In my defense, I have to say that I really never stood a chance.
I was five, and my mother called me into the living room, where Grandma was waiting in a recliner. “Hello, Shanny,” she said. I screamed — and covered my eyes with my hands. For my grandmother had taken four or five of those chocolate, star-bursty medallions and situated them over her teeth … so that it looked, from where I stood, as if her mouth were nothing but a yawning cavern of brownness.
My scream elicited an eruption of laughter from her. As I stood on my trembly legs, uncovered my eyes and watched her lick the covering off her teeth, I wrestled with the choice before me: I could be angry, or I could enjoy the moment with my closest friend. I didn’t dawdle making that choice.
“I’ll get you someday, Grandma,” I said, grinning.
I did get her. Several times. Over the years, it was my joy and delight to make my grandmother shriek. “Don’t ride that horse bareback. He might buck you off,” she’d say. So I’d ride the horse bareback, and yell at her through the window to make sure she saw. When one did buck me off, breaking my arm, I withstood her “I told you so.” In an odd, hard-to-believe way, it had been completely worth it.
The last time I pulled a shriek-inducing scream from my grandmother, I was staying at the house she and Grandpa had shared for twenty-one years, trying to help her out from under a stifling fog of grief. When the shock of his too early, too sudden death drifted away, we were left together in a clutch of stark sadness. She couldn’t believe he had left her; I couldn’t believe I’d lost them both. For despite her bodily presence, Grandma’s self was frozen in grief. I could get her to answer my questions, but not with any semblance of Mickey there. She wasn’t Mickey any more. She wasn’t anybody at all — just a woman waiting to die.
Dave understood when I told him I needed to stay with her awhile. He came to the farm every day to see us both, but when night rolled around, he’d kiss me good-bye, hug my grandmother, and drive back to our house in the suburbs. Grandma and I would wash our faces, don flannel nightgowns, and retire to her room. Grandpa still lingered there, in a way that brought a new rush of tears whenever my heart caught the echo of one of his songs, or a whiff of his scent would untangle itself from the cedar closet and swirl around me in greeting.
One night, when the somberness pressed the oxygen from the room, I pulled a rubber pig snout from my purse when Grandma wasn’t looking, and slipped it over my head. I’d bought it earlier that day — for no reason except that I had to have it. With my back to her, I adjusted the snout over my nose, waited until she had settled in on her side of the bed, and turned slowly.
“Good night, Grandma,” I said.
“Good ni … ” she began, before a scream overtook her. In the second her shriek filled the room, I imagine she wrestled with a choice. She could get angry, or she could enjoy the moment.
We laughed until we cried, Mickey and me.