family on her actual birthday, I wanted to give it to her a day before.
“Happy birthday young lady!” I teasingly announced.
Even though I couldn’t hear it, she let out a chuckle and slowly shook her head.
The way the program worked, we could see each other and she was able to hear us, but not able to produce words back to us. That was a major kink in the program, but it still felt good to know that when we talked to her she could understand.
I layed the card down on the bedside table next to the marker for the whiteboard. It was used to keep track of her vitals, but the numbers and information recorded on the board were identical each day. I snuck a glance at her body. She looked nothing like how she did on the screen. The real Grandma looked sickly and decrepit. Her skin looked one shade lighter than concrete and she had only a few strands of hair peeking out through the helmet. Her eyes looked glued shut and her face had naturally sagged into a slight frowning position. Seeing her in that condition made me sick to my stomach. Even though my family disagreed, I didn’t think that was a humane way of living. She was technically alive, but only because a machine was doing all the work.
I let out a sigh and turned back to the monitor.
“Are you excited about the birthday party mom is throwing you tomorrow?” I asked, trying to lighten the mood a little bit.
A look of despair fell over her face. Her eyes shifted downwards as if she didn’t want to answer me, but then reluctantly nodded her head.
“Tomorrow they’re going to extend your trial! I’m sorry I won’t be there to help celebrate.”
Her eyes were still fixed to the floor but this time she shook her head no.
“Grandma, what does that mean?” I asked puzzled.
Her gaze slowly trailed up until she locked eyes with me. They looked hollow and projected a deep sadness. It was almost like peering into a black hole.
Suddenly I saw movement coming from the hospital bed. I gasped in shock as Grandma’s hand very slowly lifted and crawled its way over to the bedside table. Her eyes remained closed and the machinery stayed steady in its rhythmic beeping. Her fingers reached for the marker and then positioned it in her hand. She shifted over to the card I had given her and started scribbling something. As soon as she finished, she set the marker down and returned her hand to its original resting position. Grandma on the screen hadn’t budged an inch, her face still holding the same somber stare. I couldn’t believe what my eyes had just witnessed.
My heart was thrashing in my chest as I slowly inched forward to see what was on the card. I craned my neck and squinted. There were two words that I could discern from the rough scribbles, and I immediately froze.
I had to take a minute to digest what I had just read. With wide eyes, I turned back to the screen. She had changed position and now had her hands folded together against her chest as if she were praying, her eyes pleading with me.
I now realized what she was trying to convey to me. She no longer wanted to be a prisoner stuck between life and death while being admired through a screen like an animal in captivity. I was the only person who could fulfill her wish because my mom was the one who wanted to contain her this way. I knew if I was going to follow through with it, I had to act quick before my mom came to check on her.
Emotions raced through me as I realized I was saying goodbye to my Grandma forever. I loved her so much and not one day was going to go by without me thinking about her. However, I knew that if I genuinely loved her, I needed to do what was right.
“Okay Grandma, I hear you. I love you.” I blew her a kiss, and through a build-up of tears I could see her return one to me. She nodded at me and I felt a sense of reassurance.
I quickly wiped the tears away and crouched down by all the wires that were plugged into the wall. I didn’t know what each one controlled so I grasped as many as I could in my hand and gave them a yank. They ripped out of the wall and made a loud crackling noise. The beeping abruptly halted and the screen went black. It was eerily quiet as my Grandma’s breathing slowed and then ceased.
“What was all that racket??” my mom barreled into the room. “Why isn’t the screen on?”
She moved towards the bed to investigate, and her body instantly tensed as she realized what had happened. A moan escaped through her lips as she slumped down to the floor.
“What did you do to her?” She wailed and cupped her hands over her face.
“Why, why, why...” she kept repeating as she rocked back and forth.
“She’s free now, Mom. Free from your torture,” I muttered as I turned to leave.
“Happy birthday,” I whispered when I reached the door. I took one final glance over my shoulder and saw the biggest smile on Grandma’s face that I had ever seen.
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