By Deborah L. Staunton
Each of us is here to discover our true Self,,,
that essentially we are spiritual beings
who have taken manifestation in physical form,,,
that we’re not human beings that have occasional spiritual experiences,,,
that we’re spiritual beings that have occasional human experiences.
Somewhere in the far reaches of my mind I hear her calling. Coming instantly out of an already light sleep, I am awake, alert, lucid. In soft cotton socks like cat’s paws, I make my way down the stairs and through the darkened kitchen to the doorway of her room. The thudding of my heart seems strong and powerful enough to sustain us both.
The buglight, mounted just outside her window, throws a beam of harsh yellow light across her bed, coloring the room in illness. It silhouettes the high cheekbones of her thin, wrinkled face, draining away any trace of animation that might have been there. She lies motionless on her back, eyes closed, face tilted upward toward heaven… or maybe the ceiling. This unnatural state of inertia has shrouded her sleep for many months. Standing in the stillness, I search for the courage to move closer. Not tonight, please not tonight.
As I lean down to listen for a breath and to watch for the rise of her chest, my own breath is cut short in a fear-induced synchronicity with hers. I’m here Gram, I heard you, I’m here. And then, cutting into the silence, a sharp intake of air, the rise and fall of her chest, and she gives me back my breath, deep inhalations of relief. Thank you, Gram. Thank you for breathing and for giving me one more day to make amends.
Pulling a chair over, I sit by her head and stroke her hair. How easy it is to be kind in the darkness where our demons lurk to remind us of the evil we ignore in the brilliance of the morning sun. There is no escape from this dance of cruelty I do. With every spoon I bring to her lips, with every trip to the bathroom, every adjusted pillow or change in position, I am a little less gentle, a little less caring, a little more angry, a little more weary. I dance on in a frenzied song of resentment, building to a crescendo of guilt until finally, the sun begins to set and all is quiet again.
As I sit here by her frail, sleeping form, I long to crawl in under the covers and curl up next to her like I did as a child. But my child-self will not find what she is looking for. She will find, instead, adult anger and the shadow of something left behind.
It’s so hot. My nightgown clings to my damp body. I can’t breathe. I try but I am suddenly racked with a deep, raspy, uncontrollable cough. From somewhere in the darkness I hear her voice.
“It’s okay darling, cough it up. I’ll stay with you. I’ll stay right here.” I am nine years old, she’s close and I’m safe. Then suddenly the coughing begins again and my adult self reaches out to comfort her in a painful role reversal. Where did you go Gram? She forgot my name today as she spoke of those from sixty years ago. The pictures in her mind are sharp, clear, and alive with color as she recalls a young girl on a long-ago voyage bravely stepping into a new and foreign land. Seven siblings wait patiently in Europe for the time when they too can take that journey. A younger brother and sister join her in America, as five others, seven nieces and nephews, and both parents are sent to Auschwitz. There are four survivors. And as they arrive, one by one, the indelible marks of Hitler’s camps are etched as deeply and permanently in her heart as they are on the delicate flesh of her sister’s arms.
I am enraptured as much by her voice as by the story it brings forth. At twelve I could hardly wait for winter break and the chance to hear that voice again. Rushing into her six-story Bronx building, I welcomed the familiar clang of apartment doors as their echoes rang out in the empty corridors. Curled in a chair in a corner of her small, safe kitchen, reflections of my girlhood spilling forth, I shared all my secrets and then begged for hers.
What are you secrets now, Gram? The pictures in my mind are clear and vibrant too, memories rich in color as the fuzzy blacks and whites of today slowly fade into washed out shades of grey. Was it just last night that she called out in her sleep? Last week? Two hours ago? Two months? My spirit aches with the pain of her disease while hers remains bright and strong in spite of it.
