Carrying the gas station flowers he’d purchased on the way, Frankie walked down the sad, beige, sanitary hallway to the old lady’s room, past all the impersonal pictures of Jesus and presidents. He tapped on the door and looked through the long and very narrow window inside. He saw her lying there on her bed.
Frankie walked in, holding the flowers out in front of him as if they were a shield. He said, “Hi, Grandma.” He never really knew how she would react to him, ever, in his entire life. She could be sweet and kind and loving or haul off and hit him. It depended on her mood and what in her recent memory Frankie had done wrong.
Today, she just laid there, her hands crossed on her belly, her hair down, long and amazingly still brown. At 100 years old, it was very thin, but not a gray hair to be found.
Frankie said, “I’m sorry I missed your birthday, Grandma. I was in New Orleans working.”
She silently smiled. She looked at him, still in complete silence. He walked closer to the bed and as he began to stroke her forehead and her hair, her smile deepened. He stood there looking into the vast and lonely seas that were those magnificent, brown, Irish eyes, so old and still so alive. He thought about what they had seen in the past hundred years, the changes in the world, the people, the happy days, and the sadness. His money was on more sadness than joy.
He stood there as they soul-talked again, that inexplicable bond, where they looked at each other and spoke in silence, lovingly staring into each other’s eyes. She had started doing this with Frankie when he was a little boy. To him, it was as normal as breathing. It felt like she was giving him knowledge, truths to take with him after she was gone. She had always tried to teach him something. He felt sad that all her good efforts were mostly wasted. Her church, her God, she tried too hard to impart in him a sense of soul and goodness.
This was the first time in years and years that he had seen her while he was sober. It felt more real, more connected, but Frankie realized that even in these fading moments, what could be her final hours, even here and now and sober as a stone, he was still disconnected; even from her, still that disconnect that he couldn’t ever explain. It was like a dry well in the middle of a hissing field of long, dry grass on a hot and dusty summer’s day, then going to that well for water and walking away with only a handful of dust. It was that kind of hollow, empty and thirsting.
He looked into her eyes and held her hand more tightly than a moment ago and he said, “That hollow feeling, that emptiness, I suppose that’s where my soul would go if I had one.”
She smiled, but her eyes were now sad. She knew some things she could never teach him, never show him. He looked at the old white witch and he held her hand and he rubbed her hair some more. They sat there like this, connected but not fully engaged, for a very long time.
Frankie realized this was the one and only connection he had to the world, to the universe, and it was fading away, right before his eyes.
A nurse came in to check on the old lady. She smiled at Frankie and said, “You must be the one she’s been waiting for. She stopped eating the other day. We’ve been keeping her hydrated and comfortable. She last spoke about two days ago. She said she was waiting for her boy to come.”
Frankie looked at her and said, “Come on Grandma, I’m here now. Let’s eat a little now” She just kept smiling. The nurse held up a glass of water and gave her some pills. Frankie said, “I can’t stand to see her like this. She’s so strong.”
The nurse said, “They get this way, some of them, when it’s time. She made her goals. She got to one hundred and she waited for you. Please just stay and enjoy your moments with her.” Frankie reached for her phone, on the nightstand by her bed. He picked it up and called Alexandrine. He said he was sorry, but he was going to miss dinner. Alex said he’d lost track of time and they’d eaten hours ago. She was going to get a cab and come down. She’d bring him a sandwich.
The nurse left and Frankie sat back down. The old woman lay there smiling. He took her hand again and sat down and stared back into her eyes.
He said. “I’m sorry, Grandma, I tried. I’m not drunk and I feel good about that. I feel good and strong. I feel healthy and clean. I feel clear and grateful. I tried really hard to understand, to connect with your God. It didn’t work out. I hit the one guy. He was full of shit. I killed a couple more people. I’m really sorry about that. There are some guys out there trying to kill me, so that’s not good. I really want you to know I tried to find your God, to understand and connect to your God. I guess you were right. I have no soul. People tell me I try too hard, but I feel nothing. God and the search for God leaves me empty and cold and I have to admit, but only to you, that I’m scared.
When I was drunk, I never cared. Now, without the luxury of being drunk, I feel scared, so scared I don’t know what to do. I’ve got these guys coming for me. I’m constantly looking over my shoulder, and I know they’re going to hit me hard and soon and I’ll die. I’m tired of running. No Heaven for me, Grandma.” Then, once again, they sat holding hands in silence for a long time, just holding hands. Part of Frankie was grateful for this day, in spite of the sadness knowing that this could be the last time he’d ever see her, ever soul-talk with her again. On this day of Thanksgiving, he was grateful for these hours, and this time to say goodbye.
