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Stranger in a House of Death
She lay there, back against the rough fibers of the faded blue comforter, downy white hair moving wispily in the thin breeze of the overhead fan, the dim hum of the oxygen tank buzzing a dull undertone to the conversation. Her breath came in soft, rattling gasps in, and soft, racking coughs out, terribly quiet for all its vehemence. The cataracts in her brilliant blue eyes gave a gradient effect, blending with the whites on one edge of the iris and in stark contrast with the thick navy line at the bottom corner of the other. Silken skin hung in loose, papery folds, ravaged by years of gravity. But her lips were still full, the color of cherries, and bowed into a sweet smile.
“Winter’s coming,” she told my mother, kneeling at the bedside, with a soft chuckle, “so take care driving around up there. I know how much snow you get.”
My mother smiled. “We will, we will. We’ve got a good car - it’ll go through snow just fine, Gramma. You know, I…” Here her words blended into an exuberantly loud tirade, certainly more than my ears could handle. I wondered if Great-Grandma’s hearing difficulties made it any more tolerable.
The fan blew my hair into my eyes, and she took a rattling breath that was lost amongst the many breaths of the ever-increasing crowd in her tiny bedroom. Seated on the edge of the bed next to me was my brother, four years younger and four inches taller and the quietest in the room. My lap held my nine-year-old cousin-in-law, the daughter of an elder cousin’s fiancée (for whom she had left her husband and two biological children). Incidentally, the aforementioned Fiancée stood in the corner by the door, chatting idly with my father, lips twisted into a constant leering half-grin, and eyes flicking nervously across the faces of the gathered mourners every so often. Not once would he meet my eyes. My grandfather and cousin stood just outside, in the hallway. A moment of concentration revealed their conversation to be about how he had made the tomato sauce for our impending dinner. My grandmother stood at my back, lips pressed into a thin line as she glanced at whatever was written on the paper she was holding. She was, as I came to understand later, the executer of the will. Off somewhere in another room, a squeal arose from the autistic child of the Fiancée, ignored and shunted off to the side because he demanded, apparently, too much attention.
The ancient woman on the bed gasped and hacked again, and a hush fell over the room, filled with the thick, bitter stench of anxiety, something so much softer than fear, but so much shaper than sorrow. The undercurrent of greed left a diseased sink in my nostrils and the slick taste of oil on my tongue. With a barely visible shake of my head, I leaned down and placed my lips close to the tiny girl on my knee’s ear.
“Bianca, honey, why don’t you go out into the living room and set up a game for us to play, and I’ll come out there in a minute.” She nodded, big eyes dark under a dark fringe of hair, and leapt to the floor, miniature steps dancing her out the door. The adults took my hint, whether consciously or subconsciously, and gradually trickled out, my brother following reluctantly at my silent urging. I left last, shutting the door with a quiet click, leaving my mother and her beloved grandmother to themselves.
The living room of a house I only barely remembered was filled with gorgeous Native American and Hispanic art, eclectic and homey. The room smelled like the sun, and I gratefully washed the stale dust of mortality from my skin with it. I cast my gaze around, committing the details to memory, the soft carpet squishing up between my bare toes. A thin chill ran down my spine as I noticed the urn on the mantle, filled with ashes of a dead son that should have been scattered to the wind next to the ashes of Great-Grandpa, over the Wind River in Wyoming. No one had given it a passing thought. Bile rose in my throat as the stories of this family’s greed surfaced within my mind. I rubbed my fingertips across my lips and went to give some fraction of my abundant time to my young soon-to-be cousin.
After nearly an hour playing a mad, adventurous game, in which we used rocks from the garden as pieces and the entire house and its beautifully manicured yard as a board, we were called in for dinner.
My grandfather had made what he called spaghetti but I called penne and a wonderful red sauce (made with the hand grown tomatoes from his own garden, as he so modestly informed me) with some kind of grayish sausage and veal meatballs (on which I choked when he told me what they were made of, hoping to somehow impress a child). The first plate he handed me was red plastic, and heaped to overflowing. When I expressed my gratitude at the abundance of calories but politely declined on account of a poor appetite, he handed that plate to my brother (who visibly paled) and gave to me an identical one, save three or so pieces of pasta less. When I went to sit, I expressed a flash of annoyance with a mean smirk at the back of his head for being seated at the so designated “children’s table.” I spent the next thirty minutes answering an awestruck third-grader’s questions about my interests, and rapidly loosing patience with the whole ordeal.
