Sometimes life is a sleepwalk in which we see everything clearly and deny it.
My walk began when I was 14, five weeks before the Fourth of July in 1961.
I had a recurring dream. It was dark and raining. I saw myself asleep on my grandma’s couch. Something stirred me. I got up and walked to the kitchen. There, lying curled up on the floor, was my grandma – my mom’s mom. I knelt down and reached for her hand. Only then would I realize my eyes were open and staring at the ceiling.
Every night, for five weeks, the same dream.
The morning after the first time, I told my sister, Sue. She said I was being dramatic. The second time I told my brother, Kit, who told my mother I was being weird. After that I went on dreaming — but never spoke of it again.
The weather forecasters warned of rain for the extended holiday weekend, but promised clear skies for fireworks.
I had a job selling 45s at the only record store in town. By closing time Saturday, I knew they’d been right about the rain. My brother forgot to pick me up, forcing me to walk the half-mile home in a dismal drizzle. I remember hoping my mom was working the vigil shift at a hospice home by then, unaware of my whereabouts. All I wanted was to crawl into bed and sleep through the holiday.
And I might have. But Mom and Kit were in the living room arguing over my grandmother when I sneaked in.
“I wouldn’t ask. But I must work,” she was saying. Frantic and sorrow straining her voice. “Go? Just for tonight?”
“Nothing doing,” said Kit. “I’ve got plans for early morning. Besides, David’s living with her. He’s the one who should be there, not me.”
“Your brother won’t be there tonight and she’s not well,” Mom pleaded. “She needs you.” He ignored her. “Please?”
“I’ll go,” I said, disarming them. Without time for questions or concern, Mom gazed her gratitude and Kit drove me to where I’d never go again.
It wasn’t magnanimous of me. I idolized my grandma. Had circumstances demanded I live with her for good, I’d have gone as willingly. It’s not that I didn’t adore my mom. I did. But Mom loved six of us, equally. Grams loved me, especially.
My grandma was the scent of boiled coffee, fried doughnuts, and brown soap wrapped in the warmth of a summer day. A stern, determined woman who lived alone on an empty road, in a plain house, without television or telephone. Though her isolation required Mom’s visiting every day, she clung to her privacy and possessions as if they were gold. They weren’t – not even gold-tone.
By 11 the rain turned fierce, with roaring thunder swallowing the sky. I had to pound hard on her raised-paneled door before Grandma would let me in. She immediately demanded to know the whereabouts of my brothers.
“They couldn’t come,” I lied. “I came instead.”
“I don’t want you,” she said. “I want Kit. Where’s David? I want David.”
She sounded slurred, as if the storm had scrambled her senses.
“Well you got me, Grams,” I said. “So let’s get you to bed. I’ll sleep in the parlor on the couch.”
It took some fussing before she shuffled back to the bedroom. I sat with her in the dark a while, making certain she was settled before gently kissing her good night. Then I returned to the parlor and lay down damp, intent on sleeping fast.
When a silent streak of lightning crept by the window, I realized my eyes were open. There was no thunder. No rain. No noise. Only that bright white transient light marking the moment and where I was.
I rose as if by habit. I headed toward the kitchen, coming to an abrupt halt at the sight of a radium dial clock on the counter top. The hands read 10 past 3.
Looking down, I saw the outline of my grandma curled and lying on the floor. I knelt. I reached. I took her hand. Remaining there. Motionless. Frozen to the touch.
Slowly I stood, backing my way to the couch. I lay down and feigned sleep. I opened my eyes, focusing on the ceiling. Then I got up and retraced my steps. Approach, kneel, touch, return, sleep, refocus.
I did this over, and over, and over, and over, until the clock’s face was fixed at 6. The sun was filtering through the window, bathing her by then. I knelt one final time before walking to the bedroom to check her bed. Finding it empty, I searched for life of her in dresser drawers.
Eventually I returned to the kitchen carrying a pillow to comfort her head, and a sheet to warm her. Three separate shades of white.
And there I sat until I heard the doorknob rattle and the zest of my mother’s voice calling “Momma! Momma!”
Death wakes us up in ways that never let us sleep so soundly again.
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This freshly edited, updated essay was first published in 2003 in the St. Petersburg Times. Copyright by Marguerite Quantaine © 2003 & 2013.
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