“I’m afraid she doesn’t have long,” said the doctor.
His mouth continued to move, noise definitely came out, but Willard didn’t hear a thing. It was probably some redundant schooling on heart disease, permanent damage to vital organs; nothing they could do. Apologies, condolences, advice – none of it mattered after those first few words.
“She expressed a desire to pass at home. Is that alright with you?”
His fingers twitched to answer. Somehow, Willard managed to force a grunt of agreement. His tongue felt foreign against his back teeth.
“Okay, as you’re her next of kin, we need you to sign a few forms.”
At least, for this task, he could speak with his hands.
The Doctor rounded up his nurses, each one clenching their hearts, wishing him well. They had grown to know him over the last year, kindly middle-aged women cooing over how sweet he was to his grandma, lamenting that, if only they were twenty years younger… He would miss their company. It was just him and his grandma now.
Soon, it would be just him.
Listless in the living room, the smell of polish was still thick in the air. She had insisted that he clean the house before she would permit any doctor on the premises. She dismissed Willard's observation that the physician was unlikely to inspect the inside of the oven to determine the cause of her decline.
The house already looked empty.
Time was pounding its drum with every second he spent on the other side of the door, knowing the room behind it was an execution chamber; they just didn’t know the exact moment the reaper was going to throw the switch.
The creak of the door forced him to see it through. He pushed it open, holding his breath, his hands trembling, poised to say… he wasn’t sure.
How could he find words for a moment like this? How could he express how much he loved her? How could he tell her how sorry he was that their time together was dwindling? He doubted it was possible to do all this whilst hiding the ache in his chest, the swirling anxiety in his stomach, the roaring flame of fear that rose up his face – what was he going to do once she was gone?
Her head lolled in his direction. “Get me a vodka.”
A sigh of exasperation burst from his reluctant grin. Crossing that threshold had been the hardest thing he’d ever had to do, only to immediately retreat to the liquor cabinet and play bartender.
When he returned, she signalled him to hold the glass below her chin, delicately placing the straw in her gaping mouth. She had just enough energy to purse her lips, her already hollow cheeks caving in.
“Too strong,” she assessed.
“I thought you could use the extra pain relief,” he signed back.
There was a certainty he possessed, communicating in his native tongue, which he didn’t have in speech. He had never really developed a deft tongue. He never saw the point. Willard could go days at home in complete silence, carving words with his hands, painting his pictures in the air. It was the only language his grandma could understand – she had been deaf since birth.
Age had taken more than her hearing now.
She had always been old, but now she looked older. Her hands were weak, deep veined and
skeletal. It made signing difficult for her – stealing her voice. What a cruel demon death was, stripping her of everything – muscle, skin, hair – until she was just the skeleton she would soon become, cloaked in the last remnants, holding on.
Willard feared they were losing their grip.
When she gestured feebly at the glass, Willard placed it on the nightstand, dabbing her mouth with a tissue, mopping up the drops that had escaped her flimsy lips.
There was a new sense of earnestness, as though the warden was arriving at her cell, ready to make her walk the mile.
She waved her yellow-nailed fingers. “Don’t be sad. I’m not sad. I’m trapped in this bed. An urn can’t be worse.”
Her request wasn’t easy to fulfil. He was already failing, eyes white-hot with tears. He bowed his head, a long, charcoal curtain hiding his face, “You’ll be free soon.”
There was a sternness in her movements as she rebuffed him, “I’ll be worm food soon.”
He should have known not to comfort her with fables of theology. They didn’t believe in any of that. His mother had been an astronaut. She’d been up there, beyond the sky, beyond the moon and stars – she never found heaven. Their world was crumbling around them – if there was a heaven, it had never found them.
She reached for his hands, cupping them in hers. That was their code – she was about to say something important, and she was not to be interrupted. Willard was not going to disobey her. She had been his primary guardian since he was eight – that was sixteen years under the rule of a strict but fair sovereign.
“You’re doing well.” She began, “You’ve got a good job – even though you chose a stupid field.”
He had been in the room for five minutes without her sneering at his speciality – apparently, no one ever asks, ‘Is there a botanist in the house?’ when someone’s having a heart attack. This may be a record for her.
“I want the rose gold urn, with my favourite scarf tied around it – the salmon-coloured one with the Cyprus leaves,” she continued, “Just put me on top of the liquor cabinet with a vase of heather – white, not purple – and a nice picture of me. Don’t use the one from your graduation – I hate how my hair looked that day.”
He nodded, fixing his eyes firmly on her frail hands. He couldn’t meet the cataract-crusted eyes, despite the heavy truth that they would not be open for much longer. She would get all her wishes.
“You will keep this house as if I am still here,” she ordered, “You will not let it go to ruin.”
If there was an afterlife, leaving a cup in his room so long it grew mould would be the quickest way to find out. He chuckled at the thought, checking her face briefly, fearing her wrath.
But she smiled, her usually unyielding countenance melting away, replaced by a surprisingly gentle gaze. “You’ll have the house. You’ll find a nice girl. You’ll have a good life.
Will was glad she couldn’t hear his choke of emotion, his face slaving to suppress the agony of grief. “I’m going to try.”
He kissed the top of her head, lingering close to capture her scent. She still wore perfume even on her deathbed – a sandalwood finish on a forming corpse. He expected her to be cold, but the skin beneath his lips was warm. He would get a sponge and pat her forehead free of her fever.
She tugged at his t-shirt, hanging loose on his thin frame, indicating that she wished to speak. Perhaps she imagined the lights flicker – the chair was charged up. “Put some music on. I watched my father die. It looks horrible. I bet it sounds even worse.”
She was still his soldier, sparing Will the curse of a working pair of ears. He joined her on the bed and she rested her hand over his heart, absorbing the vibrations as he hummed the tune. His voice wasn’t perfect, but that didn’t matter here.
Hours passed, watching her drown on dry land, waiting to hear the silent words, ‘Roll on two’. The command came and went, but Willard didn’t move from her side, the salmon scarf clutched tight in his grip.
No one spoke his language anymore. No more extending thumbs of congratulations, no more shaking fists of dissent, no more fingers outstretched to bellow his name.
He was used to silence, but now it was still.
© Billie-Leigh Burns