Disease has no concern for wealth or class. It is, in its randomness, perfectly politically correct. Love thy neighbor today, for tomorrow may well be too late, because regret can torment as much as affliction itself. Consider my own revelation three months ago as I paid a visit to a very dear friend ...
The sweet curve of her cheeks and smile, this smile of angels, endures, as does the tender way her lips muse, revealing the goodness innate. Yet something in the eyes perplexes. They are cheery as always, but oddly vacant, subtle proof that grief has prevailed, at least for now.
I gently knead Grandma's hand as she reminisces a story I've heard so many times before, easing my fingers into her palm of velvet; only the newborn's skin is softer. I have not seen her since Grandpa's funeral five years ago, yet I am well acquainted with this moment, for the tempo here never waivers.
The afternoon sun bastes us to a perfect turn, the lazy air is moist, so serene, so still, and the usual late summer storm grumbles along a darkened horizon, teasing us with the promise of evening's cool to come.
Grandma continues to spin her tale, something about the day Grandpa first came to court her, but my focus shifts to turgid memories of my own tender youth, torn to shreds by warring parents and adolescent strife, and to the womblike peace of this place, this back porch stoop with its creaky planks and stairs and flaking white paint.
The day of the funeral, Aunt Camille told me that this is where Grandpa had died, here by stoop. I am consumed with the eeriness of this, recalling our gatherings here grandparents, grandchildren and neighbors alike meetings that proved in their very assembly that peace could come despite the wars of every day.
"Camille always teased me that he looked like a cat," Grandma chortles, breaking the spell. "But I always thought they was pretty eyes, just like porcelain."
The way she sings "porcelain" makes me smile, and the emotion she feels at her words reveals itself only in the slight quiver now at the corners of her mouth. I pretend not to see it and brush the trickle of sweat from her brow, unnoticed.
"Camille always teased me that he looked like a cat," she says again. "But I always thought they was pretty eyes."
"Just like porcelain," we say together.
In their tidy way, the doctors gave her three short months of reality before the Alzheimer's would consume her. Soon she would know no one, including herself.
A cool breeze sifts through my hair now, stroking my head softly as it blows.
Grandma continues to weave her tale, and though my eyes cannot find her, I notice that the fireflies are out, wooing their prospective mates.
"Just like porcelain," Grandma suddenly sings again.
I find the beat, and together we laugh.
"Thank you, Grandma," I abruptly say, commanded by an unknown force.
Oddly, she laughs at that, too, and then I know it: I am too late. Curiosity has been the first thing to go.
"Thank you for what?" I imagine her say.
"For being here. For saving me. For showing me that life can be sweet."
I draw in a hearty breath, leaving just enough for the creatures glimmering all about me.
"Thank you for loving me as your own."
The sound of my words makes me weep, for I know she does not hear me.
"Camille always teased me that he looked like a cat."
"But I always thought they was pretty eyes," I answer.
"Just like porcelain."
The threshold of the firefly's adult life is more beautiful than our own. Its brevity restricts the torture.
I watch them closely now as that breeze blows through me, tenderly stroking my head.
They fade in, fade out, fade in again, like a dream, there amid the elms and pears and corn and earth, and then realize how much I have missed them, and how much I have missed this all.
I close my eyes and wish the biggest wish, that Grandma can know me, but know no genie can make it so.
"Thank you, Grandma," I say once more, searching for her eyes, freeing, at last, my longest breath.
And then I know that I am not, after all, too late, for the breeze that strokes me stops. And it has not been the breeze at all, but the angel I named Grandma once, holding me again as only angels can, the little neighbor boy lost in all the wars.
Still I cannot find her eyes, but know their gaze is different now. Her embrace confirms that she has indeed remembered. And now, before she fades again I surrender my goodbye: goodnight sweet woman, Godspeed and adieu, and farewell to the summers I know no more.
Geoff Rotunno can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 1997 Deep South Syndicate
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