I'm seven months into my newsletter. You may not think seven straight months is a long time, but consistency has never been my strong suit, especially when it comes to things like newsletters or blog posts. Life just has a tendency to get in the way. You know how it is.
But so far, I've been having a great time with my newsletter, Dev's News Flash. I think it's because it's low on News and big on Flash. Every month I write a piece of fiction and send it out to my subscribers. The pieces are short and often a bit experimental and I'm having a blast doing them.
If you're interested in subscribing, here's a link.
I spent some time this month at the bedside of a friend who was in hospice. It was sad and sweet and real. I'm hoping that's also true of this month's flash. I call it Afterlife.
My grandmother is dying. Maybe if I say it enough, the magnitude of it all will sink in. Because sometimes it’s hard to keep track of what’s really happening when I’m caught up in the mundane details of fluffing her pillows or getting her some juice.
Having someone die in a hospital bed in the living room is chaotic and gut wrenchingly boring at the same time. Friends visit, offering her comfort and companionship along with conversation she can’t always follow and food she doesn’t want. An aide or a volunteer shows up nearly every day to help her and to give me a break. The chaplain comes by sometimes. Or a social worker. There’s probably a schedule they’re following but I haven’t figured it out, so I never know when to expect them.
Except the hospice nurse. He appears like an apparition every afternoon between five and six.
I owe Gran my life. It might sound melodramatic but it’s true. I was fifteen and had just survived my second suicide attempt when she took me in—a scrawny gay kid with a bad attitude that did a terrible job of hiding my fear that no one anywhere would ever love me. She drove a hundred miles through a snow storm to rescue me. At the hospital, she told my parents that they’d have to kill her first before she’d let them send me into another conversion therapy hell. They washed their hands of the both of us and that was that.
Twenty years later here I am, sitting by her bed in my best shirt, hoping that when he shows up, the hospice nurse will notice me. I know that sounds pathetic, and maybe it is. I like to think of it as a coping mechanism.
Gran opens her eyes. “I don’t want you to be alone, John.”
I pat her hand. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”
My last relationship and my grandmother’s chemotherapy treatments ended the same week. Nothing dramatic, we just both realized we’d been trying too hard for too long and it was time to move on.
The hospice nurse’s name is Simon. He has dark hair and brown eyes that are so sincere you could drown in them. Before he touches my gran he always asks her permission in a voice that sounds like the proverbial healing cloud of amethyst light. It’s after four. He’ll be here soon.
Loving someone, even living with someone, shouldn’t be that difficult. We all have our quirks and no one is attractive all the time. But in the end, isn’t it enough to treat each other with kindness?
That’s what I tell the kids. I’m a high school guidance counselor. Most summers I take a second job just to earn some extra cash, but this summer I’m back sleeping in my old room so Gran can die at home. She didn’t get really bad until June and will be gone by the time school starts in the fall. Considerate as always.
Gran has had boyfriends over the years but none of them stuck around. She jokes that she passed her terrible taste in men down to me. As I watch Gran sleep, I think the problem is we’ve been focusing on the wrong traits. She looks old and shrunken but still beautiful to me. And I’m not sure I’ve ever loved her more. I want to know someone for a long time, so long that it doesn’t matter if my face wrinkles or I go through an unfortunate haircut phase or my carefully cultivated six-pack disappears.
I think it might be Simon’s hands that I find most attractive. They’re strong, confident hands. Often, after he checks on her medication and examines her for bed sores, he’ll linger for a while and we’ll talk. One afternoon, while I watched him massage her feet, I imagined how his hands would move while making dinner. Another day I fantasized we were building a house together and Simon was swinging his hammer with the regularity of a pendulum or the second hand of a watch—predictable, steady and strong.
Every day, Gran talks a little less and sleeps a lot more. She doesn’t want to watch television anymore and music only makes her anxious. The house echoes with a sad silence as I pad from room to room wondering what I’ll do without her.
I know Simon’s knock by now, two soft raps. Gran doesn’t stir. I only hear him because I’ve been listening. I cross the living room to the front door, my heart racing like it’s prom night. Maybe that’s okay. Pursuing new interests can help with depression. That’s what the advice columnists say.
It’s hot outside, but Simon looks cool in blue slacks and a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He rests a hand on the handle of his roller bag and for the umpteenth time I wish he was just coming to stay for the weekend. Gran could make her famous lasagna, and after dinner Simon and I could sit out on the lawn watching the stars and telling secrets.
“How are you?” He cocks his head to one side, his eyes locked on mine in a look that’s probably just professional sympathy but that I decide to believe is real concern.
There’s no good answer to his question, so I shrug and open the door wider to let him in.
I gesture to the hospital bed that dominates the living room. “She was sleeping but she might wake up for you.”
Simon isn’t my type. I’ve always gone for the kind of men that I thought would make me look good. Tall, fit, musclebound guys that everyone can admire. I’ve always been on the lookout to trade up. It’s what one does.
That’s not a game Simon can play. Although, now that I look at him, I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want him. He’s kind and patient, handsome with gorgeous eyes and those strong, competent hands that I dream about.
But he’s short. Really short. Little people short. And for some reason that doesn’t matter to me. Not anymore.
Gran’s eyes flutter open. She smiles at Simon. He smiles back, hits the button and Gran’s hospital bed descends until it’s even with his thighs. She nods when he asks if he can check her pulse. He goes through his routine, all the while talking with her in that soothing, calming voice. I watch from a distance. She’s happy with him. And that makes my heart swell. I imagine the three of us eating Thanksgiving dinner together or opening presents under the tree.
Gran catches my eye. She waves her hand vaguely in a gesture I interpret as a summons. I come over and stand on the other side of her bed. It’s as if Simon and I are her body guards.
She licks her lips and waves me closer. I lean down. She whispers, “I’m glad you’ve finally found a nice boy. He’ll be good to you.”
“No Gran. We’re not—” I glance at Simon. My face floods. I’m mortified that she’s voicing hallucinations that dovetail with my fantasies. “This is Simon. He’s your nurse, Gran.”
She waves her hand, dismissing the confusion and my embarrassment. “Ask him out.”
I look at Simon, who’s concentrating on fixing a wrinkle in her bed linens. I start to say I’m sorry, that Gran must be dreaming, but then I stop. Something about the way he’s not meeting my gaze tells me I might not be the only one who’s been looking forward to these visits.
When I stop talking mid-sentence, he looks up. I don’t know what to say.
Simon turns to Gran with a smile. “Not yet, Louise. We’re focused on you right now. There’ll be plenty of time for John and I to get to know each other better later.” He places his hand on hers and his gaze flicks to me. “That is, if he wants to.”
I stare at him as my heart does a somersault. “I’d like that.”
“Good.” Gran’s words come out in a whisper. “You’ll keep coming by after work until then?”
Simon chuckles. “I thought the extra visits on my own time were our secret. Of course. I’ll be by every day for as long as it takes.”
After work? The first time Simon came to see Gran was in the morning. He didn’t come again until the next week. As I look from him to Gran and back again I try to remember when he started showing up every day after five. Was coming more often than he had to Gran’s idea or his? Either way she’s taking care of me right up until the end. And beyond.
I cover their hands with my own. It feels like a pledge. The promise of a future.
Gran smiles and closes her eyes.