The Mourning Show

by Tonya Maxwell

For a few months, she was a webcam girl, my grandmother. They were days long and slow, ones she passed watching television judges, eating pudding cups, napping in her recliner. My days, at least for a while, were spent watching her.

Since high school, each time I’d entered her house, I performed a magician’s mathematics, calculating just how long I had to wait before I could disappear. And now, two hundred miles away, I’d turned voyeur, monitoring a woman who was my last obligation to my three-stoplight hometown, one she never wanted me to leave though my childhood daydreams carried me to far- off places. In some sense, so long as she was alive, I could never fully escape.

Grandma slept often, slack-jawed and unmoving, and until I became accustomed to this death posture, I studied her for some minute stirring that indicated proof of life. If none came, I forced the evidence with a call. Roused by the rings, she’d uncurl herself from the recliner and move in groggy steps to the rocking chair parked where it had been parked for decades, by the telephone.

“Hi Grandma. Oh, you sound sleepy. I didn’t wake you, did I?”

“Well, no. I was just watching TV.”

Her most consuming pastimes, though, could not be captured on a webcam. She always seemed happiest at the far ends of her life, either reliving her childhood or contemplating her death, the rest serving as little more than filler between the alpha and the omega. I was still mastering macaroni artwork when she began impressing on me a list of death demands, one of them being that she was to die in her own house, not some “God-damned nursing home.” So even though there had been hospital stays and the lungs were showing their bouts with childhood asthma, even though the early dementia had set in, I decided she could stay, with a little oversight. She would not wander or turn on the stove, of this I was certain, confirmed by an unhealthy amount of webcam time on my part.

The connection was available only to myself and her nephew, a good and steady man who I called my uncle, though he was a cousin decades my senior. After the novelty of the watching morphed into a chore, my interest waned, my checks diminishing from preoccupied to dedicated to sporadic. My uncle, however, remained devoted and when my phone rang, his name appearing on the screen, I knew the granny show had turned grim.

“Are you looking at the camera?” he asked.

“I’m getting to my computer right now,” I said. With a window refresh, I saw that she sat askew, one hip on the floor, chest leaning into the seat of a chair, arms flailed at her side, static as death.

“I already called 911,” he said. “I’m going over there.”

Paramedics soon came into view, lifting her onto a stretcher and covering her face with an oxygen mask. I could not gauge if her heart, bull strong, was finally pumping its last, so I packed a bag, though I had every intention of putting the drive off for another day.

“Is she dying?” I asked an emergency room nurse. “If it can wait, I have to…”

“You might want to come,” she said.

“It’ll take me three, four hours.”

“We’ll see you then.”

“Yeah, okay,” I said. “See you then.”

The cornrows in the Indiana fields flipped by like pages of a book and I was convinced this chapter, thirty years in the making, was about to close. My grandmother could go to be with her parents and each of the eight brothers and sisters who had preceded her in death, at least the ones she liked. She might even learn cancer had claimed my mother months earlier. Mom had died in her bed in our Chicago home seeing as how I wasn’t about to let her go to no God-damned nursing home, I’ll tell you what. When my grandma asked about Mom, it was in the vaguest, most uninterested way, and I offered nothing. It was a sore spot for me, that the old woman had the victory of a longer life.

But mostly, Grandma could finally go to be with her beloved Danny, her only child and my father, who decades after his death remained the guiding star in her life, even as he faded to little more than a wisp of a ghost in my memory.

He died when I was five and I can tell you with certainty that nothing is quite so tender as the expressions of grown men and women who gaze at a child with a newly dead daddy, their eyes brimming with adoration. As such, the most life-affirming hours of my young life might well have taken place at his funeral. Each time one of them knelt before me or put a hand on my shoulder, it confirmed what I already knew: entire universes realigned to revolve around the star that was Me.

I was an only child and an only grandchild and the pedestal I stood upon was solid as oak. Until it was not.

Of course, at that point, the entirety of my education consisted of the shenanigans of Amelia Bedelia and The Poky Little Puppy, seasoned with six months of kindergarten, so dear reader, forgive my young self for confusing sympathy with adoration. Those adults with their red-rimmed eyes let their hearts ache for a child who was ignorant, and rightfully so, of her known world cracking beneath her Mary Janes. Me, I sat swinging those Mary Janes on the front row once the speakers and preachers began, bored after attention turned from me. My mother told me to be still, and probably I stopped my kicking with her second or third asking. I was not one to take direction.

