When Steve, my grandmother Margo’s partner of fourteen years, is diagnosed with bladder cancer, they begin sleeping on kitty-corner couches in their living room. He can’t make it upstairs anymore. She says she sleeps better down there anyways. If you saw her propped up on her cheap memory foam pillow, reading by the light of a makeshift headlamp (bike light rubber-banded to a headband), you would believe her.
Once they decide to cancel Steve’s surgery and transition to palliative care, hospice sends supplies to my grandmother: a hospital bed, little lollipop sponges, plastic medicine applicators, an oxygen tank and a bag of tubes. “For when you need it,” they say, when she balks at the oxygen tank. They prescribe a set of painkillers and take him off his other meds. While they are on their way to set up the bed, Margo pushes one couch from the living room to the entryway and sets the bed up herself. She helps Steve onto it and covers him with the Danish pop-art comforter she asked me to order for her online. She slips him a teaspoon of watery ice cream and he falls asleep. When hospice arrives, they ask if the doctor recommended the bright colored bedding. “It is great for his mood,” they say.
“No,” she says. “I thought of it myself.”
They show her how to crush up the neon orange pain pills in water, releasing the liquid beside his tongue. Before leaving, they ask her, “Is it just you?” She nods, both pride and total exhaustion filling her red cheeks.
A friend of a friend recommends Joe, a tall, gentle Fijian man with a heart of gold. The day he starts working for Margo, she hovers with him around the hospital bed. Joe touches Steve with confidence and care. He suggests injecting an applicator of pure cranberry juice into Steve’s mouth and petting his throat to help it down. He shows my grandma and then watches her do it. She is a good student. She asks what else she can do. “Nothing,” he says, smiling at her for stealing his question. With someone new in her home, aimlessness feels unnatural and embarrassing. She cleans the kitchen and bakes Steve’s favorite chocolate tart, insisting Joe take half of it home with him.
The next day she is more comfortable with Joe. When he asks her if he can do any cleaning while Steve sleeps, she gets him her vacuum. She walks her terrier Iona down to the Embarcadero and watches the docked boats sway in the Bay water. She even calls to invite Steve’s old friend out to dinner. She read online that social interaction may lower her high blood pressure.
Then, she sits down and watches Joe shave Steve’s face and head.
“Steve was a world traveler, but he has never been to Fiji,” she says. “I’ve heard it is a beautiful country.” When my grandma met Steve, her life opened up. In fourteen years, they visited 12 countries together.
“It’s very beautiful,” Joe says.
“My granddaughter Heather went to Fiji on a mission trip,” she says. While the agnostic majority of our family lives in the Bay Area, we have five Christian cousins from Texas.
“Yes, there were many missionaries in my village,” Joe says. He stops shaving Steve for a moment and smiles at Margo. He is happy to connect with her and talk about his country. If he has opinions about teenage mission trips or the effects they may have had on his village, he keeps them to himself.
Between the two of them, this complicated colonialist history does not seem charged with repression and violence. Instead, it is warm, a set of shared facts. They are two people with big hearts and lives that span oceans, standing together beside a dying man.
She smiles, also pleased. “I’ll text Heather and ask what village she was in. Was it difficult for you to move here?”
“No,” Joe says, hiding any struggles he may have faced. “I went to Hawaii first, but I love San Francisco.”
“Me too. I came here from England when I was only 19,” she says. She is on the highly privileged end of the immigration spectrum, but like any immigrant, her identity still lives both here and elsewhere. Since she moved to California in 1949 to marry an American engineer, she has always lit up upon meeting people from different backgrounds. She appreciates that people carry their heritage and wants to engage with it. “I might be wrong, but wasn’t Fiji a British colony?”
“Not anymore,” he says, patting Steve’s face off with a washcloth. “He looks good,” Joe says of Steve, and Margo nods. Between the two of them, this complicated colonialist history does not seem charged with repression and violence. Instead, it is warm, a set of shared facts. They are two people with big hearts and lives that span oceans, standing together beside a dying man.
