I went to bed last night praying the nightmares wouldn’t come, but they did. It seems the pain of my parents’ death is destined to be with me forever.
I tossed and turned, as I have most nights for the past five years. Sometimes I wish I could sleep forever, but that would mean dreaming forever…and I just can’t risk that.
As I finally give up on sleep and open my eyes, I have to wipe the tears in order to take note of the time: 7:30 a.m., thirty minutes before the annoying buzzing is set to go off. I turn off the alarm so it won’t bother me later.
I’m surprised I didn’t sleep longer, considering how wiped out I was from yesterday’s packing. Now that Gramps has passed, I am moving from small town Florida to small town North Carolina to live with my dad’s only brother and his wife, people I barely know. I barely knew Gram and Gramps when I came to live with them five years ago, so at least I know how to handle myself in unknown situations.
So far my uncle and aunt, Luke and Claire, have shown me more kindnesses in the last 24 hours than my grandmother did in the two years I lived with them before she died. They remind me of my parents in this, which fills me with more excitement than I know how to express. Years of stuffing down every feeling like a puppet in a Jack-in-the-Box will do that to you.
With all the arrangements that had to be made, we’ve had very little social conversation in the 48 hours since Luke and Claire arrived, but at least they’re here and ready to fulfill their duty as my new legal guardians. And while I’m nervous, my gut tells me that living with them is the fresh start I’ve been starving for, that this last year of high school will be my chance to reset my path.
Gramps’ passing was inevitable. It’s just the way he died that seems unfair. Gramps took a hard fall down the stairs last week. The booming sound of his body landing was the second scariest sound I’ve ever heard. Luke was listed on Gramps’ emergency contact information with Medicaid, so the hospital called him once Gramps was admitted.
“Layla! Are you almost ready?” I hear Claire call as I unwrap the towel from my wet head. “We’re leaving for the funeral home in forty-five minutes.”
“Yes, Claire. I’ll be ready,” I call back. I have yet to call either of them Aunt or Uncle. The term implies a relationship we don’t yet have, and while I’m grateful for their presence, I can’t bring myself to it, even out of obligation. My time with Gram was a lesson in building walls. I’ve become quite adept at it.
Today is Gramp’s funeral, and I’m giving his eulogy.
Suddenly the full weight of everything is hitting me. Who in their right mind would let a 17-year-old girl give a eulogy? Isn’t a eulogy supposed to reflect on the departed’s life? I don’t know much about life, although I certainly understand death. I’m the only one who’s been here for him since Gram died, so I suppose I’m best suited for the job, and after everything he did for me, it’s the least I can do. I only hope I can get through it without having a complete meltdown.
I was 12 when I moved in with Gram and Gramps. I had only met them a few times at Christmas and once when my parents took me to Disney World. They didn’t seem to think much of mom, which was fine with dad because of whatever falling out they had when he was younger. The tense status of their relationship made for short, infrequent visits.
Living with Gram and Gramps was not the life I would have chosen had I known what it was going to be like. My grandmother made her opinion very clear that the accident that killed my parents was my fault. I really couldn’t argue the point, so my days were spent making restitution for my transgression. This meant giving up everything that brought me joy. I didn’t have friends outside of school, I never had anyone over, and I certainly never asked to go anywhere. I learned early on that Gram didn’t mince words. She said what she meant, and she meant it when she said, “If you think you deserve anything good after what you did, you’re sorely mistaken.”
To be honest, when Gram died two years after I came to live with her and Gramps I was pretty relieved. I know it sounds terrible, but I was. She reminded me daily of my transgression. Sometimes it was a statement about what they could be doing now as retirees if they didn’t have to take care of me, and when my father’s birthday came around, well, that was another level of guilt altogether. “Another birthday John will never have!” she’d say, followed by hours of sobbing. As hard as I tried, there was no making up for how I had wronged her. After a while I just stopped trying. I did what I was told and kept to myself.
But…my days with Gramps were entirely different. Never once did he even remotely imply that I was to blame for my parents’ death. In fact, he never mentioned my parents at all because Gram would not allow it. When I first came to live with them, he filled the role of loving grandfather immediately. His affection, so opposite of Gram’s, was exactly what my heart hungered for from the moment I moved in with Gram and Gramps. He let me sit on his knee, or cuddle with him on the couch like grandparents do with their grandkids. He told me he loved me almost daily, an act of affection that Gram did less than infrequently. He would also quietly slip me a five here or a twenty there. We never went anywhere or did anything, and I couldn’t buy anything with it either because then Gram would know. So, I squirreled it away…all $640 of it.
