by Megan Harris
“Behold, I send an angel before thee, to keep thee by the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared.”
I’m 17, it is June 2004, and I’m spending the summer working at the Crawford County Joint Vocational School in Meadville, Pennsylvania. The school is a block away from my grandparents’ house on Alden Avenue. When I was younger, I used to think their house was a mansion. It has a giant sunroom with floor to ceiling windows and a massive prism glass window facing into the living room. The inside has crystal chandeliers and the hardwood floors of the rooms are separated by lovely French doors. Up the oak stairs are three bedrooms and a bathroom that looks like it came out of a catalog in the 19th Century. I’m in love with their mansion house and the idea of living there for a summer even though now I realize that it is, in fact, not a mansion.
A few years before my sister, Heather, and I got this summer job, my family found out that my grandfather had lung cancer. He beat every “six month” prognosis his oncologist had given him but despite fighting he became weaker and frailer as the years went by. At this point he is almost as thin as me with many fist-sized lumps sticking out from behind his hospice robe. They look as if they’re trying to break through his thin and ghostly skin like he is birthing aliens. Sometimes I have to look down when he walks by so I do not have to see them.
I love him but have always been afraid of him. When I was younger, I never really saw him. He was nothing but a featureless black shadow moving from the upstairs to the kitchen, then out the door, and off to work at the Ford dealership. When I did see him, on holidays usually, I was afraid to kiss him because he had a prickly mustache and I was afraid to hug him because he towered over me. Now it is the opposite. Now I am afraid to break him because he is as fragile as an infant. I am scared that if I hold his hand too tight or hug him I will fracture each one of his bones.
The only intimate act that I can bring myself to do is to hold his travel oxygen tank when he takes a walk up and down the road a couple of days a week. Heather, who is younger but stronger, stands close by just in case he slips and falls. On these walks he talks about what he will do when he gets better. He will take us golfing. See me graduate. He wants to watch us get married. He wants to meet our future children. He is going to see Heather play golf professionally and he is going to see me be published. He convinces himself so well that he almost convinces me. But I realize they are not plans but they are regrets. As we turn at the corner of Alden Avenue to make a second lap he says, “I am so proud to have two beautiful granddaughters.”
“You’ll see,” he continues, “When I beat this, I’ll make up for lost time.”
My grandfather was in the Army in World War II. On the mantle over the fire place there is a youthful picture of him wearing his Army jacket standing by a tractor. His smiling dark eyes look past his thick Irish nose and at me as I sit in the living room. I’m staring at the picture when my grandfather moans in pain, “Megan, pick up that Bible.”
I am startled. He points at the end table that houses a Bible from the 1880s, the only one in the house. I am apprehensive but reach down to grab it. It feels like just the dust on it alone weighs as much as me. I open up the front cover and it hangs sad and tattered on the side.
“Which passage?” I ask, staring down at the many tiny words, a bit confused about how this works.
“Any one,” he says, his eyes glazing as if he is going to began crying. I open to the middle of the Bible where the binding bends naturally and pick the passage that my finger is touching. I’ve never been particularly religious so I do not know exactly what I am reading, but there is something about an angel in it. My grandfather begins to cry and I start crying but I keep reading through the tears and blurred verse.
“That is enough, dear.” His gruff voice is now softened with the weight of sadness. He reaches for my hand and I extend it to him. “You are a saint,” he starts to cry even harder, “don’t let anyone ever tell you different.”
I put the Bible back into its place and excuse myself from the room. I turn into the foyer, rush up the stairs, and turn into the bathroom to vomit. Despite my grandmother’s pleas, I never come back down the stairs that day. I sit in her room and stare out the window at the Meadville neighborhood foliage until the early summer sun sets.
We’re on another walk and there is a slight July breeze. Grandfather wants to go farther this time and we look at the trees and bushes lining the neighborhood. I try but can’t imagine a world he is not in. We’re on this road of decrepit red brick, and as a cool breeze brushes by us my grandfather starts to cry. Between the tears, he whispers, “It is so beautiful out.”
