My grandmother always said that if she ever lost her mind, I should put a pillow over her head — meaning she wanted me to press a pillow against her face until she suffocated, thus sparing her whatever indignities she imagined people who lost their minds were forced to endure.
“You’d do that for me, wouldn’t you?” she’d say. “You’d put a pillow over my head, for the old lady?” And then she’d do this thing where she’d make her lower lip quiver, but because she wasn’t — despite her resemblance to Lucille Ball — a good actress and hadn’t fooled anybody in years, at least not since the 1950s when she’d killed her son’s — my father’s — pet mice by secretly feeding them d-CON, claiming afterward that they’d died of natural causes, I’d respond to this request, as I usually did, with a deadpan “Sure.” Satisfied, she’d return to whatever it was she’d been doing, like watching Oprah at an earsplitting volume or balancing her checkbook or frying an egg. But then, later, when she couldn’t find her keys or her purse or the pen she’d just been using, I’d say, “Hup, looks like it’s time for the pillow,” or, “Watch out, it’s pillow time,” and she’d drop her jaw as if horrified, then unleash a wild, high-pitched laugh that ended in great, wheezing gasps.
We both knew it was absurd for her to ask me to put a pillow over her head, and for me to agree to do it, but deep down I secretly wondered if she meant it, wondered if I really could do it. She must have imagined a future crazy self, a person who didn’t know she was crazy, a person for whom life was a waking nightmare and who therefore made the lives of others difficult if not unbearable, and she thought, Someone please put a pillow over the head of that person; please put that person out of her — and everyone else’s — misery. It wasn’t that she would have preferred to die by suffocation — that is, suffocation wasn’t necessarily her top choice when considering possible expiration scenarios. She would have preferred, as I imagine most would, to slip off peacefully and unknowingly during her sleep, as her own mother had done. But death by smothering, by having someone smash a fat feather pillow over your face and hold it there until you stopped breathing, seemed like a much better and far more reasonable way to go when you compared it to the prospect of slowly deteriorating into someone other than the person you had always been, a condition that you couldn’t prevent, even if you tried, a fate you couldn’t avoid simply by maintaining your health, which she had most certainly done by exercising regularly and eating a vegetarian diet and laughing loudly and often. Her entire life — or, at least, for as long as I could remember — people had been telling her she didn’t look her age. She was, by and large, a happy person, blessed with a blithe spirit, a good figure, a pretty face, and round cheeks, a person who sometimes ate candy and ice cream for dinner and who laughed, despite herself, at off-color jokes about flatulence or fat people or even the physically handicapped. She’d shout the name of the person who’d told the joke and say, “That’s awful!” but she’d still laugh hysterically.
She often laughed like this and also hummed and sang and never once gave the impression that she was lonely living way back in the mountains by herself. Well, sometimes she did seem a little depressed, but if you knew how to press her buttons — as all her family members did, their locations not being secret; her buttons, in fact, being quite obvious — it was rather easy, should she go dark, to light her up again. Which was a good thing, because, as previously stated, she’d moved from a good-sized city to a remote location with her husband after his retirement from medicine, and not long after that he’d had a stroke, and not long after the stroke he’d died, and now he was buried in a clearing behind my parents’ house, in a grave my grandmother tended by carrying rocks and moss to the mound and arranging them just so around the plot. This grave-tending kept her happy, or seemed to — that and watching shows about a female judge who refused to be bamboozled by whatever high jinks plaintiffs and defendants attempted to pull, and visiting with the other ladies at the community center, and going for walks, and playing hymns on the piano, and shopping at Walmart, and going to church, and talking on the phone with her children and grandchildren, some of whom lived in foreign countries. She had visited them all, boarding planes and flying over oceans and disembarking in strange airports where, as soon as she put her feet on the ground, little boys desperate for money tried to shine her shoes, regardless of whether she had shoes that could be shined.
In general she didn’t complain much, though she did frequently worry, did allow herself to become bothered by things she’d done or hadn’t done, and whenever she worried, she worried that perhaps she worried too much, since she would freely admit to believing that worrying, in and of itself, was a sin: if one was worrying, one had failed to put one’s entire faith in God, to trust that, in the end, He would provide. Of course, she knew that God didn’t always put a stop to one’s suffering, not only because it might not be His will or a part of His grand plan, but because this was a fallen world in which Satan roamed like a lion, seeking souls he might devour. And who knew what sort of long and terrifying demise he — that is, Satan — might have planned for her. Who knew what sorts of discouragements he had in store, like dying or fading away in a fashion one would certainly find miserable. Not that she was afraid of death, but she wasn’t — not yet, anyway — ready to go. Physically, for her age, she was strong. She could still leave a mark. If, for instance, you were the kind of grandchild who couldn’t resist teasing her, if you tried to convince her, as you had many times before, that the word gullible wasn’t a word, that it simply hadn’t — thanks to some egregious oversight — been added to the dictionary, she would say, “Oh, go on,” and you’d say, “No, seriously, it’s true. Gullible is technically, at least according to the dictionary, not a word,” and she’d say, “You’re pulling my leg,” and if you continued in this manner, insisting that gullible was not a word and that she should feel free to look it up in any dictionary she wished, and if she arrived at a place where it was clear that she believed you, if she said something like “Isn’t that something!”, an exclamation you’d follow by saying, “Just kidding,” she might, in the end, rear back and wallop you in the arm, and it would hurt, since her eighty-five-year-old knuckles were bony but strong, and she’d position the middle one so that it would jut out, the effect being not unlike getting struck by a stone — though, it must be said, if you then grimaced dramatically and feigned injury, she’d become concerned and apologetic, because, when it came right down to it, she couldn’t bear the thought of having inflicted pain.
