Come Home To Me
A Short Story
When Gramps summons her home to Boston, looking for permission to die yet again, Michele returns home determined to say no. She doesn’t expect her grandfather to share a journal he’s been writing and the secret he’s been keeping for five years. He’s determined, too, to convince her to help him make the long journey home.
“I’ve finally collided with that brick wall,” Gramps said, his voice barely audible on her answering machine. Michele’s folded her arms over her stomach as she backed away from the news. She knew him well enough to know what he really wanted. He wanted her to come home. He wanted her blessing. He wanted her permission to die . . . again.
She hated hospitals. The last time she’d been inside Massachusetts General, five years before, her Nana had died, but still she couldn’t deny Gramps’ request. She owed him everything—her love of opera, her passion for travel, and her current internship at Juilliard in New York was only possible because Gramps had encouraged her dream. He was her only family. Now she followed the signs to his room on the third floor, determined not to give in to his foolishness. Like a stone, she would show no mercy.
Debbie Montmore, R.N., met her half way to his room. She was more than the nurse on duty. She’d been his student when Gramps had worked as a school counselor. Now a family friend, she’d been Gramps’ main medical consultant over the last ten years.
“He really wants to do it this time, doesn’t he?” Michele couldn’t do small talk.
Debbie grabbed her and hugged her close. “His lungs aren’t strong enough anymore. A ventilator is his only option, which means he’ll be tied to a machine for the rest of his life. He doesn’t want that. Nobody would.”
Michele’s throat closed, making it hard to breathe. She’d known things had changed. Gramps had been carrying around portable oxygen for as long as she could remember. He’d been in rehab for the last four weeks, but he’d refused to let her travel north from New York City to visit him. His lungs had been deteriorating for so long, but even so, she wouldn’t be convinced.
She eased out of Debbie’s motherly embrace. “He’s had his ups and downs before.”
Debbie nodded. “We almost lost him too many times.”
Michele hated that Debbie talked about him if he were a key misplaced in someone’s pocket. “I’m not going to let him go. He’s all I have.”
“It’s not your choice.”
“He always listens to me.”
“Maybe for once you should listen to him.”
That hurt. She wasn’t the unreasonable one here. “Can I see him now?”
“He’s waiting for you. He made me remove his nasal oxygen. He’s trying to put up a good front, but don’t be fooled.”
“But why . . .” That didn’t make sense. “If he’s so ill, why is he pretending to be strong?”
Debbie’s confident gaze wavered. “He doesn’t want you to see him weak or struggling, but he is–”
“Dying.” There she’d said it. The one word she’d sworn she wasn’t going to say. Or even think about. And her cheeks were already wet. No. She couldn’t get weepy.
“It’s a quality of life issue,” Debbie said.
Michele scoured her bag for a tissue. That wasn’t the reason why her grandfather wanted to throw his life away. “Not for him it isn’t.” Her Gramps was after one thing–he wanted to join her Nana.
Debbie pursed her lips. “We all love him, Michele. I know it’s hard.”
Michele’s chest tightened as she made her way to his room. Gramps’ voice echoed into the hallway. From the doorway he looked hospital pale. In this last year, she’d neglected to notice how fragile he’d grown. Or, maybe, she was just being obstinate, refusing to notice. Now that’s all she saw. In his blue and white hospital gown, his thin gray hair pushed back from his face, he held his glasses, which he swore he could no longer see out of, in one hand, while he grasped his cell phone in the other. His chest heaved with the effort.
“It will be all right, son.” Gramps was talking, most likely, to one of his students from years ago. Saying goodbye?
He’d done that once before, after Nana had died, when his lungs had taken a turn for the worse, determined then to go to her. He’d rung up people one by one. Somehow Michele had managed to talk him out of it.
The call was over. Michele stepped into the room, shaking her head. She sniffed as she gingerly sat down on the bed next to him. “I know what this is all about.” She pressed her face against his chest. “No way. No way.”
Her grandfather gave the best hugs in the world. He always smelled like rosemary, and sage, like Italian cooking, like all his soups that used to simmer on the stove. To her it meant enduring love. But now the odor of room fresheners and hospital antiseptic seemed to drown out the essence of who he was.
