Seventeen

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Is school going well dear?” My grandmother asked, smiling at me. I didn’t reply at first, so she asked again.

“Sorry Grandma. Yeah it is. It’s going good. I finish grade twelve soon and I’m gonna hear about universities in a month or so.” I tried to smile, but it was hard, and instead of asking a question back, like what you’re supposed to do when it’s a normal conversation, I just sat there quietly.

“Well dear, I’ll leave you alone for a little while. You look like you need some quiet time,” she said. Then she stood up, and started heading out of the room.

My Mom, standing against the wall about ten feet away, looked at me and nodded her head towards my grandmother. I knew what she wanted, but I didn’t want to do it, so I pretended like I didn’t notice, and acted like I needed to straighten out my tie or something. Then there was a shadow in front of me, someone blocking the light that was behind me.

“John.” my father whispered a warning in my ear, warm breath passing across the back of my neck, setting my nerves on edge, egging on the rebellion inside me that was just about to blow up. “Get up and get over there,” he said, growling. His hand squeezed my shoulder hard, not in a loving way. I knew there was no point arguing, and besides, with everyone pretending to not look at me, it would have been pointless. I looked over at my mother, but even she was looking away, her face set in that stupid “I can’t deal with this” expression that I just so totally hated.

“Okay,” I said quietly, my teeth clenched. “Just let go of me.” I jerked my shoulder forward, and my father released his hand. I stood up, worked my way past sitting relatives and friends, around chairs and couches, darting glances, unasked questions, and into the next room.

As often happens to men my age, not old enough (yet) to live on their own, there ends up always being a lot of time spent in places you just didn’t want to be at. It could be a reunion, a family gathering, a Christening, a baptism, first communion, and then all those goddamn holidays, and every time there’s a better place to be and some better thing I could be doing, and some plan I totally made weeks ago and even told everybody about, like, a hundred times, but no. No. I have to go.

The door clicked softly behind me, and the quiet conversations were replaced by soft whispers down the hallway in the other room. My feet stood there, rooted, unable to shift or move even an inch, until the scream came. It was a loud, short, piercing, anguished, confused scream, and I just hated it. I hated it and I couldn’t take it anymore. Then came the sound of someone falling on the ground, and a moment later the soft footsteps of family friends and half-known neighbors passing by, deciding suddenly to be somewhere else for a while. It was the crying that got me going again, I just couldn’t take hearing it.

As I moved into the other room, I saw that everyone else had cleared out. It was a large space, but looked so cold and empty now. These are always sad things, but I mean they could have at least made the room look a little more cheerful. In the middle, in a small pink heap on the floor, my grandmother cried. Her bony frame and sharp angles shaking, gasping, sudden misery making it hard for her to breathe.

I walked over and asked her if she was okay, putting my hand on her shoulder. I fumbled in my pocket and found some kleenex, and passed it down. She took it and thanked me, and kept crying. I didn’t want to stand there, bent over like some giant, so I sat down, and listened to her for a while. She didn’t understand what was going on, and wondered why nobody had told her that her husband had died. There he was, lying peacefully, as they say, but he didn’t look right to me, not like the way dead people look when you watch funerals on TV shows.

Soon her crying died down a little, and I stood up, gently getting her to stand up as well. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. I just stood between her and the casket, and helped her to the door, and back into the other room.

A minute later I was sitting down in my chair, the same chair I’d been in all morning. My grandmother was cheerful again, asking me all sorts of questions. She asked about school, girls, my car, and my sports. Then she started to look a little distracted. She looked at her watch, and around the room, searching. “Where’s William?” she whispered to herself, looking for my grandfather’s face somewhere nearby. She looked for a few moments, then stood up and left, and I looked down at my shoes. When I sensed my father coming my way, I didn’t even wait for him to say anything. I just got up and walked after my grandmother.

She’d been quicker this time. When I popped my head out the door, I didn’t see her. I waited for a moment, but I didn’t hear anything either. It was strange. So I walked down to the viewing room, and sure enough, she was there. She wasn’t crying, just sitting on the floor, in the middle of the room, staring at my grandfather, like all those other times today.

I put my hand on her, and felt nothing. I pulled it right back, scared, and got down on my knees beside her. Her eyes were closed, and she wasn’t crying because she wasn’t breathing. I didn’t know what to think, or do. I felt so confused. I knew I should be feeling really sad, that I should be crying, but it wasn’t like that at all. I felt, not happy, but relieved. And then I felt ashamed for feeling relieved. I felt so goddamned selfish for feeling that way, but I couldn’t help it. And then I think I figured out why.

It was mercy. All day, in and out of this room, I counted seventeen times, including now. I watched my grandmother see her husband die, right before her eyes, again and again. Every time it happened, leading her away, I watched her forget all about the whole thing. Today I hated God like I never hated anyone in my whole life, because it was just the cruelest joke ever imagined. I kept thinking if I saw anyone even crack a smile that day, I’d just go ballistic on them.

I guess it just took a little while for God to listen, but eventually he did. What the mind forgets, the body remembers, and whether it was God or nature, something knew it just wasn’t natural. And so there I was, kneeling on the floor, holding my grandmother’s hand, and while I knew I had just lost her, she had found her husband again.

From James O’Hearn…

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