The tumor is inoperable.
Grace has understood this from the beginning, that there is no way out for her. At first, she was angry. She is only twenty-five. She had not expected to live a long time, but certainly more than twenty-five, which is not old enough to even be considered middle-aged, let alone at the end of one’s life. Yet, here she is: dying. After the anger came a deep, resigned sadness, as if her cruise were canceled at the last minute. She’s stuck on the shore of her life, watching everyone she loves sail into the distance. It annoys her that people view dying as a kind of going away, slipping out of life, dropping into the void. Death is a cessation, a pausing, a stasis. When she dies, she will be frozen in time. Everything will go on without her. They are the ones on the boat. They are the ones going away. She is the remnant, what’s left behind when life washes out to sea, a bit of glass, a jagged shell.
Her brother Davis is going to be a third year at Hopkins. He wants to be a cardiologist, like their grandfather, who does not speak to Davis anymore because Davis is gay and they are from Virginia. Davis pretends that it doesn’t hurt him to see their grandfather on Easter and to know that there is an impenetrable barrier between them now. Davis pretends that it doesn’t weigh on him that their grandfather is getting older, slowing down, gradually coming to the point in life when there must be goodbyes. The window for reconciliation is narrowing. Davis has appealed to Grace to make a way for him with their grandfather. Grace is not gay, and so she speaks to her grandfather weekly. He comes to take her to treatment and then to small, quiet lunches where he encourages her in a gentle, goading way to eat more, to try, Gracie, just to try. Davis on the phone is insistent, but he is wary of draining his sister’s strength. He is a good brother that way. But Grace doesn’t have the heart to tell him that their grandfather will never change on this matter, even if asked by a dying girl.
One evening, Grace is sitting alone at the window. Her mother is peeling an orange. Her grandfather is out in the garden. The sky is brilliant, though it’s starting to soften into a pale lilac color. The trees that line the drive way are rustling softly, and she can smell the churning of a coming storm.
“Mom,” she says. “I think it’s going to rain.”
“I think so, baby,” her mother says, and she slides a small plate of orange slices over to Grace. “Have some. I’ll take some, too.”
It’s a trick that the nurses taught her, Grace knows. Offer some food, take some yourself, destigmatize the process. But her mother’s face is too full of hunger, too full of fear. She has never been good at hiding it, the desperation to bend her children to her will. She is bad at this. Grace does not want to please her, and her mother can sense it.
“Have you heard from Davis?” Grace asks, looking from the plate to the window. She watches her grandfather work his way through the flowers, pulling small bits of weeds from the ground.
“Yes,” her mother says. “He’s doing well, you know, trying. It’s so challenging over there.”
“Has he talked to you lately?”
“Oh, yes. The other day. We talked.”
“What did y’all talk about?”
“You know, the same.” Grace shrugs, and it takes all of her strength. She can feel the energy ebbing from her, leaching out of her muscles and bones into the air. She rests her neck against the back of the chair and closes her eyes for just a moment. “He wants me to try with Grandpa again.”
Grace does not have to see her mother to know that she is narrowing her eyes at this information, and she’s a little mad at herself for revealing this. It’s the sort of carelessness that makes her life harder. Her mother does not approve of Davis behaving in this way. Not the gay thing, which doesn’t matter to anyone else really, but in using Grace to sway their grandfather. Grace does not mind it exactly. She would like to be useful, and she loves her brother. But she does feel resentful. There’s bitterness, cold and glittering, inside of her, hardening. Sometimes, it’s the only thing that keeps her going, the hardness of her heart.
“Don’t get started,” she says to her mother. “It’s fine.”
“He should fight his own battles,” her mother says sharply. “He should deal with it himself. Be a man.”
“He is a man,” Grace says. “He’s a man. And grandpa’s a man. That’s the problem.”
“Amen,” her mother says. “Men are only trouble.”