“My Michele,” he said. “I’m glad you’re here.”
She met his gaze. “I know what you want.”
He took her hand and stroked it. “Things have changed.”
“People have survived in worse situations than you’re in now, Gramps. And they fight to live. You’re only seventy. You won’t be able to convince me.”
But he didn’t seem to be listening to her. “Michele, something’s happened.” He pointed to the bottom drawer. “I put it there for safe keeping.”
What was he talking about? “What?”
She peeked in and heaved a sigh of relief. A book was shoved against the metal drawer frame. “It’s your journal.”
“Hand it over,” Gramps said. “I want you to see this.”
He’d begun a journal months after her Nana had died. Losing her had driven him to grief counseling, and Jessie, his counselor, had suggested he write to help deal with losing the woman he loved. Gramps opened the leather bound book. Michele expected the garden-variety Dear Diary entries, a painful recounting of his now lonely life.
“Here. Read this so you’ll understand.”
She didn’t want to. “Gramps.” She shook her head. “They’re too personal. I can’t read–”
But he cut her off and pushed the journal into her hands. “Just read.”
She backed away from him and settled into the visitor’s chair near his bed.
My darling El,
The sweet salutation stopped Michele cold. She hadn’t known her grandfather had turned his journal into letters to her Nana. But, of course, she should have guessed. Given the task to write, who else would he have written to?
I watched you lie still on the floor that morning, when I didn’t have the breath in my lungs to breathe you back to life. I had to let you go. I know you’re gone. I went to your funeral. I buried you. You’ve been gone for four months.
Then why can I still feel you all around me? You watch me from the doorway. I turn around, convinced you’re there wearing that crooked smile, your arms folded, leaning against the door frame, and when I close my eyes, I hear your laugh.
Late at night I hear the faintest hum of that Jerry Vale song you used to sing the summer we met. Non Dimenticare. For the longest time you practiced singing it in Italian, making up the words you didn’t know, humming the parts you couldn’t remember. Until finally one day I remember you burst out laughing because the words were half Italian, half English and didn’t make any sense, but you didn’t care.
After your funeral, when I turned on the radio in the kitchen, it was tuned to the station you liked to listen to on Sunday. The one with the Oompa music. I don’t have the heart to change it, even when baseball season starts. I listen to that crazy music, and I pretend you’re in the kitchen and that any minute you’ll walk through that door with a cup of coffee for me.
Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I can smell bacon frying. I stumble to the kitchen, convinced I’ll find you huddled over the stove, but the burners are cold and, there’s only a bacon smell lingering in the air, wedged between the walls, like a strong memory that I’ve dreamed to life.
Last week that book you were reading the afternoon your heart decided to stop beating lay opened on the kitchen table, the page turned down to mark your place. I pretended you’d walked away for a second to stir the sauce and were coming back. I took that book back to the library months ago, but there it was mocking my efforts to let you go.
Sometimes I try to cry myself to sleep or pray for your death to be a mistake or I bargain with God, and hope that I’ll wake up and find you still here beside me. It’s pathetic, I know. I wish I could convince myself all this time has been only a bad dream.
But I know you’re gone, El. I know you can’t come back. So I must be mad with grief.
El, I hear you whisper in the darkness. I feel you touch me on the shoulder. It can only be your touch. Light as a bird, fluttering to a stop on a branch. If I’m not mad, and I think I might be, then I’ve either found a way back into the past, our past, or you’ve found a way to come back to me. Either way, I don’t care, as long as I can feel you around me. I want to believe you’re here with me. I have to believe it.
My darling, I’ve taken to keeping the night light on over the sink, so you won’t trip (like you used to) on that rag rug we bought at the flea market together.
Others live with death. They lose the one person they love more than anyone in the world and somehow manage to get up the next morning and get on with their life. They are content to live with memories. Am I a coward then to refuse to live life without you?
Have I made you up? Am I pretending that even though you’re dead, you’re still alive, in this house, with me? Jessie says I have to learn to let go.
