I dig a hand into my bag and sift blindly through its contents. Hairbrush. A set of keys. A folded up piece of paper. Lip gloss. Wallet. And finally, a balled up napkin that I’d once used to kill a spider. On another day I might have paused to wonder why such a thing was still in my possession, but this wasn’t the time. I grabbed the napkin and dabbed at dry eyes, letting out the softest of whimpers simultaneously.
“You poor dear.”
The owner of the voice was a petite elderly woman, wearing a large black hat. She touched my shoulder and I fought the urge not to recoil.
“Thank you,” I said meekly.
That should have been the end of it. There is no need to start a conversation at a time like this. These things were meant for quiet reflection, right? Every one grieves in their own way, right? But perhaps it was the fact that my eyes were neither red nor wet, or the fact that the only dress I owned was deep red and not black that caused the woman to utter the words I’d been dreading.
“And who exactly are you, dear? I don’t think we’ve met.”
The woman reflected on this statement. I could almost see the mechanisms of her brain searching for the name, and any connection to the deceased. She would either accept the fact that she didn’t have any memory of my name or face as a sign of her increased age, or she will press me further for more information. When she un-scrunched her face and peered into my eyes, I turned away and sniffled.
“There, there,” she said, “and, please forgive an old woman, but how did you know my sister?”
“Oh, how rude of me. Yes, her baby sister, Dee,” she replied, smiling softly.
And now it was my turn to process this very alarming turn of events. How was it possible that I missed this very important fact? Ms. Yates had a sister this entire time? One who clearly had all of her wits about her? Why had she told me that she had no family? And why had I placed so much trust in that senile, bitter woman?
“I thought she was alone in this world,” I said.
Dee looked me up and down, and sighed a deep sigh before looking away. It was one of those sighs that speaks to a lifetime of frustration. The kind that couldn’t properly be explained to a stranger on a day such as this. I half expected her to get up from the bench and find more suitable company. But, when she turned back to face me, her eyes were red and welling up with tears.
“She was only alone,” Dee finally said, “because she refused the help of everyone who loved her. Myself included. And her children of course.”
The question had escaped my lips, though I’d meant it to be an internal question. Honestly, I of all people could understand family dynamics that were less than stellar, but this was too much even for me to comprehend. You mean to tell me that Ms. Yates, a woman who complained nearly constantly for over a year that she was all alone and miserable, not only had a sister but children, too? Dee pointed a slender, wrinkled finger across the aisle.
“See that girl there, with her hair pulled back? That’s Sheri. And beside her on the left, that’s Joshua.”
“And now,” Dee cut in, “I really would like to know how you knew my sister.”
“Well, I work at Sandy Springs Nursing Home. I helped take care of her.”
Her eyes widened as she nodded her head. I had been prepared to explain further about how I took a great liking to Ms. Yates, as I myself was alone in the world. I was prepared to tell her about how Ms. Yates let me read my school textbooks aloud to her in her room when she couldn’t sleep. About how we talked about the number of states we’ve visited and, for me, hoped to visit later on. But, I didn’t get a chance to explain any of the heartfelt responses I’d conjured. Dee stood up, and placed a hand on my shoulder, her eyes somewhat knowing.
“We’ll talk after.”
And with that, she went up to the front to sit with Ms. Yates children. I saw them whispering. I saw the son begin to turn around toward me before the daughter elbowed him in the ribs. What on earth could they be talking about? It’s true that I have not been able to shed a single tear, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t care about the poor woman. Sure, she’d been a pain in my rear-end over half the time, but that was a small price to pay for a larger payout in the end.
As the preacher spoke, I wondered what this could mean, the fact that Ms. Yates was very clearly not alone. She had a sister. She had children. And however estranged they might have been while she was alive, they all showed up to her homegoing. Would they accept the fact that she’d left me, and not them, everything she owned? Would their money afford them the luxury of high-end lawyers who would tear me down and make sure I never received a dime as long as I lived? Would they have me killed? I could see the headline now. Local girl found dead of apparent suicide. Over my dead body, I thought.
When it was over I sat in my seat, still and quiet, and avoided their occasional glances as they shook hands and accepted condolences. When they’d shook the last hand, they motioned for me.
“I’m Sheri,” the woman said, stretching out her hand.
I shook it. She was, no doubt, her mother’s child. They had the same thick eyebrows, and the same expression on their faces when clearly not amused.
“And I’m Joshua,” the man said, keeping his hands in his pocket.
“I’m Raina. I looked after your mother while she was at Sandy Springs. I’m very sorry for your loss.”