“We ain’t,” says her grandfather from the door as he lets it bang shut behind him. He hangs his hat on the wall hook. The scent of earth and sweat fill the kitchen. Grace reaches for one of the orange slices. Her grandfather comes near, leans down to kiss her cheek. His stubble is abrasive, but his warmth is pleasant, steadying. She smiles.
“You are too,” she says.
“If we’re trouble, it’s because of you gals.” Her grandfather washes his hands in the sink, and then plucks some of the oranges from the plate in the center of the table. Her mother sighs.
“Daddy,” she says.
“Enid,” he says, chewing. His gaze is vivid blue, and his skin is almost as dark as night. The white hairs on his jaws and his head are so stark against his skin. Enid, not his daughter but his daughter-in-law, is pale and soft-featured. There is something hazy about her compared to him.
“Well, I sure thank you for taking Grace to the hospital today,” she says.
“Of course. She’s my granddaughter. I took her fishing. I took her to school. I took her for ice cream. To movies. I’ll take her to the hospital.”
“Some day you had,” her mother says, which makes Grace laugh a little. Her grandfather grunts.
“Don’t get smart with me, gal,” he says. There’s playfulness to it, but there is no mistake: warning, danger. It’s the edge of the temper that in Grace’s father had turned violent and evil. Grace shivers. Her mother shivers. The air in the kitchen crackles. Thunder comes across the treetops, and it’s like they’re released from a spell.
“We better get moving, Gracie Bug,” her mother says as if she’s twelve and not twenty-five. The slight against her dignity rankles.
“Don’t call me that,” she says. “I’m not a baby.” Her words contrast with the reality of the matter, that she can scarcely stand at all without assistance. Her hands shake as she goes to push up from the chair. Her grandfather is at her side in an instant.
“Hey, there’s no rush. Y’all can stay and eat supper here if you want. I don’t mind.”
“We don’t want to put you out,” her mother says. She places a warm hand around Grace’s arm and pulls at her. Grace can feel the obscure pressure of the tubing in her body sliding around, the port shifting. It’s not going anywhere, but the stiffness in her chest makes her pause every time. Her grandfather tenses.
“Y’all should stay. At least until the storm blows through. I know you hate driving in the rain,” he says.
Her mother has no way out of this. If she takes Grace, she will appear negligent. If she stays, she will appear weak, inadequate. He does not know her daughter better than she does. He does not know what is best. She has spent all these years resisting his influence, resisting the pressure to give her children to him. He has usurped in ways large and small, and she feels the indignity of every single concession suddenly now, flaring up. She grits her teeth.
“It’s fine. I don’t mind. Who knows how long it’ll storm anyway.”
“Stay,” he says.
“We couldn’t put you out,” she says.
Grace watches it unfold, both of their hands on her body going tighter and harder. If they get any more viciously polite with each other, they will rend her. She clears her throat.
“Mama, I don’t mind. I’m tired anyway. Let’s just sit for a while? Okay? Just till the storm is over. I don’t mind.”
The look her mother gives her is reproachful, angry, but then she remembers that Grace is dying, and the expression softens.
“Okay, sure, baby. Daddy, do you need help with dinner?”
“You bet, come on,” he says, and takes Enid’s arm. He motions to some vegetables on the counter. “You slice. I’ll get this started.”
Before she was diagnosed, Grace had a boyfriend named Jonas. He played lacrosse at the University of Virginia, and he was one of those long, pale Virginia boys who came from money and had second homes in the mountains. Jonas had dark blond hair, more brown than blond, except in the summer, when the sun turned it to honey. She loved tracing the freckles across his shoulders and down his back. He had a wide, warm smile. But when she was diagnosed, he stopped returning her text messages and phone calls. He stopped coming to see her. He stopped. He vanished, evaporated out of her life.
