Everyone had grim faces as if they had left their smiles at home. Whatever they were up to, it was a day of serious looks and red eyes. A funeral, that’s what Mama called it. She said people don’t laugh or giggle in funerals.
That morning, I was eating my cereal in the kitchen when Mama came in with a weary look. She stood quietly for a while, her fingers tracing over the old tea set we once brought from Grandma’s house. After minutes of her touching the china and me munching my cereal, she said, