Grandma is a great heave of a woman in a billowing black dress. Today, this last afternoon of her life, an angry heat rash burns the supple puffs under her neck. Last night, on the front porch of the old farmhouse, we watched the western sky explode. Rough thunder loomed behind stabs of lightning. A thousand acres of field corn trembled. The sprawling hardwood trees shook. A cold wind swept down with a roar of rain. Grandma waved her hand and dismissed it all. "Your grandfather," she said.
The sun is bright and heavy. Grandma, Aunt Laura, and me are gathered on the picnic table. The tablecloth hangs dead. Grandma's gold-colored knitting needles clack. She works the heel of a sock and absently swipes at lazy flies that just lift and settle again. Aunt Laura looks after Uncle Norm, who tends the smoking grill. I squint down the hump-backed driveway. Anytime now the ping and clatter of gravel will announce a new arrival. A flaky eggshell-blue Citation: Aunt Jean and her famous casseroles. A mud-crusted F-250: Mr. and Mrs. Kress and a mess of beans. A pearlescent Cadillac: Pastor John and the Good News.
"It's like Norman when he had to go to that hospital down in Iowa City after his accident," Aunt Laura says, soft and kind like she is. "It was so sudden."
The wrinkles on Grandma's face tighten. She stows her knitting and hauls herself up. It wasn't the same. We all know it. Grandma trudges across the back lawn. The knitting needles glint in her grasp. Uncle Norm had been high up in the big oak, trimming out branches near the power line when he touched the wire. The jolt seized his heart, blew off a boot, and knocked him to the ground. The impact restarted his heart and broke his leg. He lost three toes. The doctors grafted on new fingertips using skin from his stomach. Each little button sprouted a patch of coarse hair. He likes to make dirty jokes about it when he shakes hands with strangers.
Aunt Laura and me watch Grandma huff up the kitchen stoop. Grandma plants one foot. She draws up the other foot, slow. She grabs the door handle. She calms her breath. She decides. The screen door screeches open. Grandma disappears behind it. The flimsy door slaps shut. And that's it. That's the last thing we ever see Grandma do.
"Well," Aunt Laura says. "Go help Grandma fetch up that egg salad."
I do what she asks, but I dawdle. The heat presses down, an unseen but living presence like the everlasting embrace of The Holy Spirit Himself. Aunt Laura joins Uncle Norm. They hug. Their fingers lace. Uncle Norm isn't making jokes right now.
One step, up. Two. The screen door screeches open. I stop, cold. Because there is Grandma's body, twisted on the wet kitchen floor. Golden knitting needles hum in the electrical outlet. Burnt ozone taints the air. Grandma's heavy shoes sit neatly on the rubber mat beside the door. I think, there's Grandma, dead.
No one prepares you for this. But I know enough not to step in. In her deadness she is huge and immobile. I think about how Grandma must have felt when she found Grandpa in the barn. I hear the pop and ting of gravel. A pearl Cadillac. I hear Aunt Laura's call, somewhere near and far away. In Grandma's deadness and a trick in my eye, a hand flutters to brush away the chill that curls around me. "Your grandfather," she says.