They heard a knock on the door. It was Alexandrine. She walked in smiling. That was probably the one thing about Alex that perplexed him the most. Her clothes could be worn to threads, but they were always clean and spotless. No matter how bad and deep and soul-crushing her poverty, the bill collectors, the threatening phone calls, no matter how hard the world tried to beat Alex down, she could somehow always smile. She went back into the hallway, grabbed a chair, and came back in the room. She sat down by the old woman and the old lady smiled again. Staring off into each other’s eyes, Alex took the old woman’s hand and held it warmly in hers. Alex said to Cora, “I want to pray with you.” They both smiled. Frankie got up and was about to leave the room. Alex said, “Frankie, sit your ass down here and pray with us. Cut the crap.”
Frankie was about to argue, then considered the situation and sat down. Alex said a long prayer and then ended with the Twenty-third Psalm. The last words lingered in his mind:
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
In the LORD’s own house shall I dwell for length of days unending.
Alex said, “Amen,” and looked at Frankie. Frankie sat there, expressionless.
The old lady looked peaceful and ready. Alex backed away. She had a tear in her eye. She motioned for Frankie to take her seat and just be with the old lady. He moved up next to her and grabbed her right hand.
Alex left the room, saying she needed coffee. Frankie asked her to bring him a cup. They sat there in silence again, Frankie and his Grandma, as he rubbed her head and he watched her smile at him. Alex came back in and placed the Styrofoam coffee cup on the nightstand next to the phone.
The old woman smelled the coffee and Frankie offered her some. He raised her head and carefully brought the cup to her lips. He said, “It’s not as good as yours and it’s not condensed milk, but, at least it’s coffee. All we need now is a sugar cookie, burned on the bottom, the way you always made them for me” She took a sip and closed her mouth. He sat the cup back on the nightstand and he let her head rest back on the pillow.
For a second, he said nothing. Then he said, “I’ll always remember drinking coffee with you, Grandma, on that old steel and Formica table, in the kitchen, with the floor so crooked that we were always afraid our coffee would slide off. I’ll always remember your piano and you singing about Jesus. That was about as close to the church and God as I ever got, right there at that old table, listening to you sing.”
Then she reached out and took his hand. Her grip was strong. She stared directly and deeply into his eyes. She let go of his hand and put her palm on his cheek. He felt the old, bony, arthritic fingers touch his face. He looked into her eyes for what seemed a long, long time and then he noticed the spark was gone from them and he felt her hand go limp.
The coffee cup slid off the table and onto the floor, sending hot coffee everywhere.
He felt something pass him, and then he felt her presence one last time. He looked up at the ceiling and he said, “I love you, Grandma,” and he felt more alone than he’d ever felt in his life.
Alex put her arm around him and they sat there, holding each other and crying. The nurse came in, saw them, and started to cry too.
Her funeral was small. Not many friends left when you hit one hundred. It was a small chapel. Under different circumstances it would have been a beautiful stone and wooden chantry. Today it was only a place of sadness and anger.
The sun shone through the multi-colored windows that each featured men holding crosses and stones as they depicted different scenes from the Bible. No one ever looked very happy in these finely decorated windows. This had always confused Frankie a great deal. All these sad-faced people, serving their Lord and loading up for a trip to the Promised Land. One would think they’d be happier.
A Roman Catholic priest stood to speak. As much as Frankie hated the church, the Roman Catholic Church was worthy of hatred all on its own. He sat with a priest when he was very young, sat and held his hand and said the Lord’s Prayer with him. After they were finished, that priest assured Frankie that he would surely be going to Hell.
It was at that moment that Frankie decided he needed neither the Heaven nor the Hell of such hate-filled men. It didn’t matter if someone attended any church, if their church was not the Roman Catholic Church, they were certainly going to Hell. They could sing the same songs and say the same prayers, but they were practicing a gutter religion and certainly destined for the abyss. Frankie sat near the front and listened to the priest, who invited all baptized Catholics to come forward and celebrate communion. The “others,” the gutter people, could sit there and pray.
Frankie, who had loved this old, dead woman all his life, with all of his heart, maybe the only human being he truly ever loved, was told to sit there and pray. He couldn’t take any more of this complete and utter bullshit. He stood and screamed back at the priest, “What good are my prayers to you and your arrogant God, you sad, sick, twisted, fucking bastard?” With those words, Frankie managed to completely destroy his grandmother’s funeral.
He walked out of the chapel, flipping off the gathered family and friends, and screaming. He sat down on a rock and cried, a deeper, more reaching, aching cry than he’d ever known. It was almost a primal scream. He felt a part of who he was slipping away as he sobbed uncontrollably. He didn’t think he would or could ever stop crying. This woman, the only one he trusted, the only one who could love him, was now gone.
He sat a good distance down the street from the church and thought about the death that is autumn. It seemed sadly appropriate after one hundred summers and one hundred springs,that she would die when all things natural and beautiful die, in the autumn.
He thought of her favorite season, the blossoming spring: the flowers, wildflowers, the warming air, leaves on trees again, after an eternity of death and darkness and brown, barren nothing, the sudden appearance of birds, bugs and frogs. He thought of how much she loved each coming new year, and the approach of summer.
She had confessed to him and very few others that she was of pagan lineage, the ancient Celts. The seasons were more to her than changing scenery. She had explained to Frankie the deep meaning of the rituals and the new growth and the old death and the summer and winter solstice.
She went to the church to be with her God, but she found her comforts in the ancient pagan traditions. She had no trouble reconciling the two: her witchcraft/her magic and her Christianity. She offered this to Frankie so many times. Each time he refused, flatly. Now, he wished he had not fought with her. Theirs was a lifetime spent together in conflict, her endless struggle to save him and his constant amusement at her and all the crazy stories she would tell. What he loved most was when her crazy stories were always, to the word, proven true. She was a crazy old lady, and she scared a lot of people, but she was really all he had, his last, desperate handhold onto reality. It was a twisted, often funny, personal and private reality, but now that handhold, that last thread was gone.
He sat there on the grass, watching as the hearse passed by. A part of him, a very large part, had died with her. A little more of his rapidly fading humanity and sanity vanished that day. It was a cold, late autumn day, but he felt colder inside than the air that surrounded him. The darkness in which he took his comfort moved a little deeper into him that day. For the first time in his life, since that first moment as a baby hearing her voice, for the first time he was completely alone.
He walked after the hearse, watching as it slowly drove away. Friends and family passed him in their cars with no desire to stop and offer him a ride. He walked into a liquor store along the way. He went inside and stood before the selection of vodka. The temptation was real to just grab a bottle and run out, but he couldn’t deal with the drama today, couldn’t muster the energy. Although nothing tastes sweeter than stolen booze, he decided to buy it instead. He grabbed a half-gallon and walking out of the door, he cracked the cap open, hearing that almost sexually arousing sound of the seal breaking.
He took a long, long moment to ponder his sobriety. He walked slowly, with the cracked, but untapped bottle in his hand, like a weapon. As he neared the cemetery, all the cars and relatives were gone, he smashed the bottle, still full—not a drop taken from it—into a tree, as if he were tossing a tomahawk.
He arrived at the cemetery about an hour after she was buried. He sat down in front of the freshly shoveled dirt. He began to speak. “Well, I didn’t get drunk. That’s about the only win for this day. I guess it’s time to say goodbye,” and he sat there a long, long time in silence.
He stood up and dusted his hands off, slapping them together. “I hate your God. I hate whoever or whatever took you away from me. What do I do now, Grandma? I’ll figure it out. I hope you found your Heaven. I hope you found that peace. I hope you are with your God. I think I always feared this day above all others, because I know I’ll never see you again. Your Heaven is no place for me. Your God is no friend of mine. I guess this is it, you crazy old woman. I don’t know when my time will come. I’m so tired, some days I hope it comes soon. I’ll never understand why I can only understand half of the story. I believe in the Devil. I know him like he’s my best friend, my right hand. The Devil is not such a bad guy; he’s just misunderstood, like me”
He went over to his father’s grave a few feet away and just stood there in silence, too. He felt like an outsider to an exclusive club. His father was the legend he could never live up to, so he stopped trying early on. He was so much more like his grandfather, a broken legend, a frightening solitary man.
Some people are born to die dirty and hard and in pain, others softly and gently, surrounded by the warmth of family and friends. Frankie always knew, from childhood, that his death would not be one of forehead kisses and held hands, of prayers and a gentle passage to another place. It would be one of blood and screaming and fire.
He supposed that we do die the way we lived. All he could hope for was that his would be fast, not a lingering and painful death. He feared accountability above all else. This confused him even more. How could he fear accountability to an entity he could not believe in?
He looked out at the quiet country road in front of the cemetery. A car horn blew. It was Alexandrine in the Rambler at the gate, waiting for him. He turned his back to the dead and walked to the car.
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