Learning My Instincts

"Doll, help me get into my floral nightgown hanging there," my grandmother said, pointing toward the hospice closet.

I pulled out the nightgown. It was made of an itchy, polyester blend, long, with three plastic pink buttons at the top and huge pink and blue flowers. It was something that I couldn't imagine putting on in a million years, but my grandmother adored bright colors. She thought the blacks and browns that I preferred were an unfortunate side effect of my romantic life in New York City.

She slowly swung her legs over the side of the bed and prepared to sit up, laboring over every movement. Her lungs were slowly turning to stone. At least that's how I understood it. The doctors called it pulmonary fibrosis. They guessed that the disease had first taken root in her tiny body as she tended the chickens on the family farm back in Kearney, Neb., seven decades past. Now every exertion was accompanied by a quiet, but painful-sounding, inhale.

Wordlessly, she pulled off her nightgown. Here she was, my grandmother, naked and wrinkled, so tiny and sunken in that I could hardly recognize her. There were familiar signs: her mastectomy scar, and her characteristically slight shoulders. Her belly even pouched just a little. But otherwise, the woman who stepped into skirted-bathing suits to go to the pool, whose generous lap had sheltered my tears at "E.T.", whose arthritic knuckles had ached a bit after shooting hoops with me in the alley, was gone. And in her place was a dying creature who needed my help.

It made me feel like a little girl again, far younger than my 21 years. I had an expensive education from an elite institution. I was familiar with the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. I could describe the theories of a handful of sociologists and political scientists. I knew how to pronounce Dostoevsky.

But I didn't know how to help my dying grandmother. None of that fancy education had prepared me for this moment, a moment that left me feeling stupid and worthless.

My women's-studies courses had emphasized the danger of naturalizing learned behaviors. Socialization became my new favorite word. It was freeing to believe that I wasn't more inclined to communicate or cry just because I was female. Suddenly my choices felt less like destiny and more like self-determination. I scoffed haughtily at my mom's goddess talk and insistence that women were inherently more peaceful.

Now, as I sat in that hospice room, I longed to feel some strong womanly instincts. Wasn't this something I was supposed to know how to do? My own mom, 5 feet 10 inches of maternal hurricane, would know exactly where to place her hands for support, how to untangle the oxygen tube, and she would know how to do it all without embarrassing my grandmother. She would know how to help expertly, invisibly, in that way that women—seemingly by birth—know how to handle death.

Facing the prospect of deep and irreplaceable loss for the first time, I realized that socialization couldn't explain the duty that was swelling inside of me. It was as if the sight of my grandmother's vulnerability tapped unknown resources deep within me.

And as much as my mind hated to admit it, my heart knew that they felt like fundamentally female instincts. My uncle was the strong and silent type, a man's man who preferred to leave the messy stuff up to his wife and sisters. My father and brother—though both sensitive and feminist—weren't in that room, witnessing my grandmother's disintegration.

I gently pulled the tubing from the oxygen tank away from her arms and neck, so that it wouldn't get snagged and threaten her fragile breath. I set aside the discarded nightgown and put the new, brighter one over her head, being careful that it didn't catch around her ears. I pulled it down around her waist. I helped her swing her legs back on to the bed, gently putting my hands under each bony ankle and guiding them upward. I, again, held the oxygen tube while she scooted herself back onto the nightgown, back into her home, the little cave of bed where she rested.

"There," she said, smiling up at me, "thanks for helping an old girl out."

"There," I echoed. And for the first time in a long time, I didn't have a theory to explain my pain.