Photo by Laura De Vos on Unsplash
My grandmother is in the hospital. Two weeks ago, on a Saturday, she lay down in the middle of the afternoon to take a nap. She was asleep for almost an hour, and when she awoke, she didn’t recognize her surroundings. I told her she was in her bedroom in the apartment she shares with my parents, my brother, and me. She’s eighty years old and has been living with us for the past five years since her hip replacement. At first, I thought Grandma was playing a game with me, but when she didn’t remember that I was Louise, her fourteen-year-old granddaughter, and she continued to look at me with this hollow stare, I told my mother and she called Grandma’s doctor. He put her in the hospital later that afternoon.
The following Monday, the doctor called my mother to say they did an EKG and it showed Grandma had a mild stroke. Since she’s been in the hospital, they’ve switched her heart medication several times, and now she’s doing well and expected to be discharged in a few days.
I’ve been going to the hospital every day after school since Grandma was admitted. As soon as I walk into her room, I toss my bookbag onto the empty chair and sit next to her on the bed. Grandma stretches out her arms to hug me and gives me a big kiss. “How was school?” she asks.
I tell her about what I’m learning, the experiments I’m working on in science, and the marks I get on my tests and quizzes, but I don’t tell her about the girls who bully me because I don’t want to upset her. If Grandma were okay, I’d tell her everything. I’d tell her that Sandra and Noreen and Jennifer and Jayda call me shortie and four-eyes, smack the top of my head, and snatch my glasses off my face. Earlier this week, Noreen pulled my glasses by an arm so hard, they broke.
When my mother asked what had happened, I told her I sat on them. I didn’t want to tell her about the bullies because she’d say that I should have told my teacher or the Assistant Principal, and she would have scolded me for not sticking up for myself.
Grandma always listens and tries to help find solutions to my problems. Last year, in seventh grade, my math teacher began calling on me when my hand wasn’t raised, and I felt embarrassed because I didn’t know the answers.
Grandma suggested I raise my hand when I didn’t know the answers. Her idea worked for a while, and now my teacher’s gone back to calling on me when I know the answers and raise my hand. When I saw my teacher doing the same thing to my friend Diana, I told Diana what Grandma had advised me to do.
The bullies started bothering me a few weeks before Grandma entered the hospital. They know they can taunt me about being the shortest girl in my class, and even though Joey, Dillon, and Garrett also wear glasses, I’m the only girl in the class who does. I figure the girls bother me because they know I’m an easy mark, that I’m not going to fight back or report them. I tried to buy their friendships by bringing them some red licorice, and another time I bought them grape bubble gum. I was going to talk to Grandma about them, but then she had the stroke. I stopped buying treats for them two weeks ago because I wanted to spend my money on Grandma, and that’s when the bullying worsened. Now they try to take my money, so I keep it in my shoe and tell them I don’t have any. They grab my bookbag, take out my change purse, and unzip it, anyway. When they see there’s no money inside, they dump my books and papers onto the street. I pick up my stuff and keep walking. Eventually, when they realize I’m not reacting, maybe they’ll stop bullying me and find a more interesting target.
There’s a florist near the hospital, and every day on my way to see Grandma, I stop in and buy a different colored long-stemmed rose. The owner, Mr. Feldman, is stout with a full head of curly grey hair, round wire-rimmed glasses, and a little belly that hangs over his belt.
“Each day you buy a rose. I’m curious, who are you buying them for?” he asked as he wrapped a beautiful peach one. I told him the flowers are for Grandma, that she is in the hospital. I took the two dollars and fifty cents from my shoe and put it on the counter.
“From now on, I’m only going to charge you one dollar,” he said, taking a dollar from the counter and putting it in the pocket of his khaki slacks.
“You’re a good girl,” he said. “I have to beg my grandkids to see them. They’re always busy with their friends. I’m giving you some Baby’s Breath to keep the rose company,” he said, handing me the wrapped flower with the top open so I could see the bouquet.
“Thanks, Mr. Feldman. My grandma’s going to love it.”
“I’m expecting lavender roses any day,” he said as I walked toward the door.
“She’ll like those,” I said. “Lavender is her favorite color.”
