Lizzie Barrett lost her mother when she was only sixteen. Or at least that was the way everyone told it to each other.
“Poor girl,” Lizzie overheard Sister Patricia whisper to Mother Superior Catherine Boyle as she sat crying outside the principal’s office, waiting for her father to pick her up. “To lose her mother at such a young age.”
It would be the reason she got served first at the dinner table when she went to live with Aunt Karen and Uncle Thomas and their three children in their single home in Huntingdon Valley. Why she always dictated what they watched on television. Why she got her own room, forcing cousins Sarah and Isabella to bunk together.
“Have a little patience and compassion,” Aunt Karen would tell her children whenever they complained of Lizzie’s preferential treatment. “She lost her mother.”
When explained that way, Lizzie could understand why Sarah and Isabella resented her. According to her aunt and uncle, Louisa Barrett had gone the way of an earring post or a sock in the dryer; certainly nothing serious enough to warrant whispered pity or an extra ladle of gravy over one’s mashed potatoes. Lost, they said her mother was. Misplaced. As if Lizzie would only look hard enough or remembered where she’d last seen her, Louisa would once again exist. But considering the last time Lizzie had seen her mother she’d been lying in a casket, and she knew exactly where to look for her—St. Dominic’s Cemetery—she didn’t put much faith in the idea that Louisa would ever be found in the way her daughter needed her to be. She was dead is what she was, plain and simple. And wanted to remain that way if what her other sister, Lizzie’s Aunt Leonora, said was true. That Louisa Barrett had died with a smile on her face. Lost in paradise, maybe she was. And it would be downright wrong to try and find her.
Lizzie had no information pertaining to the expression on her ex-husband’s face when he got lost. Happened right in the examination room. Went in for a routine exam, complained he felt a little dizzy while sitting on the table and the nurse left to get the doctor. When they came back in, Charles was lying on his side, dead. Her children’s faces when they found out: now those were some hard expressions to deal with. Actually, she only had to see one—Naomi’s—when she rushed into Lizzie’s kitchen after getting the voicemail where Lizzie said as emotionlessly as she could, “Come to my house now. Don’t call me back.” Of course Naomi didn’t listen and when her phone rang, Lizzie (by then too emotional now that the news had sunk in and afraid of her daughter getting into an accident on the way to her house, yet somewhere inside still plugged in enough to be grateful for the technology that had produced a communication coward’s best friend, caller ID) ignored it. Soon enough she would have Naomi standing in front of her demanding, “What, what, what, tell me, what is it?” all the while her face begging her mother not to say a word.
“Your father,” Lizzie got out, and then Naomi was shrieking and sinking to her knees. Lizzie tried her best to keep her off the floor, and although Naomi would always be her baby in soul where it mattered, physically she was a twenty-five-year-old woman and no longer fit in her mama’s arms. Her arced limbs resembled more of a halo surrounding her daughter while she lay in a crumpled heap at Lizzie’s feet, mourning the loss of her father. It would be the second time she’d done so, the first being when he’d walked out on his family twenty years ago. She wanted to tell Naomi this would be the last time he’d ever go away, but decided that information was better left in her head, fraternizing with the other thoughts about Charles she’d kept trapped for more than two decades.
Her two older children, thirty-year-old Molly and thirty-five-year-old Lynette, had gotten the news from their stepmother. Lizzie wished Stephanie would have called her instead of her daughters, that she didn’t have to hear about Charles’ death from first Molly, then again from Lynette. She wished she didn’t have to hear Lynette sob about how Stephanie had thought to call Molly first, hear Molly curse the cruelty of a God who would deliver the worst news of her life through a messenger the likes of that bitch Stephanie, witness the torment in Naomi’s face as the realization came to her that Stephanie had called her siblings and not her.
“What, did she think the news of a funeral would get around to me eventually, like a birthday party? Show up or not, it won’t matter to anyone.”
Lizzie wanted to tell her daughter that it was for the best that she got to hear of it from her own mother, in the peacefulness of her kitchen, that both Molly and Lynette had been at work and surrounded by people when Stephanie called, but it might be something Naomi would spit back at them both later when they were all going through the anger phase of grief and comparing notes on who got the better side of death. Already Lynette was angry with her mother that she hadn’t hung up quickly with Molly to call her, thus intercepting the message from Stephanie.
