I could’ve driven the two hours to her death faster, but my dad had asked me to stop at Auto Zone on the way for a piece of plastic. “Your car will need that part for the drive back to school,” he’d said. “Otherwise you’ll break down on the highway.” I don’t think I made it clear to him that my aunt said my grandmother was dying.
It was the end of spring break. The last time I’d seen my grandmother was Christmas. We’d taken her oldest child to dinner. He was deaf and mentally retarded and taking him out always caused her embarrassment, but she took him anyway. It would take him several minutes each time to remember who she was. No matter how old I got, once he remembered me he thought I was eight. “Nice Marta,” he’d say and pat me on the head. He was also her only living child. Her youngest had died in a car crash at 21. My mother had died just a month before that last Christmas.
My aunt was not her natural child. She was the oldest daughter of a widower who married my grandmother and then left for the wilds of Alaska. Having embezzled life insurance money, he never came back.
My aunt met me at the assisted living facility and walked me to my grandmother’s room. That Christmas my grandmother had waved goodbye from her apartment door. She could still drive a little then, and cook her own meals. The cancer was supposed to have killed her months before but until my mother died, grandmother proved the doctors wrong.
“She’s been waiting for you,” my aunt said. I sat on a stool by my grandmother’s bed. I failed to see how she could be waiting for anyone. She didn’t blink. Her eyes were pale blue milk. She seemed like vapor to me. She couldn’t speak. Or move.
“Marta’s here,” my aunt said to her. I picked up her hand. Icy just like they always say. I thought of a dead baby bird I’d buried once. Brittle and air. “I’m here,” I said. Perhaps her head moved to the sound of my voice. My mother and I shared the same name. I hoped my grandmother thought I was her daughter.
On the other side of the room my aunt and her husband held onto to each other. I was supposed to be comforting my mother. I’d planned on that. My grandmother’s breath rasped. I made sure nothing I said to her was unique to me. I didn’t lie, but everything I said could’ve been said by my mother. The room was cold, and I felt stupid in what I was wearing. And then more stupid still for thinking about it.
I kept talking until the nurse came in and told me my grandmother was gone. I could leave. Everything would be taken care of.
Aunt C and her husband walked arm in arm back to their car and I followed several steps behind. “Meet is back at our house,” they said, hugging me in the parking lot. “We’ll take you out for dinner.”
Death is common in fiction–although it has to be part of the plot. You have your murder victim found at the beginning of a mystery–preferably young, female, and pretty. You have your heroic, sword waving death–for love of a beautiful woman or for the lack of love from a father. Then there is the wise, old man death that sets the hero free to finish the quest and become a man.
What is it that makes a death in fiction work? What such scenes have moved you and stayed with you long after you put the book back on the shelf?