An unlit room

The man sat in an unlit room, too close to his screen. He’d felt his paunch slowly bloom as he absentmindedly strolled through his twenties, but he wasn’t yet concerned with his eyes.

His mother had texted him a little earlier – her mother was being rushed from a holiday resort to an ECG. She wasn’t going to go to the hospital unless her sister told her it was necessary. The man asked his mother to keep him up to date. He blinked; he wondered how he should’ve wanted to feel when nothing came of itself. He couldn’t tell whether it was shock or apathy.

He considered getting into his car for the hour-long ride to the hospital, but he didn’t have enough detail on how far she was. He had to work the next day and he needed to take his sleeping pills soon. He could still go see her if there was an emergency – there would still be time.

He’d inherited the heart problems that had killed his grandfather. The old man had booked himself the hospital after a minor episode – at least the adolescent thought the story went that way. His grandmother stayed with her husband for a while; after he breathed steadily for long enough, she went home to prepare for her birthday. She could’ve gone back to see him in an emergency – there would still be time.

Three heart attacks ganged up on his grandfather that night. His aunt gave birth that same day. His grandmother had to deal with both in her birthday dress.

It occurred to the boy that he’d never asked his grandmother what that had been like.

‘oh god’, he breathed as the pressure of the realisation crawled to his temples. There were so many things he’d never asked her. His grandfather had died before he was born. He carried the man’s name. He was told that, of the four grandchildren, he was the closest to the man in personality, build and mannerisms. His grandmother was the only connection to the man beyond his mother’s warped memories.

He invented scenes of his grandfather from story fragments he’d been told. He would sit outside on his porch with a pipe full of putrid tobacco and a nose dripping with salty sweat. He would carve intricate patterns into wood blocks. He would explain to his daughters that you have to think what the other idiots on the road were going to do, because they couldn’t always think for themselves. He would have been caring, creative, intelligent and plain – unassuming.

The man wondered how they would have gotten along. He wondered whether his grandfather would have been proud that his final two grandsons both carried his name. His eyes drifted a notch out of focus as the medication yawned on him.

He remembered a photograph that he’d seen once. In it he was just old enough to have some teeth jut from his gums. He smiled that crazed toddler open mouth at the camera. He was surrounded by the pot pourri he’d gleefully littered over a carpet. The story went that his mother and aunt were scolding him, but his grandmother told them to leave him alone. He was her grandson. He could do no wrong.

She was dying. Somewhere over the edge of eighty-five, she was about to be put through a machine that probably hadn’t existed when she was young enough to act on the world.

The tears came then. She’d been one of the only tendernesses in his life. She’d been the infinitely patient elder who hid her chocolate from her concerned daughters.

He jerked with a sob. She was the eldest of eight siblings and she lived long enough to see a few of them die. She was the softest heart – she would pay two car guards in the same shopping centre and serve tea at every funeral her church hosted, whether she knew the deceased or not. Decades after she’d quit teaching, she would still scold children who littered or blocked walkways in malls because she believed that they ought to act with respect.

She was the matriarch of several broken homes, and he’d never had time for her.

Every time he squeezed his eyes shut, a few drops rolled down the elliptical river to his chin. The world was a complicated and lonely place, and the few simplicities it held disappeared without him noticing.

If there were any lesson to be taken from her, it was selflessness – servitude without any expectation of reward. She resigned to her humble apartment in the block she used to be the caretaker of. She’d lived in the largest apartment before, with the garden next to the highways where junkies would do drugs that I had been too young to commit to memory for later analysis. She’d given the home to another grandson when he married. She lived her life like Christ, giving pieces of herself wherever she thought they might mean something to someone else. In her quiet way, she was the light that showed the world how faith ought to be practised.

She was dying. Even if she weren’t passing in the hospital, she was still dying of old age. She’d been in the same hospital the year before, so the doctors could slice small chunks of cancer off of her nose.

I remembered a past where I was so open to intimacy with family, before that side of me atrophied in the grey shadow of a home that saw me through my teens.

Death was sudden and final. I wanted to immortalise her in prose, but didn’t have enough of her to pen down. I’d never paid enough attention. I was desperate to gather her up now that it might have been too late.

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