After a few months the affection Gramps gave me ceased when Gram informed him that I no longer needed his doting. His displays of affection were reduced to a wink here and there and a hug when Gram wasn’t looking. Gram said it was time to grow up. And grow up, I did.
I finish drying my long, brown hair and pull it up into its usual ponytail. The Florida heat is too much for me to wear my thick hair down. It’s grown down to my shoulder blades since I haven’t had it cut in almost three years. I have no plans of chopping it all off, so I suppose I’ll be ponytail girl forever. I put on Gramps’ favorite blue dress of mine because I refuse to wear black, and the nicer of my two pairs of sandals. Before I make my way downstairs I take a long look at myself in the mirror. I stare at my father’s hazel eyes, his small nose and chin, too. I’ve waited so long for this day to come; the day that would be my official discharge back onto the path to the life I was supposed to have. I look to see if this newfound release has changed me. No, nothing yet, but for the first time, I see something I haven’t in a long time: a glimmer of hope.
I descend the stairs and find Luke waiting at the side door dressed sharply in a black suit and blue tie. He reminds me so much of my dad. He has typically short brown hair and is handsome by anyone’s standards. When I reach the bottom of the stairs I finally notice just how tall Luke is – probably 6’1”. We’ve been so scattered these last few days that I never really stopped to look at him that much and in the light streaming from the kitchen window I see clearly that Luke and I have the same eyes. I think we must all look like Gramps.
“The car is here. Oh, Layla, there you are. You look lovely. Everyone ready?” Claire says as she comes in from the carport. “Wow,” I think, “Claire is so pretty.” I remember thinking so the first time I saw her when I was a child. She’s classy, wearing her hair shorter than I’ve seen on any grown woman under the age of 60, and next to Luke, her stature is exquisite. They both seem to tower over my average frame. I’m definitely more bronzed than Luke and Claire. Not because I spent my days sunning at the beach, but because there have been weekly yard chores since I came here. I didn’t mind those chores so much after I saw them transforming my stick-like arms and legs into strong, defined limbs.
“Thank you,” I say meekly. Claire responds with a soft, sweet smile. Luke and Claire rented a Lincoln Towne Car limo to take us to the funeral home. It will surely be the nicest vehicle I’ve ever been in. They’re both lawyers so I guess they can afford it. Gramps said they weren’t the high-powered ones you see in the movies, but still well off. They don’t have any kids. Maybe their jobs are more important than having a family. I don’t know.
There must have been a similar falling out with Luke, too, because as far as I know he didn’t talk to anyone in the family either. Dad never spoke of Luke, and never explained why he and his brother didn’t talk. I guess just because you’re family doesn’t mean you have to be friends. Gram and Gramps never spoke of them either. I guess that bridge got burned, too. Hell, Gram probably poured the gasoline and lit the match herself! But I like them. I don’t care what happened between Luke and my dad or grandparents. That was their business, not mine. All I know is that my gut tells me I’m headed into a life with a real family and I’m not going to do anything to mess that up.
When we arrive at the funeral home I’m surprised at how many people are already there, with more pulling into the parking lot behind us. I think back to Gram’s funeral and am certain there weren’t half this many people there. This comforts me in an odd way. Something about it lets me know that I wasn’t the only one Gram treated poorly, and the kind and generous man I knew to be my grandfather was the same man all these people were coming to pay their respects to today.
“It’s time, dear,” the funeral director says thoughtfully to me after we’ve been seated for what seems like eternity. “Are you sure about this? I knew Jack, and I’d be happy to speak on your behalf.”
“No. I want to do it. It’s…important,” I tell him. I stand up from the front row and step up to the podium. My hands are shaking so I grab a hold of the cold, brown lectern to steady myself. I’m breathing so deeply I think they can hear me at the back of the room even before my mouth nears the microphone. The room smells like overly scented flowers. It’s unnatural. I am momentarily distracted by the obnoxious scent and blinding glare the sun streaming through the window is causing as it reflects off the bright white blooms. Then I notice Gramps, lying there in the open casket. Peaceful. Happy. After what seems like a long time, I take a final breath and begin. “Thank you all for coming today. I’m Layla Weston. Jack was my grandfather. I called him Gramps. I was going to write something down, but I wanted to speak more from my heart today, so I hope it’s ok if I just wing it.” I chuckle nervously. “To be honest, now that I’m here, I’m not really sure what it is that I should say.”
