Lost Tribes

Fannie sings a song of a ship lost to a sea she’s never seen. She’s never been east of St. Louis, west of Tulsa, south of Little Rock, or north of Columbia. She’s spotted some mighty big rivers during the seventy-three years she’s spent rambling around the range she’s called home, but ain’t none of them oceans.

“Jimmy,” she used to say to me, “someday before I die, I’m going to take you on one of those air-planes.” She never said where she was going to take me, and I don’t think she knew. To her it didn’t matter much where we went, she just wanted to take me there with her.

Now she’s out of time to fly, using what breath she has left in her to sing of lovers lost to the remorseless sea. 

“Jimmy, take this here pillow and cover up whatever it is that’s a-beeping so,” she tells me. I do as she says, even though I know it’s gonna make the nurse mad. Grandma starts singing again once the beep-beep of the medical monitor isn’t competing with her frail voice quite so much anymore.

She’s gasping and just humming to herself now. Nurses at the station down the hall are complaining about “that hillbilly lady in room 3.” Fannie chuckles when she hears them chattering and says, “city folk.”

Ain’t nobody in the hospital but us knows the old songs grandma’s a-singing as she dies. Lost tribes sing lost songs, I reckon. Three times an indignant nurse comes in and removes the pillow that keeps muffling the beeping monitor, and each time the nurse scolds the old woman.

“You listen here,” the nurse says the third time, “you gotta stop having your family cover up the equipment.” Then she waggles a finger at all of us in the room. “And you all,” she said, “you gotta stop doing what she says. We need to be able to hear that, and the monitors are delicate.” 

It’s my daddy that answers her, “We’re more worried about making mama happy than we are about making you happy.”

Fannie’s laughing after the nurse leaves in a huff. “I reckon these medical folk can fuck right off,” she says. “After all, it’s me that’s the one a-dying.”

We all laugh at that, because we know she’s right. Grandma starts another song about murder and illicit lovers from centuries past. 

Hours later, the doctor comes in, barely older than me, stethoscope looped over skinny shoulders and a clipboard in his hands. “I hear you’ve had some run-ins with the nurses,” he says more to those of us huddled by the window than to the old hillbilly woman in the bed.Then he turns to Grandma and hollers, “Fannie, I see here that you haven’t liked the sound of some of our equipment in here?”

She yells right back at him, louder than I’ve ever heard her speak, “You’re goddam right, the beeping annoys me!” Then she adds, in a softer voice, “But you ain’t gotta yell. It’s my heart givin’ out, not my ears.”

We all laugh at that, and the doctor even chuckles a little bit. He calls the nurses in and tells them to let Grandma keep the monitors muffled. He even has them bring in extra pillows to cover the sound up better. “After all,” he whispers to them, “it’s not going to do her any good.”

Then the doctor and the nurses leave us alone again, and Fannie sings a final song about a love lost in an unseen sea.

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