My name is Zoey. I would have to say that the defining moment of my life was watching life itself drain from her eyes as her body grew limp. I can’t express what I felt at that moment except perhaps to describe it as simultaneous fascination and horror. I know for a fact that I loved her, for she was my grandmother. I could never understand why my family was so traumatized that I had been there to witness her passing. I would never trade that experience for anything, for without it I would not exist.
My grandparents’ home was truly my childhood utopia, aside from Sunday mornings when my grandmother dragged me off to church - it was a small price to pay. I remember cold winter nights when my grandmother tucked me into a bed of flannel sheets piled over with comforters so thick that I joked with her that she had made me into a sandwich. The old, wood-framed windows had a strip of wood at the bottom which could be flipped to the side to reveal three little air holes bored through the frame. Even when it was forty below I would open those little vents just so I could see my breath in the air from the safe, warm womb created by all those comforters and flannel.
The house was across from the railroad switchyards where my grandfather toiled through the night to connect the next day’s trains. The low rumble of those big diesel locomotives winding up, followed by the slamming of all the hitches as he sent yet another stream of boxcars down a switch track were an annoyance to everyone in the neighbourhood, but I couldn’t imagine falling asleep without them. I was nearly hypnotized by the low frequency rumble of the engines and with each cascade of slamming boxcar hitches I knew my grandfather was one step closer to coming home and lighting the wood stove in the kitchen. I wouldn’t leave my safe flannel and comforter sandwich until the heat from that stove rose up the stairs.
To this day, the low grumble of a big diesel engine makes me groggy. Whenever I’ve traveled by bus, I’ve always sought to sit at the back so as to be right above the motor. Few people could ever find comfort in sleeping with their head against the window of a bus, but that very posture always returns me to my childhood and the feeling of safety and warmth I found in that childhood cocoon.
I always awoke to the most enticing aromas at Grandma’s house, especially in the winter. There is just something about cold winter air that stokes the appetite during sleep. Most mornings, the first thing I smelled was the porridge. In those days I could even tell if it was rolled oats or cracked wheat. Some mornings I awoke to the aroma of thick sliced bacon sizzling in a cast iron pan and I knew immediately that my grandfather had decided to cook breakfast. He fried the eggs in the bacon fat and almost always burned the toast, but the smell of burnt toast was absolutely wonderful because it was always made from my grandmother’s bread. Even as young as I was, I always preferred a slice of her bread to a slice of store-bought cake. The best mornings were the ones when I awoke to the aroma of her baking that bread.
I can still vividly remember the last morning that I awoke to that aroma. I remember the weight of those comforters pressing down on me as I took my first conscious breath, drawing in as much air through my nostrils as possible. My bladder was so full that my kidneys hurt, but I always clung to sleep as long as possible on cold winter nights at Grandma’s house. It took a long time for the heat of the woodstove to waft up the stairs, and even then the floor remained icy cold. I bounced up and down as I galloped to the bathroom, both to keep my feet off the floor and to avoid peeing in my pajamas.
My grandmother was very strict about everyone washing their hands after using the toilet. It took a long time for the hot water to reach the upstairs faucet, but I had to wait for it because she would check the pipes running up through the kitchen to make sure I had washed with hot water. I shivered as I waited for the hot water, listening to the familiar sound of my grandfather chopping wood in the backyard.
As I made my way down the stairs into the warmth, I realized that something familiar was missing. I couldn’t hear my grandmother humming. She always hummed religious hymns as she toiled in the kitchen. I became worried when I walked by the closed cellar door. She always left it open when she was down there, so she had to be in the kitchen. As I walked into the kitchen I realized why she wasn’t humming and my heart sank.
There on the floor, in the corner of the cupboards, was my grandmother. She was propped up a bit in the corner, with her left hand still clasping the handle on the cutlery drawer. She looked a bit gray, and she gasped for breath with a raspy, wheezing rattle. Despite her laboured breathing, she looked quite peaceful and content. In retrospect, I suppose there really couldn’t have been a better way for her to end her days. There was a fresh batch of bread from the oven sitting on the cooling racks above her head on the counter.
The contented look in her eyes changed to one of fear as she spotted me. I think she would have been happy to depart this earth, leaving a fresh batch of bread cooling on the counter, had it not been for the realization that I was about to watch her slip away. I scurried over and dropped beside her, taking her right hand and telling her not to be afraid. As she looked at me a tear welled up in her eye, but then it seemed to recede. The feeling of her hand in mine changed in a very subtle way that you can only ever imagine if you have held the hand of someone who is dying. Before there is enough time for the flesh to grow cold, you just know that the life has left it. Before the muscles even begin to slack off you just know that the blood is no longer flowing. It’s as though there is a magnetic field in the hand of a living person, and it diffuses as the life passes out of them.
The eyes are the real beacon of death, however. That tear that had welled up in her eye seemed to drain back into it. The light in her eyes faded like an oil lantern being turned down. Even after the light from the lantern is gone, there is a faint glow of warmth that continues to fade. It’s like an image burned into your retinas that is no longer there but still visible for a few moments. Even after it’s gone you still think you see it for several more seconds. Your eyes have to fully recover from this overexposure for almost a minute before you realize that you are staring into the darkness. It’s such a gradual realization that it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact moment went the lights go out.
I just knelt there, holding her hand in my lap, staring into her eyes. It was impossible to think of her as gone while the aroma of that fresh-baked bread remained in the air. She had baked that bread, and it was still warm. That was all I had left of her and I slowly inhaled that aroma over and over. It was as though a part of her was still fading away, even though I knew for certain that she was already gone.
I have no idea how long I sat there clasping her hand, staring into her eyes, and breathing in the aroma of that bread. It was as though time stood still. It could have as easily been a minute as an hour. The next memory I have is the sound of my grandfather stomping the snow off of his boots in the back porch. I looked up at the back door expecting him to come and join me in a very serene experience. I truly found it that peaceful and beautiful.