“You’ve lived an interesting life,” she says. “What do you eat in Fiji? I’m a foodie.” She has always loved this word.
“A lot of curries,” Joe says. He offers to cook Fijian coconut curry one night and makes her a shopping list of chicken and vegetables. He insists on bringing the spices, sent to him from his family in Fiji. “They just aren’t the same here,” he says.
They eat the curry for lunch, and she eats it again for dinner that night and the next. She tells me about it over the phone. She says that Joe is a lifesaver. It’s a funny phrase to use for someone whose duty begins when lifesaving is no longer an option. We both know, though, whose life he’s most sustaining.
Steve was born in San Francisco, raised in Sea Cliff. He swam in the Bay at China Beach and got pneumonia every summer. From his bedroom window, he watched the Golden Gate Bridge being built. He rode a horse across when it opened. Margo tells Joe all of this during a slow time. Hospice has just visited. Steve is clean and quiet. Margo hasn’t yet started cooking dinner.
Joe nods at these details of Steve’s life, of a San Francisco very different from his own. Joe lives in an apartment in Pacific Heights, right across from Grace Cathedral, overlooking the city. The apartment belonged to an elderly man that Joe and his Fijian girlfriend Tema took care of for five years. Tema was the one who taught Joe how to be a caregiver. Joe’s phone is full of selfies that he took with Tema and the old man. Margo loves telling people Joe’s story, just as she loves telling Joe Steve’s. She is addicted to storytelling, even when it takes the shape of gossip. It allows her to share her view of world, to connect all the disparate parts of her long life.
In his second week, Joe asks if he can take two days off. He and Tema are going to Vegas. When he returns, he says that he had a good vacation. Days later he says something in passing about “his wife.”
“Wife?” Margo says, all ears.
“I married Tema in Las Vegas,” Joe says, blushing. Margo hugs him, bakes a cake, and shares the news with each of her nine children, none of whom have met Joe.
Steve’s condition quickly worsens. Joe is a steady presence in the house. He cleans and cares for Steve while Margo takes wild calls from friends and Steve’s sons, as family members march unannounced into the house to discuss the monetary situation of the near future. These people are obnoxious. Joe gives Margo his ear after they leave. There is no way to write the complications of late-term caregiving into a job description. It takes heart and the willingness to not only care, but to give witness to grief and life’s harshest changes.
Hospice sends a Chinese harpist to the house to play for Steve. Joe takes a video on his smart phone, and helps Margo email it to her friends and family. It reveals more about death and declining personhood than some people in her contact list may care to see, but she is happy to spread the sphere of witness beyond the walls of her home. In the video, you can see emotion wash over Steve. He’s propped up in bed, his slow eyes glued to the harp. It is as if he can see music floating from its strings, warm flames from a fire, a concert just for him.
When Hospice gives Steve twenty-four hours, I fly to San Francisco. Joe is there when I arrive. Every now and then, he rises to check Steve’s breathing, hand over his mouth, or to wet Steve’s lips with the lollipop sponge. The emotional weight of the house is enormous, and Joe bears it with my grandma. Together, they wait. When I sit down next to Steve, my faux-grandfather, and clutch his hand, Joe tells me that I can talk to Steve. “Steve can still hear you,” he says.
Later, Joe sits down next to me, offering a bag of lime-salted macadamia nuts that he brought from his house. “They’re my favorite. From Hawaii,” he says. I take a handful, and he shows me some pictures he took of Steve and Iona, his terrier. Steve is smiling at her. “That was only a week ago,” Joe says. He looks over at my grandma. They both nod and look at Steve, their faces drawn. His health has shaken her life to its core over the past five years and never before has she had someone to experience his changing body with her. Joe says Steve’s name softly as he rubs lotion into his bluing shins. His voice carries his heart. For an hourly wage, he’s in this with us.
