Grief and a thin veil
Staring out the window, watching raindrops patter before sliding down in one long trail of silver, I felt my mind drift. It was as if the clear pane of glass was a portal to another world. A looking glass for Alice to tumble through.
A way back....
"How much whipped cream?" The voice startled me. Hadn't I been alone? I was always alone on this day. I needed the time to process, to remember, to love. All without interruptions, without the endless checking-in.
Turning from the window, my heart stuttered. My grandmother, or Nana as she insisted we call her, stood watching me expectantly. Everything about her looked exactly the same, right down to the slippers she always wore when moving around her house. Dark, chestnut wig? Check. Soft linen pants and patterned shirt? Double check. The only thing about it that gave me pause was she usually didn't wear the wig when at home but my brain wasn't firing quickly enough to process that at the moment.
Slowly, I looked to my right, then repeated the motion just as slowly on my left. Nothing is out of place, nobody else is here. So what is this?
"I'm sorry?" It's all I can think of to say. I remember that morning so many years ago so vividly, after all. It was cold, colder than it ever had been even in January. The ground was hard beneath our feet, unforgiving under the tip of the cane I had been forced into using because of the pain despite my age. I remember thinking it was too cold to bury anybody, much less her. The ground crunched and protested even the heaviest step. How were we supposed to do this? Wind bit at my cheeks, though I hardly felt the sting. The only thing I could feel was grief. Overwhelming, all-consuming, suffocating grief.
"How much whipped cream?" Nana repeated, smirking in that way she had as she held up a small plastic container. Peering at it, my breath shuddered as I realized it was pudding. Chocolate pudding, to be specific. Swiss Miss chocolate pudding. I hadn't seen one of those in years. In her other hand she held a can of Reddi-Wip, waiting for my answer with the nozzle pointed down at the cup.
Ignoring the prickling sensation behind my eyes, I swallowed the sudden lump in my throat. "A lot," I finally answered. It was always my go-to response. Or it had been. Back when I was still asked this question.
Smiling as if she'd expected this, Nana pressed down and the sound of air swirling in its own tiny vortex overtook that of the rain for a few moments. I drank it in eagerly, feeling like I was outside myself experiencing this as a bystander rather than actually living it. When she finished, the pile of white on top of the chocolate was nearly as big as the cup itself.
"I've got orange soda for you too, you know," she said as she extended the cup and a spoon to me. My feet moved as if on autopilot. What else could I do? It didn't take long to reach her, though I found myself stunned by how short she was. Had it always been this way? Had I forgotten already? The thought caused my stomach to roil so I abruptly pushed it away. I would never forget anything about her.
"Sunkist orange?" My voice sounded small when I finally spoke, taking the pudding with an almost shy hesitation. Her skin was pale, as it always was, caused by her avoidance of sunlight. She had said once that she was allergic but I never knew whether that was a joke or not. Considering the gaggle of tan-skinned, dark-haired girls she called her own, it was an amusing study in contrasts regardless.
She patted my hand as I took the cup, her skin just as smooth yet dry as I remembered. The scent of Noxzema wafted to me, nearly causing me to take a step back. Hallucinations didn't have smell, did they? "Of course, deeni," she said, ushering me towards the dining room table. Blinking rapidly to stop the tears that came so suddenly, I didn't have time to register where I was going. Not before I found myself already settled in a chair, sounds from the kitchen letting me know Nana had moved there.
On the first day of Christmas , my true love sent to me:
A partridge in a pear tree
"Is that Christmas music?" With my mouth full, the words were garbled and nearly indiscernible. Nana, having returned with my soda, frowned disapprovingly.
"Don't talk with your mouth full." Things like saying 'excuse me' after a belch and keeping elbows off the table had been among her other etiquette-oriented instructions.
Her wig bounced as she bustled about back to the kitchen but somehow didn't shift even a little. She always did know how to keep it on and make it look natural. Well, as natural as a woman of 80 who had not a single grey hair could look at least. "And yes. What else would we play on Christmas Eve?" she added, poking her head out to shake her head at me teasingly before disappearing again.
Now, I was fairly positive it was October and not Christmas but you didn't really argue with Betty. Instead, I hummed as I ate, taking a moment before looking up at her. "Do pears really grow on trees?" It was a question more out of habit than anything else. I was an adult now, no longer the little girl who asked silly questions and really had no idea. I'd been so surprised when I heard the song as a kid. To me, pears always sprang to life straight in the supermarket, I guess.
"Of course. I thought I convinced you of that back when you stopped singing Puff the Magic Dragon songs, didn't I?" Her tone was teasing and the reminder of all the times I'd made up my own words to that theme song made me choke on a laugh. Or maybe it was pudding. I honestly didn't know anymore, nor did I care.
"How are you here, nana?" I said instead of actually responding to her question, my voice suddenly very small. The burning sensation behind my eyes was growing stronger the longer I ate. How could this sweet and creamy chocolate actually be on my tongue? Was I being tortured in some way?
Or was this a cruel gift, meant to be a Band-Aid over my aching heart for this hardest of all hard days, only to have it ripped away when the sun set?
When I looked up, she stood beside me, resting her slender fingers on my shoulder. "I've always been here, deeni," she said gently, eyes kind as she smiled down at me. I shook my head but couldn't get the words out. It hurt too much.
"Don't argue with your nana, now," she scolded as she shuffled away. I managed a smile at the familiarity of such words, the comfort they brought, and continued to eat. We sat in silence for a bit, neither needing to fill the holes in conversation but instead content just to be in each other's company.
When I finally finished and returned my gaze to hers, she was looking at me with a sad smile. "I have to go now," she announced, making my blood freeze in my veins.
"No! You-you can't. I-" I struggled to find the right words but there weren't any. Instead, that burning behind my eyes reached its breaking point and I felt my eyes fill.
"I miss you so much," I whispered, not bothering to wipe the tears away. She came to my side of the table and wrapped her arms around me.
"I am always with you, deeni, I'm so proud of you, of the woman you've become and how you take care of your mother. Standing up for her and what's right even at the cost of people you love. Just like I would." Tears flowed freely down my cheeks now but neither of us seemed to notice. We were too wrapped up in the moment, in our memories and love.
"I love you, nana," I managed after what seemed like forever but I knew was actually not long at all. Not nearly long enough.
"I love you too. Don't forget, I'm always here, even when you feel like you're all alone. I'm watching over you." With one last kiss on my head, she walked back into the kitchen, leaving me sobbing at the dining table. Realizing my stupidity after only a few seconds, I sprang to my feet, hurrying into the kitchen after her.
I ran head first into my mom instead.
"Ouch! Whoa, what-" she cried, but noticed the tears on my cheeks and her expression instantly softened. Without even an apology, I pulled open the dishwasher, my heart sinking when it was empty. This was our house, sure, but she'd had the pudding so I thought maybe whatever had happened meant I'd somehow been brought to Nana's instead. Her dishwasher had always been full of snacks rather than dishes. Miniature marshmallows for me, candy, cookies, everything. I don't think she ever used it to actually wash dishes. Seeing ours empty and ordinary now made my heart hurt even more.
"What's wrong, sugie?" Mom asked, coming up beside me and pulling me into her side.
"Nothing. I just thought....about Nana." My shoulders sagged as I realized I had imagined the entire thing. As always, my mom seemed to understand. Hugging me tight, she led me out of the kitchen and into the living room.
"Where did that come from?" she asked as we passed the dining room table.
A single cup of chocolate pudding, now empty, sat in front of one of the chairs.
I could still taste it on my tongue too.