Each week I sit with her and promise to try, but I’m lying so she won’t look at me with pity in her eyes. The truth is nothing has any meaning anymore. Without you I’m nothing. I can’t laugh alone . . .
There were a hundred such entries. Love letters. Day after day he wrote to her. But Michele couldn’t read anymore.
She rifled through the pages until she came to the prayer card from her Nana’s funeral, the worst day of her grandfather’s life.
Was that what he was trying to tell her? Had he gone mad with grief? Had he conjured his El up out of thin air because he couldn’t stand the thought of not having her in his life? She had to know.
Michele stared at the blotted black ink on the page, then dared to meet her grandfather’s gaze. “Was Nana there or . . . ?” But she couldn’t bring herself to say it.
Her grandfather’s eyes widened. “I didn’t know. How could it be?” Her grandfather reached out for the journal, and she handed it back. His voice dropped to a whisper, a foreboding kind of whisper, as if what he had to tell her, he feared was more than anyone could stand to hear. “You see it took a while before it happened.”
She was almost afraid to ask. “Before what happened?”
Her grandfather fell against his pillows, his breathing shallow and ragged. “Your grandmother had her heart attack on October 3. We buried her on October 6. I started writing to her in January . . .” He stopped to catch his breath.
In early February, her grandfather’s lungs had almost collapsed. He’d talked about dying then. Michele had known all he could think about was going to her, being with his El.
“I remember,” Michele said. “But you got better. And these last five years haven’t been so bad–”
He waved her explanation aside with his hand. “This is what I want to show you.” He opened the journal to another page. “Here.” Shoving the journal at her, he fiercely pointed his finger down, past February, to an entry in mid March.
The handwriting, bigger and loopier, jumped out at her. It didn’t resemble his tiny scrawl. She examined the script.
Michele’s hand shook as she shifted her gaze from the familiar salutation to her grandfather’s face.
He wore a funny apologetic look. “Read it.”
It is hard to spend the days apart, but we will be together soon, I promise. We will be reunited, and we will walk together hand and hand under the stars. But for now you must persevere for Michele’s sake. You are all she has left, and she needs you. Be strong, my darling. I am here with you every step of the way.
“She was worried about you,” he said.
Tears clogged Michele’s throat.
Her grandfather was smiling again. “She asked me to wait.”
It wasn’t possible.
“I know you recognize her handwriting,” he said, in a half-knowing, half-accusing fashion.
Yes, from the many notes sent over the years. But how could she have written in this journal that he’d begun writing after she died?
“That’s why I changed my mind five years ago,” he said. “It wasn’t time to leave. I still had you to take care of. You meant the world to her.”
Michele stared at the words. “Gramps, Nana died.”
“I know she did.”
“You can’t bring her back. Nobody can.”
“I know what you’re thinking, and at first I thought I’d really gone crazy.” His eyes teared. “I missed her so much, at first I thought I imagined what she’d written. I kept on opening to the page. Each time I expected her note to be gone. But it didn’t disappear.”
Her grandfather eased the journal out of Michele’s hands. “Then I realized,” he said, smiling. “Somehow she’d found a way to come back.”
“Gramps, it can’t be.”
Her grandfather patted her hand. “How else can you explain it? You can see for yourself she’s somehow managed–”
“But I can’t believe Nana, I–”
“That’s why I didn’t tell you. You would have thought I was crazy–”
Before Michele could offer a further protest, Debbie was back, looming in the doorway like a threatening cloud on the horizon. “You need to rest for awhile. I mean it. No talking.” She folded her arms across her chest. “Can you hear yourself wheezing?”
Reluctantly, her grandfather nodded. Gramps rarely listened to anybody, but he obediently shut his eyes.
Michele should have heard the change in his breathing from even a few minutes ago, but she’d been too caught up in his story. Without the oxygen, he’d had to struggle even with the simple act of talking. Now, lying there, his breathing seemed to return to normal. Then, he stopped breathing.
Panic rose in Michele’s chest. She jumped from the bed. “Debbie, he–”
But he grasped for an awkward breath. Then another.
