short story.

14 Jun

When she picks up on the other line, even her voice is swollen.

Hello? I whisper.

Her voice is quiet and expanding, all at once.
I hear its sounds, its rhythm, its vibrations, but I can’t make out a single word.
While she talks, all I can decipher are my own thoughts.

How is it possible for cancer to reach so far up that it strangles your vocal chords?
How is it possible that this voice, once so familiar to me, is fading?

I tell her that I love her and, as she starts to cry on the other end, quickly hang up.
I sit on the floor and hug my knees, thinking about oceans and forests and rain.
I stay there for a few minutes, alone, until Andy grabs hold of me, squeezes me tight, and looks out the window with me.

It’s hot in my apartment, so we go outside.

__

We drive up to her house the next weekend, Andy and I.
She’s cleaning out the attic, and needs us to help take some boxes away.

We decide to take the scenic route; the road to her twists and turns under canopies of trees, clouds, and neon gas station signs.
We pass old decaying barns, open wild fields, and pastures full of new fuzzy cattle.
We pinky promise never to grow old, and talk about our plans for the future.
We listen to love songs and drink hot, sugary coffee.

I’ve forgotten a lot of my childhood, but, as we get drive closer, happy bouncing memories start flooding back.
I think about the playroom downstairs, about the stack of old photos she always keeps by the TV, about the formal sitting room I was frightened of as a child, about the closet she would hide our Christmas presents in, about her paintings, about the hallway wallpapered to look like bookshelves, about my grandfather’s workout and ham radio room in the basement.

Everything in her house is connected to me; everything there will carry a small spark of me.
I want to show Andy around; I want him to touch everything, to know about every toy I played with, every book I read, every room I slept in.
It’s all a part of me, somehow, and I want him to see it all, to know it all.

We finally reach her house, and I start sitting up a little taller.
Look! There’s my grandfather’s rose garden, I never told you about that before, isn’t it beautiful? Doesn’t it show care and patience? That’s a part of my DNA, that rose garden. Look at it! Smell it! See a part of my grandfather in me!

We wind up the driveway, and there she is, my elegant grandmother, easing out of the yard and towards the asphalt to meet us.

“Well, hello, how nice to see such fine young folks,” she exclaims, while holding her arm gingerly.

I present her with a bunch of wildflowers, and hug her for a full minute.

In this moment I understand:  first, the enormity of my love for my grandparents and, second, the fact that I am now a completely full- fledged grown up.

I reach back for Andy’s hand, and we follow her towards the house.

My grandfather meets us at the door. He is excited and full of laughter; the older he gets, the more he seems like a happy, mischievous young boy.
He makes a joke and watches for our reaction; the smile lines around his eyes overtake his face.

I want to run past my grandparents and show everything in their house to Andy.

When I was a little kid, I believed that everything my grandparents owned belonged to me.
Now that I’m older, I realize that my grandparents are people with names other than “Grandma” and “Grandad”; that they are grown-ups who want to have pretty things to themselves, and so I don’t rush past them to show Andy my loot of memories.

We go into the living room and sit down; Andy and I on the couch, my grandmother in her customary yellow chair, and my grandfather in his leathery navy blue recliner.
There is a kind of relief in the routine of it all, and I am able to take control of my excitement.
The familiarity I used to feel around my grandparents — the familiarity I thought the cancer had completely stolen — washes over the room.

My grandparents have five children: the oldest, my dad; the second, a pilot; the third, a salesman; the fourth, a scholar; the fifth, a writer.
As far back as I can remember, my grandmother keeps portraits of each child, along with their families, framed above the fireplace.
There are always exactly five frames; each family that has grown from one of her children gets their own.
As new grandchildren are added, new portraits overtake the old.

I can’t wait to show Andy my place on that wall.
Won’t it be silly to see what I looked like when I was little? Won’t you love that? We’ll laugh about it, later, and think about how we’re each growing into beautiful, bursting-with-color-and-life people.

But I look over, and I’m gone.
In my place — the place that should be reserved for my dad, my mom, my brother and I — there’s simply a smiling picture of my dad, with his arms around his new wife.
I realize, again, that I’m not five anymore, and that my dad isn’t married to my mom anymore.
My grandparents are older, and so am I.
I am a full-fledged grown-up, remember?

My grandmother talks to Andy in her new swollen voice and I hear the passing of time in its slow, mutated vibrations.

It’s quiet in my grandparents’ house, so we climb up to the attic and start sorting through boxes.

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