A few days later, while my parents were out to dinner with friends, and my brother and I were watching Star Trek reruns, the phone rang.
“This is Doctor Rubin,” the voice at the other end said. “Is this Elizabeth Murphy?”
“She’s not here,” I said. “This is her daughter, Louise. Would you like to leave a message?”
There was silence for a few seconds as if the doctor were trying to decide whether he should tell me why he was calling.
“How old are you, Louise?” he asked.
“Is there anyone else at home with you?”
“How old is he?”
“I see. It’s nice you’re so close in age. Tell your mother to call me tonight when she gets home. It’s important. Goodnight, Louise.”
I wrote down the number Dr. Rubin gave me, and when my parents came home, I immediately told my mother the doctor had called. She looked at the grandfather clock in the living room. It was 9:30 p.m. “He said you should call him tonight,” I said.
My mother sat down in the chair by the phone, and my father, brother, and I sat on the nearby couch.
“This can’t be good news,” my mother said. “Dr. Rubin wouldn’t call in the evening, unless it was important.”
I watched my mother pick up the receiver and punch in his number. I could hear a male voice answer at the other end.
“Dr. Rubin?” my mother asked.
“This is Elizabeth Murphy. My daughter said you called earlier.”
After a few seconds, my mother became still, and her eyes had a pained stare. My father walked over to her, and she reached for his arm. I heard the doctor talking, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. Then, my mother started crying, and between sobs, she gasped, “No! How could this be? She was coming home.”
When she got off the phone, my mother turned to face my brother and me.
“Children, I have some sad news,” she said. “I hate telling you this, but Grandma died earlier tonight. She had a cardiac arrest and the doctors revived her. Seconds later, she had another, but this time, they couldn’t save her. She wasn’t in pain and passed quickly. Grandma loved you both so much, and you made her incredibly happy.” My mother was quiet for a few seconds, and then, “Dad and I will make the funeral arrangements tomorrow. We’ll need to contact the relatives,” she said, looking at my father. “The service will probably be the following day.”
I looked at my brother, Scott. He was crying. I turned to my father and saw that he was trying to hold back tears and be strong for my mother. I had heard my mother’s words. I understood that I’d never see Grandma again, but I couldn’t bring myself to cry. I said goodnight to my family and headed toward my room, but stopped at Grandma’s room, first. I turned on the light and looked around. Everything was just as Grandma had left it before she was admitted to the hospital. I saw her baby blue slippers on the floor in front of her bed and a rolled-up tissue on her nightstand. The housedress she was wearing the afternoon she lay down to take a nap was hanging from the hook on her closet. I sat down on her bed and imagined she was sleeping. I bent down to kiss her and caught myself. I couldn’t believe she was gone. I had never known anyone die who was close to me. What would my life be like without her? Grandma was everything to me—not only was she Grandma, but she was also my mother and best friend. Grandma understood me, accepted me as I was, and loved me, unconditionally.
I opened the drawer of her nightstand and removed a cotton handkerchief that she had been embroidering. It had her smell. I took it to bed with me, and that night, clutching the handkerchief, I cried myself to sleep.
When I awoke the next morning, my first conscious thought was that Grandma had died. I remembered my mother’s wailing the night before. I dressed quickly and went into the kitchen. My mother was sitting at the table drinking coffee. She looked tired. Her eyes were red, and their usual sparkle was missing.
“I want to go to the funeral parlor with you and Daddy,” I said.
“No. This does not involve children.”
“But I want to help.”
“The funeral home is no place for children,” she said. “We’re going to look at caskets, and I’m going to bring the clothes Grandma will be buried in. Don’t worry. You’re not going to miss anything. I wish I didn’t have to do this.”
“Take Grandma’s black-and-white checked dress. The one with the missing fake diamonds,” I said.
“I will do no such thing,” she said, dismissively. “I’m not going to bury my mother in an old, worn dress that is missing anything!”
“But Grandma looked beautiful in that dress, and it was her favorite. The missing diamonds didn’t bother her. She said if anyone ever looked down at her because of the buttons, she’d tell them the buttons had been beautiful with decorative plastic insets cut to look like diamonds. She’d tell them her grandchildren picked out the 'diamonds' when they were very young, and she couldn’t bring herself to part with the dress.”