I couldn’t read their expressions, and for a while no one spoke. They sized me up and I did everything in my power to stand tall. It is not my fault that their mother, in her last days, chose to honor my tremendous care with a gift of this magnitude. I wasn’t looking for a handout. I mean, I wasn’t not looking for one. But I certainly wasn’t expecting this. I mean, the keys to a home in Florida. Three stories with a pool. One of those high-end Lexus cars. And over a quarter million in a savings account. All mine, upon her death.
“I suppose we owe you an apology,” said Sheri, breaking the silence.
“I imagine she promised you a great deal of wealth upon her passing.”
It must have been the look on my face. They all looked at one another and nodded their heads. Sheri let out a huge sigh, and Joshua placed his hands over his face. Dee placed a hand on my shoulder.
“As a matter of fact,” I said, with my head held high, “she did. And, I truly cared for her, which is more than I can say for the rest of you.”
Immediately, I knew I’d said the wrong thing. What did I really know about Ms. Yates, and about this family in general? My mind recalled what Dee had said earlier. She was only alone because she refused the help of everyone who loved her. What if Ms. Yates wasn’t the victim in all of this? What if the victims stood before me, in the flesh? I braced myself for the slap in the face I knew I deserved, but it didn’t come. Sheri motioned for me to sit.
“My mother,” Sheri said, taking my hand and sitting beside me, “was a wretched, miserable, trickster.”
“I-I don’t understand.”
“And she hated us,” Joshua said, “for putting her in that nursing home. So much so, that she vowed to make everyone else miserable in the end as well.”
“Oh, but she was a delight, and she said I was like the daughter she never had.”
Sheri winced at the words, but kept her composure. I looked from Sheri, to Dee, to Joshua, trying to make sense of what I was hearing. Ms. Yates, while yes clearly bitter, was always so sweet. And she promised me so much of her wealth. How could that be the same woman they were referring to?
“Raina,” Dee spoke softly, “my sister, was treated terribly at the facility before she came to you.”
“We got her out as soon as we realized!” Sheri exclaimed, tears in her eyes.
“We did,” continued Dee. “And I want you to understand that we all took turns caring for her in the years prior to that. And she resented us deeply for having health in our bodies. We never thought we’d have to even put her in a nursing home, but then I fell, you see.”
“And I lost my job,” Sheri said.
“And I,” Joshua said, looking down, “well, let’s just say I wasn’t in a state of mind to help.”
“So, we did the only thing we could do,” Sheri said.
“But this doesn’t explain why none of you visited her the entire time she was at Sandy Springs,” I cut in.
The response came nearly in unison from the three.
“She wouldn’t allow it.”
“She spat at us,” Joshua said, his head still lowered.
“Said she wished we’d never been born,” Sheri said, placing her head on Joshua’s shoulder.
“And the worst of it was,” Dee said, “we hated ourselves for it, too.”
“And so,” Sheri chimed in again, “when we were able to get her out of that horrid place and into Sandy Springs, I guess she figured you’d all treat her better if you thought she had money. If you thought you were getting something more than a measly hourly paycheck.”
“She was always saying if she had money like Ms. Sanders, she would have been treated better,” added Dee.
I didn’t want to believe it. Two days ago, when I found out the news of her passing, I nearly quit my job. Earlier today I’d been planning my next five vacations. I’d been doing my best to force tears when what I really wanted to do was leap for joy and kiss the dead woman’s cheek. My student loans would finally be paid. I’d have a vehicle that could make it more than ten miles before leaking some essential fluid. I’d make my own rules and do what I wanted in life. But now, they’re telling me-
“She didn’t have a dime to her name.”
The tears came then. Not for Ms. Yates. She deceived me into giving better care. Wait. Did I give better care? I thought about the number of times I snuck her an extra Jell-O from the cafeteria, or gave her extra warm blankets from the warmer. How she never had to ask to be changed. I was always there. I did exactly what she thought I’d do. I should have felt a tremendous amount of shame. And, I would have. If not for the complete and utter disappointment.
“And just to be clear,” I said slowly, “there’s also no Lexus?”
They all got up then, and left. I stayed, reflecting on how I never would have imagined it possible to be bamboozled by a 92-year-old. But here I was. Royally bamboozled. I jumped at the buzzing in my pocket. It was work.
“This is Raina,” I sighed.
“Raina, thank goodness. Joe called in and I really, really, need some help. Please, please, please I will even buy you dinner tonight. I’m begging you.”
“See you in 20,” I said.