by Michael Bettendorf
I was eight years old the first time I took someone’s life, so it was only natural that I’d do it again. She was my grandma, although she didn’t resemble the grandma I knew. No longer was she the grandma who baked pies for every holiday. No longer was she the grandma who called me on my birthday or snuck me coffee or turned a blind eye when I snuck Mallomars from the cookie jar even though I’d already been given one.
She was the grandma who had morphed into a skeleton, her body deteriorating seemingly overnight. A time-lapse video of daffodils blooming and dying, petal by petal, until they withered away. Those were her favorite flowers, though surrounded by them, lying in bed, with the heavy down blankets on her even though it was July, I could tell they no longer gave her comfort.
We didn’t talk about death in my family. We skirted around the topic like good Midwesterners. Grandma wasn’t dying. Grandma was sick. So when she came to live with us permanently, and I’d catch Dad crying in the bathroom, I wondered why he never cried when I felt sick.
And I took medicine when I was sick, so I didn’t think anything of it at the time when she asked me to get the pills from the bedside table. The room smelled different that day, as the daffodils started to wither and the water grew pungent. I’d later learn it was what acceptance smelled like—like dying daffodils and an aged spirit. She asked me to open the childproof bottle because her hands no longer listened to her. When I asked how many, she told me, and I knew it couldn’t be right. I was only eight, but I could count. I never took that many pills when I was sick. Then again, most of my medicine was syrupy, and grape or cherry flavored. But Mom had taught me to listen to my elders, so I did. “Come give me a hug,” Grandma asked. “Grandma loves you.” She thanked me and asked me to go get Dad, but to wait a little while.
So twenty-five years later, when Mom started dying, I already knew what I would have to do. Dad danced around the topic again when he called, first by talking about his morning errands and asking what my plans for supper were. He said that if I hadn’t taken anything out yet, which he knew I hadn’t—I always forgot—I could come over. Mom set porkchops out to thaw. He said they’d love to see me and that it’d been a couple of months anyhow.
I said that I knew, and that work had been busy.
He said it was okay, he knew nurses had tough schedules.
I said it’s what I signed up for, and I’d see them at five.
When I walked in the door, Mom was boiling potatoes. A vase of daffodils sat in murky water on the countertop. Dad was out on the deck firing up the grill. The porkchops swam in a mixture of Dad’s special marinade, which we all knew was just Worcestershire and bourbon. But grilling was his thing, and now wasn’t the time to criticize. I asked my mom if it was terminal, a word my family associated only with airports. I figured if I brought it up right away, cornered her with the question while Dad was outside, she wouldn’t avoid it. Couldn’t avoid it.
She said they think that she caught it early enough and that she had options. She said options like she was choosing between heated seats and XM radio and either would work, but at the end of the day it would all be fine. My mom, ever the optimist, couldn’t lie to save her life. We both knew options meant choosing quality of life or a drawn-out year, maybe two, of being pumped full of chemo till she glowed, and eventually faded away.
The potatoes were boiling violently now, a layer of starchy foam forming at the surface of the water when Dad walked in.
His face sank when his eyes met mine. He said, so you know, like it was an accusation. I said yes. He said it would be okay though, that things had come a long way since Grandma. I said I know, but I also knew the truth. Mom didn’t believe it either. She’d already accepted what was going to happen. The smell permeated the room. I glanced at the daffodils on the counter and noticed a few petals had fallen, like they’d been cut weeks ago and were already on their way out. They were alive, but it wasn’t a life. They were playing pretend. We all were.
Image: Wilted Yellow Daffodils Near White Wall by Plato Terentev via Pexels