To prepare me for a long and bleak service, probably someone told me my daddy was gone, and probably someone talked of heaven and angels and probably someone tried to explain the unending time span that is forever, but I do not remember those conversations. Childhood is a tactile place, concrete hard or baby-chick soft or woodstove hot or snow-cone cold. Absence of the permanent sort is an abstraction that has no business in child’s play.

But two things at that funeral have stuck with me, little things really, but with their unfolding came concrete clues our tiny family was upending. The first happened right over his casket, a powder-blue affair with a spray of red roses adorning the closed lid, my mother standing to my left, my grandmother to my right. Grandpa beside her.

Before us, in that blue box—my father. Headshot. Self-inflicted. Which is a polite way of saying he pulled a revolver from his gun cabinet and put the business end to his temple or maybe under his chin or maybe on his tongue. I heard my mother tell once when she thought I was out of hearing range that she had to clean up teeth and bits of gray matter, so as I think about it, I suppose he pressed the barrel in that soft triangle of flesh stretched across the underside of the jawbone.

Even in those earliest days, I must have known how he died because I imagined he lay with his head in a black velvet sack, its golden drawstring tied in a bow about his neck. It was a face so mangled and monstrous that even the inside of a casket did not want to look upon it.

So when my grandmother, hankie pressed to her nose, said to me, “Kiss your daddy goodbye,” I was not eager to put my lips to that casket, even if it was satisfyingly smooth and cool to the touch. My daddy was not a blue box. He wasn’t the thing inside the blue box. ’Course, even before then, he might’ve looked like my daddy, but he wasn’t, not really. Gone were the motorcycle rides, the piggyback bounces, the camping trips to Hogback Lake. The man who looked like my daddy, but was not, heard phantom piano melodies where he was an audience of one. He would not rise off the couch. Once when he did, he raised a vacuum over his head, intent on battering my mother’s little Pekinese, the one he bought for her not long after they married. “To keep you company,” he had told her. This man receded into the horizon, becoming less like my daddy with each step, pulled by an unknown affliction with a name like major depression or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

But my grandma told me to kiss that box. So I did and wondered just how long she was going to bellow, her heavy body heaving with the wails. My mother, elegant and stoic, a touch of Jackie Kennedy in mourning if Jackie Kennedy had been repackaged as a petite Korean woman, did not hear. She had gone to a place where grief is a private, quiet affair. When she came out of that trance, Mom leaned into me, whispered, “Give your dad a kiss goodbye.”

The thought—Why does everyone want me to—was still gelling in my head, when viper-quick, Grandma snapped around. “I already told her to do that!” she hissed, venom sputtering. How the old woman heard Mom through all her crying I cannot say, but for the first time in my young life, I tasted loathing. It did not exactly settle in, but it didn’t exactly leave either.

I kissed the casket. Again. Quick. Unsentimental. I understood that right there, over my dead daddy, my grandmother was waging a war against my mother and I was the prize.

He was buried in an old cemetery bordered by Indiana cornfields in March 1981, and for some weeks after, bullets seemed to fly everywhere the world ’round. Reagan was chest-shot that month, and in May, Pope John Paul II took four hits. Rounds flew at my father’s fresh-dug grave too.

We gathered under a canopy and just beyond, a small unit of former military men aligned, another facing them, three times calling out “Ready!” “Aim!” “Fire!” With each command, the unit moved in a crisp unison, chambering rounds, angling barrels across their chests, pulling triggers, and unleashing a crack in solidarity, one that sounded like the fury of a vengeful god.

I’d heard that same sound a few nights past, in our living room. We all had.

Rewind a few hours before that. We had been in the car, Grandpa driving, Grandma in the passenger, me between them. My parents sat in the back. Mom spoke low and gentle to my daddy, saying his hands were swollen, asked if removing his wedding ring might help. She could not wrest it off his finger, said maybe they could cut it off at the hospital.

Cut off his finger? I turned to look upon that doomed digit, presumably for the last time, but in the darkness, could see nothing.

At the hospital, they refused to admit him. Be it failure to recognize the gravity of the situation, an issue of short staffing, a night short on beds and long on patients, I do not know. “Come back tomorrow,” they said.

Tomorrow did not come for one of us.

At home, maybe someone took Dad upstairs to bed, or maybe he took himself. But he was alone and the small contingent of adults in my life was downstairs in a confab when the crack sounded. The tricks that come with passing time and bleached-out memories have distorted that moment for me, I’m sure. But my mind’s eye tells me that we all looked to the staircase calmly, as though that noise were no more intrusive than a telephone’s ring.

