A Short Story by Coralie
“Grandma, NO!” I said for the third time, frustration giving my voice a sharp edge and my features an unusually stern authority. I was just as obstinate as she was and even more so in times like this.
“But I just—” she tried again, pulling against me.
I shook my head, prying the bleach from her short, round fingers. With an unforgiving glare, she gave up and stormed back into the kitchen, no doubt heading for the living room with her empty glass. Sighing, I placed the bleach on a higher shelf, hoping that she couldn’t reach it next time and knowing that Grandpa would just bring it back down when he needed it for the next white load.
For a moment, I gazed out the screened window into the backyard. A beautiful golden retriever cocked her head sideways as she looked back at me, her tail thumping against the dirt packed around her doghouse.
“Don’t give me that look, Goldie.” I knew she wanted someone to go out and play with her, but I needed to keep my eyes on Grandma, so I turned for the door.
I made my way back into the living room and found Grandma sprawled in her old, faded-burgundy chair in a very “unladylike position,” as Grandpa always said. She had one leg thrust over the left arm of the chair, bending it out of shape, and the other propped on the footrest that was definitely not the same shade of pink as that chair. The remote sat sideways on her lap, soon to be misplaced in the side of the chair, on the table next to her, or perhaps on the coffee table in the corner.
Rocking back and forth, Grandma chomped on a days-old wad of bright green, sugar-free, spearmint gum and gazed blankly at the end of a Family Feud episode, her favorite, until Deal or No Deal came on. In one hand, she clasped the crystal glass that had earlier been filled with sweet tea. She’d already forgotten that she had been fuming minutes before.
“Is this show okay, honey?” she asked as I sat down in Grandpa’s chair.
“Yeah, Grandma,” I answered. “It’s fine.”
“Okay, cause if it’s not, I can change it.”
If it had been The Newlywed Game or Baggage Claim, I would have told her that she wasn’t allowed to watch—and she would have fought tooth and nail with me before changing it.
“Just let me know.” She went back to her game show, but only for a minute. “Honey, can you get me some more of this . . . this stuff?” She held up her empty glass.
I stood and took the glass from her, turning for the kitchen.
“Don’t forget to heat it up for twenty-nine seconds! It’s too cold if you don’t, and it hurts my teeth.”
“Yes, Grandma,” I mumbled, pulling the jug of tea out of the bottom of the small, stained fridge.
Some days were worse than others. Today wasn’t one of those days. Today, she was content to take what food and drink I gave her. Today, it was okay that she didn’t know where Grandpa was or when he’d be back. Today, she accepted the answers I gave her without much hesitation. Today, she knew my face—or at least she knew that she should know my face. Today, I wasn’t a complete stranger. Today, she was content to just be with me.
Once the glass was back in her hand, she showered me in oh-thank-you-honeys and plastered her sticky gum to the side of the glass, as always. I sat with her, listening to the rerun of Catch 21 turned up just a little bit too loudly and playing on Grandpa’s laptop until she needed something else.
It was my job to watch her until Grandpa came back from the store. He’d only been gone for fifteen minutes, so I still had another forty-five at least. I didn’t know how Grandpa lived like this, every moment of every day with her. He needed these alone trips to the store every now and then.
Grandma turned to me again. “Honey, give me a kiss.”
Obediently, I rose to let her kiss me. I tried to turn my head to the side, a kiss on the cheek, but she locked my face in her hands and turned my head back toward her.
“Come here, honey!” She laughed.
“Grandma, I’ve got a cold. I don’t want to get you sick,” I lied. With a grunt, she consented. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. I felt bad about the fib, but she hadn’t taken her shower yet—and frankly, she smelled.
I returned to my seat and time slowly ticked by. Lingo was up next, according to the commercial.
“Lingo’s my favorite.” Grandma’s blue eyes twinkled. “You know, my sister lives in California and she said that one day, she’d take me on that game show.”
Well, at least she’d gotten part of it right. Her sister did live in California, but she’d never promised to take her on Lingo. Her sister had mentioned once that Family Feud taped out in California and maybe it’d be fun to try to get on that show, but it was nothing more than a whim. Still, I’d never heard the end of it—and the promised show changed whenever she remembered to mention it.
“Mmhmm,” I answered. I was more interested in seeing if my friend had e-mailed me back. She was supposed to tell me all about her new job, and I wanted to know if she had gotten the book I sent for her birthday yet. We lived so far apart that I didn’t get to see her anymore, and since I didn’t have Internet access at home yet, I didn’t get to talk to her unless I stayed at Grandpa’s for a while and borrowed his computer. I glanced anxiously at the star-shaped clock that hung on the wall.
“What did you say your name was again, sweetheart?” As Grandma stared at me, her penciled-in eyebrows knit together.