Debbie sighed. “It takes a lot out of him to talk without his oxygen. Right now he needs to rest.”
Michele pointed to the journal. “Did you know about this?”
Debbie shrugged. “He told me only yesterday what he found.”
“How do you explain it?”
“The funny thing is,” Michele said. “It is my Nana’s handwriting.”
Debbie shrugged. “You mustn’t let him get so excited.”
The journal slipped from his lap. Michele picked it up, and held it in her arms. He’d always believed in their love. And now she wanted to believe in a love so strong life could be conjured out of sheer desperation. If anyone could lure her Nana back to life, it would be her grandfather.
No sooner had she thought that when Gramps’ eyes popped open. “Do you understand what’s happened?” he asked.
Michele was struggling to understand. “Nana came back because you loved her so much.”
“No.” His brow wrinkled. He lowered his voice. “I don’t think she ever left. All along she was letting me know she was still there.”
Debbie slipped between them. “If you’re going to insist on talking, I’m going to insist you wear this.” She repositioned the small tubes of oxygen underneath her grandfather’s nose. This time he didn’t resist.
Michele took his hand. How could she argue with him when he believed it so strongly. And she couldn’t explain how her grandmother’s writing had made its way into the journal. “I hope I’m as lucky as you to find someone who loves me as much as Nana loved you.”
“As I loved her,” he added.
“Even though it hurts when you lose someone.”
He squeezed her hand. “But it’s worth it. The pain. The loss you feel. Don’t be afraid to take a chance. With your young man, I mean.”
Her heart shook. “How did you—Gramps, I didn’t tell you about him. You had enough to worry about, and I wasn’t sure how you’d feel about me dating when I’m supposed to be focused on the internship–” She’d wanted to tell Gramps so much about Alex, but she hadn’t wanted to upset him.
Gramps held up the journal. “Nana told me.”
Gramps nodded. He reopened the journal. “Two days ago I found this.”
Michele almost didn’t want to read what her Nana had written. He was going to use Nana’s words to convince her. “I know you miss her. Each day without her must seem so empty, so pointless, especially . . . ”
Her grandfather handed the journal to her. “Read it.”
Michele’s vision blurred as she stared at the entry.
Come home to me.
But when you say goodbye to Michele, remember to tell her about the night you proposed. There’s a young man in her life now, his name is Alex; and it’s important she understand that love can stand the test of time.
I don’t think we ever told her about that night, how we laid on the roof of your old car and stared up at the stars for hours. And how we made a wish on those stars, that we would be together always. I didn’t want the night to end. You held my hand so gently and said no matter what happened, we would never be parted. Since then, I’ve never been afraid. I’ve always known we’d make it through somehow, and we would have a life together.
It was a good life.
Even these last five years. I’ve been here beside you. All this time I’ve watched and waited. We’ve never really been apart.
And now it’s time, my darling, for you to come home to me.
Debbie Montmore appeared at the door. “Your room is ready.” She turned to Michele. “Wait until you see it. Like a fancy hotel room.”
Hospice. Debbie didn’t say the word. But Michele knew they would make Gramps comfortable. Begin the morphine drip. All very humane. What Gramps wanted.
“We have time?” Michele hated that her voice waivered.
“Plenty of time yet,” Debbie lied, too cheerfully.
Her grandfather’s gaze flickered. Michele held his hand, lukewarm to the touch. “Your Nana’s waiting for me.”
True love trumped everything. Michele understood the love between Gramps and Nana was stronger than anyone could have imagined.
Michele tried to return the journal to her grandfather, but he motioned her to keep it. She nodded. She finally understood. She was there to let her grandfather go home. Gramps wanted her blessing. She wouldn’t let him see her cry. “I guess it’s time to go then, Gramps.”
“Your Nana needs me now.”
As Debbie wheeled Gramps down the hall, Michele closed her eyes and imagined her Gramps and Nana young and strong again.
Nana would be smiling, her arms open, welcoming. Hands clasped, they would be together at last under the stars.
Nothing, not his failed breathing, not her failed heart would ever tear them apart again.