When my grandmother came to live with us, my parents didn’t tell me she was dying of leukemia. They just told me that my two older sisters and I would have to move our beds into the family room so that grandma could have our bedroom. It was the bedroom closest to a bathroom, so it would be the most convenient for grandma to use.
I didn’t even think about grandma dying. She’d been sick before. She’d even had cancer before and had fully recovered. She and my first grandpa had pioneered the irrigation system for the southern Alberta, Canada, territory. She’d given birth to and raised a dozen children in primitive conditions, driven the cattle, milked the cows, and plowed the fields while grandpa was bishop. There wasn’t anything grandma couldn’t take and not come back fighting.
Then there was that night in early autumn. I was lying in my bed thinking when I heard a dull thud from the direction of the bathroom. As I slid off the top bunk bed and headed toward the bathroom, I heard a quiet moan. Straining my eyes to see in the late night hours, I turned on the bathroom light. My grandma was lying on the floor.
“Grandma!” I said startled. “What happened?”
“Shh,” she answered quietly. “Turn off the light. I don’t want to wake up the whole household! I’m all right. Just give me a hand.”
As I put my arm around her thin weak body, I could feel her trembling. I guided her back into the bedroom and tried to help her back onto the bed.
As I pulled the quilts up around her face, she said, “I’m sorry I woke you up. Now you go on back to bed.”
“You didn’t wake me up, grandma,” I answered. “I couldn’t sleep anyway.”
The dim moonlight shining in through a crack in the bedroom curtains illuminated my grandma’s face. Her fine gray hair was straight and limp from her having to stay in bed. I suddenly noticed how thin she’d become. I remembered hugging her in her big black fur coat when I was small. She was much heavier then, almost plump.
“Promise me you won’t tell anyone about this,” grandma said.
“Next time you might really hurt yourself. Mom would be so mad if I didn’t tell her.”
“Never mind your mom. I’m her mom, so that makes me the boss. As long as I’m alive, I’m going to go to the bathroom by myself. She’ll torment me about using the bedpan if you tell her.”
“All right, grandma,” I answered.
“What are you doing awake at this time of night anyway?” grandma interrupted, trying to change the subject.
“Oh, just thinking, I guess,” I answered.
“What do you have to think about that can’t wait till morning?”
I sat down on the bed next to her.
“It’s nothing important really. Just that old dance I went to tonight. I didn’t really want to go anyway.”
“Your older sisters sure had you dolled up,” grandma said as she took my hand.
“Oh, they thought I looked good, but I just looked like them. I felt awful. Nylons make my legs itch. The music was too loud, and it was too hot, and I can’t stand my hair fixed up with sticky hair spray. The whole time I was wishing I was someplace else.”
“Where else would you want to be?”
“Oh, it’s a place not far from here,” I answered. “But don’t tell my older sisters. They already think I’m a lost cause because I won’t sit out in the sun cooking in baby oil for hours to get a suntan and listen to the radio and try their makeup and perfume. They’re always trying to fix my hair for me too. But I like it this way. I’m sorry,” I said starting to stand up. “I better let you go to sleep.”
Grandma smiled. “I don’t sleep much at night anymore anyway.”
“Well, up in the field at the end of our street, there’s an old irrigation ditch with a big old knotty tree hugging the banks. I go up there and climb just as high as the tree will let me before it dips its top. I sit there for hours sometimes and when the wind starts up, the branches will sway and bow almost like a cradle rocking me to sleep. I love it there, grandma. I feel like I’m part of it; the trees and sweet-smelling weed grass and soaring birds, even the insects chirping in the grass seem my friends.”
I stopped. Grandma’s warm palm felt good around my hand.
“I’ve never told anybody about it before,” I said, looking into her eyes. “Sometimes I think something’s wrong with me. I’m supposed to like parties and dances and boys now. My sisters think I’m hopeless. I don’t know if I’m scared or what. I feel funny inside sometimes. I’m just not ready yet, I guess. I don’t know if I ever will be or want to be.”
