This story is by N.M. Garrison and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Sophie’s eyes snapped open at the sound of a small, gurgled gasp for air. She turned her head to the bed and studied her Grandma’s face, her eyes moved to the blankets in a desperate search for the rise and fall of breath. For a split-second Sophie’s heart seized, then released when the slightest of movement revealed itself. The hospice bed in the center of the living room gave a constant assault on the eyes letting Sophie know all is not right in the world.
Her Grandma began to stir, Sophie rose from the lumpy sofa—she feared after three weeks her spine was starting to resemble the once-beloved cushions—and walked to the side of the bed. She caressed her Grandma’s soft cloud-white hair. Even now, thought Sophie, she looks as lovely as always. How can she have such beautiful hair and not be healthy? The decline had been rapid. Sophie knew good days like yesterday, and hopefully today, were coming to an end.
“Happy 30th Anniversary,” whispered Sophie as her Grandma’s eyes opened.
“You remembered. I thought I smelled chocolate cake in my dreams last night.” Her voice sounded more worn today, but the mischievous twinkle in her eyes was still present. “Did you bake our famous anniversary cake?”
“Of course I remembered, and of course I did! You know the anniversary of the day you adopted me is my favorite day of the year! And I plan on carrying out all our traditions: Mom’s chocolate cake, board games, going down memory lane, the whole nine yards.”
“Memory lane” was Sophie’s favorite part. Her Grandma would tell her funny stories of silly things that happened after she adopted her, and talked about her parents, what they were like, and how this or that trait of Sophie’s was like one of her parents. She knew them all by heart, but they comforted her, the security of knowing where she comes from, feeling connected to the love of family.
Sophie expected her Grandma to be excited, but a shadow started to cloud over her delicate features.
They both knew this would be their last anniversary.
Determined to make today special, in one swift movement Sophie kissed her Grandma’s cheek and ran off into the kitchen saying, “Let’s not waste an instant.”
Sophie returned with a tray of hot tea, fresh fruit, and her parents’ photo album tucked under her arm, and declared, “I thought today we would start with breakfast and memory lane.”
The shadow deepened across her Grandma’s face. Pausing for a moment, her Grandma said, “I have an envelope I would like you to get from my filing cabinet first.”
Worried the envelope had to do with matters of death, Sophie said, “Can’t we do that later? It’s just I’m so excited to start our Anniversary Day!”
The eyes, more sunken today, took on a resolute determination. “Please Sophie. This is important. You will find it in the bottom drawer, laying flat beneath the files.”
Sophie recognized there was no point in arguing, and dutifully retrieved the envelope. “Would you like me to open it for you?”
Her Grandma nodded once in reply.
After skimming the forms inside, Sophie realized they were her adoption papers. Not being what she feared, a delighted smile spread across Sophie’s face. “Oh, wow! How come you haven’t shown me these before?”
Her Grandma pointed to where the mother’s name was typed. Confused, Sophie said, “My Mom’s maiden name is different from yours. Was my mom adopted?”
“No.” Came the simple response.
“I don’t understand.”
A look of sad acceptance set into her Grandma’s eyes. “Your mother was not my daughter. Your parents were my neighbors when we lived in Buffalo. We became close, and when they died, I knew I had to adopt you.”
The words felt like a sick twisted joke. Neighbors? Had to adopt me? Sophie’s body, already running on fumes after weeks of physical and mental strain, now took a turn for the worse, everything went numb inside.
Sophie awakened to a ringing in her ears, as if a bomb had gone off. She started to hear a faint voice speaking but, unaware of the words being said to her, all Sophie could think was, Too much. “This is all too much.” Sophie heard herself say. On autopilot, she moved to the front door, snatched her keys, and dashed out of the house. After a minute down the road, Sophie came to when her eye caught a glimpse of red above her head. She had gone through a red light. Jolted out of her stupor, she pulled over to the side of the road.
That was the way my parents died, thought Sophie, A guy ran a red light. An icy cold sensation spread down her spine. Her mind began to race in an uncontrollable machine-gun fashion. Did they really die that way? Was that a lie too? My features, my traits, how could she know any of that? My mom’s childhood photos that burned in a fire…lies. Are the people in the pictures even my parents?
As a lump began to form in her throat it soon gave way to crushing anger. “How could she do this to me!” Hurt pouring off every word.
Sophie’s rage also brought clarity. I just left my dying Grandma all alone. A thought pierced her heart like a dagger, She’s not my Grandma. Yet she found herself driving back to the house.
Upon entering the room Sophie took in the sight of the frail woman before her.
The Grandmother let out a sob of relief.
Not ready for her Grandmother to feel consoled, Sophie said, “I’m not here to forgive you. I’m here to know if every memory I have is a lie.”
“No, none of it was a lie!” the Grandmother pleaded.
“Well, that’s obviously not true.”
“Please, sit, let me explain.” The Grandmother placed her hand on the bed.
Longing for comfort, Sophie still recoiled from the gesture. “I don’t even want to be near you right now. And besides, how can I believe you! Everything I thought I knew, it’s all a lie!!” Sophie noticed her voice rose to a thunderous level, but she could not stop herself. “Every made-up story about my parents, your so-called daughter, how much I’m like them. You’re not even my Grandmother! You’re just some woman named Dorothy.”
Propped up in the bed, the Grandmother took the lashing words like penance for her sins, the last lash cut the deepest, she flinched at the sound of her own name. Sophie knew she had gone too far. She felt as feeble as the woman laying in front of her. She stared at the face which had only ever shown a devoted love, and a truth shot out in Sophie’s mind that she could not dismiss. Despite any lies or betrayal, this woman loved her with all her heart, and she loved her in return. The realization was a light burning a hole in the darkness.
She walked over and sat on the bed. The only word Sophie could say was, “Why?”
Her Grandmother went to take Sophie’s hand but refrained. “I grew up in an orphanage which was not run by the best of people. It was no better than a sweatshop. I was grateful to leave, and I try not to relive those memories.”
The Grandmother paused, taking a deliberate breath before continuing. “Your parents had no living relatives and we ended up forming a makeshift family. I was babysitting you the day of the accident. When the hospital called, I looked at the innocent one-year-old in my arms and knew I could not chance her growing up as I did, with no affection, no love. For you to never know how much you are loved by your parents and me was more than I could bear.”
Tears streaming down both their faces, Sophie wrapped her hands around her Grandma’s. Sophie knew their love was as strong as any mother-daughter relationship could be. The pain of betrayal and loss melted away to reveal the bond and stability of family she thought had snapped, still clung firmly within.
“Your heart, so pure and honest,” said her Grandma, “I knew from the second your little hand reached up into mine and you said you loved me, it was real. For the first time, I truly felt loved.”
Sophie fell forward and hugged her Grandma with all her might. The feeling of home washing over Sophie in tidal waves as her Grandma’s familiar arms wrapped around her.
After several minutes passed, and with great effort, not wanting to let go, her Grandma leaned back and wiping the tears from Sophie’s cheeks said, “I think it’s time for some cake. Don’t you?”
Sophie smiled at the familiar wistfulness of her Grandma. “I agree.”