I promise this isn’t a personal story. Not entirely.
My grandmother died on a weekday morning in the summer of 2006, the victim of a cancer that began in the colon but (as cancers often do) quickly extended itself to whichever organ its idiot reach could embrace. She was diagnosed in November and died in July, which gave us a bare eight months to say goodbye. None of them were pretty – she withered quickly and drastically from various bouts of chemotherapy and other necessarily toxic remedies, although she curiously never lost her hair. By the end, she lacked the strength to lift herself from her bed, which was set up in the family room of the house she and my grandfather had inhabited since coming over from Italy after the Second World War.
My family was scattered in and around that house when I finally arrived, each mourning in their own way. My youngest aunt sat on some steps among the grapevines and apple trees in the backyard, her own personal retreat since childhood. My brother was outside on the path leading to the house, and as he embraced me I saw that he was crying. I hadn’t seen him cry since childhood; as we had aged it had become unthinkable for either of us to shed tears.
When I saw my grandfather, I knew what had caused my brother to lose his composure. It’s often been said that death is hardest on the living – the dead are beyond any earthly suffering, but those left behind are constantly confronted with their ghosts. Their loss lingers in the bare facts of their absence. You’ll smell them on their empty clothes when you open the closet, long after the scent has faded. You’ll wake up expecting to be next to someone and despair at the no-one who has taken her place. For my grandfather, this was the first time he had been without my grandmother in almost fifty years. He sat on a plastic chair outside the back door, seeing nothing. I’ve never asked him, but I don’t think he really remembers any of that morning. His life was on hold at the time.
My mother and another aunt were standing vigil over my grandmother’s body when I finally made it into the house. She’d spent much of the past few months confined to a hospital bed in her living room, and hadn’t truly moved from it in several weeks. I stopped a few feet short of where she lay. Her eyes were wide open. She almost looked surprised. As my mother told me it was OK for me to come closer, I flashed back to something she’d told me earlier that morning, when she woke me up to tell me about my grandmother’s death.
“She opened her eyes and raised her hands towards the ceiling,” my mother had said, sitting on the corner of my bed, her tears not quite spent. “Then she was gone.”
There it is, then. My grandmother, in the fading moments before lapsing into impermanence, saw something so compelling that she attempted to touch it. Whether she tried to embrace it or hold it off is lost to me forever – until, at least, years from now, it comes for me as well. This question, skirting about the corners of my consciousness, has haunted me ever since.
What did she see?
Next: Other peoples’ opinions.