But before that, they had lived in a pocket of perfect tranquility. There are moments when she remembers the quiet of the apartment they shared, the steady rhythms of their days, how Jonas had come home smelling like good cologne, chatty and heady from work, which should have been numbing to him. He worked as a junior law clerk in his father’s firm, running paper and coffee, doing minor, menial legal tasks. But he was always so talkative, and she liked that, the way that he could fill up spaces with the warm murmur of his voice, and she could, without trying at all, simply goad him on until she was standing knee-deep in a tide of his words. Then she’d wrap her arms around his shoulders and let him lift her up and kiss her and laugh at the curve of her ear. Jonas.
Those moments belong to another life, and when they drop down on her now, it’s like the brushing of a bird’s wing across her. Now and again, she wonders what happened to Jonas and whether he’s happy. She should have known that he wouldn’t be the type to stick around; something about him had always seemed fragile, flighty. Why else would he talk so much, if not a fear of the quiet, of the inevitable solitude that quiet accompanies. Of course he would bail. Maybe she had known it all along. Maybe that’s why she had stayed, because she knew her leaving would destroy him—and that eventually, he would be the one to leave.
She is thinking of Jonas again as she watches her mother and grandfather make dinner. She doesn’t miss him exactly, but she misses the person she was when he was around. She misses her hair, dark and thick and curly. She misses the moisture in her skin. She misses food. She misses hunger. Not for food, exactly, or even the sensation of appetite, which remains, if much attenuated. She misses sex, the desire for sex, the capacity for sex. With Jonas, it was always so good, so easy. He was so pliant, pliable, willing to give into her, to give way to her desires. When they had sex, she could think only of herself, the friction inside of her, the gathering, heat between their bodies, the scent of her hair, of her sweat, of his sweat, the rhythm of them coming together and falling apart. She didn’t want a oneness with him, as some people have described it. She craved the white-hot oblivion of an orgasm, riding the rim of it again and again until finally, she slipped down into herself and shivered. But that certainly feels beyond her. It seems a tragedy to say goodbye to all of that.
“What’s for dinner?” Grace asks, and they are elated. A sign of appetite, of hunger. Grace wants to roll her eyes.
“We’re having some turnip greens and some of this roast I made last night and some cornbread,” her grandfather says, and he’s proud of it. Her mother is the one cutting up the greens, and the turnip roots, which have always been Grace’s favorite. Davis hates greens of all varieties, and he especially hates turnips. He says that they’re too bitter, and Grace always has to remind him that he is thinking of mustard greens, not turnips. But Davis hates to be corrected more than he hates greens, and so he does not hear her, which usually results in a protracted silence over the phone.
The kitchen is muggy with steam. The air outside is restless, and the thunder is steadier, more insistent. She wishes that she could get up and go outside, sit on the porch swing to watch the storm roll in. But she would have to ask someone, and they’d look at her and worry and pity her.
In truth, if she could get up, she’d walk out of this house and keep walking. Nothing would stop her. She’d keep going and going until she got to her brother in Maryland. She’d take his hand and walk both of them into the sea, far away from here. The thought feels like a betrayal, leaving home, leaving her mother, and her grandfather, leaving Jonas, wherever he is, but more than that, she’d like to take her brother away because this seems like the only way to protect him from the inevitable hurt of their grandfather dying without forgiving, kissing and making good.
There is no reason that it should be Grace here and not Davis. Their grandfather has always favored Davis, who is even named after him. If not for the unfortunate fact of Davis’s sexuality, Davis would be here now with them. She wants to call him on the phone and urge him to drive right away, to break any speed limit, to get here now, to come home and have dinner. But she knows that she can’t. She’s promised to work on it, to try, in small, slow ways. She has no skill for this sort of game. When they were little, Davis always beat her at checkers and chess. She was the one to grow impatient before the game was done, and to turn herself from it, to shrug and pout and sometimes throw the board over. Davis played the long game, but he played it boldly, directly, in strong, clear moves. She was scatterbrained, collecting in small flurries of movements, tiny advancements, minor miracles of displacement. But in truth, she never got far across the board before her willpower gave out. She never completed the game, begun in all the earnestness of childhood and the eagerness of believing that this time she would win. Davis is a fool for trusting her this task.