So much runs through my mind. I’m kicking myself and wishing I had at least written down some bullet points. How am I going to do this? How do I sum up life with Gramps? For the last three years I took care of him. I washed his clothes, cleaned his house, and made his breakfast before I went to school. He was ok with cereal or toast, which was good because I had neither the time nor the inclination to put out the spread Gram did for breakfast every day. On the weekend I would make pancakes and bacon, though. I would prepare his lunch and leave it in the fridge before I left for school. When I came home I did my homework, cleaned the breakfast dishes and Gramps’ dish from lunch, and then made dinner. Sometimes Gramps and I would go out for dinner, but not too often because it took a lot out of him and he got tired very quickly. I was tired a lot, too. Life was emotionally draining, but I loved Gramps and could never have left him. He was the only light I had in a prison of darkness with Gram.
As I think of the brightness that Gramps brought to my life, I know exactly what I’m going to say.
“Jack…Gramps…was the greatest person I’ve ever known. He was kind, generous, and loving. I watched him love Gram with a passionate love that most only dream of. After 50 years of marriage, he looked at her and still saw the blushing bride of his youth.” I pause to collect myself and need to lighten the mood as much as possible in order to keep myself from crying. “He…was a terrible driver…but never minded taking me anywhere I wanted to go.” Which wasn’t anywhere, but no one here needs to know that. “He and Gram took me in when I had no one and nowhere else to go. When they should have been enjoying their retirement, they were raising a teenage girl. After Gram died, Gramps never faltered in being there for me. How he handled three years alone with a teenage girl on his hands is beyond me. But I will forever be grateful to him for all he did for me. I know that there’s a special place in Heaven for Gramps – a place where Gramps is finally with his bride again.” That’s all I can say. I know it should have been longer, but I’m afraid I’ll start talking about Dad and Mom, which will lead to uncontrollable crying and I just can’t do that. I wasn’t allowed to say anything at their funeral. People thought it would be too traumatic for me – as if I didn’t know what trauma was. I’ve never talked about it before, why start now? So I just leave it at that.
The service is being held at the cemetery, so we don’t have to follow in some depressing funeral parade across town to bury Gramps. The crowd of about thirty walks the path from the building while they put the coffin in the hearse and drive it to the gravesite. By the time we get there, they’ve already got everything set up for the graveside portion of the service. It’s June, almost the hottest time of the year in Central Florida. I can smell the freshly turned dirt from where they dug Gramps’ grave. It’s raw and musty and my gag reflex reacts in just the smallest of heaves. There’s a green tent with chairs set up under it but it’s still hot even in the shade. The sun is blazing and I think I saw that the high is supposed to be 98 degrees. It rained yesterday, so that makes today both hot and humid. This is good only because I can pretend that my tears are really beads of sweat rolling down my face. I don’t like to cry at all, let alone in front of anyone.
The funeral director says a few words, and then the priest from the church that Gram and Gramps attended on Christmas and Easter gives a short message. Several people lay flowers on his coffin, with me leading. Then it’s over.
“He was such a good man,” one woman says to me as she passes by and pats my shoulder. I’m glad that was all she said.
“Yes, he was,” is all I can squeak out.
I stay to the very end. Some suggest I go home and relax, but that’s a ridiculous idea since all that waits for me there is the stress of packing up a house where two people spent their entire lives together. I spent the last five years there, but did not live.
I insist on staying to watch them lower Gramps’ coffin into the ground. I’m watching this beautifully ornate box with my grandfather’s body inside inch its way into the earth and all I want to do is jump on top of it and go with him. Through everything, he never made me feel guilty. I suppose he knew that Gram was dishing out enough. He was the only ray of light I had in five years and now he’s gone.
In this moment I feel so alone. Life is crumbling around me. I’m headed into a multitude of unknowns, so torn between what my heart is screaming at me to do – Go, Layla! This is your chance to start over! – and clinging to the only ill-fitting life I’ve known for the last five years. I’ve spent so long being strong and now there’s no one left to take care of – no one but myself.
