Conversations With My Dead Grandmother
By Meghan O’Brien
Copyright.©Meghan O’Brien 2002
Somewhere in the back of my mind I realize how insane I must sound, and a mad little bark of a laugh escapes from my mouth in a burst of air. I shake my head, and then I try again.
“Grandma, I need to talk to you about something.”
I wait for a moment, looking at the cars stopped ahead of me on the highway in one of the countless traffic jams to which I will be subjected in my lifetime. For a moment I reflect that if nothing else, at least my grandmother no longer has to deal with the mundanity of rush hour.
“I have to admit, I feel a little silly talking to you like this.” I pause for a moment, and then sigh. “No offense. I mean… maybe you can hear me and you appreciate that someone is finally speaking to you again.” I snort a little at an errant thought. “For all I know, maybe the dead wish more people were a little crazy. It must get boring, all that silence.”
I fall silent myself, and then go on.
“So I’ll just try and listen, too, okay? If you want to talk back to me, feel free. And I’ll try not to put words in your mouth, even though I know what I’d like to hear you say. I’m just not sure it’s what you’d really say if you were here with me.”
Don’t be so sure of that, sweetie. I inch my car forward as traffic moves for a moment, calling up the rumbling, honied voice I remember like my own. I’d like to think that you knew me pretty well.
“I’d like to think that, too, grandma. But, see… I don’t know. I don’t know what to think about certain things.”
What kinds of things, sweet pea?
I grin a little at the term of endearment, and then try and think of how to have this conversation.
Don’t worry so much, honey. Just talk to me. You never worried so much about talking to me when you were a kid.
“Well, that’s just it, grandma… I was a kid. There wasn’t much to talk about.”
Oh, I don’t know. I thought we had some good conversations. I always loved spending time with my girl.
“I loved it, too, grandma.” I stare at the license plate of the car in front of me. Texas. I wonder briefly what they’re doing all the way up here, in rush hour traffic of all things. “I miss you a lot.”
So what did you want to talk to me about? I scowl a little, and then feel a little crazier when I reflect that I’m upset with my dead grandma’s voice that I’ve conjured into my head for not allowing me to stall.You’re stalling, aren’t you?
“What’s it like, grandma?” I ask. I’m not ready to say what I really want to say, despite the fact that I know in my heart that my grandmother can’t hear me, anyway. “Is it what you expected?”
“Dying,” I answer, my voice strange around the lump that’s formed in my throat. “Is it true what they say about the white light and the tunnel full of dead relatives?”
I hear a throaty chuckle in my head and smile almost involuntarily. When I was little, I lived to hear my grandma laugh. It was the warmest sound, and it used to make me feel like I was wrapped up in one of her hand-made patchwork quilts, loved and safe and secure. I luxuriate in the melody of it.
Well, honey, I’ll tell you… bright light, yes. Tunnel with dead relatives, not really. It was like… I saw things, from my life, lived some moments again. It was all feeling and images and sound, and then it was over in a flash. I hear the chuckle again before she goes on. But you know it’s biological, right? Chemical. It’s the brain dying and those last moments of electricity sparking out. Nothing more, nothing less.
I’m not a religious person, nor a spiritual one. What she says makes perfect sense to me, but I feel a little disappointed nonetheless. Grandma had been a devout Catholic all her life, and I wonder if it’s my own scientific bias that colors this revelation. I cock my head to the side in serious thought. Maybe I really am crazy. I lift my foot from the brake and start to ease forward, the car ahead of me suddenly moving again.
You’re not crazy, the rumbling voice says, and you’d better watch out for that car on your left!
I slam my foot back onto the brake as the blue Honda beside me swerves recklessly into my lane, barely missing my front bumper by a few inches. I narrow my eyes. I’m definitely crazy.
No you’re not, my grandmother says. Just keep your eyes on the road!
So I’ll ask you again… what do you need to tell me, sweetheart?
I gulp and wonder at my suddenly racing heart. How can it be difficult to discuss these things with a ghost? An apparition? A goddamned, make-believe, guilt-ridden fantasy? I know the answer, though. It’s hard because I loved her, and I want to think that she’d love me… even if she really knew me.
“When you’re dead,” I begin tentatively, feeling my way around the subject, “can you still see things? I mean, do you know things? Like how people are doing?”
I see a lot, sweetie. Her voice is compassionate and I shudder at the implication of her words. I was so proud of you when you graduated.
I smile a little then, remembering the day I received my college diploma, and how I’d wished for my grandmother to be there. I’d imagined her watching over me, grey eyes so like my own shining with pride.
I was there, she confirmed quietly. You knew that. You knew I was proud of you.