Her grandfather puts the plate in front of her. It’s dark greens with white turnip roots sliced and spread around the plate. The roast portion is tiny, miniscule, and yet it is still more than she can bear. But it smells rich and a little musky from the vinegar. It’s raining now, a solid gray curtain falling in the yard and on the roof. It’s striking the kitchen window occasionally. The lighting is soft and yellow. They’re eating, enjoying the taste of the food and the taste of the quiet.
“So, what’s the plan for tomorrow?” her grandfather asks. He neatly slices his roast, the articulation of his joints so smooth and beautiful that it hurts to watch. Grace feels awkward, coltish, her body starting and jutting into curious directions with even the smallest movement. Her mother is watching her keenly.
“I think I’m just lying around the house, maybe reading,” she says.
“Virginia Woolf,” she says because she is distracted. Her grandfather narrows his eyes, which seem to glow in the dim kitchen light.
Her mother clears her throat. Grace sighs.
“Yes, Grandpa. Actually, Davis bought that book for my birthday.”
“Surprising,” her grandfather says dryly. “Shocking, really.”
“Why do you hate him so much?”
“Hate? How could I hate my own flesh and blood? I don’t hate him. I don’t understand him, but I don’t hate him.”
“How can you not understand him? You’ve known him his whole life. He worships you.”
“That’s the problem. Maybe he should worship the lord. Then he wouldn’t be like that.”
“Don’t. Grace, don’t play stupid. Don’t play games. You know what.”
“Gay? He’s gay, Grandpa. So what. Nobody cares.”
“I care. People think this whole world is moving on, moving forward—well, some of us was raised decent. Some of us care.”
“Decent,” Grace says. The kitchen is spinning, a gray blur sliding past her eyes. Her neck is hot, her ears are throbbing. “Decent.” As if there were a more decent person in the whole world than Davis; he is certainly more decent than Grace. She tastes copper, and realizes that she is biting her lip so hard that it’s bleeding. Her mother lets out a startled little gasp.
“Baby,” she says, and reaches over to blot at the blood.
“No, Mama. I’m fine. I’m fine.” Her voice betrays her. Her grandfather’s face is half-fury, half-terror. He doesn’t know which impulse to follow. “I’m okay. I’m decent.”
“That ain’t what I meant.”
“It is what you meant. You meant that he isn’t decent. That he wasn’t raised decent. But we were raised the same.”
“Calm down, Grace,” her mother says.
“I am calm,” she says, turning to her mother. “I am so calm that it hurts.”
“Where do you hurt?” her grandfather asks. He reaches for her, instinct that is either medical training or genuine, bone-deep love for her, prompting him.
Everywhere and nowhere, she wants to say, but doesn’t. She takes her napkin and puts it over her plate. She leans away from their hands, but can’t go far. The thunder outside is deafening. And then it’s gone. The silence it leaves behind is fragile, like the delicate membrane of a soap bubble wavering in the air. She can almost see the iridescent skin of it, rotating, throwing color everywhere.
“I am fine.”
“Maybe you should rest.”
“I don’t need to rest,” she says. “I am fine. Grandpa.”
“You have to talk to Davis. He misses you.”
“He ain’t called like he misses me.”
“Because he is afraid of you. He is afraid you’ll turn him away again. You have to talk to him.”
“And say what?”
“Tell him the truth. Tell him you love him,” Grace says.
Her grandfather gets up from the table. He takes all of their plates to the sink and stands there a long time. He runs some water. Grace can hear it sloshing. Her mother is looking at her with imploring, desperate eyes.
“I asked you not to, Grace. And I know you think you have to protect your brother, but please, think of yourself.”
“I barely think of anything else,” Grace whispers. “I only think of myself.”
“Please, just leave it for tonight?”
“Okay, Mama. Leave it for tonight,” she says. “Can I go upstairs?”
“You don’t want to go home?”
“I’m too tired to go home. I just want to sleep for a while.”
