I am standing in front of the bathroom counter in my grandmother’s house. It is 6am, Sunday morning, and her tiny house is full of quiet people—a neighbor at the door, a hospice nurse, my great aunt and uncle, my mother and aunt, my grandmother’s best friend and her daughters, and my own sisters. My grandmother has just died. I am standing in the bathroom, and I am looking at her tray of make up. It will all be thrown away, now; it’s going to be picked through and what no one wants will go into a trash bag and out to her curb. This is also true of her clothes, all hung up, all very neat, and her little shoes, some of which look brand new to me beside her bed, where I’ve been sleeping, as her hospice bed has been set up in her living room.
I can hear my great aunt and aunts in the kitchen. “Does anyone take Adavain? Kristy, isn’t this the same blood pressure pill you take?” “Careful,” my sister says, “check the dosage and make sure it’s the same.” “Baby aspirin? Lauren, you take that.” These women speak just like my grandmother—a Cajun softness that I want to remember always. They say mah bay-bees when they talk to my sisters and I, the babies, who are all thirty-plus.
We kept vigil with my grandmother all weekend. We sift through her boxes of old pictures, read all the yearbooks she kept from Marksville High School, early 1950s. She had a bright, open smile and big, brown eyes. We compare pics of ourselves and our own children with the sepia people in Gran’s Tupperware full of old pictures, and we are all there in the old faces. I am Essie, Lauren is Uncle Larry’s face again, and Steph looks so much like Joyce. We watch the LSU game, and my grandmother stirs a tiny bit at the sound of the band, breathing shallow breaths now, and not talking anymore. When I arrived on Friday, she knew me, and we talked about her short hair, growing in dark after chemo, and her painted pink nails. By Saturday, her hands were purpled and she was not speaking much anymore, but single words. We sit around her with coffee, talking to her as if she will respond. Early Saturday afternoon, Gran asks my aunt for coffee, and my aunt drops cooled coffee into her mouth with a medicine dropper. Miss Sherry remarks, “You so Cajun, Joyce,” and we all laugh, but not Gran.
This is a corporeal work of mercy, sitting beside the dying. It is sad and heavy, hot like a blanket around your shoulders when you have a fever. I want to get out. My sisters feel the same, so we pick through the banana pudding brought by a neighbor, decide we are hungry and head into town. We head to the Hypolite-Bordelon house, the house built by our ancestor, a Louisiana pioneer in the late 1700s. It is closed up, so we call the number on the sign to request a tour, but the number is disconnected. Because we are kin, my boldest sister feels like it will be just fine to let ourselves in, if we can find a way. I suggest this, actually, and then I collect a bench from the front porch, lug it to the side, pop open the old window, and chicken out. My boldest sister is also a little unsure, but we push her up and inside and we make her take pictures and grab up brochures. I’m the oldest, so I make her do this, pretending I would do it myself.
We walk around the tiny yard. There’s a massive cast iron pot I would love to own, and an old stove, and a cat inside of the outhouse. Our poke-around tour takes us five minutes, and we are covered in mosquitoes and rush back to sit in the rental car. Avoiding, we drive around teeny little Marksville, where we never lived, imagining our grandparents and great-grandparents, checking out the court house where my great-grandmother worked, taking pictures of old clocks and houses and tiled signs. And then we are done, and we must head back.
We sit. We sit on the leather sofa and wait. We paint at the small kitchen table, passing watercolors around and adding to and adjusting each other’s paintings without talking. We chat with Miss Jackie, my Gran’s lifelong best friend, and I am so sad for her. My grandmother is like a child, now, quiet and unable to do anything at all but breath heavy, hard breaths. Miss Jackie has worked at the desk beside my Gran for fifty years. She knows her better than anyone. “Here, mah baby,” she tells me, “you come sit beside your Gran, and you hold her hand.” I sit, and I don’t know what to say. We all look around at each other. My gran sits up a bit and lifts her arms, and we are all startled, all but the nurse. “Reflex,” she tells us. I think that she is reaching for someone.
On Saturday evening, my sister and I climb into my grandmother’s double bed and somehow we are fast to sleep. This next bit is the strangest, and I don’t know how to tell it.
I am sleeping, and I wake to what seem to be car lights in the room, bright as a highway, fast speeding lights, but white, bright white. I stand, disoriented, to close the window shade, thinking that perhaps her street is busy, and feeling annoyance. But her street is quiet, a row of track houses on medium lots, suburban-ish in the tiniest rural town. I shake my head and get back in bed.
I am sleeping, and white lights are rushing fast through the room where I sleep, rushing from the front room where my grandmother is dying, sweeping a million miles an hour past the bed beside me and out through the back of the house. It’s so bright. It’s a bright, speeding river of light. I sit up, and my mother is at the bedroom door. “Get up, girls,” she says. “It’s time—she is passing now.”
We gather around her bedside, and the hospice nurse is at the door. “Is she in pain?” I ask, over and over. Her eyes are closed. She is breathing, we are told, but I cannot hear or see her breathing. I know that she is gone, already, that though she may be breathing, her soul has been swept away with the lights. My mother wants me to sing something, but the room is so quiet and strange, and I can think of no songs. I regret that I did not sing.
And then she is really gone, marked by the slow nod of the hospice nurse, who looks at her watch to mark the time. The nurse talks, my mother signs papers with someone who’s entrance I had not noticed, and we are crying. Miss Jackie keeps saying, “I thought I was prepared for this.” My aunts pour coffee. My grandmother’s small body is lifted into a blanket and taken out of the house, and that’s the odd, flat, abrupt end of a life.
I am in the bathroom standing at her counter, looking at all the things she leaves behind. Lancome powder, probably $30, that my aunts will argue over in a few hours. My gran is, was, the last link I have to Louisiana, where I was born and grew until I was ten, something I was always proud of. She has gone, now, and there won’t be any reason for me to come back to this town. There is no longer anyone to watch over the Hypolite-Bordelon house—the funding ran out, and the house will fade, probably, as all things do. We come into this world with nothing and we leave it again with nothing. I am determined to remember not to hold anything tightly, not to leave much for others to clean up, sort out, throw away.
My mother comes in beside me, sets her coffee on the counter. I look at her and think that we are both moved up a generation now. Now, we are older. I know that it will feel like moments until my own sisters sit beside me, old, I hope, and wait with me for white lights to rush through the house.
Death twitches my ear. ‘Live’, he says, ‘I am coming.’ —Virgil