“Amy,” I answered, like always.
“And you’re my daughter, right?”
“No, Grandma,” I replied patiently. “I’m Jack’s daughter.”
“And Jack . . .” She looked at me. “He’s my son?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Yes. Jack. My dad. Her son. He was the reason I was here right now. I may not have known my dad’s parents very well, but he did. And so here I was, watching the woman who sat with him through every scraped knee, fever, lost dog, and heartbreak. Not only did he work most days, but it would break his heart all over again to sit here with her like this. No son should have to watch his mother fall apart at the seams.
I fought the urge to answer her next question before she asked it.
“And where do you live again?”
“Just down the road, Grandma.” I sighed, looking up. Suddenly I faced her brilliant eyes, and something seemed to spark behind them, startling me, but it was gone before I could quite place what it was.
“Oh.” She looked down. “Okay.” She glanced back up with sorrow in her eyes and said, “I’m sorry, honey.” Her expression seemed to go blank as she continued with the same response as always. “You see, I have dementia. The doctors looked at it and said it can’t be cured. I don’t think that makes sense, but they said they can’t do anything about it. Two different doctors, can you believe it?”
I only nodded, holding back the sudden tears I felt forming. I couldn’t respond. She knew. There were always those moments when she knew. How could you live a life of blissful ignorance day in and day out, and then suddenly just know the shattering truth, but only for a split second? I couldn’t imagine how she must have felt in those moments, but I wouldn’t let myself think like that. I just couldn’t.
Sentimental fool, I thought. Shaking my head and swallowing the lump in my throat, I stood up. “Do you want some more tea?”
I knew the answer. She handed me the glass.
“Do you mind? Don’t forget to heat it up for twenty-nine seconds. If it’s too cold, it hurts my teeth.”
“I know, Grandma,” I said. “I know.”
After I brought her the heated tea, I went back to surfing the Internet.
Grandma turned to me. “Is it okay that I mute the commercials? I don’t like to hear them, but Dad does.”
“It’s fine, Grandma,” I answered vacantly. Ding! I sat up straighter, navigating back to the e-mail tab. My fingers flew across the keys as I smiled at the note from my friend.
“If you want me to turn them back on, I will,” she pressed. “Just let me know.”
She kept filling the silence with tidbits of chatter that I’d heard too many times before. I gave her short answers, empty agreements, whatever would keep her happy.
A few minutes later, I noticed her struggling to pull herself out of her chair. It didn’t take more than her normal two or three tries, so I didn’t stand to help her. She peered outside through the screen door.
“Do you think the mail lady has come by yet?”
“No, Grandma, it’s not time yet.”
“Are you sure?”
“Okay, honey, if you say so.” She turned and tottered toward the bathroom, bypassing the small room and instead wandering into the kitchen.
“Whatcha doin’, Grandma?” I called, knowing exactly what she was doing. I gave her another second or two and then got up and made my way into the kitchen. “Grandma.” I drew out the name. “What’re you huntin’ for?”
“Oh, nothing.” Casually, she put the paper towels back on the counter and started toward me. “I just thought I heard Goldie barking.”
I held out my arm and she took it, leaning on me. As we walked through the hallway together, I wondered what it would have been like to live in this house with her as a child. Would she have held my hand when I tripped here, where the wood turned to carpet? Would she have found ways to appease my ever-wandering curiosity? Pulled things from my mouth that weren’t edible? Would she have answered my repetitious questions patiently—or would she have become frustrated and angry with me?
I had a hard time believing it would have been the latter.
I didn’t know much about my grandma, but that’s why we’d moved closer to her. I guessed now that it was just a little too late to grow to know the woman I’d visited for the occasional Thanksgiving dinner. Funny, I thought. I was too young to remember those rare visits, and now she’s too old to remember them. If things had been different, what kind of relationship could we have had?
I frowned, shaking the thoughts away as she reached for the remote. Back to the computer. I should have brought my book.
At the next commercial, she said, “How’re your kids doing, honey?”
“I don’t have any kids, Grandma.”
“Yes you do,” she corrected. “You have two little boys and a girl.”
“No, Grandma.” I shook my head. “Those are my brothers and my sister.”
“No, those are your children,” she said again, more forcefully. “And your husband is my son.”
Exasperated, I said, “No, Grandma, that’s Dad. Your son is my dad.”
“My son . . .” She pointed at herself and then at me. “Is . . . your dad?”
She looked at me with round eyes, thinking it through. Finally, she whispered, “I’m sorry, honey, I don’t remember.”
There was nothing I could do to change that. “I know,” I said with resignation, still staring at the laptop screen. Glancing at the television, I announced, “Your show’s back on.”