This has to be it though. I’m tired of living in this place of eternal misery. I woke up every day knowing it was just another day in a prison sentence of undetermined years.
I see Luke and Claire in my periphery and I know that this is the opportunity I’ve wanted for so long. My penance has been paid and I am now free. I may not know much about Luke and Claire, but what I do know is that they are my only shot at getting my life back.
“Layla? Are…you ready to go? I don’t want to rush you, but we’ve still got a lot to tackle in the next few days,” Luke says in a hushed, reverent tone. I feel the warmth of his hand as he starts to rest it on my back, but then he seems to change his mind because he steps to the side and puts his hands in his pockets.
I wipe the tears that were welling up in my eyes, and then wipe my forehead too so it looks like I was just sweating. “Yeah. I’m ready.”
I declined the idea of having some kind of reception after the funeral. I hated the idea of everyone mingling around, eating casseroles and pie, and talking about Gramps in a steady stream of past tense phrases and stories. Gramps’ death didn’t need to take up everyone’s day either.
When we arrive back at the house I don’t even bother to change my clothes. I dive in immediately to a stack of papers on the kitchen counter. There’s so much to file through that everything is starting to blur together. Most of it is old junk mail that just never got thrown away and miscellaneous papers that were shoved into random drawers around the house. When I reach the bottom of the stack I find a manila folder with Gracehaven Boarding School for Girls written on it. I open up the folder wondering when Gram and Gramps entertained the idea of sending me to boarding school. Whoa this place is expensive! I can only assume they would have used my college fund to pay for it. It’s not much, but probably enough to pay for a few years. I scan the application and see that it’s dated for three days ago and signed by Luke and Claire. My heart stops.
“Ready for a break? Luke’s going to run out and pick up some food,” Claire says as she and Luke enter the kitchen. The visual of this application is rolling around in my head like a pinball and I haven’t had to time to process it at all.
“Are you…sending me to boarding school?” I ask abruptly.
“Oh…Layla…” Claire says in quiet shock. Obviously this is not how they planned on telling me. “We were going to talk with you about that tomorrow.” Claire is nervous, her voice faltering.
“You don’t want me to live with you,” I stutter out. It’s not a question but an observation. I feel so stupid. I actually believed that they were riding in like knights on white horses to free me from the prison I’d been living in, but the reality is that they want to send me to another prison.
“No, Layla. That’s not it at all,” Luke protests. He takes a step forward and it’s the most emotion I’ve seen from him since they arrived.
“What is it? I’m too old? You’re too busy? You don’t want a kid around?” How could my gut be so wrong?
“It’s not like that. We…” Luke stammers.
“I’m not going to be any trouble. I promise. I just…I need to get out of here. I need…I need a real home.” I pause as I watch Luke and Claire look at each other, not knowing what to do now that I’ve interrupted their plan. “But…if that’s not what you want, I understand. I don’t want to be anywhere I’m not welcome anymore.”
“It’s complicated, Layla. Claire and I…” Luke begins but Claire cuts him off.
“We didn’t think you’d want to live with us,” Claire explains awkwardly.
“Well…don’t I get a say?” I plead.
“Of course you do,” Claire says softly. There’s a surprised smile on her face.
“I’d…like to come with you…if that’s ok.” I squeak out the first declaration of my own desire in five years and beam with pride on the inside.
Claire steps forward and takes me by the shoulders. “You are more than welcome to live with us. We want you, Layla.” Claire’s tone is soothing and evokes a feeling of belonging in me that I haven’t felt in a long time. Her words echo in my ears and I think I’m going to cry.
“Ok. Thank you,” I say after a moment. I watch Luke and Claire smile at me and then at each other.
“Good. No more talk about boarding school or living anywhere but with us. Ok?” Claire says brightly. I nod in reply and smile as best I can.
We spend the next two days cleaning and packing up the house. Luke handles the items in the attic. I’ve never been up there, and won’t have a clue what I’m looking at, so I let him decide what should be kept. I figure it’s probably stuff he’ll recognize from his childhood and will know better. Luke and Claire take just a few things from the house and let me decide what to do with the rest. I determine that donating it to the church is the best thing. I’m keeping only a few things. Old photos, the blanket Gramps used to snuggle up in with me when I was little and both Gram and Gramps’ wedding rings. It doesn’t seem right for them to go to just anyone.
And just like me, the rest of it is being set free from this place.
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