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My Mom's Face
It started on an irregular day in fifth grade. It was the day of the school spelling bee. I was in it, and all my thoughts were on winning the spelling bee. It never occurred to me that something else might happen that day.
In the morning, I was a robot who eats breakfast, brushes her hair, and goes to school. At 8:30 sharp the spelling bee began, and I was nervous. The other contestants and I found our seats in the front of the library, where the bee would be taking place.
I spelled every word correctly and articulately. After what seemed like years, but was probably only twenty minutes, it was down to two people: Adam Kimball and me. I knew Adam a little bit, and he annoyed me. We dueled. He spelled a word right, then I did.
“Please spell apostrophe,” the announcer told Adam. Adam went right on ahead.
“Apostrophe. A-p-o-s-t-r-o-p-h. Apostrophe.” The judges thumbs went sideways, a cue that it was spelled incorrectly. The judges were there to make sure the word was spelled correctly. There were three of them, and I only recognized one slightly. She was the principal before I got there. If I got this word right, I would win. All my thoughts were on winning. I think everyone had that.
“Ivy,” the pronouncer, who was the principal, said, “please spell mercurial.”
I had gotten a hard one. I thought it through. It was probably spell like mercury, but was it -el, or -ial? This was hard. I hazarded a guess at -ial.
“Mercurial.” I said. I took a deep breath, envisioning it in my mind. “M-e-r-c-u-r…” I took a breath. “i-a-l. Mercurial.”
“That is correct. We have a winner!”
After that everything was a very good blur. I got hugs and handshakes from all around, and many people said congratulations. I congratulated Adam, and he returned it. My Mom had made it to the spelling bee, and she gave me a hug, with no need for words. Everything was good, in fact, too good to be true. I went through the day on a cloud, when something very different was happening at home.
I went to my Dad’s that night. We celebrated my achievement, and I had a big bowl of ice cream, and a new book, probably one of the Warrior Cat books. Then we sat down to read, and my Dad came over to me. I knew immediately something was wrong. He never interrupted me when I was reading. Things went from very good to very bad quickly.
“Your Grandma has had a stroke.” he said. Just that. I knew exactly what a stroke was; it was were there was a vein in your brain that was clogged, and the person went unconscious. It was never a good thing, and it had happened to Grandma. My grandma. I almost burst out crying, but I didn’t.
Dad took me home right away. Mom was in tears on our couch. I sat next to her, and we cried together. We just sat there not knowing what to do, not knowing what to expect. When we were done crying, we reminisced about Grandma.
“She always said she would be struck by lightning and die on the farm,” Mom told me. “A stroke was about the closest she could come, I guess. She never wanted to live in a nursing home.” It seemed like I was constantly in awe of the things my Grandma had done, and what Mom told me about her.
“She was amazing, your Grandma. You didn’t know her in her prime,” Mom continued, as apparently it was story time. “She water skied, and drove. She was a schoolteacher for years, starting in WW2, when there weren’t enough teachers. Graafschap Community Church told her she was teaching to the damned, and she took away her membership before they could kick her out. It seemed like she had a backbone of steel.”
When I looked at my Mom’s face, I realized I had never seen it that way. Her eyes were red, and there were tears in them. She was sitting very still, and started crying silent tears. Not soon after, I went to bed.
The next day, we went to visit Grandma. I was used to seeing my Grandma about five foot four, and every inch of it resilient and strong. Now she was lying in a hospital bed, with tubes all over her. Her white hair wasn’t up in her usual bun, and it was pulled back in a ponytail, which was very unusual. Grandma wasn’t exactly conscious. My Mom’s face was a mixture of sadness, reality, and dread. I don’t think she’d ever seen Grandma that way either. Grandma wasn’t getting any better. If anything, she was getting worse. Mom told me that, but somehow, based on Mom’s descriptions and what I saw, I knew. Grandma wasn’t going to get better.
The days went by. First one, then two, then even three. Mom visited every day after work, and a lot of the time, I went with her. I couldn’t see any changes, but the doctors didn’t like what they saw. My Mom’s face was unlike anything I’d every remember seeing. There were hardly any smiles, and she didn’t laugh like she used to. She did what she needed to like she was programmed to do that, and she just sat when everything was done. It was not fun to see her stabbing at her food like she wanted to do something with it, instead of eat it. It was not fun to see her stare wistfully in the distance, or try to hold back tears. It was not any fun to see her like this, overcome with sadness. I learned a lot about my grandparents, when Mom would start crying inexplicably, and then explain. I learned that they loved to play cards, I learned how Grandpa courted Grandma, and we had many good laughs over the sillier things Grandma had done, my favorite being the story about the roof.
“Oh, Grandma wasn’t always modest.” Mom told me. “One time, Grandpa was re-tarring the roof. Grandpa couldn’t stand the tar fumes, so Grandma climbed up, and realized she didn’t want to get tar on her clothes. She yelled to Grandpa, who by that time was on the ground, to bring her her painting bathing suit. So, Grandma completely changed her clothes on the roof, right next to the street.” That got us both laughing, but there were tears in Mom’s eyes.
The end of grandma loomed nearer every day. My Mom knew this. Mom didn’t like watching Grandma suffer, and I didn’t like watching my Mom feel this much sadness. It went against what I normally thought of my Mom. Both of us were robot-like now, as though we just did things automatically, and without thinking, as if thinking would make it worse.
The end came. None of us were surprised, but it still hurt. It hurt a lot, like Grandma took a little part of us with her. Most of my family was very close to her, and Grandpa was already dead. I wouldn’t be able to tell her about school, she wouldn’t teach me new crochet stitches, and there would be no more cookies when Mom wasn’t looking. Mom was there when it happened. She had been talking to Grandma, whether or not it did any good, and holding her hand. Grandma eventually just stopped breathing. Mom didn’t call for a nurse because, as she put it, that was the way Grandma wanted to go. It seemed to help my Mom, to know that Grandma wasn’t suffering anymore, but it also changed her. We all went to the funeral, and it was bittersweet, since I got to see my family. Together, we accepted that Grandma went on, and very literally had a party. Every cousin was there - the second time I had seen them all together, and our family had grown. We did what we would have done if Grandma was there: the adults played pinochle, the kids entertained each other, and we all ate too much - but there was an empty chair at the table where Grandma used to sit. The smiles and laughs were half hearted, and it was the first time I ate broccoli with my cousins (Grandma was allergic to broccoli). It was good to see each other, and it put all of us in a better mood. We celebrated each other and Grandma’s memory together. Life would go on, as Grandma would have said.