And that was part of the deal with the pillow. She didn’t want anybody to get hurt or feel bad or be embarrassed because of anything she said or did. A pillow over the head, then, was the answer, the solution to a problem she wanted, at all costs, to avoid. A pillow over the head was perfect, wouldn’t take much time, would be minimal in terms of a mess. She’d asked you to do it; you would be helping her, so you couldn’t exactly call it murder, just like you couldn’t — or, at least, she couldn’t, not on the evidence presented, anyway — call that Kevorkian guy, the one who put those who were dying painful deaths out of their miseries, a murderer. And, just to clarify, the dying part — that wasn’t the part that she feared. Because dying wasn’t dying — not in the way the majority of people in this world imagined. Dying wasn’t entering oblivion, and it wasn’t being cast into hell or called to heaven. Dying was, simply, sleep: a state, if you will, of suspension. Meaning that she believed that when you died you’d sleep until you heard the blast of celestial trumpets, and then you’d awaken and fly up out of your grave or whatever into the sky with a new body and you’d meet angels in the air and they’d ferry you to the Savior, who would be sitting on a throne in the clouds. That wasn’t scary; it was and would be the absolute best thing ever. What was scary was — and let there be no mistake here — the time before death. What was scary was losing one’s mind. If you lost your mind, you couldn’t do anything about it. She knew this. She knew about lost minds; her own sister had lost hers. This sister had gotten dressed for church on the wrong days and soiled her pants and forgotten who everyone was and lost a hundred pounds and, in the end, wore a look of sheer terror on her face at all times, a mask that made us totally forget what she’d been like before, back when everybody in the family had loved her best, and she’d kept a freezer packed with mint-chocolate ice-cream bars and cupboards stocked with sugary cereals. And so the idea of losing one’s mind was probably not something my grandmother wanted to think about. Then again, not thinking about it was probably how it happened. You wouldn’t know you were losing your mind. It’d be like a bad dream, a nightmare, not unlike that time she’d seen her dead husband and couldn’t make sense of it and had wondered to herself: had there been a mistake, had he really come back, or had it been some sort of evil spirit masquerading as her dead husband, or had she simply gone mad? She didn’t know, and this not knowing had terrified her — and she wasn’t used to being afraid.
There were a lot of things she wasn’t afraid of. She wasn’t afraid of living alone; wasn’t afraid of taking walks by herself; wasn’t afraid of getting speeding tickets, in part because she’d never — not once in the seventy-plus years she’d been driving — been ticketed, despite averaging at least fifteen miles per hour over the limit at all times. She was not a fearful person, but she paled in the face of uncertainty. The idea of not knowing how something would turn out or whether tragedy was just around the corner — this she simply could not stand. She despised with all her being the excruciations of the dramatic, often couldn’t make it through a Reader’s Digest “Drama in Real Life,” always covered her eyes and moaned during the part in The Sound of Music when the Nazis were hunting the von Trapp family. So it’s safe to assume she wouldn’t have enjoyed — to say the least — having a pillow over her head, wouldn’t have liked the feeling of her body struggling for air and not getting any, wouldn’t have liked the panic of not knowing when — or if — she might get her next breath.
But it never came to that, even after all this talk about someone, namely me, putting a pillow over her head; even after all the jokes I’d made about it being time to “get the pillow”; even though she did lose her mind — or, at least, enough of it that she could no longer drive or cook or live by herself, enough that she said and did things that were embarrassing or that would have embarrassed her, had she known she was doing them. At one point it did occur to me that perhaps I should have done as she’d asked me to so many times and put this woman I loved out of her misery, this woman whose breast I’d lain against as a child as she’d crooned melancholy lullabies, this woman to whom I owed so much. Even after they’d lowered — during a spring snow — her homemade casket into the grave beside her husband’s, I couldn’t shake the guilt. I’ll bet she would’ve forgiven me for not putting a pillow over her head. But she also might have understood if I had announced that it was time for the pillow and for once had meant it, then had held it down until the storm of her resistance expired and everything became, as she’d always imagined, absolutely still.