“William.” The syllables floated lightly outside my bedroom walls.
My head swiveled toward my door. I considered that maybe I’d imagined it. Then I heard a cough follow it. Not my brother’s loud annoying coughs. A soft, barely audible cough. But it was 3am. Who else could it be? I muted my 15 inch transparent purple television and listened closely.
Again, I heard a soft, uncertain whisper, “William.”
I exited my bedroom just as my brother was swinging open his door. He’d heard it too. Standing just outside the guest bedroom was my paternal grandmother, in the dark. She wore her long white nightgown that made her look particularly short. She tried again, “William.”
Apparently, the only person who couldn’t hear her was William himself, and my mom, who were fast asleep in their bedroom beside the guest room. I could hear my dad snoring inside, at a volume much louder than my grandmother’s calls.
“Are you okay?” I asked our half blind, half deaf, diabetic grandmother, as my brother turned on the hall light.
She looked surprised to see us. She let out another throaty cough before replying calmly, “yes, dear. I just need to go to the bathroom.”
My brother and I exchanged anxious glances. I knew this instantly fell on me. I felt guilty waking my dad, or mom, up for this. After all, I was 18 now. I was a university student. I couldn’t be such a little kid anymore. For God’s sake, this was my grandmother.
I assured her I’d take her, and stuck out my arm to escort her down the hallway. Well, this was my other grandmother. Not my mom’s mom, who had taken care of us every day after school when we were kids. Who still called every half hour if she knew I was home alone. No, this was my dad’s mom. Who I saw almost exclusively at Christmas and birthdays. I didn’t know much about her, except that she had now come to live with us. I felt kind of guilty about it because I spent most of my days in my room, hiding from her army of nurses that were in and out of the house.
Helping this frail lady in the bathroom was a task I was in no way prepared for. Not even at 18. I had trouble finding a balance between respecting her dignity and giving her the assistance she needed. It was awkward. Kind of uncomfortable. Bumpy, even. But she thanked me profusely 15 minutes later, when all was said and done. I helped her back to her bed.
In our time in the bathroom, the coughing had gradually worsened and her breathing had laboured. My brother came back to check on us. When she was in bed, we asked her again if she was okay, and she repeated that she was. But the coughing didn’t stop. She was almost wheezing now. It was time to wake up our parents.
My groggy father asked her again a few minutes later, “mami, are you okay?”
This time, she replied, “I don’t know.”
“I’m calling an ambulance,” my brother announced, grabbing a cordless phone.
“No, no,” my grandmother quietly protested. You had to lean in close to hear her words. “I’ll be okay.”
The ambulance arrived within 10 minutes. The paramedics rushed to the bedroom and strapped her onto a stretcher. I’d never seen one so close before in person. Her breathing was getting worse. They told us she was likely having a heart attack. A heart attack! I thought heart attacks happened when somebody clutched their chest and collapsed. I had no idea it could look like this.
They carried the stretcher down the stairs, with the four of us following closely behind. They wheeled her onto the cold dark porch, when she suddenly said, louder than I’d ever heard her speak, “William!”
For a second, we all stopped and my dad rushed to her side. She spoke to him directly, “you have to get back to bed. It’s nearly morning. You all have to go to work and school soon.”
“I’m coming with you,” explained my dad. For some reason she seemed surprised. She shouldn’t have been, she didn’t speak a word of English. Of course he had to accompany her to the hospital. And even if he didn’t have to, not a thing on Earth would stop him from being by her side.
She teared up, overwhelmed by the sentiment. She whispered, “thank you,” as they began again to wheel her to the ambulance.
She was the most humble person on earth.