This story is by Gayle Woodson and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The phone rings. 6am. Only one person would call me at this hour.
“How are you this morning?”
My head throbs. I was up ‘til three with that stupid essay. I say “Fine.”
“Your gramma’s in the hospital.”
“Oh.” I swing my legs over the side of the bed, ask a stupid question. “Is it serious?”
“You need to come. I just booked your ticket.”
I email my English professor for an extension on the essay and throw a few things into my roller bag. Mom told me to bring my black dress—the one I wore to grampa’s funeral. And I pack the little box I keep in my underwear drawer—wrapped in brown paper, tied up with twine.
I open the box once I’m aboard the plane. A little china cat, black and white. The head was glued back on, not quite straight. But there was a piece missing, and I was only eight years old. I open up my laptop, try to work on my essay. Everyone wrote a topic on a slip of paper and we each pulled one from the box. I drew the black bean: “What is Love?” What sadist came up with that?
My brother, Ray, picks me up at the airport. “Do you want to go the house first? Drop off your stuff?”
I shake my head. “How’s Mom?”
“Tired. Up all night with Gramma. She’s at the house now, asleep, I guess.”
“Best I go straight to the hospital.”
I tell him that I brought the cat.
“Oh.” He doesn’t take his eyes off the road. His Adam’s apple bobs up and down with a swallow. “You still have that? You’re going to confess? After all these years?”
I didn’t mean to break it. Edwin, that jerk next door, grabbed my Barbie doll and ran off, through the living room, where we weren’t supposed to go. He switched back and forth like a rabbit and when he zigged I ran smack into the etagere. The china cat tumbled off and broke apart when it hit the floor.
I was paralyzed, staring at the decapitated kitty. Edwin cackled. “We gotta get outta here.”
I should have told Gramma, owned up to it. But I was a coward and hid out back, behind the azaleas. When I heard Gramma crying I peered through the screen door as she swept up the pieces and tossed them into the trash can in the kitchen.
I don’t remember her cat, but she always told stories about how smart Freddie was: how he could play fetch, just like a dog, how he would only drink cream, not milk… Grampa gave her the china cat when Freddie died. She said it looked just like him, all formal, like he was wearing a tuxedo.
Gramma’s eyes are closed, but when I say “Hi,” she sits bolt upright and reaches out for me. I’m afraid she’ll rip the IV out of her arm.
Her voice is raspy and weak. “Oh sweetie, you made it. Come sit. Tell me about school.”
I tell her about the stupid essay I have to write. Then I open the package.
Her eyes grow wide and she holds the cat in both hands. “Well, I declare. You must have dug it out of the trash.” She clucks her tongue. “All these years.”
“I have to tell you something. I broke it. I didn’t mean to.”
She turns the cat upside down, inspects my sloppy repair work. “Of course, you broke it. A china cat doesn’t just jump off the shelf.”
“But you didn’t say anything.”
She sets the cat on the bedside table, between two flower arrangements. “I could see you were sorry. Getting angry wouldn’t fix anything.” She chuckles. “But you never ran through the living room again.” She settles back on her pillow. “Thanks for bringing this. I always felt bad about throwing it away. Wished I’d kept it. I’m glad you saved it.” Her eyes tear up. “Did you ever hear how it happened? How Freddie died?”
I nod. Ray had filled me in and didn’t spare any of the gruesome details. I also heard my mother’s version, a little less gory, of what she’d heard from Grampa, and I suppose the truth was somewhere in between. It was horrifying for my brother, who watched from the window as the coyotes got Freddie. He screamed and Grampa ran out but he was too late to do anything.
“Your grandfather said he couldn’t imagine how Freddie got out. But I knew it was him. He always left the door open when he went out to get the paper. He would never admit it. Said he was sure he closed the door. I was so angry at him for a long time. He tried to make it up to me with this china cat. I kept it on that shelf, in plain sight, just to keep reminding him of what he did. But I always hated this thing.”
“I thought you loved it. You cried so hard when you found it on the floor.”
“I cried because it reminded me of how poor Freddie died. And how mad I was at your Grampa, for leaving that door open. But I think it was a good thing—you breaking it that day. It never occurred to me to scold you, because I knew it was an accident. Then I thought, it was so easy to forgive you, even though you didn’t own up to it. I figured I should forgive your grandfather, too, even if he never confessed. He didn’t need to repent. So, I did. I mean, I didn’t say, ‘I forgive you’. Maybe I should have. I baked him a carrot cake. Started being nice again. We had eight more years until he died. They were happy years, because you broke this little cat.”
She winces, closes her eyes, and her lips turn gray.
“Gramma. Are you OK?”
Her face contorts. “I get these pains, from time to time.” She rings the call button and the nurse puts some pain medicine in her IV. When her face relaxes, she reaches for my hand. “Maybe I can help you with your essay.”
I smile. “You always helped me with my homework.”
“You know you could use some advice from your poor old dying grandmother.”
“You’re not going to die. They can fix it, can’t they?”
“There’s an operation. But it’s a big one, and I’m not in great shape. They told me I have a fifty-fifty chance of making it through.” She chuckles. “I think that’s what they say when you’re probably not gonna make it.”
“So, you’re just lying here waiting…waiting to—”
“Explode.” She taps her chest. “My aorta is a big bubble in my chest. Just waiting to pop.”
She looks blurry to me as tears drip from my chin.
She touches my face and says “Don’t cry. “I’m not sad. I always thought I would be, staring death in the face. But I’ve had a good life and none of us live forever. We all start dying the day we’re born. You’ll be here like me, in 60 years or so.”
I whisper, “I’ll miss you.”
“Let’s talk about this essay.”
I roll my eyes. “ I drew a tough topic. ‘What is love?’”
“What have you written so far?”
“Writer’s block.” I shrug. “Nothing sounds right, except maybe, ‘Love is the most important thing in the world.’”
She snorts. “Love isn’t just a thing, dearie. There are so many different kinds of love. It’s why we do whatever we do. We can love people, places…some people love money.”
I point to the china the cat. “And animals.”
“Yes.” she smiled. “I hope I’ll see Freddie as well as your grandfather when I pass.”
“So, you know you’re going to heaven?”
“No, I don’t know that. No proof. But I feel it. I believe it.” She pats my hand. “I’ll tell you something you might use in your essay. Do you know what’s the most important thing in the world?”
I shake my head. “Tell me.”
“Forgiveness.” She closes her eyes as another wave of pain sweeps through her. When she speaks again, she whispers, so I have to lean in close. “You don’t have to love someone to forgive them.” She opens her eyes, clear and blue as ever. “But if you can’t forgive, you can’t love anyone. None of us is perfect.”
She’s asleep when I leave. Back at the house Ray has made some mac and cheese and we all sit down to dine. Mom says she’ll go back to the hospital and sit up with Gramma through the night again. Dad asks how my visit with Gramma went.
Ray grins and wiggles his eyebrows.
I ignore him. “Good. She seems to be at peace.”
The phone rings. Mom answers, then collapses into my father’s arms.
If only they had phones in heaven.