My Grandma, Who Used to Exist Last Sunday

1.

I didn’t understand the party, but I was only eight.

Just two hours before, they had all been crying. Especially Mother. She had stood at the front of the church, head bowed, tears navigating their way to the tip of her nose, then hesitating before dropping to the red-carpeted floor. She didn’t seem to notice. Dad had his arm around her, and sometimes he moved his hand to her back, and every now and then he gave her shoulder a little squeeze or her back a light tap. She cried.

I stood on the other side of Dad, staring wide-eyed at Grandma. I reached out tentatively and touched her bare arm but pulled back as if burned. She was so cold. I peered at her, studying her serene face. It didn’t look quite right. At the time, I couldn’t place what was wrong, but it might have been that she had more color in her cheeks and lips than she’d had since she’d gotten sick.

“Sweet dreams,” I remember whispering when they shut her in. Mother cried.

When we got home, Mother brought the food into the family room, smiling. Food always did make her happy. There were relatives everywhere. Very few of them had ever sent me Christmas presents, so I didn’t know them.

They all knew me, but it seemed to be through the process of elimination. “You must be Lance,” they said. I returned their forced smiles, which quickly melted away.

Maggie wandered freely through the forest of shoes, leg trunks, and dresses. Unfortunately for the party-goers, her nose was naturally as high as most people’s groins, so sniffing presented problems.

“Oh, what a nice dog. What is she, a golden retriever?” A round of smiles.

They all were hungry, it seemed, because all they did was eat and talk about how lovely the food was.

“This is a wonderful casserole, Janet. What’s in it?” Smiles for everyone.

I was finished eating (I only had dessert and Mother didn’t even notice), and all that was left for me to do was fidget, so I decided to escape the stuffy confines of the family-room fun. I walked into the dining room, trying not to be noticed. The lights were off, but I recognized the voice instantly — kind with a sprinkling of stern. I hadn’t heard it in months.

“Straighten your tie, Lance.”

I did as she asked.

“You look fine in a suit, honey.”

Grandma was in the corner chair, next to the window, obscured by shadows.

“Are you” &mdash I searched for the word — “okay?”

She laughed. “Fine! Fine! Wasn’t it a beautiful day today?”

The din of the party was behind me, a million miles away. Grandma sounded like she was speaking right into my ear, from across the room. My mother laughed weakly in the distance.

“Grandma?” I asked softly.

“Yes?” She drew out the word, knowing what was coming, smiling.

“Can I go to my room? It’s no fun in there.”

I felt her amused, contrived scowl through the silence, and could almost picture it on her face. A smile again. “Shhhhhh. I won’t tell.”

I returned her grin, and thanked her on my way up the stairs.

2.

Grandma always used to come to dinner on Sundays, but one weekend in early August, she didn’t show up. Dad hadn’t put her chair at the dinner table, and Mom hadn’t set her a place, so Maggie took Grandma’s spot, resting her chin on the table, eyes carefully following the movement of the food.

“Isn’t Grandma coming over tonight?” I asked.

“No, honey, she’s” — Mother paused — “sick.”

“She still needs to eat doesn’t she?”

“Of course, silly, but they’ll feed her at the hospital.” Mother stopped dishing up lima beans and looked at me, hoping I wouldn’t probe further. Maggie stared at the lima beans, and her tongue said she wanted some.

“Why’s Grandma in the hospital?”

“I already told you, Lance. She’s sick.”

“What’s wrong with her?”

She looked at my father with tired eyes.

“Lance, eat your meat loaf,” Dad said.

“Can I go see her tomorrow?”

My mother returned to the lima beans as my father spoke.

“She’ll be here soon. She’s going to stay with us.”

3.

Mom and Dad moved Grandma into the family room when she got home from the hospital. She was pale, and her skin was taut against her skull. Her lips were thin and white, tightly pressed together, withholding her secret. Her eyes were sunken in dark-gray circles. It looked as if she’d been in a fight, and lost.

