Gavin Colton

Bury Me Here

Gavin Colton

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The afternoon my Granny Maire died, I’d been at swimming lessons. I hated swimming. The up and down and up and down the pool. The tepid temperature of the water. The sunken bloodied plasters. The unnatural and exhausting way I had to force my very sinkable nine-year-old body to stay afloat in front of my parents who attended every lesson and watched from the shallow plastic bleachers that ran alongside the pool. I also hated the chlorine, the bleachy, chemical smell. And what it did to my skin, turning my hands into amorphic things, like pudgy pork dumplings, pale and meaty.

     My brother Andrew was with me, him swimming in the fast lane and me in the intermediate. Andrew was the swimmer of the family, with his trim and quick legs and shoulders like bowling balls bursting out of the water, a silky veil glimmering around his body as he torpedoed through the surface in butterfly.

     Our family only had the one car then, a caffeine-coloured Nissan Almera that Da kept clean. We buckled up—Andrew in the passenger and me in the back. Da rolled his fingers around the steering wheel, turned his neck, then his whole torso to tell us that Granny Maire was after dying. He waited a moment, then asked us if we wanted to go and see her. His voice was more calm than usual. And his big, wet eyes and cherry-coloured facial moles looked at me in the backseat. I felt like I was guilty of something. I wasn’t used to questions, having much agency over what I did or where I went yet. I cracked open the can of Coke I’d bought in the vending machine. The jagged metal tab pierced the chemically softened skin on the fat side of my thumb. I sucked the droplet of blood blooming. The shape of the new-smelling polyester backseat bucketed me. I was unable to see Andrew’s face. I so badly wanted to, for some indication of how to react to the news of our granny dying. Andrew tells me now that I was the only one who cried, that I burst into hysterics, heaving against my seatbelt, which pinned me, hugged me in the absence of Ma who was already at the hospice with her sisters and brothers.

     On the short drive to St. James Hospital, it hammered rain. I had to follow the drops on the window because when I closed my eyes, I experienced the sensation of falling from some great and never-ending height. Like the laboured tug of an ancient elevator. The long, honeyed streams formed in strings and enveloped the whole waxy exterior of the car. The radio played a Bee Gees album Da kept in the car for the rare long journeys we took.

     Granny Maire had been moved to hospice care in the days leading up to her death. If I were older then, Ma would have explained to me that a resettlement into hospice care marked the end of hope for Granny, that the nurses would now provide only compassionate care during these last phases of her fight against Cancer, so that she lived and died as comfortably as possible, “like falling asleep on the sofa in your school uniform on a Friday afternoon,” Ma might have said. “You know, when you’re drowning in that lovely four o’ clock sun?” Ma worships the sun. When we would go to the beach on holidays to Spain or Portugal, she’d turn her face to sky, bathe in the beating rays pulsing against her skin and say, “Bury me here.”

     I’d heard the word Cancer plenty by the time I was nine. Friends’ grandparents, parents, neighbours, pets—they died of Cancer. It was something that ate you from the inside. But this was the first time I had to use the word, not just say it. In the days leading up to her death, I reported my granny’s deterioration to my classmates and explained that the cancer was devastating her lungs. The word gave me an air of maturity and strife. I wielded it woefully and explained that I’d eventually have to miss a day for the funeral. “Cancer.” One of our classmate’s dads had died of it and on the day of the funeral our class went to the Mass then stood along the road in a Guard of Honour while the hearse drove crawled up the hill to the graveyard. Having a parent die was worse than a having a grandparent die. But still, they all understood it was something I had permission to be sad about without the worry of being called a name by anyone.

     The hospice was quiet, reverent. I was used to hospitals, Ma dragging me along to visit elderly relatives. I’d watched Ma massage the loose and bruised skin around the bones of my Great Aunty Eileen, who had gifted me a calligraphy set for my First Holy Communion. She fed her sweet, milky tea the colour of leather through a tiny cube of sponge on the end of a plastic stem. I’d still be in my school uniform, doing homework on the dinner tray, and after a while, when Ma was finished talking to the nurses, Eileen would begin to gasp and smack her blue lips until Ma sent me to the nurse’s station for a cup. Ma placed the sponge between Eileen’s false teeth like a precious flower meant for healing. Dip and dab and dip and dab, until all that was left at the bottom of the mug was a bed of undissolved crystals of sugar. “Go give that to the nurse,” Ma would say to me. Eileen’s whole face melted into contentment each time the sopping sponge landed on her tongue, which was swollen and becoming too big for her mouth. Then Eileen hung a limp hand out to me, and I knew to take it. I held it like a piece of important mail, my thumb resting across her arthritic knuckles. The boneless shape of her hand collapsed onto my palm and rolled over, upside down, like a new-born dog on its mother’s gut. Bones floating in a sack of bruised skin. Hers had been the hands that demonstrated calligraphy to me, encased my hand in hers and guided the nib over unlined paper in scratches. Hands that could conjure writing that swirled and bowed from one word to the next, like the shadows of ballerinas. The tea, or my mother’s minor act of dignity, soothed something profound in Eileen. I knew that, despite my age, because there were things that I didn’t need an education in to understand, like Eileen’s hunger for something warm and sweet and familiar on her tongue as she died in enormous pain in a hospital ward full of the sick and the wounded. Strangers.

     Ma took on similar responsibilities when Granny Maire was dying. She communicated with the doctors and nurses and disseminated that information to the brothers and sisters in a way that everyone understood. She bought blouses and underwear from Dunnes Stores. While Granny lay on her deathbed, Ma plated days’ worth of dinners for Granda Frank and my Uncle Paul, wrapped them in glossy cling film, and stored them in their fridge. She drove Granda back and forth from the hospital to visit his wife, her mother. In these moments of my childhood, when Ma was obliged to her sick or dying relatives, Da managed me and Andrew by keeping us on our typical schedule of school and sports and on the weekends, he made extravagant dinners of gamey meats like lamb and pheasant, boiled brussell sprouts, roasted potato halves dipped in duck fat, and baked whole unpeeled carrots in honey and thyme.

     I appreciated that hospitals were scary establishments. “The walking wounded,” Ma used to whisper to me as we passed the cluster of smokers in their gowns and robes outside the automatic door to the Cancer ward. For a child, it was exciting: the constant, belligerent beeping and bleeping of medical machinery, the blinking archaic monitors with their bulbous LED, the quick slash of privacy curtains. What haunted me, though, was the macabre and anonymous groaning of patients in concert with the chipper multilingual conversations of the nurses, who were so used to the sterile and cadaverous world that they thought nothing of it. When I would hear someone in pain in a neighbouring bed that I was visiting, I would panic and stare at the door, waiting for a nurse to rush in. I didn’t want to be in the presence of death.

     In the hospice wing though, everything moved more slowly and noiselessly against the almost negative hum of life support machines and the clank of the vending machine. Upon entering the wing, which was marked by a rise in temperature and the stained-glass windows in the chapel, Da silenced his phone. On the way down the wide hall to Granny Maire’s room, we passed another family, who we knew was also waiting for a family member to die. I watched their faces and tried to tell if they were grieving or not; they weren’t buried in each other’s arms, but that’s not what Irish families do, even in grief.

     Outside Granny’s room, the rest of the family had gathered. Ma’s three brothers—Paul, Brian, and Philip—discussed horse racing and football with a priest who was dressed in his civilian clothes, a testament to Granny’s familiarity with the local clergy. Paul still lived at home. For him, this change—Granny dying—would take the most obvious toll, reliable now on his own care as far as dinner and housekeeping was concerned. He had become an alcoholic early in life and was prone to violent verbal outbursts when he came home, and Granny chastised him in the sitting room. Years later, Ma told me that Brian, the middle brother who she looks the most like, had taken Granny’s ring off her hand and kept it. Not for any financial gain. He never sold it. Just something to hold onto, a part of his Mam’s remains. Brian hugged me and the wet leather of his jacket cooled my face. Philip, the youngest was strait-laced. He worked a good-paying office job and had married a sweet-sounding woman from Belfast; every few months, he picked up me and Andrew and our cousin Archie, took us to Pizza Hut in Blanchardstown, to the pictures, then to his house to sleep over and play video games for longer than we were allowed at home. The priest was discussing plans for the funeral. “The remains” was how he referred to Granny’s body.

     A portly yellow retriever in a service vest sat next to the doorframe to sooth the family as we grieved. Family members patted its head as they went in and out. The smell of cigarettes and cheese and onion crisps whirled. Ma and her two older sisters Ann and Irene were huddled by the bed with Granda Frank, Ann repeating the rosary to herself in one long and whispered hiss, like waves washing in and out of the room. According to Ma, the moment that Granny stopped breathing, Ann shattered into thrills of “She’s dead. She’s dead. She’s dead.” I imagine Ann’s voice, what it would have sounded like, pinging down the hall. They were clutching parts of Granny—her wrist, her ankle, the top of her head flattening the wispy blonde curls the nurses had rolled before she died. Even then I knew Granny would’ve hated to have died having not had her hair done.

     Granda Frank was a slight man, curled into himself next to his wife. The older cousins call him the last great Dubliner. Desperate at dancing and dreadful at singing, but nonetheless enthusiastic about them. At their 50th wedding anniversary at the West County Hotel on the Old Lucan Road, partygoers flocked to Frank, who was sat in a nook in the lobby with a half-drunk pint of Guinness in-hand, for a rendition of “The Monto”. He sang in surprising inflections and over-annunciated eruptions and before each chorus, he drew a gasping breath and nodded his head to his children to join in, pounding his calloused hands together: Take me up to Monto, Monto, Monto. Take me up to Monto, lang-a-roo. To you. It was the only time I saw my grandparents kiss. A swift, closed-lip peck, like two regal birds sharing twigs to build a nest.

     The room was lit only by scentless candles. Upon seeing me and Andrew waiting in the doorway now, he rose from Granny’s bedside and clenched the balls of our shoulders, squeezing us together. “Me sons of Érin,” he said. My aunties left the room and Da guided us up to the bedside, his hands on our spines. A pale blue hospital blanket was pulled neatly across Granny’s chest and her hands were folded gracefully on her bellybutton clasping a string of rosary beads. I had never been beside a dead body before, so I wanted to see what Andrew would do, but he burst into conniptions and ran out to my Aunty Irene. I’d only seen people handle dead bodies on the telly. I supposed I was meant to hold Granny’s hand or pet the hair on her arm like I would a sleeping cat. We were supposed to be tender and doting, yet respectful with the dead. But when I stretched my hand over the boundary of the metal bedframe, the backs of my fingers landed on Granny’s cheek. It was waxy and cold, and I could feel the dusty sensation of make-up. It was somewhere I’d never touched on Granny, not in that way, so slowly, so carefully, so deliberately. I was terrified that she would spring up off the pillow suddenly in some immaculate resurrection, slap my hand, pinch me by the ear, lead me outside and tell me to try the whole thing again. Then I remembered the priest’s words. “The remains.” Part of Granny was already gone, lost. What I was touching wasn’t Granny but something else, parts of her still connected by flesh and bone but not by spirit. Still, I was too afraid to pray in the presence of such a religious and devout woman.

     I hadn’t expected Granny to die that day, while I was swimming. I looked around the room, trying not to look at her face. Such irrelevance had attended her death: her sons’ conversation about the football in the hall, her daughters fussing over the few items of clothes she had folded in the wardrobe, the dog sunk into a hairy puddle, so used to death. During her last moments, Da would have received a text from Ma, something short. It would have arrived on his phone screen silently like a breath. She might have experienced an apparition—her St. Christopher’s medal, which hung around her neck on bright blue twine, glowing on her chest. The voice of her mother, long dead. The whole deathly pull of her ancestors welcoming her. But it’s more likely that she noticed the same things she always did as her lungs betrayed her finally: the starchy scratch of the bed sheets on her bare legs, the discoloration of the paint in the corner of the room from the candle, the silver roots of Irene’s hair, the bang of booze from Paul, the cheek of Granda outside the window smoking a cigarette.

     I wouldn’t have been surprised by a revivification from Granny. She spent much of her life getting close to God, sitting in the front, most prominent pews in St. Matthews Church in Ballyfermot. Many years after Granny had died and our family had abandoned the traditions of our prearranged Catholicism, Ma told me that Granny had once ousted another family from “her seats” at Mass, in front of the entire congregation. Granny believed she had earned this closeness to the altar for her service to the church. She believed in her proximity playing a role in religion. In her defence, she was the one who organized and led trips to Lourdes for local mass-goers, who, like many Dubliners, worked their entire lives in factories and mills and had chronic, untreated ailments, and put their faith in the healing power of the Holyland. That the trip was a chance for Granny to saddle up to the priest and get into his ear about the politics of the church, who was attending, who wasn’t.