All the while the reason for our gathering lay lonesome in her own home.
At some point during my meal, the autistic child came up and hugged me around the waist, burying his face in my navel. “Oh!” I gasped, surprised, as I looked down, “Hi there, Nate! I’m Sara. How are you?”
Three heads turned in my direction. “He doesn’t talk,” the voices of his mother, father, and sister said in unison, each from a different point in the room. I swallowed a laugh and continued to grant him the attention he was so clearly pleading for. And as I spent yet more of my short time there caring for the Fiancée’s children, these relatives, who, though I had know them for years, were practically strangers periodically asked me questions about my life, my interests and my school, hardly giving pause to listen to the answer before the next question came shooting like a bullet from an idle mouth.
The interesting thing I learned about adolescence that night is that not only is one’s body caught somewhere strange between childhood and womanhood, but so is the impression one makes on others. Regardless of the state on one’s intellect. (And not for one minuet would I ever consider myself to be quite so clever, but I felt that I deserved a slight bit more credit than they gave me.)
From the conversation, I gained: the knowledge that my mother once played powder-puff football, the knowledge (that I already knew, but he felt the need to reiterate) that my grandfather takes twelve pills a day for the various aliments of old age, the knowledge that my grandmother had never known what ‘homunculus’ meant, and the promise of my cousin to send me all the clothing she was ‘too cool’ for. None of which I asked for. My end of the conversation offered gems of its own, but none were accepted, save by little Bianca.
After a good long while, someone finally noticed that Great-Grandma was ‘growing’ exhausted, as if she hadn’t been already, and the time was long past when she should have been asleep. We filed into the closet of a room yet again, the air growing muggy and thick the instant we crossed that silent little threshold. We each said a brief “Goodnight, I love you.” to her as she smiled and laughed feebly, her mind far stronger than her body wanted to be. Finally, my mother knelt by her side again, and began to say her goodbye.
“I love you, Gramma.” she said, voice carrying a tinge of a whisper.
“Oh, I love you too, Laurie. You take care now. Be careful the drive home.” she warbled.
“I - I’m so glad we got to come see you.” The words she didn’t say hung bodily in the air.
“Oh, me too. You know, this might just well be the last time. The Grim Reaper‘s coming - I can feel him waiting at my bedside.” She punctuated with a laugh and a cough.
My stomach churned with imposed anxiety as my mother choked up. “I really….I just don’t know what to do…..I always say ‘I’ll see you later’ or ‘I’ll see you soon.’ I just don’t know what to say this time…”
“Well, you know, Laurie, it’s all just a part of life. And no goodbye’s really final. I’ll still see you again.” Her words were strong and wise and calm, but her voice trembled a bit, and her eyes glistened. The air was heavy and sweet with crystalline sorrow, beautiful structures ready to shatter at any time with the fear and worry lurking darkly behind. A hard and bitter ball stuck at the back of my tongue, and I felt my fingers and teeth grow numb as the nausea increased.
“Have you heard at all from Grampa?” Mom joked.
“Oh, well, you know, he’s been patting me on the back just like he used too.”
“He’ll be right there for you.”
“I know, Laurie, I know.” she wheezed.
My mother had once told me the story of my great-grandfather’s near-death experience. He had refused to talk about what he had seen. My mother was certain that it was because he had seen what his life had lead him too - Hell.
We said our final goodnights and goodbyes and it was terribly absolute, but the awful pressure had lifted, and I could breathe again as we left.
In the car, my father said to me, as my mother was sleeping, “You know, I bet we’ll be doing the same thing in six years, just like last time.”
I frowned, but nodded. “Maybe so.”
As we drove through the murky desert night I did not sleep. Instead, my thoughts were consumed by the tragedy that was my mother’s side of the family, their greed and their detached relationships, based on little more than what one could get from the other. (In its own strange way, it was love, it was affection.)
And the words of my greatest grandmother, “Winter is coming.”
Perhaps winter is not coming, I thought, staring up at the stars. Perhaps winter is finally ending.
*Bernice Moore passed away Tuesday, November 30, 2010 at the ripe old age of 91. She was dearly loved and is dearly missed.