But that bullet travelled, yes it did, flying through a space-time continuum that has yet to be fully explained by the laws of the physical universe. It echoed from the upstairs hallway and through the living room where we all stood and through the funeral and through my childhood, making, among other things, the second floor of our house a sinister place populated by blood and teeth and vultures and portals to hellish worlds from where came long-fingered, half-decomposed creatures hungry to snatch away a child princess who had lost her crown and could no longer command entire universes. New carpet and a fresh coat of paint are little obstacle for the overactive juvenile imagination, I’ll tell you what.

So each of those time-honored volleys fired in military tradition sent my grandmother heaving with shudders that convulsed through her shoulders and bosom, the wails rising from the deep well of her gut, erupting in cries, each louder than the last.

It was not the gunshots that rattled me. That came with the second thing that happened, so insignificant as to not be worth the ink on page, except that my child’s mind took hold of it and never let go. The purse at my grandmother’s feet, black, flat-bottomed, the handles stiff and upright, fell over. That’s all. But I spent the rest of the service turning this event over, unable to unlock the mystery of it. How had the shots, their decibels still reverberating through my chest, also made that purse topple? Somehow it seemed as improbable as a mountain overturning, and to my small ears, it crashed down with the fury of freight trains colliding.

Mostly, it meant the world could shift, had shifted, in ways unpredictable and unknowable. And as I stared at it, I knew my grandmother’s wails would never stop.

She was a sentimental woman, one who kept even horseshoes and cowbells worn by the equines and bovines of her girlhood. For his final act, my father selected a handgun my grandmother had gifted to him, so perhaps he was sentimental too. My mother was not. She saw to it that the weapons were shuffled from our home, though to her consternation my grandmother laid claim to the gun cabinet. Her boy had built it. Grandma put it in her bedroom and loaded it with Barbies, so it became a sort of dollhouse for me, plastic legs dangling in the grooves that once cradled hunting rifles, the drawers for rounds and other shooting accouterments now storage for tiny high heels and wardrobes of miniature dresses she had crocheted. When she died, I sold the house and left the cabinet. I am my mother’s child.

Soon after the funeral, Mom took a factory job and I took the bus to my grandparents’ little white stucco house most afternoons. Grandpa would arrive home and I’d hound him for his lunchbox, where inside waited a small plastic horse or Indian or cowboy. His boss once saw a picture of me and thought I was the cutest little girl he’d ever seen. Each day, he sent Grandpa home with a little trinket to give to his darling granddaughter. Not until I was in high school, when Grandpa died, did I turn over this bit of happiness, finally understanding that Grandma had purchased bags of the toys and packed one away in his lunchbox each morning.

I regret that I did not get to know my grandfather, who was beloved as Uncle Slim to almost everyone else. He was quiet, and master of a wry sense of humor if you chose to listen, I have been told. I did not. My grandmother hen-pecked him, complained about his ineptness, pushed him to the edges of her life, until he died and, with renewed wailing and gnashing of teeth, she christened him a saint.

The Mourning Show, I called it. I set my jaw against her.

But in many ways, my grandmother made my early childhood a happy place. She walked me through plowed-under cornfields in search of arrowheads, took me to Amish County that I might watch the clopping horses, and to my mother’s everlasting irritation, kept a bottom cupboard filled with Little Debbie Snack Cakes, easily accessible to small statures and small hands.

Mostly, she regaled me with stories of her Depression-era girlhood. We trod over those tales until they frayed at the edges, but after my father died, she added a new kind of telling to her repertoire, one that formed itself into a convenient list and was revisited at least monthly, sometimes daily. It might be unleashed if she needed to fetch shoes from her closet, or if she was pining for the old days or if she was antsy to get over to the cemetery with new flowers, which was often.

  • The dress I want to be buried in is in the back of the closet. Come here and look. I keep it right here. I know, Grandma.
  • You make sure the casket is closed. I don’t want no one looking at me when I’m dead. Got it.
  • And I don’t want no kind of funeral. If they can’t come to see me when I’m alive, they don’t need to see me when I’m dead. You hear me? Ummhmm.
  • Don’t spend your money on no flowers. Anyone wants me to have flowers should have bought them for me when I was alive. I can’t smell flowers when I’m dead. I have bought you flowers, but don’t you worry.
  • Everything is paid for, the plot, the casket, everything. Get the papers out of the safe. I got it all together when Danny died. The funeral home knows. Everyone does, Grandma. Everyone.
  • I want to die right here in this house. Don’t you dare take me to no God-damned nursing home. You understand me? I understand if I hear this list of crazy one more time, I might well kill you myself.

As it turned out, the old woman nearly killed me.

