They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. In many cases, that's true, including this one.
It was a cold, hard day. My great grandmother, Kathryn Blackie, or Kitty, had just moved to Wetaskiwin from her home of twenty years, in Red Deer. She was an older woman, who had lost her companion to leukemia, and had herself been an important part of the Second World War.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, at lunch, I would go over to her condominium, which happened to be right across the street from my school, to empty her garbage and get her mail.
I think she enjoyed my company the most.
The building itself was nice. Three stories high, it dominated the small, short street. The two roman columns acted as a gateway to the building. Large pots of flowers hung suspended from one of the balconies, hanging over the entranceway. The small grass lawn at the front was kept neat and clean.
That day, I was supposed to go over to her house at lunch, as it was a Tuesday. Usually, I only stayed at Kitty's condo for about half an hour. That left around fifteen minutes with nothing to do. My friends were, coincidentally, going out that day, so I wouldn't have anyone to sit with for those grueling fifteen minutes.
I decided I'd skip this lunch with Kitty, and go out with my friends. Later, I would feel guilty about not calling her to let her know I wasn't coming.
I could go the next day.
So, I continued on with my day, not caring about what my grandmother would think. Actually, I didn't think about her at all. She wouldn't mind, I was sure. It's not like she needed me around.
It was last period, science class. I remember it well. We weren't doing anything important. No exams, no labs, so when they called me down to the office, there wasn't a problem.
When I reached the office, they notified me that I was to go to my grandmother's condo immediately.
At first, I was a little unnerved.
I've never been pulled out of school early. But then, I was relieved when I thought of the possibility that I might be taken for my driver's test. I recently turned 14 and I've wanted to get my learner's. The excitement seemed to increase with my every step.
By the time I reached the condo, I was overwhelmed with enthusiasm. Like most apartments, the condo had a buzz-up system, where after you pressed the number of the apartment, the room you were buzzing would open the door for you. It was an easy system, and it eliminated the hassle of carrying keys, which were so easily misplaced. The only issue with this system is that if the tenant of the apartment you are calling is otherwise occupied, you have no way of getting into the condo.
Thankfully, it wasn't winter.
Excitedly, I pushed #17 and my grandmother answered.
It wasn't Kitty.
My mother's mother, Marian, or Kitty's daughter, has been practically my mother since I was born. My real mother, whom I refer to as 'Mommy', or Michelle, lived in Red Deer, although we still keep contact regularly, and make sure to see each other once every three weeks.
I wasn't surprised I heard her voice. If she was taking me for my driver's test, then, it's obvious that she'd be there. The door in front of me buzzed, and I was let in.
More and more possibilities popped into my head as I rode up the elevator to the third floor.
What if someone was visiting?
My Aunt Jane always came down from England to visit Kitty. What if she was there?
Finally, after what seemed like hours, the doors slid open and I walked to door #317. Glad to find it unlocked—they often locked it, even if someone was home, I marched into the lobby. Throwing off my shoes, I bounded into the living room.
Marian was sitting at the dining room table, clutching to it, rather. Speaking with her, was a woman that I've never seen before. She seemed normal enough. For some reason, I thought of her as a health care worker, though she wasn't wearing the horrible floral blouse. Kitty often had women coming to her apartment to help her put her socks on. Her ankles were often swollen beyond help, and the only way to get them down was to pull extremely tight socks over them.
The woman was wearing a black suit, and her long brown, almost black hair was tied back in a tight bun.
Kitty would have loved that, I mused.
She had always been a picky woman. She used to call me 'Lady Much' or the 'Queen of Sheba', if I walked around moping or sulking. I never really understood. Was she talking about my attitude? Or was it my laziness. I wasn't sure.
I wondered, momentarily, where Kitty was, exactly. She wasn't in the kitchen, or with Sharada.
Anyone who knew Kathryn Blackie, knew that she was one of the hardest people to get along with. She erupted at everything, no matter how little.
But I always knew she had good reason.
If she caught me stealing from the candy jar, I could be as angry as I liked, and yet, she was right.
The woman spoke again.
These next few words confused me at first, but it only took me a moment to think, and to look in Sharada's eyes to realize what was going on.
“We will call the coroner and they will come in a couple of hours to look at the body.” She said.
They shook hands, and the lady left, leaving behind her a trail of expensive-smelling eau de toilette.
Marian looked at me, tears forming in her eyes.
“Grandma Kitty's passed away.” I could tell she was trying her best not to burst out in front of me.
I couldn't think.
Shock was all I felt.
I'd talked to her yesterday.
I was supposed to see her today. What if I'd gone to the condo at lunch? What would I have found. I wouldn't have been able to get in. I figured I would have sat there for minutes, wondering why she wasn't letting me in. Then, I would have called Marian and asked what was going on. Eventually, she would come with her keys, and we would go inside.
Perhaps I could have saved Kitty's life if I hadn't been so selfish and gone to lunch with my friends.
I passed up one of the two lunches I get to spend with my eighty year old grandmother, for friends that I saw every day. Guilt washed over me.
I could have saved her.
“I found her in her bedroom. The paramedics said that she had most likely gone to sleep that night, and while she was sleeping, her heart just stopped. It's likely she didn't feel any pain at all.”
Well, that took me out of the situation, but the bad feeling still didn't go away.
I put my hand in Marian's shaky one, and sat down slowly on the ground, our hands entwined across the edge of the table.
Her eyes turned soft and tears ran down her cheeks, leaving trails on the already dried ones.
I needed time to breathe.
Time to think.
“I've got to call the family. I have to call the Aunties in England...oh, God. How am I going to call everyone?” She whispered, a hint of hysteria in her voice. Her hand pulled out of mine to wipe away the tears from her eyes.
She sniffed once, reaching for the phone. She pulled out her address book and started dialing.
Thinking I should probably leave her to do this on her own, I headed in the direction of the bedroom. My feet were heavy on the way there. They ran behind me as I trudged along, not wanting to process the truth, but having to know that it was indeed true.
The room was cold, and not because of the open window. The bed was empty, instead, on the soft, white carpet, was a black body bag. A sob escaped my lips as I stared down at it.
How could they do this?
She was in a bag, blocked off from the world.
I maneuvered around the black bag, and went to stand beside the bed. It was neatly made, the edge folded over, and the pillows placed on top. I could see, in my head, how she would look, sleeping in this bed.
A tear slipped down my cheek.
She wasn't smiling.
But, when was she ever smiling? Sometimes she had. At Christmas, when she gave us our calendars for the next year. What would I do without those calendars? I would be forever lost in the days of the week. Months in the year would go by without being recorded.
What would I do without her?
The blue, newly painted walls closed in on me, and I instantly felt claustrophobic. The room smelled like hospital. The smell of death and pain, even though I was sure she hadn't suffered.
Was it my pain I was feeling?
Hopefully, not hers. She never deserved any of it. She never deserved my incompetence at everything I did. She didn't need my ignorance or arrogance. I thought back to how I acted around her.
I wasn't a good granddaughter.
This woman lived past eighty. She battled the loss of her husband, the harshness of old age, and the attitudes of children who thought they were wiser than her.
Smarter than her.
I would never get a second chance to make that up. She would never get to see me grow to be a woman. Grow to be something other than an immature child who's dreams aren't laid out. She would never get to see me go into high school, or drive for the first time.
I regret how I acted around her.
I did not treat her as she should have been treated. She was a wise woman. And intelligent woman who had lived through numerous things, all on her own.
And I couldn't even do her garbage and mail without a price.
I should have done it for free, just because she was my grandmother. Just to show her how much I loved her.
I couldn't cry.
Sharada, who found her own mother dead in her bedroom, was sitting in the dining room calling all the family to tell them that their beloved 'Grandma Kitty' had passed away.
I couldn't stand it.
I should be comforting her. I should be calling the family, even though I didn't know half of them.
Slowly, I backed out of the room, and went into the other bedroom.
I had to sleep. I had to do something that would take my mind off the tragedy. I lay down and cried.
Two months later, we all gathered on Bill's Butte, named after Kitty's husband, William. When he died, we cremated his body, and threw his ashes over the edge of this high hill. Kitty would join him today.
I tripped up the hill, falling behind all my aunties and uncles, cousins and grandparents.
When we reached the top, the familiar view in front of me brought tears to my eyes. Now, she'd truly be gone.
We gathered around the small Inuk-shuk that someone, I don't know who, had built a long time ago. A few members of the family said some words, and then gently poured Scotch over the small statue. Bill's favorite drink was Scotch on the rocks.
Then they took Kitty's urn, and said a small prayer.
Steven, my grandpa, Marian's husband, said a few words. It had been a long time since her death, and so he added in a happy memory to lighten the mood.
To him, death was a natural occurrence, and nothing to mourn about.
“When Bill died,” He started, smiling. “I remember Kitty was throwing his ashes over the edge. Just as the she was letting go of the ashes, the wind changed and threw Bill back in her face.” He laughed, as did everyone else, wiping the tears from their eyes. “He just didn't want to leave.”
I smiled as they opened the bag of Kitty's ashes.
At least she'd be happy.
Marian took the first handful, followed by her two sisters. They faced away from the crowd of people and threw the ashes. Then, some of the little kids were allowed to try it, as long as they stayed away from the edge.
Then, I tried.
One of my cousins mentioned she'd found a ring in her handful.
I pulled my hand out of the bag, walking slowly toward the edge. I opened my hand slowly, letting the wind take her.
“Leah.” Marian called, motioning me to her. She turned back to the crowd. “Leah would like to sing for us, and for Grandma Kitty.” She said.
I swallowed the lump in my throat as I stepped into the center.
I tried not to look at my family members as I sang.
Speed Bonnie Boat.
Grandpa Bill's favorite song was first.
“Loud the winds howl,”
All around me, the wind blew, wrapping itself around every curve of my body, creating a cocoon like blanket of warmth. She was there.
“Thunderclouds rend the air,”
Above me, the clouds blackened, swirling in the morning sky. A tear rolled down my cheek as I looked up at the sky.
Not a drop of rain fell, but the sky was still dark with thunderclouds.
I sang trying not to break the song to cry, until finally, I finished.
“Onward the sailors cry,”
I stopped, wiping the tears from my cheeks.
I started again, this time, Amazing Grace. Kitty's favorite song.
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,”
The wind slowed, and the sky cleared as the sun shone down brightly on Bill's Butte. I smiled, still singing, as the sun warmed my skin.
“How wonderful, that Grace appeared, the moment I believed,”
I ended the song, smiling at my grandma who was clapping with enough fervor for the whole family. Some family members wrapped their arms around me, saying 'Thank you'.
The rest of the day, I sat on the edge of the hill, hidden from the others by the small shrubs behind me. My legs dangled over the edge, as I sat on the rocks precariously.
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,” I sang quietly to myself, looking out over the hills.
“I love you, Grandma.” I whispered, as the wind pounded against my face. “And I'm sorry.”