Two people died in my living room. The first was my grandmother.
She was carried into my house on a hospital gurney by two men dressed in white. One of the men had a tattoo on his forearm that said “forgiveness.” The other had a mustache so thick I could see individual hairs from it vibrate in the wind. I was eleven years old. I knew nothing of the world except for one thing – these men worked for death.
“I love you,” my grandmother said. She wore baggy green clothes and had something on her scalp I could only compare to a shower cap.
“I love you,” she said again, and the two men adjusted their grip, bouncing the gurney.
My grandmother had lost weight since I last saw her, causing her cheeks to tighten and her face to cave in, forming features I had never seen on a person before. She knew I was afraid.
“What room?” one of the men asked.
My mother stood to my side, silent, as if waiting for me to give the instructions. My grandmother smiled. She reached her arm off the gurney and touched my mother’s hand. Their flesh was same color, tanned, and for a moment I remembered thinking they were one person.
“Inside to the left,” my mother said. “To the living room.”
I had spent the earlier part of the day cleaning.
“We want the house to look good for Grandma. Don’t we?” My mother was scrubbing the kitchen floor on her hands and knees, pressing down so hard I could see veins surface on her biceps. I wondered why she wasn’t using a mop.
My father, keeping just as busy, redecorated the living room. He removed vases, a lamp, and replaced them with toys from my childhood, as if baby proofing a room meant for a seventy eight year old woman.
“Why are you putting those in here?” I asked. “Grandma won’t play with them.”
“Because you and Emma used to play with these,” he said. He removed a stuffed animal from a cardboard box, dropping behind its button nose and pieces of thread. “She’ll want these around. Trust me.” He heisted to hand me the stuffed animal, and then placed it on my grandmother’s hospital bed.
I wondered why she couldn’t use a normal bed, though I never asked.
The two men lowered my grandmother off of the gurney.
“We’ll need a signature,” one of them said.
“Well, she not a fucking couch!” my mother turned, giving a room full of people a clear view of her shaking shoulders. It was the first time I had ever heard my mother say the word fuck. It felt wrong. Like certain words should never be spoken by certain voices, and that certain ears should never hear them.
“I’ll take care of it,” my father said. He nodded, and the men left without saying a word.
The room was silent. It’s moments like this that adults needed children, I remembered thinking. To have something pure in the room that’s worth protecting; to have a reason to stay strong.
My mother turned back to me, quick enough so I couldn’t see her eyes.
“I’m going to reach around you twice you’re so skinny.” She hugged my small body and forced my face into her neck. I was in darkness; ears muffled and hidden from the room. “I’m sorry,” I thought I heard her say, though I couldn’t be for sure.
I pulled away, nodding, just like my father would do it.
“Why don’t you go upstairs and check on, Emma,” she said.
“But aren’t you forgetting something?” my grandmother said. She reached her arms out, wrinkly and covered with multi colored bruises. It looked like she had just finished painting. I was motionless. This whole day, week, and year had revolved around her - her sickness, as my parents liked to call it when they were in front of me. But now that she was in our house it felt wrong, almost fake, as if we had packed for months, moved, and ended up in the same place with nowhere else to go.
“Come give grandma a kiss.”
I liked to eavesdrop on my parent’s when I was a kid. I sat on the stairs, listening to voices from the living room, kitchen, and even bathroom without being noticed. It’s where I spent most of my childhood.
“This will change our lives,” my mother had said to my father a week earlier. “It’ll change John David’s life. Emma Gene’s life.”
She used our first and middle names when she was upset, as if to reiterate that her words were meant for no other person in the world.
“It won’t change our life,” my father said. I closed my eyes, imagining my mother pacing and my father sitting in a chair, his chair; their argument positions. “This is life.”
I leaned forward, to the fourth step, which I knew was the closest I could get without being seen. There were no more voices, only muffled cries.
I walked to my grandmother’s bed.
“I’m so happy I get to see you,” she said.
My father exhaled and rubbed his forehead, as if trying to tell me it was okay to be nervous. I looked up and nodded.
“Do you like the bear?” I asked. I reached for the stuffed animal, still missing its button nose and tangling with pieces of thread.
“I love it,” my grandmother said.
“You can have it,” I said. “You can keep it as long as you’re here.”
She pulled me close to her body. I remembered being surprised how strong she was, as if she was saving her last bits of strength for this moment, to hug a little boy. Everyone kept doing this, forcing me to hug them, like I had something they all needed that could only be taken off of my scent.
“I love you, I love you, I love you,” she said. She used to smell like butter milk, now she smelled like medicine.
“Why don’t you check on, Emma,” my mother said. My grandmother laughed. She opened her hands, slowly, letting me slip from of her grasp like my body was sand and she needed to say goodbye to each grain.
“Love you, too, Meg,” my Grandmother said. She blew my mother a kiss and shook her fist in the air; a simple gesture to embody their entire mother daughter relationship, theirs and every other one in the world - love and anger.
I left and sat on the stairs, the eighth step up; the perfect spot to hear every conversation in the house.
There was silence, however, which scared me more than in the world. It meant my family wasn’t keeping secrets from me anymore, but from each other.
Above me I hear footsteps, a creak. It was Emma, four steps up, looking down at me like she always did.
“You’re lucky,” she said. “You’re lucking you’re too young to get this.”
Since turning seventeen, Emma changed her appearance by the day, whether it was with clothes, make up, or the emotions on her face. A new person each time I saw her, someone I was continuously meeting for the first time.
Right now she wore black.
“I get it,” I said. “Grandma’s here to die.” I said this with confidence, not thinking of the words, only that I was able to understand them; it didn’t matter what they were.
Emma adjusted her brown hair. She had once again changed her emotions quicker than I could keep track of, and I wondered if she was going to try to hug me.
There was another creak in the floor, however, this time behind me. I sighed. It was my Grandfather. I knew it before I even turned.
He was stout. A short man, five feet even, though he liked to say five feet two, as if the extra inches meant something at that height. Round, but not fat, the only person I ever believed was truly big bonded. And for a man of eighty five he had young face and a healthy amount white hair on his scalp, always combed back; never gelled.
“Have kids late!” he’d say. “Wait ‘til 50. Keeps you young.”
True for him; not his wife.
Emma ran to her room and shut the door behind her. My grandfather smiled. He had been sitting in the kitchen for most of the day, checking his mail, his one constant, letting my parents run in circles, eavesdropping on everyone just like I was. I remembered being embarrassed when he saw me sitting on those steps, that I wasn’t more upset or crying. But I knew it didn’t matter. He wasn’t upset either. It was as if his wife was already dead, he was dead, and everything else was just God playing a joke on him.
“Little, Johnny,” my grandfather said. He winked at me and walked back to the kitchen.
I sat. There was still no talking coming from the living room, only cries, and in the kitchen I heard a sink turn on. I knew my grandfather was washing the dishes.
One day we’ll all need to be taken care of, I remembered thinking. Whether we want it or not.
My grandmother died two days later.