Today we continue our first Essay Week, featuring the work of a new writer each day. Enjoy Tuesday’s piece.
by David Nilsen
On the day my grandmother died, my dad offered to take me tubing on the lake with the air mattress she had expired upon that morning. The mattress would be pulled across the water by the small motorboat we had inherited from her late husband. Since normal is whatever happens most of the time, none of this phased me. I wiped my nose and eyes and packed a lunch and towels and sunscreen and folded up the thick vinyl mattress that still smelled of cancer and nausea and prescription strength lotion.
My mom had woken me that morning by gently shaking my shoulders. I had fallen asleep the night before on the couch, separated from my grandmother’s room by a thin wall. I had never been very close to her in my thirteen years, but she had moved in with us a few weeks earlier for the express purpose of dying, and that has a way of accelerating relationships. I had rubbed lotion on her papery legs once a day, and she had slipped me money for the service with a deliciously conspiratorial grin, since my parents never would have let her pay me if they’d known. She would violently bang a metal spoon on her metal bed rail to get our attention, and usually didn’t cuss much, we being a Christian household and all. Most of the time she didn’t say racist things.
My mom had woken me up and told me Mimi was dead. That wasn’t her phrasing; she had said Mimi is with Jesus, baptizing her passing in divine light. My grandmother, a pathological hoarder who had lived on a cracked side street in Detroit since before that city had begun to decline, had moved into our rural Ohio home to be around people she loved as her own cells devoured her down to nothing. She believed she would close her eyes on the lonely ache of her own limbs and open them on glory. So did we, heaven knows.
The grief of the devout is a curious thing. Sadness must be tempered by celebration. Mimi had arrived ahead of us at our own future solace; bittersweet happiness was expected. That this can feel like telling friends you’re glad your ex is happy now in their new life was lost on me at the time. I had no exes, only a small room in the corner of the house that smelled like a hospital and no longer bore the feeble ruckus of my grandmother.
Listen, it doesn’t bother you that we’ll be tubing on Mimi’s mattress, does it? my father asked after we’d backed the car up to the boat trailer, after we’d locked the hitch, after we’d packed the cooler and our towels and a rope and the mattress into the boat, after we’d changed into our swim trunks and climbed into the car, long after the funeral home had come and carried away a lumpy sack containing my second-to-last grandparent. I sat on the sticky fake leather seats of our Dodge Spirit and imagined my grandmother’s smell scrubbed away by the gasoline and algae of the lake, one damp and bilious comfort exchanged for another. I imagined my nose pressed into the blue vinyl rendered tacky to the touch under the burnished August sun, my small hands hanging on for dear life. Knowing which answer would draw approval and which a disappointed tenderness, I said, No, I’m fine. He nodded his head and pulled out of the driveway.
We made it to the corner before the car’s transmission resigned from duty. My dad stopped at the stop sign, and when he pushed the gas pedal to go, the engine revved but the car didn’t move. We’d been having trouble with it for weeks, but a few tries would usually get it to catch. There was a finality to this time that felt different, though. My dad didn’t fight it. Well, we’re not going boating, he said with the forbearance of someone who has accepted their flight is definitely canceled and there is no point making a scene about it. I’m sorry, hon, he offered to me. I would not, it turned out, be skimming across the waters on my grandmother’s deathbed.
He used our other car to pull the humiliated sedan and its aquatic consort back to our driveway. I unpacked the cooler and the towels. I carried Mimi’s air mattress back inside, the vinyl warm to the touch in the afternoon light.