The Familiar Absence of Words

The Familiar Absence of Words
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Picture Credits: congerdesign

My grandma was a widow: she lived alone for thirty years. My grandma never spoke of the loneliness, never mentioned her loss. These unsaid things: these silences run in the family. My mum inherited this trouble with talking and I have a knack for being silent too.

*

The day before my grandma died she couldn’t speak. The front door was unlocked when I got to her house. It always was now because she couldn’t be alone. My grandma spent over thirty years alone but for the last months of her life she was solitary for only a few hours. Carers would come every few hours to feed her, bathe her, to wash nightclothes and sheets. My mum was there more or less constantly.

When I arrived Mum was cleaning: bustling about. Movement helps when you’re waiting, when you’re still hoping that there’s hope. I entered the living room, which a few months before had become grandma’s bedroom. The curtains were partially drawn against the sun and the room was cool and still. I’d taken my shoes off at the door and the carpet felt soft and thick beneath my bare feet. I kissed grandma’s cheek and sat down on her bed. Her hand was resting on top of the sheets. I slid mine beneath her palm and felt her soft skin in my fingers.

Grandma opened her eyes. This was the last time she recognised me and the final time I saw her smile.

She hadn’t eaten for a while now and today she couldn’t swallow. I understood that this meant she didn’t have long, that in a day or so she would be gone. I watched grandma as she tried to talk: as she failed to form the words. And I leant in closer in case there was a whisper I could catch. She didn’t have enough breath, though, and her voice never came. I squeezed her hand tighter and wondered if there were some weighty words I should say to her silence. I swallowed. If there were I didn’t know them and couldn’t guess. Instead I talked about how it was spring outside and about the snowdrops I’d passed on my way there. I told her that I loved her. I hoped it was enough.

*

I stayed with grandma for most of that day and read from a poetry book. The words were soothing. Love and loss are easier on a page: less ragged than real life. I read in bursts to the noise of grandma’s rasping breaths and paused during the worrying silences in between. I read with intensity: I held the book like a bible.

*

My grandma died on the 16th of March 2017 and it was a hot day. I spent most of that Thursday with her in the room where she died. It was cool, mostly silent and still. Her breathing was quieter by then. The nurse had visited early in the morning and given her an injection of something that made her breaths smoother and less laboured.

Sometimes the silence was too oppressive, though, and the watching too much. I needed movement because momentum seems to help when you are waiting. Every so often I would walk barefoot into the garden. I remember the textures beneath my feet changing as I left the room: the flattened carpet of the well-trodden hallway, the gritty, cold slabs beside the back door and then the springy sun-warmed grass below the arch of pink roses.

There were no clouds in the blue sky, but there were birds. And a yellow kite fluttering from a string a few gardens away. On one visit outside I found Dad there already. He’d slipped in quietly sometime during the afternoon and nobody had noticed. He stood against the wall of the house, steeling himself in the shade before he could go in to see grandma. I watched him light a cigarette and inhale. He pursed his lips and blew the silver smoke from his mouth. The cloud swirled for a second and then vanished into the air above him. I pointed to the kite.

“Look,” I said. He nodded but said nothing, in his usual brooding way. My dad is particularly good at silence. In moments of sadness and tension he’s an expert of noiselessness.

A few hours later he left for home. He was tired and needed to rest.

*

“They wouldn’t let dogs suffer like this would they. Look at her.” It was getting to dusk outside now and I was back inside. I watched as my aunty Susan gestured towards grandma, then looked away and sat down on the settee at the side of her bed. I nodded. I didn’t disagree, though the alternative was complicated and had its own horror too. I wondered if grandma could hear: it was difficult to tell if she was asleep. Grandma’s arm felt soft as I stroked it and her skin thin like lace. We were all ragged and tired from the waiting. I nodded silently but didn’t speak. There: the silence that my family is so good at again.

*

Later, Mum was pacing: couldn’t keep still.

“Why don’t we go for a walk?” I asked. “We can watch the sunset. We’ll only be a few minutes, half an hour at the most, and you can get some air.” We put on our coats, said goodbye to grandma and left Susan sitting beside her bed.

The walk was slow and soothing, the sunset fierce and bright. We stood on the pavement and watched the orange ball slowly slip from the navy sky and then disappear. It only took a few a seconds.