She had an extraordinary way of instilling confidence at my most vulnerable times. At nine, a metal cart stuffed with groceries between us, I walked with her toward the tiny concession stand she ran in the middle of an enormous golf course. The open expanse of land provided no protection from the oppressive city heat or the golf balls that flew across the sky without warning. My fear of being hit with one nearly paralyzed me until the steady, familiar rhythm of her voice assured me that she wouldn’t allow it to happen. An instant later the wind shifted and a small white blur flew past my ear and landed in the basket just inches away. Adrenaline pumping and heart pounding, I was indignant. “See Gram. I told you! I told you!” She turned slowly to face me and putting her hand gently on my shoulder, she asked, “Did I let it hit you?”
Standing, I bend down to kiss the top of her head.
“Goodnight Gram,” I whisper, “See you in the morning.”
The words lie heavy on my tongue, resonating with the nakedness of the plea behind them. As I turn to go, she reaches for my hand in the darkness.
Looking up at me through eyes that have seen and endured so much, she says, “It’s not good to be sick. Get married soon so I can come to your wedding.”
“I will Gram, I will.”
As I utter the now familiar promise, a new and overwhelming significance embodies my words. A keen awareness of her need to be a part of this milestone shades the exchange with an unnatural sense of power. If I hold out on my promise, she’ll hold out on hers. As mind and body deteriorate, we continue to make promises and each day we struggle separately to keep them. When someone dies, we are told so often that it is okay to be angry and it’s okay to feel sad, yet we rarely hear those words when the person we are mourning is still alive.
Returning to the room above hers, I fall into another light sleep. In this dream state, she comes to me. I hear her in the hallway, and there she is at the top of the stairs on strong and sturdy legs. Her cheeks are plump and flushed with color and I am eager to unravel my thoughts on her like balls of yarn from a basket. We speak together with voices as unused as the legs she now stands on. The rightness of the situation, the certainty that we have achieved clarity in the midst of a haze, reminds us of who we are. We have returned to each other. Like an unfocused photograph, the clarity begins to fade as morning arrives and the day takes on the fuzzy edges of reality.
Making my way to her room with knots of tension forming in my shoulders, I am relieved to see her awake and animated, last night’s events temporarily forgotten in favor of the morning ritual over toast an coffee.
“Take me to the table, Darling. I want to tell you something while we eat.”
“Okay, Gram. Let’s get you into your chair first. Hold my arm. It’s O.K.; I’ve got you. There, that’s right. Now let’s brush your hair.”
“Take me to the table now, O.K. Honey?”
“Yes, Gram we’re on our way.”
“Last night I had a wonderful dream,” she says, “I was walking and I went upstairs. We had a nice talk. It was good to walk again.”
I look up from my paper, meeting her eyes with my own, “I had that dream too, Gram.”
I held my breath and prayed a lot but I knew she was slipping away. And I knew that I could no longer be what she needed nor could I be there when she went. She knew it too, so she waited until I left before she passed away. She would not be at my wedding and I would not marry soon enough for her. Broken promises, like jagged shards of glass, cut into me with the searing pain of injustice.
In dreams, our souls beckon each other, forming a bridge that illuminates the unspoken promises of our continued journey together in the spiritual realm.
It’s been nearly five years. I am not yet married but I continue to keep my promise. And she continues to keep hers. We walk together at night.
Deborah L Staunton holds a B.S. in Early Childhood Education, a B.A. in Theatre Arts and postgraduate credits in Creative Writing. She has pursued her passion for theatre, specifically, stage management and lighting design in New York, Virginia & Pennsylvania and has published articles in Stage Directions, The Sondheim Review, and Amateur Stage as well as contributing theatre reviews to a website called MyLeisureTime.com. She has also utilized her background in infant development by re-writing the child development materials for Harcourt Learning Direct and has published articles in Writers’ Journal and The Acorn. Promises Kept has won Honorable Mention in the EL Dorado Writer’s Guild writing contest and First Place for memoir in the Fiction Writer’s Journey. Deborah is working on a book-length memoir about her journey to become a mother after four miscarriages and has plans for a second one about her daughter’s special needs. She resides on Long Island with her husband Dominic and their children Sophie, six and Sam fourteen months.