"Over the River and through the woods...." yeah, yeah fuck Christmas, especially when your grandmother's last present to you was the house she spent the last year dying in! Sure it's a pre-Civil War plantation that sits on 12 acres of beautiful wooded land, but I actually loved my grandmother and I would rather have her alive and healthy than this musty old house any day. How fitting that song would come over the radio as I was driving to my inheritance on Christmas eve.
Grandma did not go quietly into that light. She went raving and screeching as cancer devoured her brain, turning her from a gentle and wise soul into a cackling old foul mouthed caricature of a witch. She was only 70 when she passed, but in her last year she had wasted away badly. She looked 90 and barely weighed 75 pounds. I sat with her most of the time during her last few weeks. At times she was lucid, and I would have her tell me stories about growing up in the late 40's and the 50's. The stories seemed to put her in a better frame of mind, and when she would lose touch with reality her "episodes" were less horrible. Sometimes she would just think she was a teenager again. These were the few times we could get her to keep any solid food down. I guess if she thought she was a teenager, she would eat like one.
Other times her episodes were just heart wrenching. She would squeeze my hand and thrash around much harder than one would think her withered frame could manage. Sometimes she was reliving terrible memories, sometimes she was in a waking nightmare. Often it was both. The home care nurse would come in and give her an injection sometimes, and she would fade into a fitful sleep.
Two days before she passed, Grandma was having one of her more lucid days, and she was telling me a story about two boys fighting over some friend of hers at a drive-in theater while some terrible science fiction movie played. I think the boys were actually fighting over her, but she was too modest to admit it. In the middle of the story, she grasped my wrist with her tiny little hand, gave it a squeeze, and was silent for a while. She turned and looked me directly in the eyes. Eyes that she had passed down to me. Grey blue like an overcast winter evening. She held my gaze for what seemed like an eternity, and tears began to run down her cheeks.
"You know, I think they've lied to us all these years. There isn't a heaven at all."
She turned away from me, snatched her hand away, and began ranting and spewing word salad. I cried while I waited on the nurse.
Two days later, Grandma was dead. Her heart gave out. It just stopped beating while she was asleep. She was cold and grey when I found her in the morning. I called the home care nurse and 911. I told them she had been dead for several hours, possibly all night. I sat in the parlor of the old plantation house, staring at some silk flowers in an old vase, waiting for the ambulance to arrive. At first no tears would come, only a sense of relief, coupled with guilt for feeling that relief.
I sighed. The tears came.
The funeral was torture. I had never even met half the people who showed up. Family I had never heard of, and most likely would never hear from again once they learned they weren't in the will. Funny how things like that happen. I was told the food was good, but I can't recall actually tasting anything.
Two days after the funeral, the will was read by my grandmother's attorney, and to my surprise, the bulk of her estate had been left to me. She had changed her will to reflect this just a few months before her cancer had damaged her brain too much for her to make legally binding decisions. She left my parents and my brother a substantial sum of cash, but the house and property were mine to do with as I please. I decided to stay there for a while before I made any long term decisions
And so we arrive back at the moment where as I pass the old wrought iron gates and that stupid old song is playing on the rock station because everyone who works there is at home with their families.
The old house looked different somehow. The leafless oaks and maples that framed it reminded me forcibly of grandma's hands in those last weeks; Bare, thin, alive but not really. The entire property had begun to mirror my grandmother's state of being in her last weeks.
I decided to sleep in the bedroom I had claimed as my own when I was a child spending weekends and entire weeks during the summer there. Aside from a complete collection of Disney's Wonderful World of Knowledge encyclopedias and ancient editions of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, my childish things had long been replaced with more adult sized furnishings, but that feeling of being sheltered, shielded from the harsh outside world remained. I unpacked my things, made myself a small dinner out of what I could scrounge from the pantry, and laid down on the sofa in the main room to watch television.
No sooner than the 10pm news had gotten around to the weather, I fell asleep on the couch. It was a fitful sleep, and I was dreaming that my grandmother was sitting in the front porch swing waiting for me. She was in her gown, with IV lines running into her arms, and she was obviously cold. She turned her head to me, and held my gaze. Her eyes, exactly like my own, held untold depths of sorrow. The swing creaked.
I snapped awake. Some late night talk show was on, and was obviously a rebroadcast as the host was making jokes about something stupid some celebrity said last summer. I shook off the dream, and decided I should drink the remaining milk from the fridge before it went sour, and turn in for the night. Milk always makes me sleep better.
I heard the porch swing creak. The winter wind had set it into motion, but every hair on my body stood on end, and I was sure my skin was going to crawl off my body and hide in the closet. I shook the images from the dream from my head and turned toward the kitchen.
The swing creaked again, this time much louder. Again and again, developing a steady rhythm. No sooner than the regularity of the creaks registered, there was a hollow thump right outside the front door.
I laughed aloud to myself, sure now that it was just some raccoon playing around on the swing. I stopped laughing immediately as my voice echoed through the house, sounding not quite like my own.
Another thump and some scratching sounds. Claws across the old boards that made up the front porch. I decided to chase the animals off before they caused any real damage.
As I headed for the front door I flipped the switches for the outdoor lights, and to my surprise none of them came on. That was odd, since just last week they had been working just fine. I shrugged and opened the front door.
The swing was swaying back and forth in the wind, but there were no animals to be seen. Nothing but bare trees and darkness just beyond the reach of the light streaming through the windows.
I looked around, shouted "HELLO!" and "FUCK OFF, YOU RACCOONS, OR I'LL MAKE SOUP OUT OF YOU!"
In the bushes just out of the reach of the porch light there was a flurry of movement. I had scared something up and it was running off. Satisfied, I turned back to the door, and as my foot crossed the threshold, there was another thump, this one obviously behind me. I spun around quickly.
There at the bottom of the stairs was grandma, still in her gown, still wasted and shrunken. She was moving on all fours, as if she were mimicking a cat. When she reached the second to top stair, she stopped and held my gaze. Her eyes were still the same color as mine, and held the same depths of sadness I had seen in the dream. She turned her neck in an impossible fashion, making an obscene popping noise as she did so.
Never taking her eyes from mine, She opened her mouth. Her teeth were blackened, and her mouth was full of some horrible black liquid. She said to me in her sweet, familiar voice
" They were lying to us honey. There really is no heaven"