My mother sighed and pulled her robe tightly around herself. “I’ll decide what she’ll wear. She’ll look elegant,” she said, putting a bowl and a glass of orange juice in front of me. “Have some breakfast. It’s almost time for you to leave for school.”
That afternoon after school, I went to Mr. Feldman’s shop.
“The lavender roses arrived this morning,” he said, gesturing to a bucket in the refrigerator.
“They’re beautiful,” I said. “I want to buy six. Could you add some Baby’s Breath? My grandma died last night.”
“Oh, Louise. I’m so sorry,” Mr. Feldman said, reaching out to grasp my hand. “I’ll make a beautiful bouquet. Where should I send it?”
I gave him the name and address of the funeral home and took a “thinking of you” card from the stand near the register.
“Dear Grandma,” I wrote.
“I will always love you. XOXO, Louise.”
I gave Mr. Feldman the card and my $6.00.
He read what I wrote, then raised his head and looked into my eyes. “I know this must be hard for you. The flowers will be at the funeral home tomorrow morning by 10:00 a.m.,” he said, gently.
“Don’t forget me, Louise. Stop in and say hello, sometime.”
“I will, Mr. Feldman. I promise.”
When I awakened the following morning, I put on my gold dress with the multicolored sash around the waist, my navy cardigan, and my dressy patent leather loafers.
“Is there something special at school today?” my mother asked when I sat down at the kitchen table for breakfast.
“Then why are you dressed up?”
“For the funeral.”
“You and Scott aren’t going.”
“But I want to go.”
“You’re too young to go to a funeral, Louise. You and Scott will go to school, and we’ll be back by the time you get home.”
“I want to go,” I repeated. “I want to say goodbye to Grandma.”
“It’s no place for you.”
“But I didn’t get to say goodbye. I want to see her one more time before she’s in the ground.”
“No, Louise. End of discussion.”
“I hate you,” I yelled and went to tell my brother the news.
“I don’t want to go to the funeral anyway,” Scott said. “I’m scared to see Grandma dead. I want to remember her the way she was.”
“I want to go, but Mom won’t let me,” I said. I left his room and went to mine. I opened the box where I kept them and examined the shiny pieces of plastic Scott and I had pried out of the small black buttons that ran down the front of Grandma’s dress when I was about seven and he was six.
“Are these real diamonds?” I asked Grandma.
She smiled. “Of course, Louise. They’re real fake diamonds.”
I thought about what she had said. Something didn’t make sense, but I couldn’t figure out what.
I remembered my brother standing before Grandma and exclaiming, “Real diamonds! We’re going to be rich.” Then he picked one out of a button with a pencil and examined it carefully as if he were inspecting an insect he had found in the park. “I’m going to take all these diamonds to the bank. I’ll probably get a million or a billion dollars,” he said, looking deeply serious, his blue eyes wide open and fixed on Grandma. He was looking at her in the same way he had looked at the Mount Sinai Hospital doctor when he was five and going to have his tonsils removed. The doctor had asked Scott if he had ever been in a hospital before. Scott looked up at him and said, seriously, as if the doctor wasn’t too bright, “Yes, doctor. I have.”
“When was that?”
“When I was born,” he said, still staring at the doctor.
I removed two of the diamonds from my box, returned to the kitchen, and put them in a sandwich bag.
“Put these in the coffin, please,” I said, and handed my mother the bag.
My mother shook her head. “Oh, Louise. Why?”
“I can’t explain,” I said. “Grandma will understand.”
My mother looked at the bag and shook her head, again. “Okay. I’ll do it.”
“I said I would.”
At school, I told my friends, Arlene and Tracey, that my grandmother’s funeral was today.
“Why aren’t you there?” Arlene asked.
“My mother wouldn’t let me go.”
“Why?” Tracey asked.
“I’m too young.”
“I was only five when my uncle died, and I went to his funeral,” Tracey said.
“I really wanted to go. I begged my mother, but she still said no.”
“My mother says a person is never too young to go to a funeral,” Arlene said. “She took my baby brother in his carriage to my cousin’s funeral. She says funerals are occasions to celebrate the people who have died, and no one is too young to attend.”