On a Tuesday morning, two days before Thanksgiving, my grandma lifts Steve’s sheet to examine his feet, something she does far too many times each day. The cold blue of his toes is beginning to creep up his legs. It has jumped to his hands as well. When Joe arrives, he puts his hand over Steve’s mouth to feel for breath. He nods at Margo when she suggests calling hospice.
A kind young nurse in a Harry Potter hoodie comes and holds my grandma’s hands as she points to Steve’s short breaths and says it won’t be long. She suggests playing his favorite music. I let my grandma choose a classical composer from my iPhone’s Spotify. Joe takes my phone and rests it on Steve’s pillow. “So he can hear.” Steve’s eyebrows begin to twitch with expression. My grandma gasps. Joe smiles, comfortable with dying, welcoming the love and humanity that holds out until the last breath.
There is no way to write the complications of late-term caregiving into a job description. It takes heart and the willingness to not only care, but to give witness to grief and life’s harshest changes.
Steve passes thirty minutes after Joe leaves for the day. My grandma puts the sheet over his face and makes a comment about the Tabasco Sauce t-shirt he’s wearing. “It’s from the road trip we took through the South.” Her voice cracks but she doesn’t cry. She begins to call family. Within an hour, she calls Joe and asks him to come in the morning at their normal time. It feels good for her to stretch this moment of incomprehensive finality to the next day, translucent strings of a future keeping her standing.
Early the next morning, we upturn Steve’s dresser and cover the bed in neat piles of t-shirts, sweaters, and pants. We laugh at the absurd volume of clothes he had—the same Hanes XXL pocket tee in 12 colors and 15 identical turtleneck sweaters in various shades, plus 15 more short-sleeved. Then there is his collection of graphic tees, souvenirs from every festival, event, and country he has visited over the last ten years.
Joe arrives at ten and hugs Margo. Then he asks what he can do. She has him do a light clean of downstairs and box up the medical supplies. He agrees that he could use the diapers and handiwipes in the future. When he’s done, she brings him up to the third floor bedroom.
“You can pick out what you want,” she says, touching a banker’s box with her toe. “And don’t be shy. Whatever you don’t take is going to Goodwill.”
“I can take it all,” Joe says quietly. “If it’s not my size, someone in my village can use it.” It is expensive to ship from here to Fiji, but Joe says his cousin is coming next month and can take everything back with him.
My grandma is delighted. She asks me to get Steve’s large suitcase from the garage. We pack it to the gills with clothes, shoes and four three-piece suits that my grandma never saw Steve wear. Before we zip it shut, she yanks a couple of stained sweaters from the pile and insists that she dry-clean them for Joe.
Eventually, I call him an Uber. “Can you check if he made it home?” my grandma asks after he leaves. We open the app and watch the icon of Joe’s car move through Chinatown and up to his apartment in Pacific Heights. She is satisfied. Her bed now empty of Steve’s clothes, she lies down in it for the first time in weeks and naps.
The next week, Joe comes over for coffee and his dry-cleaned sweaters. When he leaves, my grandma hugs him and says a formal thank you, a lack of adequate language rendering her nearly silent. Joe left his own country to build a life in San Francisco. That life now centers on helping the elderly die with grace and dignity. His new wife is his only family on this continent, but what would our family be without him?
Before I fly back home, we deal with the rituals of death and the necessary socializing. We don’t have a service, but my grandma sits across lunch tables from Steve’s friends and cousins, retelling the long road to his death. Joe has become a character in the plotline, essential to the story’s conclusion.
Originally from rural Southern Oregon, Kelly Thomas now lives and writes in Los Angeles. Her stories have been included in Raizvanguarda Zine, Bang Out Reading Series, Be About It, Rivet, Metazen and My Portland Story. She recently collaborated with artist Hanna M. Owens on “Again and again,” a visual/text exhibition about queer friendship and women’s health for Hairpin Gallery in Chicago. She is working on her first novel.
Accompanying Art: “Egg” by Maya Fielder