They all, I don’t know who, everyone, the whole family, had been saying she wasn’t doing well. I hadn’t noticed.
It was the night of yet another grade school program. At seven p.m., she had stolidly sat at a piano and willed, somehow, a score of squirming kids into orderly self-presentation, singing songs only singable by happy, Protestant, American children. There were brightly colored costumes and stencil-cut paper decorations. Three soloists’ microphones, cue cards, choir stands.
She’s the only person I’ve known who is able to make school programs seem like they fit honestly in the world. They were simple, straightforward rituals with the resonance of a declarative sentence, doled out to sinners from the mouths of babes. She lent those kids her dignity and levity when she trooped them up to sing. They looked more like adults, and she shone with childlike simplicity. She loved them. She pounded her love on her piano. She raised her eyebrows at them. They sang.
Yet after the program, in the dim of her house, I saw her sit and shiver. She wasn’t one to shiver. She exuded graceful solidity. She was a tower with a beacon at top. She wasn’t one to shiver–sit and shiver.
When I saw her there across the room, it wasn’t fear or confusion I felt. I felt a massive, impersonal abandonment, as if all the familiar rules had just dropped out of the world, leaving things and me to run on new, opposing patterns. Grandma was fragile. It felt the way it would if my words stopped working, suddenly: palpable, sudden isolation and directionless adrenaline. Grandma was shivering.
I don’t remember why I was in my grandparents’ greatroom then, stock still on the far side, whether called in to help or come in at random. I don’t remember what we said, or why we said it, what we did.
I do remember that the outermost blanket on her shoulders was blue. That she was not in her usual chair. That the lights were on for need, and not for home. Being pressed, my right against her left, as we carried her to the car. I brushed her reproduction of The Last Supper as we left. I remember her weight.
She was conscious then, but hardly responded to us. And that was the other thing that did it, that made the rules drop out of things. First she shivered, then she did not regard us. She had always regarded us, and everyone. She was aware of the people around her if of anything. She had herself in order, and gave herself kindly to whomever was by. She was a tower. Yet, this time, Grandma was inside herself or somewhere else without us, and shaking.
We carried her to the car –..’ll take her to the hospita..– and Grandpa drove her yard by yard away, Dad and I under the back porch overhang in that back door’s yellow light. Away. My job, my absurd little job, was done. I had helped her to the car. The End. The driveway was empty. She was elsewhere. I had helped. Goodbye. The End.
My uncle built that house for them when I was in grade school, attached to their old house, filling up the yard. A lavish two stories, with a hand-made curved wood handrail and big windows facing the ocean. We moved into their old house when Grandma and Grandpa moved into the new one, a little wall between us. Our front doors corner each other, five steps apart on a reddish wood porch.
So, as you’d guess, we share things, like piles of logs that Dad and Grandpa split with a wedge and a twelve pound maul, and attic space. The attic’s over the old house, with everyone’s things: old prom-wear and costumes, great-grandpa’s instruments, paintings that hung when I was five, furniture we call antique, pictures, records, Christmas decorations, books, games, and music. The things get older and more grandparentish the closer you get to the new house.
Sometime in junior high, I started sifting the grandparentish end on the house’s south side. I was spending lots of time where the costumes were and was lured south by my aunts’ old dresses and a bomber jacket. I noticed something else, a book or photo or something, to the aisle’s right and turned to investigate. I investigated often, pushing west.
The attic is not entirely floored. You push too far west or east, and you find uncovered pink insulation with a beam on either side and flimsy ceiling drywall just below. In plenty of those places we’ve put plywood or old doors across the gaps. In some we haven’t, but a place’s floorlessness doesn’t stop us from stashing things in it. Sometimes the best things–brass-studded chests of music and letters, boxes of books, french horns–are delicately perched on exposed spots, lit by flicking white light through a rooftop fan vent. You place appendages carefully on a network of solid beams, avoiding gaps like a spider avoids its sticky strands, to get to them.
A place like that, with the best things, is right above the living room.
I had gotten to the spot easily enough, but sometimes I sprawl and shift when I have something to look at. Usually, the shifting’s fine. Usually, I can rest my feet on the insulation and my weight on my thigh on a beam, lolling across the living room ceiling like a water bug, respectful of the tension that keeps me from a slip into the pool. Into the room.
I was assured that my foot had joined my grandma’s august feet by sticking light-like through the ceiling. She had stepped through over the TV. She stepped through over the closet. She stepped through over the couch. Feet, feet, feet. The attic was where she kept sheet music for those school programs. She’d duck and crawl her way between ceilings and eaves at Thanksgiving or Christmastime to find a suitable solo for a kid in a turkey costume or for a bathrobed, angel-shocked shepherd. Duckers and crawlers, we.