     At the end of the bed, Granny’s toes disturbed the even undulation of the blanket, like soldiers at war on rolling grassy hills. Then Ma said, “Kiss your granny.” It was permission, not an instruction. I squeezed my lips against my teeth, leaned across the cold rail, and brushed my face against Granny’s cheek. I buried it in the forgiving layer of hair that had always softened any hardness in her features and gifted her a natural peachy pigmentation. She smelled of perfume and hair tonic. Andrew was back by now and did the same after me. He looked much older hanging his head in genuflection to Granny. I could tell he was crying by the unmeasured vibration of his chest and shoulders. He covered his face as we left the room.

     Before leaving, I stared at Granny’s body in the bed; other cousins were waiting to say their goodbyes. She had lost a lot of weight in the weeks before her death. Part of her had vanished—was still vanishing. Growing up, I was always fascinated by Granny’s stature. I’d stand in her back garden and behold her blouses strung up on the washing line like ship sails. At Mass, she towered over the women her age who hobbled in and out of the church wheeling tartan-patterned trollies filled with bread and milk and frozen foods. I hoped the image of her in the bed would burn itself onto me, into me. I was trying to remember it forever. I knew if I could remember this moment, the last moment, then I wouldn’t forget any of the others: Granny exchanging her Zimmer frame for my razor scooter the day of my First Holy Communion, Granny cooking crinkle-cut chips from Iceland on Sunday afternoons, sugar-sprinkled apples tossed in a Tupperware container, the constant cigarette smoke in her sitting room, Granda puffing innocently away in the corner.

     My own mother will die someday. She wants to be cremated. Reduced to almost nothing. Ashes. She’s requested not to be left in an urn, or on top of the telly. She wants to be spread somewhere warm, where the sun shines all day. Somewhere near the ocean, where she’ll be washed away eventually and me and Andrew can go on with our lives in peace, free from the shackles of a marble headstone engraved with her name. Valerie. Mother. Sister. First woman to serve in the Irish army. There’ll be no one place to leave bouquets of flowers that will wilt and become rotten. But she will want us to think of her when sand fills the space between our toes, when Spanish sun beats against our faces, when the whitewash of waves cools our sunburnt calves in the summer. That’s where she’ll be buried. Beneath it all.

     My warmest memory of Granny Maire is from the only time I slept over at her house on Loch Conn Road in Ballyfermot a few years before she died: Ma and Da had gone to New York. I am still wetting the bed, so Granda Frank has uncovered a tin bucket from a bundle of his old painting gear—empty paint cans, worn and frayed brushes, crusty rollers—and handed it to me. “There you are, my son.” That night, hearing the painful, ghostly groans from Paul’s room, I am too afraid to use the bucket, afraid of drawing attention to myself in the house by the stinging sound of my stream against the cold and hollow metal. I creep halfway down the steep stairs and watch Granny’s blurry figure through the frosted glass on the sitting room, painted by the colours of the telly flashing across the room. I know I will be in trouble for getting out of bed. But when I step into the sitting room, my small sweaty feet sticking to the wood floors, Granny must see the fear on my face. Granda is already in bed. She is in her chair watching telly through the dusty screen, sucking on a hard sweet, jingling it between her teeth. She heaves me into her lap and rubs a small circle into my bare back until I stop crying. It is a different Granny that I encounter, her tired body and mind worn out by the end of the day. What remains of her is soft and forgiving. She has recused herself for the day. She has the window propped open, the wind flushing the room of cigarette smoke, and the volume on the telly turned up to drown out the upstairs of the house.

     After a while, she gets up, and tells me to wait in her chair—it has been procured from the hospital to aid in her recovery after hip replacement surgery and never returned. It is tall and thronelike, framed by thick cast-iron pipe, and wrapped in tight tan leather. A few minutes later, she comes back with a steaming saucer containing a single slice of bread with melted cheese gone brown from the grill. A section of the cheese has bubbled up, turned black, and burst revealing the molten yellow goo underneath the fragile coagulated skin. The flat shape of the bread is supported by the thick, stale crust. I pick it up. The wet bottom of the bread sags on my palm. Over my shoulder, Granny blows on the cheese to cool it off. Then I bite down and endure the burning sensation on the pink roof of my mouth while Granny laughs at something on the telly.

Gavin Colton

Originally from Country Kildare in Ireland, Gavin Colton lives and works in Lexington, Kentucky. He holds an MFA the University of Kentucky. His work has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, The Wax Paper, La Picoletta Barca, KRNL, The Manifest-Station, and The Kentucky Kernel. He is the most recent recipient of the William Hugh Jansen Award. His short story “Little Piles of Change” is forthcoming at The Appalachian Review.