Throughout the day, I had difficulty concentrating on my classwork. During math, I glanced at my watch. It was 11:00. I knew the funeral had begun. I closed my eyes. “I love you, Grandma,” I said quietly to myself. “I’m sorry I’m not there with you.”
At lunch, I asked Arlene and Tracey about what happens at a funeral.
“People go up to the coffin to pay their respects,” Tracey said. “Sometimes the coffin is open, and they look at the body. If it’s closed, maybe they say a prayer. There’s lots of prayers at a funeral, and people read passages from the Bible,” she explained.
“And the priest, family members, and friends talk about the dead person,” Arlene added. “Sometimes people tell jokes. There’s lots of crying.”
When I got home from school, my parents were sitting in the living room, my mother still wearing her black dress and crying heavily into a tissue, my father still in his black suit and tie.
“We just got home a short time ago,” my father said.
“How was it?” I asked.
“Very touching. Grandma looked beautiful. So peaceful,” my mother said between sobs.
“Did my roses arrive?” I asked.
“Yes. Gorgeous,” my mother said. “How did you afford them?”
“The florist charged me one dollar for each rose. I only bought six.”
“Six? There must have been at least thirty long-stemmed, lavender roses in a large purple vase with a beautiful pink bow.”
“Was my card there?”
“Yes, I saw a little card snuggled amidst the roses.”
“Did you put the diamonds in the coffin?” I asked.
“No, Louise. I forgot.”
“I wanted the diamonds to be with her. You promised, Mom.”
“I’m sorry. Sorry I forgot to put two little pieces of plastic into Grandma’s coffin.”
“You wouldn’t let me go to the funeral. Then, you forgot to do the one thing I asked. I can’t stand you,” I screamed. “I told Tracey and Arlene that you wouldn’t let me go to the funeral and they couldn’t believe it.”
“I don’t care what they think. They’re children. If their mothers feel it’s appropriate for fourteen-year-old girls to experience death at their age, that’s their business.”
In the first two months after Grandma’s death, my mother was very depressed. She would often spend time fiddling with Grandma’s letters, pictures, and belongings.
One afternoon, when she was going through Grandma’s closet, I asked her what she planned to do with Grandma’s dresses.
“The ones in good condition, I’ll send to her nieces in Hungary,” she said. “The cotton housedresses I’ll cut up and use for rags.”
“I want to keep Grandma’s black and white dress with the missing diamonds,” I said.
“That dress will never fit you.”
“I don’t want to wear it. Just want to keep it as a memento.” I walked to the open closet, took the dress off the hanger, and buried my face in it. “It smells like Grandma,” I said, aloud, then laid the dress on Grandma’s bed. I folded the arms inward and the bottom upward as if I were folding a shirt and put the dress in a plastic bag to contain and preserve Grandma’s smell. Then I placed the bag in the bottom drawer of my bureau, with my jeans.
A week after the funeral, on my way to the cemetery, I stopped in Mr. Feldman’s shop. “So good to see you, Louise,” he said, when I walked in. “How are you doing?”
“Okay. Miss my grandma a lot. I’m going to the cemetery. Want to buy a rose.”
“Lavender?” he asked, walking to the refrigerator.
Mr. Feldman removed a partially opened lavender rose from a bucket and brought it to the counter. “Take this,” he said, reaching for a white conical shaped plastic container from a shelf behind him. “It’s a grave cone vase. Put in your rose, a little water, and insert the spike into the dirt. The vase will keep the flower upright.”
“Great. What do I owe you?”
“Same as always,” he said. “One dollar.”
“Thanks, Mr. Feldman. Thanks for everything. See you soon.”
Since then, I’ve visited the cemetery several times during the past few months, and before each visit, I go to Mr. Feldman’s shop to buy a lavender rose. When he doesn’t have any lavender ones, I get a peach or yellow one.
I’m still angry at my mother for not letting me participate in the funeral arrangements and for not allowing me to attend the funeral. I will never tell her that on that day when I went to the cemetery for the first time, I dug a hole and buried the two diamonds at the base of Grandma’s headstone.