She was more of a medical specimen than anything else, I guess, caged in by the hospital bed’s big, hollow aluminum bars. The bed was large, brutish, and cold, as was the nurse who stayed with Grandma, a burly woman named Mrs. Grose. She would’ve looked just like Grizzly Adams with a little more of a beard, a plaid workman’s shirt, and a smile.

Grandma slept most of the time she was sick. I only remember her speaking once, and she was probably sleeping then, too. It was the day she moved into the family room. Mother and Father were in the kitchen, talking to Mrs. Grose, who’d agreed to baby-sit me that night while they went out to dinner.

I stood beside Grandma, and took her hand. I felt like I had to whisper, or she wouldn’t be able to hear me.

“When are you going to get better, Grandma?”

Her response came in the form of the rhythmic beeps and clicks and drones of the machines beside her. I listened carefully, wanting to hear a breath. Beeps, clicks, and drones. Her chest moved — only slightly, but it did move. She was breathing. I gently squeezed he hand: “I.” I squeezed again: “love.” And a third time: “you.” It was something she taught me, three squeezes for three words.

I swear she smiled. It wasn’t a real smile, but ... the skin on her face slackened somewhat, and her mouth seemed to spread wider, just a tiny bit.

And then she spoke to me. Her fingers tensed around mine. Her grasp faltered, then a second light squeeze. Her hand fell limp. I kept it between both of my hands. Her fingers twitched, a third time.

She spoke no more.

4.

I came home from school one day, and I knew something wasn’t right. It was a bad day to start with, because Jim Beasley told me that there wasn’t any Santa Claus. Naturally, I didn’t believe him, but it still bothered me that anybody could doubt. Then I got home, and something was definitely wrong. It was around Halloween, and Mrs. Grose wasn’t in the family room with Grandma. The machines were gone, too. Somebody had covered Grandma with a sheet, not letting her breathe. Her chest and body were still. The house was completely quiet. Even Maggie was still. I climbed up on the edge of Grandma’s bed and sat beside her. It was very peaceful.

My mother walked into the family room, stopped, and looked at me pitifully.

“I didn’t know you were home, honey.” I didn’t respond. “Lance, you need to get off the bed. Please.”

“Why?”

“They need to take the bed.” Exasperated. Tears formed and fell.

“Why?”

“They have to take Grandma away. Please.”

“They don’t need to take her, Mom. She can stay here.” My voice was resolved.

My mother rushed at me, pulled me off the bed, and held me close.

5.

They took her away two days before the party. Grandma loved parties. I guess that’s why she showed up. Grandma loved Mom’s Sunday dinner, too. Grandma didn’t miss that either, two days after the party.

We assembled at the round kitchen table as always, Mom and Dad across from each other and Maggie facing me. The dog didn’t even seem to notice when, in the absence of a chair, Grandma straddled her and sat down on her back. Maggie just left her head resting on the table, watching the food. Grandma was a little low to the table, but that was nothing new. She just seemed a little lower than before.

Grandma had no plate or silverware in front of her, only Maggie’s head, and she certainly couldn’t eat off that. I wrinkled my brow and looked at her as my Mom and Dad began twirling spaghetti around their forks.

“Mom,” I started. Grandma shushed me, putting an index finger to her lips and grinning. “You don’t want to go getting Grandma in trouble, now, do you?”

I smiled at her. “Sorry.”

Mother and Father looked at me, pasta waiting on their forks. I looked at each of them, still smiling. They turned their attention to Maggie, who’d snagged a few strands of spaghetti — quite a few, actually — and was throwing her head back in frustration, trying to get them down. Then Maggie, too, paused, the center of attention, spaghetti dangling from her mouth. Grandma laughed, the guilty party, while Mom and Dad looked accusingly at me.

“Shhhhh! You wouldn’t want to go getting me in trouble now, would you?” She resumed laughing, heartily, and slapped the top of Maggie’s skull. The dog resumed eating spaghetti.

Mom and Dad returned to their spaghetti, too.

“Jim Beasley said there’s no Santa Claus.”

Maggie’s ears perked up. Grandma shifted uncomfortably on the dog.