I had loved her, and dearly, until I could take the ad nauseam repetition of that list no more, until the constant threat of tears wore away my affection, until the subtle slights aimed at Mom had the unintended consequence of cementing my loyalty to my mother, until my emotional growth outpaced Grandma’s own maturity. I was probably ten or twelve years old when I was exhausted of it all. But I would still visit, take her to the grocery, help mow the lawn. My mother told me to be nice. My mother was a better person than I am.

And then, when I was thirty-two, Mom died, which was the closing chapter of a whole ’nother kind of story, one that still makes my heart ache. But Grandma did not so much as flirt with death, even when pneumonia came, even when her hip snapped, both bouts sending her to a nursing facility. “An unbelievable recovery. Up walking around like it never happened,” a rehab nurse told me.

I, however, was not up walking around like nothing happened. Mom was only recently dead and my emotional and physical well ran Mojave dry. A one-way trip to Dante’s fifth circle of hell would have been more restful than bringing that old woman into my home, what with her bellyaching about any number of woes, including her beloved Danny. That bullet he launched back in ’81 was still flying, still hitting targets in my life. By rights, his mother should have been his problem in his home. Instead, I sent her back to hers, accessorized with a webcam.

Now, she had stayed with me for a couple of brief periods, knew my dogs, doled out love to them in the form of too many Milk-Bones, not unlike the Little Debbie cakes of my youth. They were friendly spaniels of the hunting variety, though their hunting prowess was limited to treeing squirrels and homing in on the most comfortable of couch cushions.

So when I drove her from rehab back to her house, I brought the dogs. Her eyes narrowed into skeptical little slits as I had a webcam installed above her front door. Told her it was a new-fangled smoke detector. She seemed unconvinced. Lost interest in doling out Milk-Bones. The dogs were not the amusing distraction I’d intended.

The sun dropped; her agitation rose. She was back on home turf after months away, the only place she’d ever lived with the exception of her childhood home, a half mile up the road, and a brief stint in California with my granddad in his Air Force days. I intended to stay a few nights to settle her in. That was my plan, not hers.

I took to reading a newspaper. The dogs took to the davenport. It was beige and flowered, and though it dated from the mid-80s, it was the newest-looking thing in a living room it shared with a burnt-out console television (circa 1970) and a brown-and-white carpet (circa 1960) worn thin as muslin.

No one ever sat on that couch, and I did not recognize that she’d be damned twice over before she let it become a dog bed. She chased them off. The younger one, the more compliant of the pair, turned ’round and ’round till she tamped down a spot on the carpet, ignoring clear evidence that it had been tamped out decades back. She settled in. The older one, jowly, a lovably grumpy Walter Matthau in canine form, had bones that needed a proper rest. He took to the couch again. I fussed at him under Grandma’s glowering, pulled him off by the collar. I settled back into the paper.

Rinse and repeat. Where I saw his obstinacy as comical, Grandma saw an assault on her homestead. She scurried to my grandpa’s bedroom and I heard the rattle of a metal closet door. Spaniel-style, I cocked my head, stilled the newspaper’s rattle, and then the horrible-terrible dawned on me. She kept a shotgun there, a weapon used solely for dispatching groundhogs and other such country nuisances that took up residence under the shed or other nooks and crannies where they had no business.

Country nuisances like the dogs. Like me.

She had both hands on it when I reached from behind her, at once gripping the barrel and the butt. I did not know if she kept it loaded, and I jerked it into her chest, hoping she couldn’t trip the trigger. It was a brief battle, me angling the muzzle to the ceiling, but made intense by the surprising upper body strength of an eighty-six-year-old woman who’d spent a lifetime tending her two-and-a-half-acre plot. I raised the barrel over her head and spun the gun in a manner that forced her hold to break, thankful that her arthritis became my ally. She scowled. I panted.

“Have you lost your mind? You go sit back down now,” I commanded.

She obeyed. But like the dog in his dogged attempts to return to the couch, her scheming did not stop.

I took to a wingback opposite her, one hand balancing the gun across my knees, not sure of the proper course following a potential homicide perpetuated by a grandmother.

She jerked up again, a quick shuffle to the kitchen. Again, the rattle of metal, this time from a utensil drawer. Before I could reach her, she swung around with an oversized fillet knife. She stepped toward me, stabbing it my way, backing me up through the living room and to the front door.

I still held the rifle. It occurred to me that I’d found myself in a knife fight. And I’d brought a gun.

“I’m leaving!” I said. “But you need to let me get my dogs and put some shoes and socks on. You sit down and let me do those things. It’s freezing out there.”