A few days later we learn that my mother is coming to take my sister and me home for the few days we have off of work. My mother and I never had the most perfect of relationships, and my grandfather warns me to be kind to my mother. I promise to try without arguing with him. He smiles and his sick eyes look as youthful as those eyes in the picture on the mantle.
“When are you going to let me read some of your writing?” he asks.
“Soon.” I smile with a tinge of doubt in my voice.
My mother arrives with my younger brother and the Meadville mansion-house seems pleasant for a while but suddenly a switch is flipped. My mother starts harassing me in a vulgar way about how I am dressed, how ugly I am, and how no one will ever love me. Her unprovoked insults lead to her walking in to the kitchen where I am hiding from the confrontation. As she moves closer I start to yell back, “Why are you always so mean to me? What did I do wrong?”
My mom raises her hand to hit me and my grandfather screams, “Cindy, sit down! I cannot believe I raised someone who is so horrible to her own daughter.”
My mother shoots a glare at me and then stomps outside of the house to have a cigarette. When she is out of earshot my grandfather looks at my siblings and I and says, “Don’t you ever start doing that. You’ll end up like me.”
On the way home my mother yells at me, “You made my father hate me, you cunt.” She stops the car up the road and reaches behind her seat and starts to hit me over and over again. I try hard not to cry and I wish that my grandfather was in the car to save me.
I go for a walk alone because my grandfather has become much too weak for walks outside. It is August and school is about to start and the summer job of packing summer camp lunches is slowly winding down. I’m listening to my CD player and I head down the brick road we had walked on in July, turning down the hill onto some crumbling stone stairs leading to Shady Brook Park. Sitting on a park bench overlooking a creek where children are catching crayfish with their mother, I close my eyes. I can’t stop thinking about the past three months and what will happen in the next three months. Cancer, my grandfather, school, my mother, my mind. I feel overwhelmed. All I want to do is pick myself up off of this park bench and run out of this park and out of my life.
My grandmother falls one day after coming home from the store. Grandfather drags himself from his hospice bed in the living room to her side on the floor of the sun room. My sister and I are shaken and cannot think of what to do when my grandfather garbles out, “Get the phone.”
I dial 911 before I hand it to him, but when someone picks up he is crying too hard to form words. I take the phone and with my voice shaking I try to speak as clearly and as quickly as possible: “251 Alden Avenue in Meadville. Send an ambulance, my grandmother Norma McCormick has fallen. She can’t get up; it looks like she’s broken something.”
When the EMTs arrive and drive away with her and my sister, who had decided to go along, I help my grandfather back to his bed. When I sit him down and take the floor next to him trying to untangle and organize his oxygen tubes, he looks down on me with tears running from his eyes.
“I cheated on your grandmother.”
I stare at him. Before today, I had heard stories from my mom of his cheating but I believed they were only rumors. Now that I hear the words as truth, all I feel is bewildered. I cannot form words to respond as my brain tries to comprehend the situation.
“I cheated all the way up to the cancer. Even past it for a while. But she stuck by me, I don’t deserve it.”
I put my eyes to the floor and try not to cry, but most of all I try not to see him cry. He seems like a sad child full of guilt. I don’t know how to be maternal. I’m only a child myself. I’m only seventeen.
He speaks again, “God forgive me. Please don’t hate me, Megan. Forgive me.”
I hold his hands and look him in the eyes and speak with a confidence that I never had before, not even sure of what I was saying or why, “You made a mistake. You are only human. No one can judge you for that and I believe that if God is everything everyone says he is he will forgive you.”
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die… a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up”
Months go by and because we live so far away from my grandparents, I never get the chance to see them. We get a call from my grandmother in November, the day after my birthday, My grandfather is dying.
He looks even thinner than me as I stand over him in his hospice bed. I’m 85 pounds and I try not to think about how much he weighs. How much he weighs without the gigantic tumors.