We arrived back at grandma’s house at the same time as two of her carers. We paused at the gate and said hello. It was John and Annie. I ushered them in front of me and followed behind, unbuttoning my heavy coat.

Inside it was dim and grandma’s room was lit with a lamp now. I peered around the door.

“Hi, Grandma,” I said. Susan nodded hello and stood up. Mum, Susan and I headed into the kitchen. Annie and John stayed with Grandma to wash her and change her nightgown. In the kitchen I pulled up the sleeves of my cardigan, wiped the sweat from my top lip. I was hot after the walk.

A few minutes passed and then the kitchen door slowly opened. Annie stood in the hallway and her face looked grave, worried.

“I’m so sorry, but your mum has passed away,” she said.

Seconds later I was behind Mum in the living room. Mum was kneeling on Grandma’s bed.

“Switch the bright light on,” she said, “she can’t be dead. I need to check.” Annie clicked the switch and the room filled with white light. I watched as mum searched Grandma’s face for signs of life: willed her to breathe.

“Someone get me a mirror,” she said, “I need a mirror.” I didn’t understand at first and it took a few seconds for me to realise why she wanted one. She wanted to hold it up to Grandma’s face: to capture fog on the glassy surface and prove that she was still alive. Except that she wasn’t. For a second there was silence.

“We’ve been trying to wake her for the last few minutes, Christine. I’m so sorry but she’s gone,” said Annie. I leant forward, touched Grandma’s shoulder, touched her face. She already felt cool and I was surprised. I’d never seen a dead person before. I’d never touched another human like this.

I realised then that the carers must have hesitated when they’d realised she was dead. Maybe they’d never seen a dead person before either. And how do you tell someone that their mother is no longer alive? What words do you choose and how do you say them?

“We’ll leave you alone for a few minutes,” said John, and then they both left the room.

Grandma hadn’t eaten much for months and I could see her hips protruding through her nightgown. Her legs were just bones now. In their panic the carers had forgotten to cover Grandma up again. I lifted the duvet, pulled it over her and tucked her in like she was a sleeping child.

Mum was sat on Grandma’s bed now. She hugged Grandma again and held her arm.

“I thought I’d be frightened to touch her. I thought I’d be really frightened to touch her when she was dead, but I’m not, Hannah, I’m not.” She turned around and looked at me. It was strange to hear Mum say something like that. It was so straightforward, so unguarded and clear. I touched her shoulder and was silent, stunned by the honesty and unusual directness of her words.

Maybe this would be the start of something: the beginning of a time where words could be shared without difficulty, where Mum understood that I wasn’t a puzzle to be wary of or worked out, but a straightforward human that she just needed to talk to.

Susan sat down on the settee at the back of the room. She was afraid to touch Grandma now she was dead and didn’t want to be too close. I understood. Grandma was suddenly so unfamiliar: too motionless, too still.

A few minutes later I stepped outside and telephoned Dad. I told him that Grandma was dead. I told him to drive safely and to take his time because, well … there was no rush now. I ended the call and stood silently in the garden. It was dark but overhead the stars were silver and bright.

Dad arrived in less than half an hour. I watched him kiss Grandma’s head and silently say goodbye.

Soon the doctors came and certified death.

“We’re very sad for the loss of your mother and grandmother,” one of the doctors said. “You have cared for her at home very well and she died surrounded by your love.” It was an awkward, stilted speech but well meant. It was late now and maybe he was tired too. The doctors shook our hands and quietly left.

*

In the immediate aftermath of grandma’s death there was such precision to how we all moved around each other: how we hugged and held hands was so careful, so considered and calm. There was a clarity to how we communicated too. There was no room for artifice or awkwardness because my mum thought she didn’t understand me. We were all just there, experiencing a death together and wondering how you live in the aftermath of loss. My mum, my dad, me: I felt straightforward in the trio for the first time ever. I hoped that it would last.

*

Later two undertakers came to collect grandma’s body. I watched them remove grandma’s rings and the chain from around her neck.

“Mum can keep them with her tonight,” Dad said, “you know, so she can still feel close to Grandma.” I waited in the hallway as they placed her into their black shroud. Then they carried her through the front door and she disappeared in to the darkness.

