"A stroke has everything to do with food," my uncle explained to me on the phone. "The brain is usually fed on blood. After a stroke the brain isnt fed properly, and that causes all kinds of disturbances. Thats why your grandmother might fall when she walks, and thats why she has memory lapses, and thats why, well . . . you see, thats why she sometimes doesnt have a clear mind."
Her brain wasnt fed properly. I understood that my uncle was talking about the quantity of blood, that the brain didnt get enough. But I imagined that my grandmothers brain was getting junk food, and thus producing junk.
"As improbable as it sounds," my uncle added, "the state of her mind wont stay the same. It can change from better to worse and back. Hopefully it will change back. Just remember that she is not crazy, its just a question of brain food."
I decided I wasnt afraid of her anymore.
The schedule of caring for my grandmother was established. My mother was to switch to an afternoon shift at work, and would be at my grandmothers side in the mornings and late nights. My hours were from two to eight p.m., after I came home from school and before my mother came from work. And my uncle promised to visit whenever he had the time, a statement met with a sarcastic grin from my mothers side.
"Im home, Ba!" I yelled when I opened the door with my key upon returning from school. I dropped my schoolbag on the floor and marched into the room, ready to check on the patient, who was to be in my power for the next six hours. Her mental state was the first thing I checked on. My uncle was right; it wavered back and forth. At times she didnt recognize anybody. She pushed me away and said that her granddaughter was a little girl and asked what we had done to that little girl. She took my mother for her late sister, Zeena. She read her books upside down. She called for Hitler and Shakespeare. "Hitler, Hitler, help me die," she sang in her tiny voice. Why Hitler? we wondered. Was she thinking about the Jews and, having suddenly regained her Jewish conscience, wanting to share their fate? No. She said that she wanted him to poison her the way he had poisoned himself and Eva Braun.
Then she would sing for Shakespeare. I asked if she needed Shakespeare to kill her off the way he had killed off all his tragic characters. But I was wrong again. She needed Shakespeare, she said, to record her story. Why Shakespeare, of all writers? She didnt give an answer to that. After her quest for Shakespeare, she usually sneaked out of the bed and wandered off with a pillow under her arm, swaying on her thin and dry spaghettilike legs. I felt that it was really her poor underfed mind that left her body and went wandering with a pillow under its arm.
Then her mind would return to her. She would lull herself to sleep singing of Hitler and Shakespeare and wake up with a clear mind. She would look around her in disbelief, slowly taking in the room, the bed, the nightstand with its colorful disarray of medicine bottles, the chair with its removable seat. She would peer into our faces and say that she was sorry, so sorry to be a burden. She would grab my mothers or my hand when we approached the bed and beg us to say goodbye to her now, because she was afraid that one day her mind would go and wouldnt return. My mother would hold her hand and say goodbye to her, even though shed already said it the day before, and the week before. But I refused to do thatId run into my room and slam the door.
Fortunately her sane days werent frequent. For the most part her mind drifted in a weird, transitional state that I called "medium-crazy." Her mind was almost clear: She didnt confuse our names, she didnt attempt to wander off or eat soup with a fork. She behaved like a proper invalid: subdued and grateful with me, weepy and whimsical with my mother. Still, something betrayed the sickness of her mind to those who knew her well. It was her passion for storytelling, the unhealthy vigor that didnt let her rest, that made her talk abruptly, confessionally, that made her greedy for an audience. My late grandfather, a man we avoided in family conversa- tion, was the main hero of her stories. He, and another Fedor Mikhailovich: Dostoevsky. Both men emerged as bright and sinister characters, as fairy-tale villains, endowed with juicy real-life details.
Excerpted from Memoirs of a Muse by Lara Vapnyar Copyright © 2006 by Lara Vapnyar. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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