It was my special act of ungainliness, however, to knock an etched-glass light fixture down with my heel. My sister was playing below when it fell and shattered. She was fine, but I was scared, felt stupid. She had only been fine by a few inches. She had yelped.
They said, —Only imagine if she was a little to the left!
I was imagining. I was feeling her weight in my gut like a big toppled tree, solidifying. What if Emily was gone? I was filled with a sense of her, and it made me shiver. Thinking I was guilt-racked, Mom held me, yet the comfort felt disconnected, out of line with my gut. Is that what guilt is?
How do you find the value of a person, of Emily? Without a crash and yelp?
We never got the texture right in that section of the ceiling, repairing it. There’s a sort of stucco scar.
Grandma’s ICU had the stench and the fluorescence and the beep of diagnoses and finality. I was glad when they moved her to a room.
The family had quickly filtered down: Joe and Angela, with Adam, Betsy, Abby, Maddy, Tori, Olivia, Phillip; Becca and Roy with Josiah and Anna; Rachel and Blake with Sophia, Mark, Florence, and Eric; Mary and Tim, with Bethany, Amanda, Jonathan, Katie; Jeff and Joanna, John Mark in her belly, with Helena, James, and Anne; Sarah and Mark, with Hattie and Joanna; my family: Dad, Mom, Emily, Glenn, Joey, me; and Grandpa. The clan.
She woke up sometimes–once, glory be, while everyone was in the room. We showed her the verse from Zephaniah we had pinned onto her wall–rejoice over you with–and sang her some hymns. We smiled large. We talked little. She held her newborn granddaughter. And then she was done. She slept.
My grandpa had some time alone with her a night or two before, when he told her what the doctors said. —They talked through everything, my aunts told me. —They talked through everything. They gave forgivenesses and memories and tendernesses and fears. They talked through everything.
I wonder if they remembered their weddingday kiss at a ceremony they shared with another young couple. I wonder if they remembered their move to the house I grew up in. Or the car-radio sound of her voice reading love poetry (to him, though who else would know?) while he drove away from her Denver. The sound and smell of a full-house Sunday lunch? First grandkids? Scrabble? They had built up a life. I wonder what ‘everything’ is.
I wanted to stay there with her. There were chairs in the hallway. I thought that maybe I could manage to help everyone think I was being driven by a different aunt, and then sleep by her door, or listen to her breath. I looked at lit linoleum whenever drivers passed. I tried to front confidence: a responsible teen, I did not need help, knew what I was about, where I was, was all in order. Aunt Joanna placed fingers on my shoulder.
I just stared out the minivan window.
The one part of ‘everything’ I heard about, one thing they talked about, was salvation and holiness: the tension between believe and be saved and be perfect. They talked about that. I don’t know about the kiss, but I do know about that. That was a good bit of their ‘everything.’
Please remember. Our houses touched. I saw her everyday. Look with me at her snap-blue eyes and her silver hair halo. The lines on her face that meant a life of hard work and the lines on her face that meant a life of joy. She had seven children. She bore eight. She knew and loved and cared for each of twenty-six grandchildren. She could tell you our birthweights, along with our birthdays. She gave me my first, leather, embossed, King James Bible when I was five, and she told me to smell it. She fed us all, and she fed us full. She sang. She ordered things and people, taught them history and responsibility and morality and theology. She sang!
Who is she and where did she go?
I wanted to help, I wanted to help, I wanted to help. I made huge signs for the doors to the new house saying —Thank you we’d rather be alone, with ribbon and flowers and the best letters I could draw. I wanted to help when they brought her home, past hope of hospital’s cure, set her bed in the greatroom, facing west. They told me how to sponge moisture onto her lips. They gave me her devotional book to read, just in case she could hear. I wanted to help.
I did. I sponged water into her mouth while her lips turned blacker. I read those devotionals to her in case she could hear. And I prayed. I prayed my heart out. Prayed two things.
One. Heal her. I’ve mustered everything I know to muster, and faith has got to be in there somewhere, so heal her. You heal, so heal her. What do I need to do? Heal her. In the name of Jesus.
Two. Please, please, please don’t let her die on Emily’s birthday.
I climbed a tree that no one else could climb. Its bottom branches are too high. But I spread its sap on the thick of my body, scrambling up the trunk, and grabbed them. Pulled them to my chest and swung my feet up. Swung up arms to the next and shot up knees in a flurry, made rungs of its limbs and sped to where the wind could push me, where I bawled in the sap. Once a day, at least. I needed to be above the earth. I needed to be away from them. I needed to be where I could reach my hand and pull what I will to my chest. On a perch for my anger, over the roof of the house where she wheezed, above eyes and ears, in the sky, I strained and shouted —Why. Why. Why. Why. Why. Why.