Grandma had died in her own home, in her own sheets, and that’s what she’d wanted. She was gone now. It was over.

*

A week or so passed and it was time to plan the funeral. I went with mum and Susan to see the funeral director. It felt so surreal to talk about the cost of human-sized wooden boxes and what clothes to put on a dead body. There was a lot to discuss and so many questions to answer.

We decided what Grandma should wear, what type of wood the coffin should be and what songs they should play.

“At the end of the service,” the funeral director said, “we usually draw a curtain around the coffin. It signifies a final goodbye.” Mum looked at me, suddenly worried.

“It’ll be too difficult, Hannah,” she said. “I don’t think I could bear it, I really don’t.” Her voice faltered and the funeral director handed her another tissue.

“That’s okay,” I said, “then we’ll leave the curtain open. I’m sure it won’t be a problem.”

‘Absolutely not,” said the funeral director, “the service will be exactly what you want it to be.” Susan nodded: whatever Mum wanted.

“There you go,” I said. Mum smiled at me and so it was agreed.

*

For the few weeks following my grandma’s death there was a straightforwardness with my Mum that I’d never experienced before. The openness and clarity in the way we communicated was a relief. And I was grateful. There was no tangle of misunderstanding. For a while Mum ceased to find worrying meanings in the way I just went about living my life. There was no room for that: the aftermath of loss was all consuming.

On the day of the funeral we met at grandma’s house. The funeral parlour was on the same street. It made sense that the shiny black procession cars would come to collect us there. We gathered in the living room where grandma had died and made small talk while we waited.

The crematorium had big windows and sun streamed through the glass. It’s tradition that close family members arrive with the dead person. We got out of the cars and in convoy walked behind the coffin as it was carried down the aisle of the crematorium. The other mourners were already seated and they watched as we walked towards our seats at the front. Grandma’s coffin was placed at the front of the congregation and a man in a black suit and hat placed a photograph on top. It was Grandma smiling. Next he laid some flowers and then he bowed.

I remember thinking that these were all such strange rituals. Weeks had already passed since she’d died. Weren’t we too late? I’d already said goodbye to my Grandma: I’d already watched her leave.

Soon the celebrant started his speech. He told the story of Grandma’s life: read out the specific details that make people who they are, or once were. Then there was music and, for those who wanted to pray, there were prayers.

I looked out of the window and waited for the service to be over. I waited for the celebrant to conclude, to direct us to stand and for us to leave the crematorium. I waited to walk past the still visible coffin, to pass the smiling photograph of my Grandma’s lovely face and out into the cool spring weather.

Instead the celebrant paused after his prayer, said something about goodbye and pressed a button. I watched as the curtains in front of the coffin began to slowly close. I looked at my mum who sat in front of me. I waited for some big or small sign from her that this was not the plan, that this was too upsetting, that watching the curtains close was not what she wanted. Except no sign came and we left the crematorium in silence.

Outside the sun was bright and the air was crisp and cool. I breathed in and watched curls of white breath as I exhaled. The crowd gathered to look at the flower wreaths and it took me a few minutes to find Mum.

“Mum,” I said, “are you okay? They closed the curtain.”

“Yes,” she said, paused and then, “Oh, I changed my mind about that. I told them to close it when I finalised the plans.”

“Oh, right,” I said, “it’s just I didn’t know.” She looked at me quizzically, impatient to mingle with the growing crowd.

“I didn’t know I should’ve mentioned it,” she said. And suddenly there it was again: the distance between us. It had taken just a few weeks for the fragile openness to falter, for Mum to lapse back in to the awkward, opaque sentences I’d grown so used to since childhood.

We stood there for a second longer, the familiar absence of words hanging between us. Then she turned and we moved separately into the group of mourners.

Hannah Stevens

About Hannah Stevens

Hannah Stevens writes short stories and flash fiction and has recently discovered the personal essay. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Leicester. Her short stories have been widely anthologised and featured in literary journals. She is currently in Thessaloniki, Greece where she is teaching and is involved in various freelance writing projects.

Hannah Stevens writes short stories and flash fiction and has recently discovered the personal essay. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Leicester. Her short stories have been widely anthologised and featured in literary journals. She is currently in Thessaloniki, Greece where she is teaching and is involved in various freelance writing projects.

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