by Mary Eileen Ball
I only knew of my grandmother crying three times, but she must have done so more than that. My mother wrote to me that there was a news story of a woman in her 90s who got a GED. My grandmother, who dropped out of school in 9th grade, cried that she didn’t have more education. In the letter, my mother said that she would look into GED classes for Granny, but I never heard any more about it.
Then there was the mat. It had sunflowers bursting from its middle and was edged in black and white squares. It was supposed to go in her kitchen to pretty it up, amid the compost pile that attracted bugs and the worn yellow linoleum, homemade cabinets, overflowing ashtray. She left the mat in my Uncle Billy’s room, and as he cleaned, he threw it away, though she asked him not to. He just yelled at her. “Granny, you don’t need no friggin’ mat!” she cried as if that mat was the only thing standing between her house moving from Hoarders to Good Housekeeping. My mother tried to hold her, but she wouldn’t be soothed, jerking away as if shocked..
The last time that she cried was the cancer. She was in the hospital room tucked under tidy white sheets, but her feet were purple and swollen. The cancer was producing blood clots in her body, which blocked the circulation. The doctor said her feet may auto-amputate before she died. He gave her a month. She was about to be moved to hospice.
There was tension in the room that even I could feel. My mother was there, too, and I had slept in the room overnight. My grandmother was awake and would give soft moans, but wouldn’t speak.
“Granny?” My mother moved across the pear green tile to tentatively touch Granny’s shoulder. “Is everything all right?”
My grandmother began to rock side to side, gritting her teeth, droplets of sweat dotting her forehead. Finally, she broke.
“Help! I need help! Call the nurse. It hurts! Oh God, it hurts!” she sobbed.
I got the nurse, and she gave Granny morphine. Granny calmed down a bit and got dozy.
Finally, she was moved to hospice. She didn’t cry but would repeat, “Jesus, kill me. Jesus, kill me.” She would answer questions very quickly, then would take to repeating her mantra again.
I was mad at someone—just whom I did not know—and was a bit short with the nurse. She wore pastel scrubs and played tapes of Gregorian chanting for Granny, which irritated me.
“Is there something else you could play?” I asked.
“Mrs. Hartley seems to like the chanting,” she said, tilting her head so that I saw my dim reflection in her thick glasses. “But I’ll see if I can find something.”
I kept praying for healing, one way or the other. Granny was mostly asleep now, with her face sunken and yellowish, her feet hugely swollen, black and bandaged, and her nose more prominent than ever.
I wanted to know that she would be in a better place. That all her pain would be gone. I asked my mother if Granny had ever been baptized.
“When she was 52. It was a revival at Wildwood Baptist Church. She realized that she couldn’t tithe, so she walked 3 miles there every Sunday to keep the nursery.”
I tried to dissect this. So, she felt moved enough to offer some sort of tithe. Maybe she was “saved.”
One day, I walked into the room, noting that the Gregorian chanting was gone. In its place, ocean waves lapped the shore from the small CD player in the corner. The nurse told me that Granny had scabies, and they had to put oven mitts on her hands to keep her from scratching herself bloody in her sleep.
I drew closer to the bed. Granny’s face was still, her mouth was slightly open, but her hands moved restlessly below her navel.
Then I noticed the mitts. Sunflowers burst from their middle, and they were edged in black and white squares. I thought back to the mat. I wouldn’t let myself cry. “Go in peace,” I told her. “When you see Jesus, just take his hand.”
Someone came in behind me. I turned to see Uncle Billy, but I said nothing. He noticed the mitts, and tears formed in his eyes.
“She’ll be past all that soon,” I told him.
Then I walked out of the room.
Mary Eileen Ball lives in the Deep South with her husband and young son.