“He’s in a lot of pain,” Mom says of Grandpa, who is sitting half reclined on the sofa pissing himself. We keep the windows open but there’s never enough wind to shake the smell loose. “We have to be understanding.” Grandpa’s belly spills out over his waistband, breaking free from his t-shirt. Long white hairs cloud his belly button; the skin underneath is yellow, jaundiced.
Mom is careful around Grandpa. She brings him cool clothes and helps him change his diaper and watches anxiously when the home health care nurse who comes by twice weekly injects him with painkillers. “He has trouble at night,” Mom says, she says, “Can we have some shots? I can administer them.” I’ve seen her administering to herself, taking from Grandpa’s elaborate stash of meds.
At night I lie awake listening to Grandpa screaming. He doesn’t do it loudly. Hoarse shouts get caught in his throat. He wheezes, and his eyes flutter side to side in animal panic. There’s no one inside his head, no one, except when he wants a drink.
He threw a glass of water at Mom, when he was still strong enough to throw, cussed her out and made her cry. She said things like, “Dad, please,” and he said things like, “I’m glad I never married your mother, that whore,” and after Mom mopped up the water and muttered to herself, muttered like she was at the edge of something, her own sanity maybe. Since then I’ve been slipping Grandpa his drinks. Vodka in glasses, like water only not, and he stays quiet. His hand shakes when he lifts the glass up, sucks on the straw.
I buy the vodka on the sly. I’ve been old enough to buy it for three months now. I was going to university but Mom needed me here, so I’m taking a year off. I hide the bottles in my room, because Mom has a thing about alcohol. Before I moved back home sometimes I would visit and Mom would have bruises on her arms. “Clumsy me,” she’d laugh, rueful, her mouth caught in a smile like a trap, her eyes darting for freedom. Caught in the habit of taking care of Grandpa.
Mom says we have to be understanding, and I make my smile gentle while placing the glass of vodka on the tray next to Grandpa. I pat him on the shoulder. His shoulders are bony, bladed, skin loose and fat hanging down his upper arms. He makes a tiny animal noise. Up close the smell of bile and urine combine. We get used to odours, but sometimes they can still knock us backward.
His hand shakes, lifting up the glass to suck down the vodka, groaning like a man dying of thirst. In a way it’s true. His thirst is killing him.
I watch him drink, the vodka like water, stirred with antifreeze to make it sweet.