Originally published in The Nassau Weekly, 2016.
Let me tell you a story. There was a storm on the day my great-grandmother died.
I arrived at their little house in the countryside on the first week of June, having just finished my last year of college. I planned a whole month to go and visit her, though I only stayed about three weeks. We hadn’t seen each other for years, so my mother suggested I go as soon as I was able to. I had been distant from my family during college, and I was planning to take the next few months for myself, to get my mind off school, but with Nana–we called her Nana–nearly ninety-two years old, I felt it was the right thing to do.
Nana had been beautiful in her youth–granted, that was why her parents married her off to some forty-year old ranch owner when she was 18–but she kept a certain grace that followed her into old age. She had blue eyes and her hair, blonde now turned silver-grey, was usually kept in a long braid. Most women kept their hair short at that age, but not Nana. Nana wasn’t like most. Even medically–at 92 years old, well into the onset of Alzheimer’s, doctors couldn’t explain how she had held up for so long. But her health didn’t follow her into old age. When I arrived I got to see her for myself. She was frail. Nearly all of her muscles had deteriorated. Pale, spotted skin; thin, stick-like limbs; stiff, long fingers puckered into little bunches, resting on her lap; elbows bending her forearms into a brittle self-embrace. Skeletal. Her face, so lean and rawboned, framed two blue eyes. The blue had all but faded from them into a grey pale like the one in storm clouds. No one could explain why she was still alive.
Nana lived with my great-aunt Theresa. She was a widow herself, too. A housewife who had devoted all her time to family. Her kids were all grown now, and she, a sixty-something year old woman, took to carrying the family’s burden—living with her dying mother. She had been doing this for a few years now–doctors had sent Nana home long ago from the hospital. Lonely Aunt Theresa waited it out with her, in that little wooden house in the country. Cousins and nephews and grand-children would drop by to visit on some days. They never stayed long, usually left teary-eyed. She was overjoyed when I arrived.
I remember it–it was windy while I waited by the doorstep. There were deep woods extending far behind the house. The afternoon sky was grey, the wind’s unsettling hush breathing through swaying branches. The entire three weeks were grey. Aunt Theresa opened a creaking wooden door, hugged me, and let me in.
“Oh I’m so glad you’re here. I’m so happy you want to stay with us a while,” her old blue eyes thankful. “Here,” she took my things, “I’ll put them in your room. I’ve got a bed set up for you and everything. Nana’s right through here in the living room.”
The house had a still air. Everything was quiet and the place itself smelled ancient–like musty books, like old people. Crooked greyscale portraits of bygone relatives hung along the hall in front of peeling wallpaper. I gave Aunt Theresa my suitcase and backpack and stepped into the little living room. Nana rocked back and forth on her creaky chair, staring at the grey television screen, sucking on her thin lips. Her arms folded, bunched. A few windows filtered in dim light, pale and paper-thin like Nana’s skin. I walked quietly beside her and bent down.
At first she didn’t notice me. She stared blankly at the TV.
Then she blinked and glanced over. Her eyes widened, her mouth opened in a smile, and frail fingers brought my face in. She kissed me slowly on the forehead, over and over. She’d kiss me, examine my face, smile again, and kiss me once more.
“Do you remember me, Nana?” I asked her, between kisses. She didn’t reply. She looked at me dumbfounded.
Aunt Theresa walked into the room and looked on.
Nana spoke up with a little voice, “My little Henry. He came back, my little Henry.”
“Aw, she thinks you’re Henry” said Aunt Theresa.
I looked up at her, confused. Behind her, through the window, leaves were blowing.
“Remember Uncle Henry?”
“Yeah–I think.” Nana kept kissing my face.
“Yeah. He doesn’t visit at all. It’s a shame, really. Her only son.”
Nana ran her fingers through my hair and stroked my head.
“Little Henry…little Henry,” she said to herself. Then she started humming. A soft hum, a few notes rising and dropping shakily, like a song, almost. She stroked my hair and hummed–I don’t know why exactly.
“I haven’t seen her this happy in a while,” said my aunt.
“Really?” I replied. I turned my face up to Nana let her kiss me once more. This went on awhile until I looked into her eyes and said, “Nana, I have to go put my things away, okay?”
Nana blinked. She furrowed her brow. Her forehead quivered, she sucked her lips in, and with her shaky broken voice said, “Who–who are you?”
At first I stood stunned, not knowing what to reply. Aunt Theresa nodded and turned away. I turned back to Nana. I felt such pity for her.
“I’m Henry. Your son. Remember me?”
And then Nana’s toothless smile spread wide, and her eyes widened once more, and she nodded yes.
