A Winter Vigil

Christmas lights and snow
Photo by Sarah Salcedo

Christmas lights twinkle outside Grandma’s hospice window. They wave in the wind on thin bare branches, a rainbow of beacons to let her know what time of year it is. I watch the tinseled twigs instead of her—she wouldn’t want anyone to see her like this: no makeup, no silk scarf tied around her neck, her teeth discreetly removed so the line of her lips curl inward, not outward in their usual elven half-smirk. I inherited my smile from her, something I realize only now that it’s missing on her face. Her brow has been furrowed all week, giving the impression of someone wanting to wake up, frustrated at not being heard. Up until tonight, I’ve felt her here, wanting to wake up and enchant us with stories one last time.

My sisters and I have been singing Christmas carols to her all week. Another gift I inherited from her. Her voice, whether singing or speaking, sound like chimes being struck in the wind—silver and light. It was often at odds with her favorite subjects: she liked a good murder mystery, traded family injury stories with relish and spared no gory detail, and once, when I’d told her that a movie we were about to watch was a bit too violent, arched an eyebrow and said, “Dear, I’ve been on this earth for over eight decades. I’ve seen my fair share of knives in the back.” That is the voice I keep hoping to hear: musical and elegant, wicked and wise-cracking. Her hands, stiffened around a tennis ball on what is now the twelfth day of her coma, relax when we run through her favorites: O Holy Night, Silent Night, The First Noel. The lines of her jaw—as if you can feel her impatience with her condition, held fast within her own unresponsive body—releases as she listens to us.

But tonight, her face is relaxed without needing to hear us sing. Her chest rises and falls with imperceptibly soft, metered-out breaths. Something has shifted. She is no longer present within the chrysalis of her body, her steel-silver hair swept back from her face, her hands waiting at her side. Her spirit has gone wandering.

No one else around me seems to feel it, but there is a draft of cold air that finds us through closed windows and draftless corridors. I feel her fleeing, sprung from a cage, as if a string is tied from me to her and the chord has been plucked, resonating somewhere down the coast. Her spirit is a translucent leaf on the winter wind—she folds time and space around herself, soaring to old places that she makes her current haunts. She turns before passing through the wall and smirks at me, and a piece of me is pocketed with her as she leaves. Our bodies are left behind in the room where she lays, where I am and my family wait, but part of me is following her as she manifests in all the places to which her soul is drawn.

She is looking for things, for trails, for markers of who and what she was. As she gathers up these things she knows she needs—she was a great reader of ghost stories and she knows the pressure that is on a soul hours before death to complete one’s unfinished business—I feel her worry that she won’t be able to reassemble a sense of who she was in time.

Her coma has separated that sense from her. Alzheimer’s this last year has worn away more than the tide takes from the shore. She knows it's her last chance to reclaim it—she is flashing through her life, flipping through it like pages in a book. She is in Oakland, checking on the location of her old home and her brother, Chic. She is in Texas, visiting grandchildren and great-grandchildren, then in Everett and Renton and Marysville and Snohomish, kissing foreheads and imposing goodbyes into the air around her relatives. She is in Southern California, visiting her younger brother, Tommy. She sees the lane where she had her first kiss. The department store where she met Bernie, my grandfather.

In Oakland, the movie theatre that she and Tommy went to was bulldozed for a strip mall years ago. She floats before the spot where it was, re-remembering how they hid under the seats to try and sneak a double feature whenever there would be blackouts during the War. The manager would have to make her go home to their worried Mother, but Grandma could’ve watched movies all day. She remembers the comic books they used to buy when she was young. Her favorites were Batman comics—she had such a crush on the Dark Knight.

She visits the home where she raised her three boys, all of whom she’s about to leave behind, in Snohomish. Where there was once a great forest that her youngest son, my father, would run into to have adventures, there was now a road and a claustrophobic cluster of factory-made homes. She almost lands, almost calls out their names. But then she’s off to the next location. She does not turn. She will not let me see that she’s afraid.