“What a silly thought,” Grandma said indignantly.

“Do you believe him?” Mother asked.

“Mmmm ... not really,” I said, sucking up a noodle. I chewed before asking my next question. “Where does Santa shop?”

“Santa doesn’t need to shop,” said Grandma, smiling and shaking her head, eyes closed.

“I’m not sure,” said Dad. “Probably lots of places.” He shrugged his shoulders and forgot about it.

6.

Along with Sunday dinners, Thanksgiving was a must for Grandma. Maggie had been kicked out of the dining room (Thanksgiving and all), and poor Grandma had to sit in the family room and wait for the rest of us to finish eating.

Of course, I was done first and joined her on the couch.

“Zip up your fly,” she said, without any kindness or humor. “It must be cold in there.” She must have been mad about being left out at dinner. I looked down and zipped up.

“Is there really a Santa Claus, Grandma?”

She fretted over this. “Of course there is. What’s that Jim Beasley been telling you now?”

“He said he saw his Mom and Dad putting out presents last year, and they said they were from Santa.”

The wrinkles on her brow multiplied. “Maybe Santa was in a hurry, and didn’t have time to put them out.” She shook her head. “He gave them the presents and whoosh, he was off.”

“There was a Venture tag on my gun last year.”

“It’s not good to doubt, Lance. Maybe” — a stern look came over her face — “if you keep on doubting, he won’t show up this year.”

Dad had finished his dinner and walked into the family room. Grandma quickly stiffened and looked at the television.

“What’s on TV, Lance?” Dad asked.

7.

Jim Beasley made more outrageous claims as Christmas got closer. At the party at school, he said he raided his parents’ closet and found a bunch of presents, and he knew they were going to be from Santa Claus.

I brought the subject up at dinner the Sunday before Christmas.

“Jim Beasley said he saw the presents Santa was going to give him this year in his parents’ closet.” Eating stopped.

“Do you believe everything he says?” asked Mom.

“No, but other kids believe him.”

Grandma clicked her tongue and shook her head. Maggie rested her chin on the table, no longer interested in talk of Santa. “What’s wrong with believing in Santa?” Grandma asked. “Don’t believe what your friends say. They don’t know what they’re talking about.”

“You know, Lance, Santa does get a lot of help from mothers and fathers,” said Dad, and I knew he was right.

8.

I was still troubled on Christmas Eve.

It was late in the afternoon when I got the courage to ask. Dad was in the family room, adding the final few icicles to the tree, which was in the corner, hiding its bad side. It was a nice tree, but it seemed to cower, the star bending precariously. Mom and Dad kept worrying that Maggie was going to knock it over. Maggie’s present — a box of dog treats — was stashed near the trunk. She kept wriggling under the low branches, navigating her body through the other gifts and re-arranging them slightly, trying to get her package. But Maggie seemed to have given up, lying on the floor in front of the fire, warming herself and wearing a doleful expression. Dad looked at the tree appreciatively.

There’s a big difference between suspecting and knowing. I had to know.

“Is there really a Santa Claus?”

“Why wouldn’t there be?” he asked, keeping his eyes on the tree.

I waited. “Does he shop at Venture?”

“Mmmm ... sometimes.” Dad looked at me.

Did I dare ask again? I stood silent for a time.

“Is there really a Santa Claus?”

Grandma talked in the back of my mind: “Of course there is, silly.”

Concern played over Dad’s features. It was that look.

“Your Mom and I count for something, don’t we?” he said, and smiled.

I smiled back.

We ate our traditional Christmas Eve dinner at the dining-room table. Like at Thanksgiving, Maggie was kicked out, leaving Grandma no place to sit. I guessed she was waiting in the family room.

I finished eating quickly, and went into the family room. Grandma wasn’t there. I noticed some marks in the carpet — four divots in the form of a rectangle — where her bed had rested. I checked the rest of the house — my room, my parents’ room, the guest room, the bathrooms, the pantry, the basement. She was nowhere to be found.

I should have known that.

After all, I was eight years old, there was no Santa Claus, and my Grandma was dead.

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