That’s what it was like around Nana. She spent most days staring at the television screen, in front of the window to stare at the trees, or playing with a plastic baby doll. Nana lived on a different plane of existence. Alzheimer’s had tossed whatever was left of her memory back to a time period much older than Aunt Theresa and me. In this old age, she believed she was still raising her children. I was her little Henry, and this plastic baby was her most recent. It didn’t have a name; to her it was just ‘the baby’. Erratically, while rocking on her chair, she’d snap into fits of worry and call out for her baby.
“It’s crying!” She’d say. “It’s crying!” And her thin lips would sag into a terrible frown and her glossy grey eyes would look up at Aunt Theresa desperately, as if in pain.
Aunt Theresa would bring her the doll and tell her, “Here, here it is Nana, just rock it and it’ll stop crying.”
That would distract Nana, rocking that baby, sitting on the rocking chair.
Nana was always in a lot of physical pain, but this kind was emotional. With a body so deteriorated, as she clung dearly onto that rocking chair–as she clung to life itself–these little moments of emotional pain cut through and made themselves apparent without the slightest bit of subtlety. And when she was back to her normal state, that almost-catatonic stare, we felt the pain for her. This is, I learned, why cousins rarely came to visit. She was loved, but this monster haunting her in her last few days made her an unbearably depressing sight. It’s a sadness so heartbreaking, it’s frightening.
Nana hardly ever spoke, but something about me was able to bring out words from a mind on the brink of disappearing. Normally she’d just kiss me, and out of pity I’d play along and be her little boy Henry for a while. Sometimes she’d snap into fits of laughter. It was terrifying–she’d laugh until she couldn’t breathe, head tossed back with her mouth agape, tendons and veins in her neck pulled taut. We had no idea why she’d do this.
Other times she’d break out into delusions, like the time we were eating, a few days into my stay.
She looked up suddenly from her cup of coffee and shouted, “Is the cow back yet? I’m gonna get up and check, did that cow come back yet?”
“No no, stay there,” Aunt Theresa said, “I’m going to check.” She put down the coffee pot on the grey stone countertop and peered over outside the window, dramatically so Nana could see her doing it. Diverting her delusions was another one of her chores. She’d never admit she felt annoyed by them, but you could tell. I also turned to see outside. It was still overcast and the wind still blew harshly, now fast enough for the smallest branches on the trees to snap off. A faint whistling could be heard from the woods.
“Yes, yes the cow came back,” said Aunt Theresa.
“Oh good,” said Nana, sucking her lips back in. “That bitch, she won’t stay quiet.”
“Nana!” Aunt Theresa scolded the old woman.
“What? I’m just happy the old cow hasn’t left us, too.”
Nana said many confusing things like these. Aunt Theresa had grown desensitized. To her it was just a constant sequence of delusions she had to play along with, and painfully so, since to her, her mother had long vanished. She was taking care of another toddler resting in the shell of her mom’s former self. But I listened to Nana.
For years I thought it was all just delusion, too. Like when I asked what Papa was like, and she snapped out of her trance and snarled–
“That bastard left with her. Left me alone.”
Papa had never cheated on Nana. He died before I was born, but from stories I knew he lived with Nana from the day they were married to the day he died. It was an arranged marriage, but he was a good man. It was cancer that took him, Aunt Theresa had told me. When I mentioned what Nana said, she simply frowned and dismissed it. Just one of many things Nana says. It must have been too painful for Aunt Theresa to think much about her mom’s delusions, but I did think about it. There were bits of Nana left in that bony frame on the rocking chair. Maybe ‘she’ was someone.
I remember that after Nana said that about Papa her mouth gaped and she closed her eyes, grabbing at her head, as if screaming in pain but without any sound of her own. The wind outside howled. I think a large branch snapped off one of the trees at that time too, because I flinched and looked away from Nana, at the window, when that happened. I managed to catch the brief sight of something dark and grey, like a cloth, floating by, and the vicious scampering sounds of squirrels clawing up a trunk. The wind had blown one off a tree to its death. I looked closer. A gust of wind rolled its little body on the ground. No grey thing in sight. A chill ran down my spine and the howl died down. When I turned back to Nana she was back to staring blankly, rocking back and forth, faintly humming some song while the wind raged outside. Boards above the house’s ceiling creaked.
Some nights the wind blew hard enough to fear for the house’s integrity. Any moment, I felt, as the wind screamed with full force against the wooden house, any part of it might tear off and take flight, crashing into the woods. Papa had built the house years ago before he married Nana, but he built it well. The house had stood for years, longer than you’d expect for a house in that condition. Brittle boards and all, it would hold out for at least one last storm.
God, those three frightening weeks.
I don’t know if Nana came to recognize me, or if maybe I just triggered the same delusion every time without any continuity between these episodes, but she came to treat me more and more like her son. To her I was a little child, and I was someone she felt confidence in. I was like that plastic doll, but living. She could pour those last drops of her motherly instinct on me while I was around. She could go a whole day saying nothing, but I could ask her things sometimes and expect at least a few words in response.
One day, about a week in, while Aunt Theresa was in the kitchen, I tried something. I thought I was being smart.
“Nana,” I said, when I went up to her, “Nana, who is ‘she’?”
Nana stared at me. Those glossy grey eyes, like she was waiting for me to say more.
I whispered, “Nana, you talk about some woman. The one that Papa left with. Who is she?”
Nana frowned and shouted, “She took him!”
“Shh,” I brought my finger up to my lips, “But who?”
Nana ran her fingers though my hair again and placed her bony fingers around my cheeks. “Little Henry,” she said in her creaky voice. “Oh. Sit.”
I stared confused. There was no other chair.
“Sit, Henry,” she repeated, “Let me tell you a story.”
I sat down on the ground, cross-legged, looking up at the frail woman rocking back and forth. The light in the living room was dim. Only the grey afternoon light filtered in through the window. Nana licked her chapped lips.
“You better watch out, Henry,” she said. She lifted one hand, “She’s got long, sharp nails.”
I sat, fascinated and baffled. In the state she was in, to hear this many words from her was miraculous, and she went on,
“And her hair, long. Grey. The wind pulls it in all directions.”
I stayed silent, not wanting to interrupt her and make her stop.
“You can’t see her yet. You shouldn’t try to. She finds you,” she nodded. “She finds everyone.”
Wind howled sharply once more, the house creaked, but she continued, rocking on her chair,
“You can’t see her face–” Nana frowned, “It’s just a floating tangle of long grey hair. And her dress, and her nails. She just blows around with the wind.” She swallowed and licked her lips again, “Just gets closer.”
Nana then stopped and made the same expression she had made days before, of silent pain, like a scream, her hands covering her ears, fingers grabbing at her silver hair while the wind wailed and the window’s glass rattled.
“Nana?” I asked her, “Nana? Why did she come? What does she do?”
Nana gasped and looked down at me, “Screams, Henry…little Henry…”
She winced again and folded her tired arms inward, hunched, her entire spindly body crumpled.
“It’s okay, Nana,” I assured her and rubbed her shoulder, “It’s okay.”
But Nana’s face just turned blank again and looked at me. Her brow quivered and she asked me, “Who are you?”
“Nana,–” I’d started but she cut me off.
“Where am I?”
“Nana you’re home. It’s me, remember?”
Nana studied my face again and nodded. Then she burst into one of her horrible laughing fits. Oh God, to see her doing that was sickening. Aunt Theresa came into the room when Nana started laughing and shrieked. Such a scary thing to see such a gaunt person taken over by that kind of hysteria, with every nerve and vein and tendon stretched and strained to the point you’d think, really, any moment now, they’d all snap. But she couldn’t stop laughing. We felt her pain. It was sad to see. Aunt Theresa and I, we really hoped she would die soon.
And on nights, as I lay in the little wooden bed Aunt Theresa had for me, I’d think about the things Nana said. About the image that her few words painted of life back in the day, and of the strange bits that didn’t fit with any other delusion, the bits about the screaming woman that haunted her. I don’t believe in ghosts. Ghosts aren’t real–in fact, had they been real, the ghosts of Papa and other family members would have been able to grant some comfort to our loneliness with Nana. But Nana spoke of something else, and I wanted to believe in it. Besides Aunt Theresa, myself, and Nana, there was no one, nothing. Life with Nana was a grim monotony, a sad foreboding countdown, and I wanted to believe in it–in something else there living with us, coming for us. I tried to place myself in the frame of mind of a child, sometimes. I pretended to be little Henry sometimes–not actual Uncle Henry, but what I imagined the mind of any young child might be, to try to fathom what this screaming woman may have looked like. To try and see if I could see her too.
Well, about a week and a half in, while the wind blew and shook the trees outside, while Nana slept stiff and still with her long grey hair beside her, I got up during a sleepless night and walked into the kitchen. The floorboards creaking under my footsteps, I tried not to wake Aunt Theresa. I turned on the faucet, splashed water on my face, and looked up, out the window. Think like little Henry, I thought. Think like Nana, too.
A fierce gale blew outside, at first just a loud hush in the rustling of branches, but a quiet moan was growing from the woods. I opened the door leading outside to the yard and stepped barefoot onto the grass. My hair blew sideways as I walked on into the moonless dark. It started as a whistle coming from the woods, the hint of some sound growing, so I stood and listened, mind as blank as I could make it. A little whistle that in a sudden heartbeat crescendoed to a howl, pitch rising and dropping, shaky, moan-like, almost human; a song growing louder, coming closer. Over that sound, over the howling wind, came something like a shriek suspended over the wailing sound–and then a scream pierced through. A shock shot through me. The tearing wind, the moan, the shriek, and this shrill scream all cried together, all stung my ears as one dissonant voice, as one unfathomable sound. A freezing noise–a stiffening, paralyzing scream. And despite that, despite the heavy knot now growing in my chest, despite my teary vision clouded by the wind’s assault, there was something else I felt about the harrowing sound, something other than terror–a creeping remorse and sadness.
I hurried back to the door to find that the handle wouldn’t turn. The splitting scream resounded, growing louder, coming straight my way. I looked back, tried squinting closer at the trees, at the spaces between trunks, to see if I could catch sight of it, of anything. I couldn’t see too far with foggy eyes. Had it been the shape of something floating, tossing, head arched back and wailing–or just the leaves and snapped-off nail-like branches flying by–I can’t remember well. The screaming sound, now painful needles jabbing into my eardrums, became unbearable. I tried the door again–it opened–rushed inside, and closed the door, locking the wind and the scream and all else outside at that time of night away from us. I somehow managed to sleep after that, and considered it may have been a nightmare. God knows.
Aunt Theresa said she hadn’t heard my footsteps, and she hadn’t slept at all that night, so she would have heard me and the scream. Or might have. She was old enough to be hard of hearing. But I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t want to think much of it.
Nana died three days later, at the end of that week.
The storm that had been brewing the past two cloudy weeks came to a sudden squall, with the gale’s speeds rising drastically at midday. The house itself creaked in a horrific rending sound. Piercing wind howling, louder and higher than before. Glass windows rattled. The screen door on the front of the house slapped against the wall.
Nana hadn’t spoken in those last three days. Not even with me. I’d look at her, and she’d smile, but Aunt Theresa and I knew, there wasn’t anything left in her. She was just a breathing carcass, thoughtless, waiting.
I was helping Aunt Theresa in the kitchen when we heard it. In that squall’s last violent crescendo, a window in the living room shattered. We rushed in and ran to Nana. Portraits shattered on the floor, TV hissing static, screeching wind now blowing into the once-still room, chaotic. She was sitting right in front of the window, and luckily no glass had blown her way, but she just sat limp. The wind started dying then. The howl died down with it. Now the fading breeze rocked Nana’s creaking chair back and forth, but Nana didn’t move. Aunt Theresa hadn’t braided Nana’s hair that morning and her silver locks blew around, covering her face. I brushed them aside with one hand and looked at her. Glossy-eyed. She wasn’t breathing. She must have died at some point earlier that day, and we hadn’t noticed.
Rain started to pour. Aunt Theresa sucked her thin lips in and nodded. My eyes teared up a bit too. We knew it was coming. It’s like that when someone has Alzheimer’s. Every one of her episodes struck terror in us, made us wonder if that would be the moment she’d go, but when it actually happens you just don’t know what to feel. It had been painful, but for Nana, with how she was and how we loved her, this was the happiest thing to happen in a long time.
We buried her later that week. Only a few of her relatives could make it. Uncle Henry wasn’t one of them.
“If he didn’t come see her while she was alive, why should he bother to come see her dead,” Aunt Theresa remarked solemnly.
I packed my things and left for home a day after the funeral, leaving Aunt Theresa with a kiss on the forehead and a silent, empty house.
That was Nana. We remember her fondly. Her life, her stories–they live on. She came from a very different time, but little things about her still stay relevant, tossed ahead by the winds of time for when they become important to those of us old enough. I remember Nana. You weren’t a thought when she died, so long ago, but it’s important for you to know about her. This is why I tell you. Most of us will go her way, and when we do, we won’t realize it. I can’t remember the simplest things from time to time. I’ve started to doubt my memory. Things that were real feel faint and foggy, like dreams, and sometimes I’m convinced that certain dreams were real. It’s hard. So don’t feel like you need to stay too long when I turn like her, when I’m a rocking sack of skin and bones. I’m telling you this now because, at some point, when my soul’s that close to being carried off by the wind, I won’t have the strength to speak about her. About the woman. Already I can see little bits of grey flying in the corners of my eye. Already I can hear a faint shriek in the distance as I try to fall asleep. But I’m afraid to talk about it, I know you’ll think I’m crazy. I know you’ll nod and play along and then call me delusional. Just trust me, please, promise you’ll understand.
When you become like Nana, when you become like me, you’ll hear her too.
Image: Artemis by Sofia Dimitriadoy ’20