Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 2.5]

Easter Sunday, the entire family gathered at Grandma Shultz’s house for a feast and an annual egg hunt that even the older kids loved. The Easter Bunny had hopped on through earlier that morning and stashed about a hundred eggs all over the backyard, most of which were plastic and filled with quarters, candy, tiny toys, and the occasional one dollar bill. The most coveted eggs were the ones that contained a ticket we could trade in for something out of a larger prize box. Dad and I arrived early to find Grandpa dozing in the TV room recliner and no Grandma.

“Hey Dad,” my dad said. “Where’s Mom?”

Startling a little, Grandpa woke up and said, “Huh? Oh, she’s lying down. Go get her.”

“No. That’s okay. I hate to wake her. How is she?” Dad asked in a way that made it sound like maybe she’d been sick, but he hadn’t mentioned anything to me.

Right then, Grandma poked her head through the window in the wall between the kitchen and TV room. “Hi, you two. Michelle, come help me set the table.”

“Okay!” I yelped, jumping up to join her in the kitchen. “I like your new hairdo, Grandma,” I said, noticing it had been set and the gray covered up.

On one of my trips from the dining room back to the kitchen for more silverware, I found Grandma kneeling down by the oven, staring at the ham she’d apparently just dropped on the floor. She didn’t notice me behind her at first and, as I approached her, I noticed she was crying.

“Are you okay, Grandma?”

“Yes,” she said firmly, while picking up the ham and taking it over to the sink. She didn’t want me to see her face.

“Why are you crying?” I asked. “You can wash the ham off, right?”

“Oh Michelle, I’m not crying about that. I just had a really sad thought about all the people in the world that are going hungry today.” She quickly dried her eyes with her apron, rinsed off the ham, and stuck it back in the oven. Then she gave me a hug and held me harder and longer than usual.

Everyone enjoyed a long, fun day. Dad and I were the last to leave that night because he insisted on sticking around to help Grandma clean up and wash dishes. When we were almost finished, Dad told me to go get in the car and that he’d be right out. I kissed Grandma good-bye and held out my hand to Dad. He reached in his pocket and handed me the keys so I could turn the radio on. Gathering up my new joke book and candy from the Easter Bunny, I headed to the car.

The next morning I slept in late, got dressed, and meandered toward the kitchen, expecting to find Dad at the table in his pajamas drinking coffee. Instead, he was sitting in an orange swivel chair in the living room facing the picture window. Tears were running down his cheeks. He wiped them away, but more came down. My heart ached and I was suddenly overwhelmed with love for my father, who felt safe to share his purest emotions with me. It made me feel special.

Mom had moved out a week ago, which I assumed was the source of his sadness. Still, I asked, “Dad, what’s wrong?”

He tried to speak, but his words were choked in his throat. “Is it Mom?” I offered.

He cleared his throat and swallowed. “No, Honey. It’s Grandma Shultz. She has cancer.”

I knew this was bad. Lung cancer was what killed Grandma Trailer’s husband. But I also knew that cancers don’t always kill people; there are treatments like radiation and chemotherapy.

“Oh Dad. What kind of cancer is it? Is she going to be okay?”

“It’s breast cancer, and it’s not good. They caught it very late. See, Grandma found a lump under her armpit about a year ago, but she didn’t tell anyone. She finally told Grandpa after it became really painful. She’s been getting chemotherapy treatments the past month. That’s why I’ve been checking in on her so much. Did you notice Grandma was wearing a wig? She’s lost all her hair.”

I recalled her hair again in my mind and supposed her new hairdo could have been a wig. She had seemed more fragile, I thought, remembering the dropped ham. “But, Dad, why didn’t she tell anyone?”

Dad started crying again. “She didn’t want to bother anyone about it or make anyone worry. She didn’t understand how bad it could get. She’s always worried about everyone else and takes care of everyone before herself.”

“Oh, Dad. That’s awful.” I felt frustrated somehow and realized I was angry with Grandpa Shultz for always yelling at Grandma and treating her like a slave. I couldn’t help wondering if Grandma might have been afraid to tell Grandpa because she thought he might get angry with her.

“Is the chemotherapy working?” I asked.

“No. Her cancer has spread throughout her breast and now the doctors want to remove it and give her more chemotherapy. But Grandma doesn’t want more because it makes her so nauseated.”

“Dad, she has to get more, right? Won’t the cancer spread if she doesn’t?”

“It could. She’s having her breasts removed Wednesday. She still hasn’t decided whether or not to get more chemo.”

“Can you talk her into it?”

“Well, I tried, but after talking to her last night, I’m not sure I should. I had no idea how terribly sick it’s making her. She said she can’t stand to drink water anymore because she can taste chemicals in it.”

Poor Grandma. Her breasts were removed that week and she resumed chemotherapy. After a week, she was released, and Dad and I, along with Mindy, who’d spent the night, went to her house with flowers. She was in bed with the curtains closed, and Dad told us to wait outside her bedroom while he checked on her.

When he came back out, he said, “You girls can say hello real quick, but she doesn’t feel well, so we shouldn’t stay long.”

Mindy and I said hello to her quietly from the doorway. “Hello Darlings,” Grandma said in a breathy, small voice.

When we left her room, an idea struck me. “Mindy, let’s ask Dad if we can stay and clean—really clean—Grandma’s house for her.” Grandpa expected things clean, and knowing Grandma, she would probably get up and do it to keep him happy. Mindy enthusiastically agreed and we conveyed our scheme to Dad. He thought it was a great idea and even said he’d pay us ten dollars each for it. He popped back in to Grandma and told her about it, then came and said to try to be as quiet as possible and that he’d come back for us in a few hours after he ran some errands.

Mindy and I took this mission very seriously, although we couldn’t contain our giggles for three straight hours. Wearing aprons and plastic gloves for the kitchen and bathrooms, we’d never cleaned anything so thoroughly. We felt like a dream team, taking great glee in the importance of our work. We dusted everything on every surface and “vacuumed” the carpets by hand, just so we wouldn’t make noise. Only the refrigerator got the best of us. When we’d opened its door, we stood peering inside—overwhelmed and speechless—for every square inch was absolutely jam-packed, mostly with leftovers of every shape and size, wrapped in crumpled aluminum foil. We carefully peeled back the foil on a few items in the front, thinking we would be able to easily decide whether it should be tossed or not. But, after seeing peas clumped together in what we thought might be gravy and ham chunks and a lump of lard mixed with noodles and carrots, we began questioning our decision-making ability and decided to leave things in the fridge as they were. Only Grandma could possibly know what was what. When Dad returned, we showed off our handiwork, and he showered us with the expected amount of “oohs” and “aahhs.”

This act of charity had been so rewarding, so fulfilling, it left Mindy and me wanting to do more. So when we got in the car to leave and Dad gave us the twenty dollars, I whispered another idea to Mindy. “What if we took our money and used it to buy Grandma some new things?” Mindy nodded vigorously, and we asked Dad if he’d drop us off at the little shopping plaza at the end of our block. We’d walk home. Mindy and I had a ball thinking of things to buy Grandma; first on the list was a new pair of slippers, for her old ones were filthy, threadbare, and full of holes. We returned to her house with fuzzy, lavender slippers; new kitchen sponges and towels to replace her tattered, thin ones; a new silk scarf; and a small framed picture of humming birds in a strawberry patch. We laid everything out, along with a card, on her dining room table and merrily skipped our way home.

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