“Okay, Gracie Bug,” her mother says. “Daddy. Grace wants to sleep her for tonight. Is that okay?”
Her grandfather is still standing at the sink, watching the wind and the rain blow across the yard. He says, “Sure. Yes, of course.” His voice is cracked a little, hoarse.
“Okay, let’s go then,” her mother says.
Grace has slept in the same room at her grandfather’s house her whole life. It’s the room with the best view of the pond out back and beyond that, the forest in which she played as a girl. However, tonight, the trees are a single black shroud, and the pond, which otherwise would be illuminated by the lights cast off the back porch, is a hazy smear.
Her mother is sleeping in the adjoining room, which is where Davis slept. During those long summer nights, she and Davis would pass through the doorway into each other’s rooms and play small pranks on each other. One time, she woke in the middle of night to find him standing over her bed, holding a fat frog. He dropped it on her chest, and she screamed as its warm, slick body scurried across her, kicking furiously. In retrospect, she imagines that the poor frog was probably more afraid than she was; she hadn’t been fished up out of the pond and carried through the night, through the air, and placed on a person. She hadn’t been pulled out of the dreamy world that she knew and placed somewhere else entirely. Poor frog. Another time, she had woken to find a small kitten in her bed. Its fur was soft gray, and it had a blueish tint to it. When she asked Davis the next morning why he’d put it there, he had only shrugged and said that he had grown bored with it, that he’d found it on the woods and played with it until he got tired of it, and he didn’t want a cat anyway.
She is standing at the window, which is to say that she’s leaning on a chair near the window. She has pulled the white curtain aside and is peering down into the sloping backyard. She thinks of that line from To the Lighthouse: “I am drowning, my dear, in seas of fire.” She thinks of this line because in the copy that Davis gave her, he had underlined it. When he gave her the book, there was a look of wry resignation, a shrug, as if saying let it lay where it will. The copy had seen him through a course on English modernism taken as an elective in college, the year that began all of this business. That was the year of the great white winter, when the air was so cold it seemed to rattle all around you, the world so full of music, brittle, delicate song. She remembers Davis coming up the stairs to her apartment, his cheeks flushed, his dark hair wooly and beautiful, spotted with flecks of snow. There was so much happiness in his eyes—so like their grandfather’s, fearsome and blue—and he sat down on her couch and said: “I have to tell you something, Gracie. I have to.”
“Okay,” Grace had said. “Tell me.”
“I met someone,” he said. “I met someone in this class I’m taking, and I don’t know what to do about it.” Grace smirked at him then. He was the smart one, the brilliant one. But she had always been the one who could, so easily, make people love her. It was the one area in which she surpassed him. Davis stretched on the couch, an imitation Victorian with dark paneling and red cushions. He sighed. “I’m going crazy.”
“What’s his name?”
“Who says it’s a man?” Davis asked angrily. Then, giving in, he said, “Shaw.”
“What’s he like?”
“Smart as hell. Good-looking. Kind of mean.”
“Sounds like your type,” Grace said, sitting next to her brother and putting his head on her lap. “What’s the problem?”
“I think I love him,” he said, his eyes closed. “I think I love him, and it’s killing me.”
“Love is like that, I hear. Have you told him?”
“No,” he said. “I haven’t said anything. I’m afraid to. He probably doesn’t feel the same. Who would?”
“Oh, Davis, don’t be so dramatic.” She stroked his forehead and his cheeks. He turned and put his face against her stomach and stayed that way. He didn’t cry. He didn’t sob. He didn’t make any sound at all. He simply lay against her, letting her steady him. It was a ritual from childhood, coming to rest against each other in a world that spun and spun around them. She could offer him this, this small bit of comfort, a place to land. She rubbed the back of his neck and hummed.
“What do I do, Gracie? What do I do?”
“Tell him. Don’t be a baby,” she said. “Tell him and everything will be okay.”
