It’s the middle of the night on a Wednesday, and so far, we haven’t slept a wink. Ellie, our three-year-old, has a cold. When Ellie doesn’t feel good she needs to be next to Mom, and tonight that means next to me, too.
Ellie coughs every thirty seconds, and then, just about every minute or so, she gags on the snot running back down her throat, finishing it all off with a high-pitched choking that sends her body jack-knifing in a convulsive fit. Amazingly, her eyes remain closed during these violent episodes. She settles back on her pillow, whining and wheezing softly. Her cheeks are wet. I push my pillow underneath hers. A little more support.
A small sacrifice.
It doesn’t look like my pillow is going to be of much use tonight (for me, anyway). I close my eyes and stretch my body out, teetering on the edge of the bed, careful not to crowd her. I brace myself for the next fit.
One hundred miles away, my grandmother is dying.
Propped up in her hospital bed, her watery eyes stare out at a world speeding by, a world devoid of color and sound, a world that no longer wants her around. A close-fisted world that grants freedom and movement for so long, and then strips it all away in an instant.
We have been visiting Gram four of five times a year since she’s been in the nursing home. We watch her grow old. We sit in the hot room and talk to her, around her, hoping she has enough strength to respond, hoping she hears us.
“You look beautiful, Gram,” I whisper in her ear upon entering, leaning down to hug her.
Gram works her jaw a little and half smiles. I can see she wants to say something, her eyes are bright for a moment, looking out at me. Her chin motions upward.
The moment passes though, quicker and quicker each time it seems. Her body sinks a little and her pupils stare through me, past me, out the glass pane of the bed-side window, the world a fantastic blur.
Later, Gram sucks orange juice noisily through a plastic straw with help from a nurse, her teeth and hair falling out, her spotted skin clinging to her skeleton, refusing to let go. I sit on the very edge of the bed, my hand atop hers. I don’t speak, I just stare down at her patchy white hair and the blue veins in her forehead. I stroke the top of her weary hand, sinking into the bed with her. It is a short moment, but a powerful one. It burns into my mind.
Suddenly, she takes a swallow that is too big and a cough wells up in her throat, her whole body convulsing, and for a brief moment I wonder if we might lose her right now. The deep cough steals all of her energy. Gram strains open-mouthed to release it as the cough resonates through the room. Through the orifice I can see her rotting teeth, the bruised gums, and the bluish-red tongue curled like the stem of some plucked winter flower. I can smell her sour breath.
Where has Gram gone?
After a few seconds she settles back, her eyes shut tight, tense at first and then relaxed. The coughing recedes. Soft tears spill down her cheeks like rain down a curved rose petal.
I fluff the pillow under Gram’s head and position my body more toward the edge of the bed. A little more support.
A small sacrifice.
Back in my room at home, Ellie is between coughing spells. She rests, red-cheeked and warm against the propped-up pillow, small whimpers escaping every now and then from between pursed lips. My hand atop hers, the moonlight reflects on her hair, which looks silvery and white in the dark room. Silently, I slide my weary body against hers and whisper, “You are so beautiful.”
With my eyes closed we sink a little, her cheek touching mine, so soft it could be a flower petal.
One hundred miles away, the same moon casts the same glow on my grandmother, Arlene Rose, and in the next moment we are all three sung to sleep by a lunar lullaby.
We dream. The dream is vivid and strong. In it we join hands, Ellie, Gram, and me. We are smiling and laughing and twirling around in a circle, and there is music. The music plays and we whirl and swirl, spin and spiral, breathless with joy.
It seems an eternity before Gram lets go and looks up at me.
“I would love to hold the baby.” She is standing upright and her cheeks are smooth, flushed again with youth.
I gently hand Ellie over as a Sinatra song begins to play. Gram embraces her, closes her eyes, and their cheeks touch. They move as one, smoothly, softly.
She is crying, Gram is. Her tears are big, fat drops of joy. Her cheeks carry them proudly.
Or Gram dances, really, and Ellie floats in her arms, smiling and satisfied, and the sea of moonlight stretches on and on forever. Arlene Rose glides so gracefully, so assuredly, so angelically. I can see that Ellie is at home in her arms as they float, just as I too was once at home in Gram’s arms. The dream continues and the music plays.
After a long while, Ellie rests her head on Gram’s shoulder, pressing into her supple neckline. The music slows. My youngest daughter wraps her arms around my grandmother’s neck, clasps her hands, and falls soundly, deeply asleep.
I don’t ever want this to end. I’m not sure who says this, me or Gram, but Ellie is suddenly back in my arms asleep and warm as the dream dissipates. I sleep the rest of the night, my arms wrapped around my daughter, knowing full well that my Grandmother made this all possible.
I am here because of her.
In the morning I will rise from bed with this dream freshly etched into my memory. I will call upon it time and time again as I navigate the daylight hours.
My grandmother, Arlene Rose, is dancing still. She twirls and glides just outside the windowpane in the slivers of moonlight that shimmer and shine off the tips of the brightly colored flowers growing along the front porch.
I feel her there, just like I feel them all there, those who have passed before me. It is I who will carry on, who will blaze forward in this bright night sky, streaming light and love, ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust.