When I was nine years old my Gran and I took a cruise to Norway. We stayed in the Presidential Suite, which was the biggest suite on board. It was bigger than my Mom’s house. It had fountains, and mirrors, and balconies spread out over five different rooms. It had Tiffany blue carpet and thick, cream-colored down comforters. Gran said she didn’t want us to stop traveling just because Granddad was gone. Gran had survived a brain tumor that year, and her mother and husband had died within just a week of each other—Granddad was only sixty-four. I’d lived through a life-threatening heart virus that year, and watched my dog get run over.
When the cruise ship stopped in Oslo we took a ferry to the shore with a tour group. We then boarded busses that took us through the narrow city roads, away from a view of the sea. At the end of the tour we exited the bus and were allowed time to walk through Oslo’s blooming public gardens on our own. Or we could get lunch, or shop. The driver gave everyone maps so we could find our way back to the ferry.
Gran and I decided to walk through the gardens. I can see the walk we took in pictures: Me bending to smell a tulip, a lattice heavy with vines, a close-up of a honeybee. In one I am standing beneath an archway with my hands clasped behind my back, my left foot clearly pigeon-toed. I don’t remember the exact moment when that picture was taken, but every time I see it I remember the piercing smell of the flowers, both earthy and chemical. And I remember how, as Gran and I passed underneath that archway, she shot me an unfamiliar glance.
“Am I doing the right thing?” she said.
“Um, yes? Are you getting tired Gran?”
“I’m not sure…” We continued walking for a few more seconds. She seemed confused for some reason, and it caused me to feel a prick of adrenaline beneath my ribs.
“Is this the right thing?” she said again. Gran squinted now and had a strange, clenched smile. I sensed that something was wrong. A few moments later she whispered, “I think I need a little help.”
I tried to sound unshaken when I said that we’d find some. All I could think about was getting back to the ferry. I asked her if I could see the map.
“Oh, is that what this is?” she said nervously as she glanced down and scanned the paper. She looked around us slowly and her face became a timid question. She lost the focus in her eyes and forgot about the map. “Are we doing the right thing?”
I slid the map out of her hands and placed my finger on the gardens. Tears pooled at the base of my eyes. No one here spoke English, I couldn’t see the shore, and I thought for a moment that we might never go home. I took a deep breath. I wiped the tears away before Gran could see them. I located the direction of the ocean and I resolved that we would get there.
We wandered, and Gran continued to ask if we were both alright. I lied. I understood, in that moment, the importance of lying. Of a young mother wrapping her son in a blanket and crouching next to him in a bathtub, telling him it was just a game, while they could hear the funnel whistle outside, the tin roof plucking off in notes.
After nearly an hour, and with much coaxing, we finally made it back to the ferry. Up until that point I’d thought only about making it there. Now, faced with our ship looming in the distance, I wasn’t sure how to make the next move. The captain of the ferry stood at the gangway checking people’s ID cards. I convinced Gran that waiting in the line was the right thing to do. When we finally approached him I hesitated for a moment. Now I had my own questions: Should I tell someone something was wrong? Would I hurt Gran’s feelings? Should I wait until we got to the ship? There wasn’t anyone I could ask, so I had to make up my mind. I remember the exact words I spoke with cutting precision. I remember the way my throat began to close.
“I think that something is wrong with my Gran,” I said. And then, as soon as I’d gotten out the words, I broke.
I began to cry so hard that I don’t remember where Gran went or what was said to me. I just cried, and then, before I knew it, I found myself sitting on the moving ferry heading towards the ship. An elderly couple sat across from me. The woman wore a brown fur coat and gemstone earrings and the man was wearing a navy blue blazer. They smelled like the old wax perfume I remember my great-grandmother wearing, a mix between pungent floral and the dust from a vintage clothing store.
“Your Gran is going to be okay,” the woman told me.
“And no matter what happens,” the man said, “Shirley and I can help you get back home. We can fly home with you tonight.”
They talked about paying for the plane tickets and helping me call my mom. They asked what city I was from. I told them Dallas. They didn’t know that Gran probably had enough cash in her purse, wherever it was, to fly us back first class, and I didn’t want to tell them because, shamefully, I didn’t want to have to go back alone with her. I wanted these people to take me home. I wanted to be free from the memory that this had ever happened and free from the plaguing fear that it might one day happen again.
What if, next time, I didn’t know the right thing to do? What if we stayed lost forever? I was certain that I would rather fly home with strangers than be forced to find out—even if it meant that Gran was sick and would have to stay in Norway.
We were greeted by a team of doctors as we arrived at and boarded the ship. Gran briefly appeared from another section of the ferry and then was whisked away again. I don’t think she saw me. Two young, female crewmembers knelt in front of me and smiled.
“Hi there, sweetie. We’re going to take you up to your room and hangout with you a while, okay? We’ll have your Gran back to you in no time.”
I glanced over to Shirley and her husband.
“If she needs anything can you get in touch with us?” Shirley asked. The women assured her they would.
As I was led away, Shirley’s husband shot me a wink. “We’ll check up on you kiddo.”
Once we were back in the Presidential Suite the women put a movie on starring Kirstie Alley and Tim Allen. They ordered me some dinner and traded asking questions in cheerful voices. What grade was I in? Did I like the school I went to? I felt like I was on another planet.
It was another several hours before one of them took a call from the bridge. She nodded as she listened for a moment and then flashed a smile of relief. When she clicked the phone back to its receiver she said, “Looks like they’ve got your Gran all fixed up and she’ll be back in just a few minutes.”
“Do we have to fly home?” I asked.
“It doesn’t look that way. The ship’s doctor is coming with her and he can tell you what happened, okay?”
The doctor explained to me that Gran had diabetes; it just meant she didn’t have the right amount of sugar in her blood sometimes. He said he gave her some shots to take so she wouldn’t get confused anymore, and if she ever started acting funny again I could just give her food or orange juice with sweetener. The cure for all this, for being lost in a foreign country with no one there to turn to, was orange juice with sweetener.
After everyone left Gran busied herself with face lotions and silk nightgowns. She stayed upbeat and nonchalant. At one point she told me she was sorry for acting that way; she was so embarrassed. Then we didn’t talk about it. We cruised onward to Finland, to Russia, to Estonia, and it never came up again. Once or twice it crossed my mind to search for Shirley and tell her I still needed to fly home with them, but even if I had seen her again—which I didn’t—I wouldn’t have said anything
I thought about that trip to Norway a year later as I lay in my bed at Gran’s house. It was about one o’clock in the morning, I was spending the night there, and I knew that Gran had fallen. I couldn’t see her, but I could tell by the sound I heard that she fell. Cartoons flickered across my room, lighting then dimming it.
Earlier in the night, maybe around eleven, Gran had gotten out of bed and gone into the kitchen. A light came on in the hallway. A pan rattled out of a drawer. I didn’t know it at the time, but Gran had started mixing Kendall Jackson chardonnay with Ambien every night, and this caused her to rouse at strange hours and cook. I just knew that she was different. Around midnight I heard a glass plate shatter on the tile floor. Steps came down the creaking hardwood hallway. Then, Gran’s silhouette appeared at my door.
Would I like some bacon? Or salmon? she asked. Her eyes were sort of glazed and vacant. She smiled. She said nothing about the broken plate or the hour.
“No,” I told her. I was just going to sleep because I had school in the morning.
I didn’t sleep at all though. Instead, I let a fear spread through me like ink in water.
I stayed in bed, wide-eyed and tense, and listened as Gran made her way back to her bedroom further down the hall. The tray she held rattled like the soft start of an earthquake. When I slept at other people’s houses—my mother’s small house, my mother’s parent’s house, my dad’s…when he was around and I was actually allowed to see him—I was always comforted by the sound of grownups being awake. I loved the warm churn of the dishwasher, padded footsteps down the hall, static voices from the television; they made me feel protected. Here, the slightest crack or thud felt like a hatchet coming loose and falling towards my feet. Each time I held my breath.
For a moment everything was still. The theme song to Law and Order twisted and whined its way down the hall and into my room, signaling 1 AM. Still nothing. I thought, just for a second, that Gran had fallen asleep. Then, right as I managed to close my eyes, I heard her body come crashing down. Onto granite. Onto porcelain. Onto bathroom tile.
I wished that I was dead asleep. I wished that I could wake up in the morning and not know a thing had happened. This wasn’t the first time Gran had fallen. It happened all the time. Sometimes she fell when I was there, but also I knew she fell just as often when I wasn’t by the bruises on her cheeks. That fact convinced me that either way Gran would eventually make her way up and into bed on her own. Why couldn’t I just be asleep, or on a plane somewhere with Shirley and her husband, flying away from responsibility?
But I wasn’t. And as much as I dreaded, hated that I had to do it, I had to go and help her. For a moment I lay frozen. Then, cold and shaky, I walked towards Gran’s room.
“Gran?” I called. No answer. “Gran? Are you okay?” By now I was at her door. Gingerly, I pushed my way inside and turned to face to bathroom.
Gran was seated, partially cross-legged, on the bathroom floor and was rocking back and forth unsteadily. Blood surged from the top of her head, from her nose, and from her lips. It slipped between her teeth. With one arm she held the shoulder of the other.
“Oh my God, Gran!” I screamed. My body nearly buckled.
Gran’s eyes shot up at me with no expression. Down to the exact, singsong cadence, I remember how she began to chant, “D, E, F, A, B, C…” over and over again. I ran.
I shook so violently as I grabbed the house phone across her room and scrambled for the numbers that I could hardly press them down. I didn’t call the police; I forgot that it was even possible for me to call the police. I called my mother’s house. My step-dad, whom she’d married only several months before, picked up on the third or fourth ring. I tried to explain what had happened. I could hardly make the words. When he finally began to understand what was wrong he dialed the police from his cell phone and put my mom on the line.
“Honey? Mark’s calling the police, okay? Just hang on. Talk to me. Is Gran able to talk right now? Does she look like she’s awake?” Somewhere inside I understood that what I had to say would sound hallucinatory. I could no longer dare to look behind me. I tumbled over my own words. “When you hear them get to the door run and open it right away, okay? I’m going to call the neighbors as soon as we get off the phone and then I’m going to come right over, okay? Sweetie? You’re doing a good job. Help is almost there, okay?”
The crash of a fist on a glass panel of the front door sent me racing down the hall. I pointed the way to Gran’s room as the first two paramedics pressed past me. Another—a woman—stayed behind.
“Can you tell me what happened to your Grandmother tonight?”
“She fell,” I said, “and she has diabetes.”
“Okay, good. It’s smart to tell me that. Can you tell me if your Grandmother has any other problems?”
“She had a brain tumor before my Granddad died.”
“Okay, and do you remember when that was?”
“When I was nine, and now I’m ten and a half.”
Never would I have dreamed to mention the sleeping pills or alcohol, even if I had known.
A memory flashed through me.
Back when I was seven or eight, Gran and Granddad took me to visit my Dad, who was living in Minnesota. On the car ride from the airport to the place where Dad was living Gran said, “We need to explain to you why your dad is staying here right now, okay?” She reached back from the front passenger seat and squeezed one of my hands. “Your daddy sometimes does drugs, which are really bad and can hurt you.” She paused and looked to Granddad, who gave an approving nod. “Have you ever heard about drugs?”
“At school I did,” I said.
“From one of the kids at school?”
“No, from the teacher. She told us we could go to jail.”
“That’s right; it’s true that you can go to jail for doing drugs. And you don’t want that to happen to your daddy, right? So that’s why your daddy’s here, so he can get some special help and hopefully not do drugs anymore. Then you’ll be allowed to see him or stay at his house whenever you want.”
From that day forward drugs haunted every step I took. I learned that I could not tell my friends this news or they wouldn’t be allowed to play with me. I learned that when daddy didn’t answer his phone he might be getting hurt or going to jail. I learned that he told me lies. Never again did I hear about drugs at school though, because from that day forward, during every “Drug Awareness” day at Good Shepherd Episcopal School, I was sent to spend time with the chaplain and drink soda from the vending machine.
Now, as I tried my hardest to explain every possible ailment my Gran could have to the paramedic, the last thing on my mind was drugs. Dad did drugs, and I stayed with Gran when I wasn’t allowed to see him. Dad did drugs, and Gran told me how bad they were. Dad did drugs. Gran did not do drugs. I tried to consider other possibilities for why she had fallen. I could only think of one.
“At school I learned about gravity,” I said.