“Oh,” she said. After a moment, she turned to me. “Honey? Where did I put that thing?”
“What thing, Grandma?” I didn’t look up.
“You know,” she said, still searching. She pointed at nothing, concentrating on what words to choose. “That thing that . . . that I use?”
I stared at her, not quite sure what she wanted this time. “What are you talking about? What does it do?”
She pointed to the old television set. Indignantly, she replied, “It makes the sound for that.”
Oh, the remote. Sighing, I stood up. After a thorough search of the normal hiding places, I had to branch out. It didn’t take long to find that she’d taken it into the kitchen with her.
“Honey, what are you doing in there?” She called from her chair, as she always did when I left the living room for too long. Without waiting for an answer, she heaved herself out of the chair and stumbled into the kitchen. “What are you doing, honey?”
I held up the remote with a triumphant smile.
She blinked. “What’s that, honey?”
I sighed again, turning her around and walking her back to the living room. “It’s the remote, Grandma. For the TV?”
“Oh, that’s right.” She fell into her chair. “Thank you, honey.” I started to sit back down, but she demanded another kiss, and I couldn’t get out of this one. I held back a shudder as the whiskers above her top lip brushed against me, and then I ducked my head, feeling guilty that I should want to deny her something as simple as a kiss.
During the next commercial, she decided that she had to feed the dog, which required her blue-and-white baseball cap that always sat next to the phone, the one with the pale yellow bird on the side. She went out the back door with a piece of bread in her hand and a box of travel-sized cereal hidden in the folds of her skirt. Well, it’s better than putting melted chocolate down the front of her shirt to save for later, I thought.
Suddenly, the front door opened, and Grandpa came in, his hands full of white Bestway bags.
I looked up with a grin. “Hey, you’re back.” He grunted, worn out from the trip. “Are there more groceries in the car?”
“Yeah,” he nodded to the door. “In the back seat. I got all of the ones in the trunk, I think.”
Grandma walked back into the living room. “Guess what, Dad? We got no mail today.” She turned to me. “We never have no mail. This has never happened before.”
Wrong. It happened all the time, but I didn’t feel like seeing if I could convince her of that this time.
“Melinda,” Grandpa turned to face her. “Sit down. The mail lady hasn’t come by yet. It’s too early.”
“No!” Grandpa said.
My heart jumped at his sudden response. He wasn’t mad at her. I knew that, but she didn’t. He’d had a hard day, hence the solo grocery trip. On a normal day, he’d have come in with a treat for her just to see her eyes light up like they used to when he came in the door. On a normal day, he’d have put in her favorite Shirley Temple VHS and taken her hand to dance with her in the middle of the living room. On a normal day, he’d have made her a full-course meal with desert, always with desert. She would never have forgotten desert back when she was preparing the meals.
But today, he just needed to breathe. Today, Grandpa remembered. He remembered that the woman he’d sworn to love for all of eternity was slowly fading into someone else. I watched him pacify her the way I’d done all afternoon, and I wondered why he never gave up on her, why he stayed by her side, even when it broke him. And then I wondered if I’d ever find someone so devoted to me that my own grandchildren would ask the same.
After bringing in all of the groceries and helping to put them away, I walked back into the living room.
Grandpa followed me, and then he pointed to the laptop. “Did you get everything you needed?”
“Yeah.” I nodded. “I was just checking my mail.”
“Dad?” Grandma looked up at Grandpa. “Are you going to take her home?”
“Yes, Melinda, as soon as she’s ready.”
She turned to me. “Honey, are you ready to go home?”
“What? I’m not trying to get rid of her,” she defended herself. “I just wanted to know if she was ready to go home.”
“When she’s ready, she’ll tell me!” Turning to me, he winked. “Let’s go, kiddo.” Grandpa reached for the doorknob, calling behind him. “I’ll make a snack for you when I’m back, Melinda.”
I gathered my things and headed for the door, but just as I pushed it open, Grandma held out her hand to me.
“Honey, give me a kiss?”
One last time I leaned down, no strength left to fight.
“I love you, honey.”
As I started to pull away, her smile widened and her eyes bored into mine. It was the same look I’d seen earlier, but this time I was close enough to realize what it was. In that moment, she looked young again.
I paused, staring back at her, my chin still in her firm grip. For that instant, she looked so happy. I didn’t understand why. She was slowly losing everything she knew, everything she loved, and she knew it. But in that moment, something stronger than the pain and fear of her disease shone through those blue eyes. She was so pleased and proud . . . of me? She didn’t have to remember. She wasn’t living in the past. Right now, this was her life, and despite everything—she loved it.
“I love you too, Grandma,” I whispered. Then I let the door swing shut behind me and headed for the car.