“Say goodbye to your grandfather,” my mother says and points at his unconscious body from the yellow Victorian chair next to his bed. My sister crosses her arms and rolls her eyes as she lets out an impatient sigh.
I become meek and grab his hand lightly as if it were as fragile as the old Bible. I put my other palm on the top of his head and wipe away the cold sweat that is collecting on his forehead, “Goodbye. I love you.”
The day of his viewing I feel intense sickness as if my heart has exploded into a million microscopic shards and is slowly cutting deeper and deeper into my stomach. I sit up on my grandparents’ blue bed staring despondently and shivering from invisible cold as my aunt curls my hair and puts heavy globs of makeup on me.
“Look how lovely you look with a little rouge.” She holds a compact mirror up to my face. My lips are in a soft scarlet pout and my eyes try desperately to recognize the heavily painted stranger in front of them.
“Grandpa would be so proud of how pretty you look right now.” My aunt wipes some mascara from my eye that seemed to have missed its mark. I want to cry but I fear I will be yelled at for letting my makeup run. When she moves on to my sister, I let myself fall back on to the bed.
While holding my sister’s hair into a blond curl, she scolds me, “Don’t mess up your hair, missy!”
Heather looks around at me, “She probably has PMS.” she laughs, “Megan is so fragile, you know?” I look at them but say nothing. Instead I turn my head to the window and listen to the November rain tap against the lattice window.
Before we leave I walk by the kitchen and hear my mother say, “I’m so glad those oxygen tanks are gone.” As I turn around to look at her I see her hand my brother a cigarette.
I can’t help myself and I start to cry, “Oh, Jesus Christ! He just died from this! Can you be any more disrespectful?” I run over to take the cigarette out from my brother’s hand and throw it in the sink.
My mother’s blood shot eyes narrow on me, “Grow up, Megan. Ryan is not your responsibility and he is not your son. You stupid bitch.”
In the casket my grandfather looks almost as smothered in makeup as me with his once translucent skin now tanned and healthy. I half expect him to sit up and tell us that the cancer was all some elaborate joke. I can smell nothing but death. It gets caught in my nose and I want so badly to sneeze or cough but I know I will vomit. My mother motions for me to grab my grandfather’s hand but I refuse. I do not want to compare the living touch with the dead.
My grandmother is standing like a cracked pillar close to the coffin receiving hugs and sympathy. She does not look sad or happy; she just looks blank, like her face is frozen in between these two emotions. I strain my eyes to catch a tear in hers but see nothing. I feel like I am gazing on to a lifeless statue of Saint Catherine. On either side of her my aunt and my mom are slouching with their painted faces melting in tears. In this moment I feel my family collapsing in on it self, like the cancer was a temporary beam that kept us up. Now that it was gone I could feel us caving in.
I sit back on the Victorian lounge tucked in the corner of the room and trace the paisley design of the fabric with my finger. A knot begins to tighten in my stomach and my invisible doodles begin to fall from the patterns. Black water stars to drip onto my hand. I’m crying and for a moment I look up at the casket, then heave forward vomiting all over the parquet floor in front of me.
I vomit out regrets. Regrets of my grandfather, regrets of mine. I regret not ever reading to him the poetry and stories I have written. I regret not ever golfing with him, not kissing him nor hugging him. I regret saying goodbye. As I’m carried out of the funeral parlor by hands belonging to people I cannot recall, I feel like my grandfather is there trying to comfort me as I have done for him.
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”
When I am alone today, though years later, I wonder if he is still with me. If he reads my writing over my shoulder and if he saw me graduate after all. Does he walk the halls of that Alden Avenue house watching over his wife? Does he take care of me when I am sick? I wonder where he is and if he cares that I don’t have faith. I wonder if there is any truth to that verse I read and if he thinks I am brave for running away from my family that had become nothing but misplaced broken pieces. But most of all I wonder if he is still proud of me and if in his eyes I am still a saint.
Megan Harris is a student at YSU studying History. She has previously published poetry in Ascent Aspirations, Penguin Review, and Birmingham Arts Journal.