“You know, I’m a tree climber from way back,” grandma said.
“You’re not the only one who feels scared sometimes,” grandma answered. “I’m not sure I ever told anybody this either, but, I’m not sure if it’s the worry of keeping on living or dying that scares me the most,” she answered. “I want you to do something for me. I want you to tell your mom and all your aunts and uncles to quit praying for me to die. They don’t think I know that they’re praying that way, but I do. Tell them I’m not ready to die yet.”
“Why are they praying for you to die, grandma?”
“They don’t want me to suffer anymore.”
“Are you suffering, grandma?”
“I’ve suffered worse pain than a sick body,” grandma said. “I just don’t want to die before I’m good and ready. I like living too much. Seems like life’s always pushing at a person before he’s ready to jump. So don’t you give up your tree climbing till you’re good and ready. I’m not about to die yet, so don’t you worry.”
Next thing I knew, it was morning. Grandma was sleeping next to me, breathing heavily. I tiptoed out of the room and hurried to get ready for school.
Grandma got steadily worse after that. Mom kept trying to get her to use the bedpan, but grandma insisted on her dignity. All those months that grandma lived with us, I would go into her room and talk to her after school. Her mind seemed to drift backward at times. She could remember her childhood better than what had happened only moments before. I tried not to notice her sagging skin hanging off her protruding bones. She weighed only 80 pounds.
Mom told me not to bother grandma anymore. She told me that grandma didn’t understand what I was saying anymore. Sometimes I’d rub grandma’s feet or stroke her forehead or we’d just be together.
My father was always too busy with work and my mom was pregnant with twins and half crazy with worry over my rebellious older brother and his motorcycle and girl friend. But grandma, she was always there.
It was nearly the end of the school year when I ran in the house one day and charged down the stairs to grandma’s room. A boy in my science class and I had been working on a science fair project for two months together. We’d taken first place, and he had asked me to the graduation dance. I wanted to tell grandma as I had everything else all year.
When I opened the door, flushed from running, the bedroom was empty. Grandma was gone.
“Where is she?” I shouted running up the stairs to the kitchen. “Where’s grandma?”
The house seemed strangely quiet. Most of my family were in the kitchen looking solemn.
“Mom had to take her to the hospital this morning,” my dad said, squeezing my arm. “She died this afternoon.”
“No!” I shouted, “She wasn’t ready yet!”
“It was her time, honey. It’s better this way. She won’t be suffering anymore. She’s happy now,” dad answered.
“She was happy before, too,” I said pulling away.
I ran out of the house and up the street to the field at the end. The tears stung as they ran down my hot cheeks. I climbed the tree. There, in the top branches, the wind felt cool on my burning face. With my eyes closed, I bit down on my bottom lip. I wanted it to hurt. The soft summer wind rustled the lacy leaves, and the slow tumbling water from the irrigation ditch lapped against the crooked, moss-covered roots of the willow tree. Time passed.
Later, I opened my eyes and looked up. I could see the gray silhouette of a bird slicing through the crimson sky overhead. Somehow I didn’t feel angry any more. I laid my cheek against the rough bark of the tree and put my arm around the limb. I felt comfortable and secure. The sun, round and orange, balanced on the mountain horizon. Cool, dark shadows rolled across the weed grass in the field.
Slowly, deliberately, I climbed limb by limb back down the tree to the ground. I took a deep breath of the summer-scented air. As I walked away from the tree, I felt as if an irreplaceable part of myself had stayed behind—there in that tree in the topmost branches. Yet I felt a new part of myself fill the gap and the longing as I realized that maybe, no matter how old we are, we’re never good and ready. Even knowing the glories of the other side doesn’t make it easier to let go of that which we know and love.
As I reached the end of the field near the street to my home, I turned around. The tree looked dark and hazy in the early evening light.