But Davis hadn’t told him. Instead, he’d gone on for the rest of that semester, suffering quietly in the back of the auditorium, watching Shaw stretch and laugh and smile and answer questions. And when that class was over, he handed all of those books to Grace because he could not bear their presence in his life. He’d always think of Shaw when he saw them. When Grace came across that line To the Lighthouse the first time, she’d imagined Davis underlining it, had imagined how he might have felt to see his own feelings reflected back at him in such stark terms.
To think of them now, she finds her own bit of suffering cast in those lines, but she has no one to whom she can address them. Seas of fire.
Grace lies down on the bed. The house is full of sounds, night music. She could call Davis, tell him about dinner, about how she had tried. She rolls onto her side, presses her face against the pillow and lies there, perfectly still, until the spaces between her breaths feel like eternity.
In the middle of the night, she is suddenly aware of a presence, but she does not open her eyes. She can feel herself being watched carefully for the slightest hint that she is no longer asleep. She has often felt this way in this room, as if she is no longer alone. When she was younger, that feeling had followed her all throughout the house, sometimes seeming to trip on the backs of her heels, a presence, a weight. There were times at night when there had been pressure on her chest or on her shoulders, holding her down, not doing anything except that, pressing her against the bed until she was perfectly flat. She had tried to scream in those days, holler in the night for someone to come and help her, but the weight on her chest had prevented it. She’d lie there all night, frozen, stuck inside of her body, unable to do anything to get free. The curious thing was that the presence came during the day too, seemed to emerge from the very light that pooled in the windows, reaching out to snatch at her wrist or her braids. The presence felt neither malevolent or kind, but sort of placid, as if it were acting upon her by virtue of its nature, not out of any intention it might have possessed. When she told her grandfather about it, he said, “That’s your grandma, I bet, looking in on you.” But his response had confused her, and she knew that she had poorly articulated something in the experience to him, because it didn’t feel like someone who knew her, or like someone who wanted to look after her, but rather, like a wind which blows against you, knocks you against a flat surface and holds you there. The presence felt like a part of the world, like gravity, like water falling on her.
Tonight, the presence is localized to the far corner of the room. She can feel it there, lingering, waiting. She opens her eyes slowly even though she knows it’s a mistake to do so. The moment her eyes open, she can feel the presence leaning down over her, pushing down onto her. The air goes out of her body. Her limbs lock up. She’s stuck again. Fear, because fear is the one part of her that hasn’t attenuated from all the treatments, is wild inside of her. What is this, what is this, what is this, she chants to herself. She cannot discern the shape of hands. The presence has always been amorphous. Her tongue is stuck to the roof her mouth, her throat full of a static fuzz. She floats beneath the surface of her skin, staring at the ceiling, the white globe of the lamp overhead.
She had been dreaming of a boat going farther and farther into the distance. One of those rickety white boats out back, the kind that she and Davis had taken across the pond and laughed, scaring all the fish away. Such a boat had no purpose on the sea or a river, where the water was too wild and would rend it to pieces. The boat disintegrated as it went, leaving behind a trail like a comet, the shrapnel that a life leaves behind as it burns itself out. And now she feels herself beneath the weight of the invisible world, stuck. After all these years, stuck. She might have known it would happen, might have known to prepare herself for this, but she did not.
The door creaks open. There is a change in the shape of the darkness as it lightens fractionally, insignificantly but perceptibly if only just so. Her eyes slide over to the minor lightening in the surface of the darkness. There is another presence now, coming on from the distance, coming across the void toward her. She swallows thickly. Something is reaching for her, and there, suddenly, contact. Warmth like a human hand. She shivers violently.
“Grace,” her mother says. “Are you okay?” She cannot speak, cannot answer. Her mother’s face is barely visible, as if through a screen. She shivers again. “Grace.”
Grace slips away from her, down through darkness and through sleep. She gets farther and farther away from the sound of her mother’s voice calling her name.
“Grace,” she hears, and then nothing at all.
Rumpus original art by Trisha Previte.