I buttoned the last button on my sea-foam green shirt. Luckily for me, it was one of the shirts that my grandmother had ironed the night before. It was a little too tight around my shoulders and about two inches too short to stay tucked into my pants, but it was good enough for school, plus, it matched perfectly with the blue and green tie that was draped around my shoulders. I opened my closet to grab the light blue pair of pants that went so well with the rest of the outfit. I stepped out of my closet as a knock sounded from the other side of the door. I knew it was either my brother or my mom, so I didn’t care that I wasn’t wearing pants.
“Yeah?” I answered.
My mother opened the door enough for her to respect my privacy but still enough that I could see her face. Her eyes were puffy and her voice was soft, exactly how she was every morning after she just got up.
“Can I come in?” She spoke in a quiet tone filled with grogginess.
I decided to tease her a bit because she was never that polite about coming into my room when I was only in my boxers.
I mimicked her drowsy voice, “No, no, no. You cannot come in.” I smiled at my own silliness as my mom came in anyway.
She looked up at me and my smile instantly fled. She wasn’t groggy. She wasn’t drowsy. She had been crying.
“Grandma died last night,” she choked.
My first reaction was to hug and comfort my mom. I knew how close she was to her mother. We were all close to her. She lived next-door to us, so around eleven o’clock every day she would shuffle down the sidewalk in her little slippers and quietly walk into our house. When I say little slippers, I mean little slippers.
The woman was five-foot-two and barely a hundred pounds. Every evening at dinner she would yell at my father for how much food he would put on her plate when she asked for a spoonful of potatoes, or carrots, or peas. Truthfully, the helpings were barely large enough to fill me up when I was nine. She had your stereotypical short, white grandma-hair and a thin pair of glasses that she was always afraid of losing but never did. After she would shuffle her way to our house, she would put on her headphones and turn on the AM radio that she kept in her pocket so that she could listen to the local news station while she did our chores. She would empty our dishwasher, fold and put away our laundry, and then sweep the kitchen floor. She would even leave five dollar bills on my dresser for me to find after she left for the night. I never thanked her for those.
I held my mom for a brief minute or two and then come to the sudden realization that she wasn’t crying. She wasn’t the one that needed comforted, I was. The minute I realized this I started to sob uncontrollably.
“I saw her last night,” were the only words that I could manage to say.
I got home from practice the night before in the usual bitter mood. When you’re on a rowing team in March, things aren’t exactly at their best. Practice would be from 5:30 until 8:00 in temperatures that are forty-five degrees or below, so when practice ends it’s already dark and cold and, because it takes almost an hour to get home, when I finally did it would be darker and colder. So now, because it’s 8:30, I have less than an hour and a half to eat, shower, do two hours’ worth of homework, and get ready for practice the next day because getting your daily eight and a half is the only way I would survive school tomorrow. This was especially frustrating because I never had time to iron the balled-up dress shirts that came out of my gym bag earlier that week. Time and time again, my grandma would offer to do it, but I always refused because it wasn’t her responsibility. I should have to take care of myself.
Anyway, like any other night, I came home and burst through the door, bitter and crabby. After I closed the door, dropped my bags, and began to plan the rest of the night, the door behind me opened and a little woman in slippers holding eighteen freshly ironed shirts was standing there looking up at me with a tiny grin on her face.
My grandmother laughed her usual raspy, lung-congested laugh and said, “I ironed all of them for you so you wouldn’t have to worry.”
I smiled, thanked her quickly, and took the shirts. Truthfully, I only wore about four of those eighteen shirts, but I still appreciated the thought. A gesture like this was so typical of her, I really didn’t think twice about it. She came in and chatted with my mom in the kitchen over a glass of wine while I ran around upstairs trying to get my work done so I could get to sleep on time.
Five hours later the blood vessels in her lungs ruptured from the pressure of the mucus and sputum that was built up in her airways due to an illness called bronchiectasis. Her right lung began to fill with blood and no matter how much of it she coughed up, the blood continued to fill the lung until she became asphyxiated and slowly but painfully stopped breathing. Six hours after that, I would learn all of it before I put pants on.
I became painfully aware that I was standing in the middle of my room holding my mom and sobbing while wearing nothing but a shirt and underwear. It occurred to me how ridiculous I looked.
Trying to choke back tears so that I could talk normally I said, “I’m going to put pants on.”
“Okay,” my mom replied. “Are you going to be okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay,” I answered. I wasn’t.
I finally put on my pants and continued my morning routine because it was the only thing that I knew how to do. When I came downstairs to eat breakfast, my mom informed me that she had arranged for me to come into school late. Any high school sophomore would jump at the chance to miss a little bit of their school day. I wasn’t exactly jumping.
I got to school during my second period. I sat in the art room and drew the same line over and over again, erasing it just to draw it again. When I went to Chemistry the following period, I was relieved to remember that the kid who sat in front of me was twice my size in both directions so it was virtually impossible to see me behind him. The teacher usually forgot I was there. Just when I was about to get into a comfortable and hidden position to fall asleep and forget for a while, a student with a note from our Assistant Principal’s office came in looking for me. I was being called to the principal’s office. I was never called to the principal’s office.
When I got to the office, I walked in and saw our vice-principal, Mr. Bernot, a tall bald-headed man (or did he shave his head purposely?) who had a passion for following the rules. If you followed the rules, you were always good in his book. I was also surprised to see my brother sitting in one of the two chairs in front of the desk. He looked about as gleeful as I did. The person that surprised me even more was standing behind our principal: Dr. Petrone, the school’s therapist. I suddenly knew why I had been called into the office that day.