I understand why she would be, as my mind follows after her, while the rest of me continues to sing to her body in her hospice room. Who will welcome her on the other side? Who has gone on before her? Do the dead come to you, drawn to your passing like a moth to a lantern, a beacon from one side to the next? Her parents have long since passed—will she see either of them? If she sees both, she fears she’ll have to pick a favorite like they made her do when she was small, before divorce was a common thing that she would white-knuckle resist in her own marriage, when they dragged her into court as a child to make her testify—

Will she see Grandpa? Her friends are still on Earth. Her brothers are still here. Her children, of course, are still here. She is glad for that, for them, her daughters-in-law, for her grandchildren.

But she hesitates. Stops in the cold air above the Sierra Nevadas. She does not know where to go next except for back to her hospice room, back into her body, one last time.

I feel her confidence shifting to a panicked ‘what’s next’? She flickers between who she is, 89 and wise as owls, and who she was, the girl in her emerging so often over the last year of strokes caused by Alzheimer’s. She’s been giggling more, forgetting to act the part of matriarch who has had to be responsible for everyone else for so long. This year, she’s just been Lori. She’s been talking the last several months about her Daddy, about Tommy, as if she’s still back in Oakland. She tells me jokes I’ve never heard from her before and tells me stories she’s been saving for the secret edge of her life. Truly, she’s begun pulling up the tent poles of her life before tonight, but now it’s all come down to these final moments. She’s searching, looking for clues, cataloging her life and weighing its worth, wishing someone would take her by the hand and say, ‘this way, Lorraine, it will be okay’.

I move over to her bedside in the hospice and place my hand over hers. It feels colder than a few hours ago. I lean close to her cheek, bowled inwards, and whisper: You were always the brave one for everyone in your life. If you go forward now, whether or not there’s anyone waiting to welcome you, you’ll prepare the way for the rest of us.

A howling wind rustles the lights in the courtyard for a moment before settling down. I feel her out there, way beyond the room, making that final decision. Like the ice webbing itself against the window, it is beautiful, firm, and sad. But being strong doesn’t mean she isn’t afraid. Being ready doesn’t mean you want to let go. I am back in the room fully now, but I can barely feel her, despite her soft hand in mine. She is still far away, asking questions of the wind.

My family is all still singing. My father is huddled over her, my mother has her arms around him. My sisters have been doing Grandma’s hair, her nails, putting on a her silk scarf, one last time. It’s important to her that we see her a certain way. She had to be put together for so long.

Tears bead on the tips of her eyelashes.

It will be okay, Grandma, I whisper so no one else can hear. You’ll find a way.

Then the room is full of her, like a fire roaring to life, forcing back the cold stillness. Everyone begins to cry, moved by a sudden pressure in the air, like a storm brewing outside, without understanding what has prompted it. The slightest fluttering of movement flickers beneath my fingers—her hand struggling to squeeze back.

For a moment, I wonder if she is rallying, but she waits just long enough over the next hour to say goodbyes to the loved ones who have gathered at her bedside. I cry as I feel the room empty of her, feel the world grow a little dimmer, the bright silver star of her vanishing from sight.

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lights
Photo by Sarah Salcedo

I find her standing in my living room the day after she dies, the impression of her form displacing the air around her, like the afterimages of bright lights. She had stayed with us the year before she got too sick to live without a nurse. I wonder if we feel safe, or at least just familiar. I wonder if it’s because she knows I can see her and she needs that right now as she transitions.

I feel her confusion. I hear echoes of the music that made up her voice, silver bells and string instruments, resonate around me, but I only hear the melody. No words.

You still haven’t found your way. But you will. You always have.

I sit with her and tell her stories about herself every day. I set up her picture in my kitchen and I bake the lemon bread recipe she taught me, and talk to her as I grate the lemons. Grandma had been the giver of stories all throughout my life—books inscribed with her lovely cursive at Christmas, on my birthday, tales of her Grandfather “the Portugese pirate” and her Mom’s search for her birth mother, her father’s family in England, stories of her boys growing up, her jobs, her attempts at writing, her time in choir, the way her Dad used to sing and play instruments. I give these stories back to her, retelling them to a seemingly empty room except for the feeling of someone waiting, someone looking for direction, someone checking in.

I tell her these stories until one day, she does find her way to whatever door exists between our plane and something more. When the corners of the room that held her energy finally fade, her stories remain like canyons carved by glaciers that have melted away, cut deep into bedrock of who I am, creating a new terrain to explore for all the stories I have yet to tell.

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