“Yeah,” I acknowledge. “I knew you were proud of me. I just-” and here is where it started to get hard, but I knew I had to keep going, “I’m just not sure you’d be proud about other things.”
Just tell me, honey. The command is soft and spoken without anger or judgment, and I feel my eyes water at the quiet knowledge contained within them.
“It’s like this, grandma,” I start, trying hard to inject a false bravado into my words. I can hear from the trembling in my voice that I’m failing miserably. How do I say this? What words can I use with my grandmother? “I’m not going to get married. Ever. I mean, not like you’d expect…”
Say it. She sounds impatient; her impatience reflects my own at my inability to verbalize what I’ve thought about since the day she died.
“I’m a lesbian, grandma.” I pause, waiting for some response from her. Receiving none, I add, “I like women. Romantically.”
I know what a lesbian is, goofy.
I laugh in surprise at the response, and then sober quickly. “Well?”
Was that as bad you as you thought it would be?
“I don’t know yet,” I answer honestly. “Ask me again after you give me your reaction.”
I can hear her sigh. My reaction? She sounds tired. I could say that I’m disappointed that you never gave me a chance to learn to accept it and love you when I was alive.
I feel shamed, my face flushing red from it. “I’m sorry. It’s just that I wasn’t so sure about myself then, and I was so young-“
She stops my rambling with one word. But.
But I’m not sure I deserved that chance. I’m not sure that I would have learned to accept it back then. Not before my time came, anyway.
I exhale noisily at this revelation. There’s a sickening, sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I struggle to come to terms with the implication of the statement.
“You’re disgusted by it, aren’t you?” I try and keep the hurt out of my voice. “You can’t understand it, right?”
No, she says firmly, and I am surprised by the benevolence in her voice. No, I’m not disgusted by it. Not right now, right here. I understand it. This is who you are, honey, and nobody has the right to be disgusted by that.
“But you would have been?” I ask.
I don’t know, she says. Maybe. Probably. I wouldn’t have understood it, and I would have believed it was a sin. She chuckles in what sounds to be self-deprecation. I had a lot of beliefs, you know. A whole lifetime of them.
I think of the rosaries and the crucifixes I inherited when she died. Precious to me because they were hers, but their meaning as foreign to me as my sexuality surely would be to her. I wonder what happens to religious beliefs when you die. Not everyone can be right, so what happens to those who discover they were wrong?
“Do you still have beliefs?” I ask.
Some, she answers. It’s different, though. It’s not something I can explain to you now.
“I understand.” I don’t, though.
You don’t, she chuckles. But you will. One day.
Her words make me shudder a little. I look ahead at traffic again, seeing that the cars around me are starting to pick up the pace. I sigh in relief and press my car into motion.
“So do you think it was better that I didn’t tell you? That you died loving me completely, even if you didn’t know me totally?”
I don’t know if it was better, sweetheart, but it is what it is. I will always love you completely, and I would have loved you even if you had told me. Even if I’d reacted badly, I’d have loved you.
“I don’t know if I could have stood to see disappointment or revulsion in your eyes,” I admit to her. “You were my whole world when I was a kid. I wanted to be just like you when I grew up. I thought you were the most beautiful, loving, funny human being alive.”
You are like me, sweetie. She laughs full-out, a deep belly rumble that tugs a reluctant smile from my lips. Sometimes you’re so like me that I’m not sure how any woman will ever put up with you.
I grin harder at the truth of her words. About the only person I ever knew who was more stubborn than me is my grandmother. “So you’re really okay with this, then?” I pause. “With me?”
Honey, one thing I’ve learned is that not being okay with these things… it’s petty. Petty and small-minded and utterly useless. She chuckles again. Yes, I’m okay.
I exhale shakily, heady relief flooding through my body. I wonder a little at this reaction. After all, I’ve only come out to a voice in my head, not my grandmother in the flesh. But still… I feel a sense of closure that I’ve never felt about this before.
“I’m glad we had this talk, grandma.”
So am I, sweetie. Her voice is tender and I can feel my eyes stinging with emotion. Even after five years, I miss her so much.
“I’ve always wished I’d told you before you died.” I don’t want to say goodbye to her yet, so I keep speaking. “That’s something that has always bothered me.”
Don’t bother with regrets, she says. Trust me, it’s not worth it. The important thing is that you’ve told me now, right?
“Right,” I agree. Silence for a moment, and then, “Hey, grandma?”
She doesn’t answer.
Still no answer. I’m frustrated, and I try to conjure up the familiar voice once again. My effort feels strange and false, however, and I stop trying when I realize that the moment is over. She’s not going to answer me.
“Yeah, definitely crazy,” I confirm for myself, and continue my drive onwards towards home.