This must have struck her as a reasonable request because she backed into her recliner, telling me to hurry up, knife tip waving at me like a swaying cobra all the while.

I opened the door for the dogs, the older one grumbling as he slid off the davenport, and outside, I called the police. The first officer to arrive was a woman I’d graduated high school with, one who remembered riding bikes with me out to Grandma’s. “Always had candy waiting,” she said. We made small talk as more cruisers arrived, the officers first trying to charm their way into the stucco house, and when it was clear Grandma was engaged in a full-on standoff, they slammed at the oak door with its wide glass window until the lock gave way.

Until that moment, that door had been the soundest thing in the whole house.

I handed the gun to an officer, who found it wasn’t loaded and after some sort of negotiation with my grandmother, another returned with the knife.

“Could have done some damage,” he said.

We knew she just wanted to be alone, wouldn’t hurt herself or anyone else. No social workers were called. She wasn’t carted off to an institution. There are advantages to the kind of small town where everyone knows everyone else. We left her be to sleep off the night’s confusion and irritation.

As I drove away, I could see her shadow behind the blinds, knew she was trying to figure out how to make the broken lock lock. She was standing directly under the webcam. I hoped she wouldn’t notice its red light and knock it down.

In the morning, I returned with groceries. Her mood was recalibrated, the night’s homicidal tendencies forgotten. The camera was intact. Probably I was not. My magician’s mathematics kicked in, and I disappeared at the first reasonable opportunity, though I visited weekly to stock fresh groceries and fresh underwear and the like. Between, I watched, sometimes more, sometimes less.

Then my uncle called and the paramedics arrived and the grand finale for thirty years of dyin’ was commencing, I was sure.

In the emergency room, a bulbous mask swallowed her face, pushing oxygen into her lungs and I took her hand, clammy and warm, the nails yellowed and too long. She had always worn her nails too long.

“Grandma, it’s me, I’m here.”

She turned to look at me, and I tried for my best comforting face. This was the moment, the one she’d talked about for three decades. The dress in the closet. The papers in the safe. The closed casket. A well-laid plan to be executed in a few days, I was sure.

“You’ll get to see your son,” I said. “You’ll see Danny soon.”

The words she muttered were swallowed up by the mask and the machine’s pumping air. I continued.

“Your mom will be there. Your dad, too.” As many times as I’d heard stories about them, I could not remember their names.

Her head shook in agitation, but she remained muzzled by the mask. They get agitated sometimes when death is near, I knew. We were close.

“It’s okay, Grandma. I love you, too. You don’t have to say anything. You rest.”

She released my hand, and fumbled with the mask, her irritation crystallizing into determination. I leaned forward and lifting one side of the plastic, put my ear nearer her mouth. Here they came. The last words of a dying woman.

“I have to poop!” she shouted.

It wasn’t even a whisper-shout. It was forceful and alive and I knew right off that the reaper had come knocking, but she’d opened the door armed with a shotgun and a fillet knife and he had the good sense to move along.

“What do you want?” she continued. “Do you want me to die?”

I’m sure I sighed audibly. I replaced the mask. “I’ll get the nurse,” I said.

Afterward, she went to a nursing home, one I never visited. I had no more caretaking left in me. Not once did I go to visit.

A nurse from the home called a couple of months later, said Grandma had taken a turn, but she’d probably pull through. “Should I come?” I asked.

“I think she’ll be all right.”

“Let me know if anything changes. I’ll come.”

She called a couple of hours later. Grandma was gone. She apologized for not having a better sense of the timing.

“Don’t feel bad, really,” I said.

She died in a nursing home, alone, and maybe I should have felt guilty about that, but I never have. Death moves in fits and starts, and when it catches, it might take off fast as a gunshot, but it’s a master of the long game too, content to lay out a slow hand over months or years or decades. A body can’t stop life to wait for death.

She was buried in the black dress hanging back of the closet. There were no flowers. Her mourners were myself and a niece and a nephew. The casket appeared only at the graveside. Closed, of course.

Her burial vault was a dark gray granite, topped with a silver sheet of metal engraved with her name and the years of her birth and death. The characters were a foot tall. The effect was at once simple and spectacular, the single nicest thing she ever bought. Not once had she ever mentioned it. Not once.

Tonya Maxwell is a former newspaper journalist who draws a direct line between her childhood and a career that oft had her chasing death in its many forms. When she is not writing, she is quilting or hiking or chastising her dog for sneaking on the bed.

About The Mourning Show—This is one in a series of writings that explore my encounters with death.