I couldn’t help but remember when my mother’s mother had died, the first of my grandparents to go. She was a member of the Catholic Women’s League until she became a shut-in. She kept the palm frond over the entranceway well into summer. I kissed Jesus’ feet under her watchful eyes. The manger was the first Christmas decoration displayed each December. She led me down the aisle to taste the host long before my first communion.
I saw her last when I was in high school. She scared the grandchildren who, like me, had been led up the stairs and to the end of the hall, into the room of mumbling, hushing, crying, or screaming.
White sheer covered the sunlight coming into the room, everything a yellow hue. The room was more smell than air, stale and choking, like a sick incense. Her eyes were wide with fear and darting. Her mouth hung open when she wasn’t muttering, or bawling. The doctors assured us she wasn’t in any pain, physical pain. Her tiny body was still, almost imperceptible under the covers of the bed. She was a study in terror.
On the doorstep to what she was promised, she had lost heart. Or, perhaps, revealed the true nature of her life-long faith. I wasn’t there, but I know she died crying and gripping, terrified of what she thought was waiting for her, or, rather, what wasn’t.
My father and I pulled into the mucky driveway in front of the old farm house, my father’s childhood home. The barn doors were wide open, propped by large anvils on either side. Other than a few weak lights from the windows of the house, our headlights were the only visible things cutting through the darkness of the woods and tilled land.
The front door handle was wobbly from decades of use. I expected to find her sitting in her rocker beside the woodstove, watching a game show or reading the latest Franciscan newsletter. But the kitchen was empty, drowsy in the heat radiating from the crackling fire. A cheap wooden clock ticked loudly on the wall, almost ten o’clock. The hockey game was muted on the television.
My father dropped his bag in the doorway and hung there. Mom?
The house was quiet. There were pill bottles on the kitchen table. The tap dripped into the metal sink, hollow and heavy. While I removed my shoes, he walked straight through, tracking mud on the dusty linoleum floor. Mom?
I dropped my bag and followed him, careful not to step in the wet footprints. The dining room and living room were dark. Light fell down the stairs from the second level, showing the family portraits hung diagonally all the way up. My father was already upstairs, I waited below. I could hear his voice in the far bedroom, doors opening and closing. Mom?
The sound of the bathroom fan, his footsteps quicker. Is she down there?
I looked around in the darkness before switching on a mock oil-lamp light. Pictures of Pope John Paul II, black and white photos of ancestors from the Georgian steppes of Russia, portraits so old they looked like drawings hung on the fake-wood wallboard. Brown and orange wide-knit blankets covered the chair and couch. I went back through the kitchen to the laundry room. A rack the length of the room held my late grandfather’s work clothes, old plaid jackets, overalls, baskets of assorted mitts and toques for the men who worked the back acres of forests in the fall. Board games piled on a shelf, two copies of Scrabble.
We arrived back in the kitchen again at the same time, like finding ourselves in a maze after we’d split up to find the way out. He looked worried and checked the pill bottles on the table. The tablets still rattled inside. Frost had grown in the corners of the windows, rain spattered on an angle. He leaned over the table and looked out the window, but there was only a crooked frame of light on the ground in the darkness, a distorted patch of colour from the stained-glass hummingbird hung with a suction cup.
He stood and made quickly for the door.