“Have a seat Mr. Volosky.” Mr. Bernot motioned toward the only empty chair in front of his desk. I sat down next to my brother who half-grinned at me as I rested in the chair. “Now, I don’t know if you gentleman are familiar with Dr. Petrone, but he is part of our support services here at Central Catholic.” Mr. Bernot motioned to Dr. Petrone as he stepped forward and sat on the front corner of the desk. He looked exactly how one would think a psychologist looks. He was balding (definitely no shaving there), he wore thick black glasses, and had an impressive assortment of sweater-vests.
“Now boys,” Dr. Petrone started, “I understand that you guys had a loss in the family recently. Your grandmother?”
My brother and I nodded in unison. The air of the room suddenly felt awkward and I could tell that my brother felt it too.
“Was it unexpected?” Mr. Bernot asked.
I looked at my brother to see who would answer. He stared back blankly and I could tell that it was going to be me.
“Yeah, we saw her last night.”
“Wow…” the two adults replied, both trailing off. There was an uncomfortable beat.
Dr. Petrone picked it back up, “You boys should know that Central Catholic has many resources that we offer to students who need help in times that their lives become complicated. Please don’t be afraid to come talk to me whenever you need some extra help or if you just want to say ‘hi.’”
Dr. Petrone seemed like a remarkably nice guy. He always had a content smile on his face and the students who knew him never hesitated to say “hi” when they saw him in the hallway, whether they were walking past him or heading up a stairwell and saw him far below on another landing. I wanted to be that friendly with him but not now. Not under those circumstances.
My brother and I both said “thank you” to Dr. Petrone’s offer and were excused. We stepped outside the office.
“That was weird,” my brother said, trying to force out a chuckle.
“Yeah, really,” I replied, faking a smile. We both stood there and looked at each other for an uncomfortable minute. Before we went our separate ways back to class, I gave him a pat on the shoulder for one reason or another. Maybe it helped him, or maybe I wanted to feel like it helped him.
When the final bell rang that day, I picked through my locker and got whatever I needed to get out of school as quickly as possible. I don’t know why I was rushing home. I didn’t want to be home because I knew that she wouldn’t be there. I closed my eyes and slept the entire way to my house.
My brother and I didn’t say a word when we got home. My dad was sitting in his armchair when we walked in. I had never seen him cry but I could tell that he had been. The television was off and he was just staring forward. He stood up when we walked in and hugged us as we entered. Displaying emotions with my father was always an uncomfortable experience, but I knew that this is what families did when an important member passes. He smelt of his usual musk of Brylcreem and beer. His embrace was so warm and comforting that I wanted to let out the tears I had been holding in all day. When I remembered that this embrace was with my father, I became uncomfortable again and held the tears in.
“I love you guys,” he said in my ear.
“Um. I love you too, Dad.” The sentence came out awkwardly, and I cringed at my inability to show affection toward my father. After he let go, I slowly went up to my room where I spent the rest of the night failing to distract myself from what was happening downstairs.
I knew that my mom was on the phone with either her brothers or her aunts or any of the number of people that you call when you are organizing a funeral. Unfortunately, the planning was thrown upon her because she was the closest to my grandma. She was the youngest of four kids and the only girl. One brother, my Uncle Bill, was a police officer who lived about half an hour away, and another brother, Dan, lived in Illinois. They would both be knocking at our door in the next couple of days. Her third brother would not.
When I was about eight years old, I used to sit on the first step of the stairway to the second floor of my grandmother’s house. I would doodle on a yellow legal pad that my grandma would keep in the same place for me when I felt like drawing. I used to sit there for hours trying to draw superheroes over and over again.
Every now and then, she would come and check on what I was drawing and say, “You’re just like your Uncle Tony. He loved to draw. He was such a good boy.” My mom always got quiet and changed the subject when she would say that to me.
That night, I heard the phone ring and my mother’s groggy voice answer it. She didn’t know that I was still awake because she stood outside my bedroom door and had the volume on the phone loud enough that I was able to make out the whole conversation.
“Joanne?” the voice asked.
“Who is this?”
“It’s Tony,” the voice replied
“Who?” my mom asked, both confused and frustrated.
“Tony…,” he repeated. “Your brother.”
“Oh.” I expected my mom to say something after this but she was silent.
“I heard about mom,” Tony said. “I just wanted to say that I’m sorry.”
“Okay,” my mom said. Still nothing more than a word.
“I won’t be able to make it to the funeral. I’m sorry. I have to go now though. Goodbye, Joanne.” Tony rushed out these last words because I think he could feel my mother already growing weary of the conversation. He was right. Without saying another word, I heard the electronic beep of the phone hanging up and my mom slamming it down on the charging dock.
My mother hadn’t the faintest idea that I heard the whole thing. After she went downstairs, I closed my bedroom door and sat on the floor, leaning up against the side of my bed with a blanket my grandma had made for me wrapped around my shoulders. I sat there for a while, crying and cursing God. He never said anything back.
Through my teary eyes, I noticed my alarm clock turn from 11:59 to 12:00. That miserable day had ended but I didn’t feel any better. I actually felt worse. Not because it was the first of many days without my grandmother, but because right then I remembered that it was her birthday.
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