The sky. I hated the sky because it was beautiful, now of all times. It was more beautiful than I had ever seen. The sun was setting red in clouds that curled in semicircles over the ocean like substantial rainbows. The wavecaps gilded. The yellow east resolved to lavender, and lit the hilltops blue. And she stretched flat with blackening lips and liquid in her chest.
If I could climb higher, reach the top, snatch a fistful of it, rip, I’d tear the sky and watch it slide down in two sheets. Open the black.
For the first time, the whole clan was there for Emily’s birthday. We sang beneath the scar in the ceiling–..dear Emilyy. Happy..– No one wanted to sing. Everyone wanted to sing. No one wanted to sing. We sang. Cake passed. Ice cream. She opened a gift, I think.
I think it exhausted everyone, trying to celebrate. They eased themselves out of the room toward their borrowed beds. I think that’s why I was alone with Grandma, sponging water, singing hymns on a birthday alone. Alone. The room was still, and filled with her gurgle. She lay, white as her hair. Her skin sweat, but her lips were blistered dry. I looked at her swollen, gentle hands. I stared at her jaw, dropped. I looked around the room: the Monet windmill, the covers of Etude magazine, the TV, the silent baby grand. Her jaw. Her hands. Her eyelids. Around.
It had been like this every day.
I sat. I watched. I helped. My chair
stayed by her all the time.
Day after day.
–Please not today, Lord. Please not today.
Up in the tree, I had hated the sky. I had words for my hate. I said them. Said them until the sky grabbed and ripped them, watched them fall down. Open the gasps. The sky stayed intact, asserted splendor, and I gasped and wept. There weren’t words left.
She took in breath like she was shocked. I snapped my head back from the baby grand. The flood in her lungs pushed at her air, forced it out like a growl. Tense. Tense all over. –Not today! Not today! Not Emily’s! Not! Today. I ran up the stairs. –Come now. I ran down the stairs, opened the door, jumped past the porch, opened the door. –Quick. Come now. Quick! I ran outside. –Go in. Who was in? Joe and Angela. Mom and Dad. Becca and Roy. Mary and Tim. Joanna and Jeff. Sarah and Mark. Ach. Rachel and Blake. –I’ll get them. They were in their apartment, up the hill. I ran. I pushed the asphalt under me. My chair stayed by her all the time. No knock, I opened the door. –Aunt Rachel, you have t’hurry. Now. It’s time. She’s… I waited until she was coming out the door, but then I wouldn’t keep her pace. I sprinted down the hill, leaving her behind, running. I sprinted to the porchlight. I fumbled on the handle. I came to sounds I hadn’t heard before.
They cried. All of them. Cried like animals. I couldn’t get to the greatroom. Would. Pushed into view, view, and stared. There. There. There. There. Mom walked straight toward me, comfortless hands out, turned my face, laid her head on my neck, cried and shook. She shivered against me. I bent at my middle and pushed my eyes to her back. We wet each other’s shirts, weeping.
They told me what happened. They said
that she opened her blue eyes. That she raised her white hands. That she smiled like looking at glory.
I didn’t see. I left my chair to run up the stairs when she died on Emily’s birthday. I wasn’t there. I was not there. I wasn’t there. Is that answered prayer?
What’s the answer?
Days earlier, I wept in the tree, when the sky stayed intact. I gasped and wept until my breaths found a beat and steadied. I cried. I cried and I breathed until my voice found its place and I sang. Sang songs only singable by a Christian. Hymns that hurt like a death endured that she had taught me. Sang, sang, sang, and cried. Her lips were black, and the sky was more beautiful than I had ever seen. I came down, went back to my chair, and read her devotional.
No more now. There won’t be going back. Not even to black lips. No more.
There. There she is, up ahead. I’ll duck and crawl my way through the attic behind her, feet after her feet, step in her step, leave a scar for the next kids to find when they turn west. There she is, up ahead, where I can listen to her breath. There she is, pounding love on a piano, raising her eyebrows. I’ll sing.
There she is, ahead.
Look, I don’t know why. I don’t know what to say. But I know that when we stood by the pulpit, twenty-six grandkids, that weekend, and I held her newborn granddaughter, and we sang, the rounding balcony was filled with people who had once been in grade school, and people who had eaten her Sunday lunch. The pews were filled with people who were handed first Bibles, and people who had learned what love meant. They were filled with people who prayed. I know that when we sang and I cried–..blessed be the name of the Lord..–that they cried too, in the hundreds, and sang.
Have you walked through a room that will always be empty? Run fingers along a curved wood handrail and cried? Chased kids up stairs for pure play, with the speed of an old emergency? Sat in a chair facing west, wrapped in blue, and watched the sun set in gold over waves? Slowly climbed a tree?
Have you prayed after facing an absolute, specific, and incomprehensible, “No”?
Have you sung the old songs?
–rejoice over you with–