“So what, was I the fourth to know my own father had passed away?” she demanded bitterly.
“Maybe farther down the chain than that, if you count hospital staff,” Lynette remarked cruelly. Neither of them seemed to care Naomi hadn’t even warranted a place in Stephanie’s afterthoughts. Fifteen years after Charles’ death—almost fifty since her mother’s—Lizzie found herself sitting with the three of them in the sixth floor waiting room of Sacred Heart Hospital, wondering if Lynette was about to lose a daughter, Molly and Naomi a niece, she her granddaughter.
Initially Lynette wasn’t greatly concerned when Kimmy completed a flight of stairs sucking wind as if she’d just scaled Mount Everest; her daughter was only sixteen, but she also weighed in excess of three hundred pounds. For Lizzie concern was born right along with Kimmy and matured faster than its host, making its relevance known when Kimmy was five and weighed forty pounds more than the average child her age. She was a little taller than most, Lizzie told herself, along with the usual standards of she’ll be more active once she starts school and loses the baby fat. The pediatrician had ruled out anything biological or medical or hereditary, deeming the series of tests they put her through intrusive, expensive and unnecessary. Dr. Harold Weiss may as well have just told her after one of Kimmy’s routine examinations that she was fat because Lizzie and Lynette had done a lousy job of co-parenting her and were the not-so-proud groomers of an out of control slob. Rx: give her to some other family and she’ll be catwalking in Milan in no time. But Kimmy had continued to live with her mother and spend summers with Lizzie and now here she was: sixteen, three hundred thirteen pounds and in the hospital, about to have heart surgery.
The fast track to room 639 at Sacred Heart was paved six months ago when Kimmy first complained of a pressure in her chest, a sensation she described as feeling like a balloon being pumped full of helium inside of her. She’d recall to Lizzie what her mother’s advice had been when she’d told her about it. “Stop eating Doritos, Kimmy, and the balloon might deflate a little.” Lizzie had to admit she herself was thinking only of a weight issue when Kimmy, who frequently ate dinner with her grandmother due to Lynette’s working the swing shift as a server at Friendly’s Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor, turned down a meal of spaghetti and meatballs for broth and hot tea with lemon.
“You on a diet?” Lizzie asked, only half-hoping the answer would be yes. The kitchen was the one place Lizzie felt she could still make magic happen for her granddaughter. In her hands a wooden spoon became a wand, spices were potions, the pot a bubbling cauldron and what was conjured up usually made Kimmy’s eyes sparkle and hands clap as though a rabbit had leapt out. There was no artistry involved in broth and tea; anyone could make that. Kimmy could set a kettle on the stove and achieve that culinary masterpiece herself.
“No, Gram,” came the answer. “I just don’t feel good this week.”
For a moment that would turn out to be too fleeting it was grandmother and granddaughter, sharing conversation and berry tea, which Lizzie poured from the cow-shaped teapot Kimmy had bought her three Mother’s Days ago at the Cracker Barrel in Norristown. The little bell around its neck had rusted, and one of the porcelain ears had broken off, but it was Lizzie’s most beloved and oft-used teapot and she wouldn’t retire it no matter how many other teapots she was gifted, no matter how her husband complained each time she served him tea from what he referred to as the “spiteful teapot.” That night the berry brew she served her granddaughter hadn’t had time to grow cold in their teacups; moments after Kimmy informed her grandmother she was keeping her simple diet of broth and tea because they were the only things she could keep down, the two of them were in Lizzie’s silver Chrysler Sebring, jetting off to the hospital.
