I never lie. I never, ever lie. Except I lie to my grandmother. I lie to her all the time. The things I tell her are almost exclusively lies.
In one moment, this almost universal wrong became a right. And somewhere deep in the Valley at an elder care facility, in a room painted a hue that should be called “Trying Desperately to be Chipper,” my family made the tacit agreement that a series of untruths was truly the best way to usher grandma into the next life. This place is the last stop for our matriarch, who is 91 and often forgets the names of her relatives and eats only tapioca pudding. The Ten Commandments say not to lie, but here in God’s waiting room, with CNN on mute and various flowers wilting, we decide in an instant to make an exception.
Grandma tries to make conversation, but she’s fading and she tends to ask the same questions again and again. With my cousins, my aunt and my new husband sitting around her room, she looked at the Mr. and asked, “Are you Jewish?”
There was some uncomfortable shifting around. There was a brief silence. Without discussion, we all nodded. Yes.
“Of course he’s Jewish, Grammy,” I said. What was she going to do? Leap out of bed and Google him? This first lie felt so right. I shot a look to my husband.
“I’m Jewish,” he added, and we all looked at each other, a team of liars, all realizing at once that this was the thing to do. We were all smiling, because it was kind of funny, my Catholic blond of a husband’s sudden conversion. Plus, smiling is kind of like crossing your fingers. If anyone was checking, we could say we were only joking with grandma.
As is her custom lately, she asked the question about half a dozen more times and got the same answer. I married a Jew, I married a Jew, I married a Jew. This news never failed to delight her.
“How are Buddy’s grades?” Grandma asked. Buddy is my 15-year-old cousin, a great kid, excellent drummer, adequate wrestler, but perhaps not the best student, which is the only thing that concerns my grandma. That woman wants your G.P.A. even when she is almost R.I.P.
There was another moment of quiet. The smell of chicken wafted in from the kitchen next door. A few TVs were blaring in the facility, a cozy house turned hospice for six oldsters, most of who can’t get out of bed. The phrase “no heroic measures” was whispered last time we were at the hospital with Grandma, and she seemed depressed and didn’t want to eat or drink much. When one is at the end of days, does one really need to know one’s grandson isn’t going to Harvard, but more likely Cal State Northridge, like my dad, if he’s lucky?
My aunt piped up. “Straight A’s, mom. He’s getting straight A’s.”
Grandma looked around the room, her cloudy eyes widening, thrilled.
She didn’t know it, and we hadn’t planned it, but suddenly grandma was in a nonstop, ad hoc, Make-a-Wish Foundation of the mind, where Shaq didn’t need to show up and no one had to acquire a pony or two tickets to Disneyworld. Every secret wish in her heart was coming true through the magic of untruths.
“I’m going with Aunt Julie to temple,” I offer during one visit. “I love services.” Well, I kind of do, but let’s face it, I never drive out to the Valley to go to services on a Friday night, but I would if we were living in an alternative universe, or if I didn’t have two jobs, or if I wasn’t really fidgety. Conceptually, this wasn’t a complete mendacity.
There are also your garden-variety lies; lies you might tell your own grandmother, who still has all of her faculties and isn’t knock, knock knocking you-know-where. We don’t just tell Grandma exotic tales; we also involve ourselves with the basics, you know, of the “you look great in that” strain.
The nurses ask that we pick up some all-cotton shirts for Grandma that button up the front, so she won’t be sitting around in the heat wearing synthetic fibers, and so the staff can easily change her top. My husband and I travel to Wal-Mart and scour the racks for something that fits this description. The only suitable garment we find is a striped oxford that screams substitute teaching or temping more than convalescing. We’re running late, the striped shirt seems superior to the pink surfer motif hoodie that was our backup plan, so we buy three.
My aunt wrestles grandma into her new white button-down with red stripes and we all coo at how great she looks. There is something unsettling about a wheezing nonagenarian dressed like a small-market morning news anchor, but that’s not how we put it.
“You look so adorable, Grandma” we say, in various ways, riffing on the subject for a good 15 minutes.
In a way, it’s not a total fabrication. Grandma has a certain glow. Her hair, now that it’s un-coiffed, is doing kind of a soft, wavy, old-fashioned almost Veronica Lake thing. Her happiness at seeing us, her quiet gratitude as my aunt spoon feeds her pudding or does her fingernails in opaque white, the way she remembers my husband’s name every time she meets him, even though he’s new to the family, there’s beauty in all of this. Not so much in the shirt, you see, and there again is where lying is something we all wear well.
When everything hurts you, your swollen leg, your creaky joints, your lungs and most everything else, when you’re sitting propped up in a button-down shirt you wouldn’t have chosen in a room that you didn’t decorate, when you’re lonely and scared, the truth isn’t always beautiful, a salve, or something that sets you free.
When everything hurts you, what you don’t know can’t.
Teresa Strasser is the co-host of “The Adam Carolla Show,” mornings on 97.1 FM. She also co-hosts “TV Watercooler” on the TV Guide Network, airing Monday nights at 8 p.m.