They kept Kimmy for a week, feeding her Jell-o and boiled chicken and broiled salmon and water pills, hoping to drain her plus-sized frame of excess fat as well as the fluid surrounding her heart. The doctors couldn’t explain how so much liquid had built up or how long it had taken to accumulate. What they could determine was that although Kimmy’s weight and lifestyle weren’t necessarily conducive to heart health, they weren’t solely responsible for her condition. What Lizzie understood was that her granddaughter’s heart had been for too long a single lost buoy frantically bobbing in an ocean of perpetual storm, and whether it took a Jesus display of walking on water or a surgeon’s scalpel, she needed a calming of the weather. She almost wished this was something Kimmy had done to herself, or that Lizzie had somehow contributed to the situation. If she did it, she could undo it. Regardless of how the professionals refused to lay blame, and much to Kimmy’s resentment, Lizzie took on the responsibility for her granddaughter’s current circumstance and the reversal of it. The next six weeks, in which Kimmy had to wear a heart monitoring life vest twenty-four seven unless she was bathing, would turn out to be the most combative time in their relationship. “Are you wearing your life vest?” would replace hello, a defensive “I’m not picking on you” became the new “I love you.” Kimmy stopped coming for dinner because, in her opinion, everything Lizzie prepared tasted like hospital food, and complained that every hug her grandmother gave her felt like a pat-down.
“I’m wearing it, Gram, you don’t have to frisk me.”
But if what Lynette was telling her was true, yes she did. Lynette claimed her daughter never wore the monitor, refused to get on the treadmill twice a day for ten minutes and walk at two miles an hour as suggested by the doctor, and ordered a consistent lunch of french fries and Mountain Dew each day in the school cafeteria.
“How do you know? Are you there?” Kimmy fumed one day when the three of them were sitting for a doctor’s consult concerning Kimmy’s progress three weeks after the life vest was issued.
“I know if you were eating dry salads you would have lost a few pounds.”
“I lost six pounds, genius.”
“Two pounds a week? You lost eleven that first week here at the hospital.”
“Well chain me to a bed and feed me steamed vegetables and boiled chicken. Oh, no, wait: that would actually take some effort on your part. My bad.”
Lizzie finally intervened, reminding them to behave themselves, they were in a hospital, a place built on the principal of wellness, but not before Lynette could say she was never coming to another appointment and Kimmy banned her from ever attending. Whoever made the final decision it was one that was carried out. At the commencement of the six weeks, it was only Lizzie and Kimmy sitting in the doctor’s office, awaiting his recommendation on how to proceed.
His recommendation was that Kimmy be admitted immediately for a cardiovascular implant. Her condition had worsened, her heart no longer producing substantial beats but merely fluttering. The fluid, they discovered, was a direct result of Kimmy’s liquid diet. Because one of her heart chambers was blocked, it was not pumping at a rate considerable enough to release the water from her body. He would make a small incision under her collarbone, he said. Lizzie heard the words “defibrillator” and “pacemaker” and then her own heart drumming in her ears. She was young, the doctor was saying, his voice coming from some other hospital in some other city, talking about someone’s eighty-year-old grandmother, not her sixteen-year-old granddaughter. The procedure should take less than three hours and after a period of post-surgery observation, the doctor said, Kimmy would be released the following morning. He felt the operation necessary and was confident it would be a success. He didn’t ask anyone if they agreed. He excused himself to admit Kimmy and book an OR for eight am.
It was quiet in the office while they waited for him to return. Lizzie didn’t know if that was because they were afraid of the words they had exchanged over the past month and a half or the things they hadn’t. She wanted to tell Kimmy she loved her, but she was afraid it would come out as a way of saying good-bye, and she didn’t want to lose her. Then, the moment past and irretrievable, the door opened and a nurse stepped inside.
“Okay, Kimberly, time to get you admitted.”
Lizzie sat staring at her granddaughter as she rose from her chair, resigned to acceptance of whatever came next. When a moment passed where no one left the office, Kimmy said, “Uh, Gram, I think she’s talking to you.”
“Kimberly?” the nurse asked.
Kimmy raised her hand. “Me.” Genius, Lizzie knew she wanted to add, and a look was exchanged between grandmother and grandchild. Is this who we’re entrusting my precious heart to? it said. And suddenly Kimmy burst out laughing.
“Yeah, you would think the old lady’s getting the pacemaker. But it’s me, the fat shit.” And in that moment, Lizzie knew she had found her granddaughter.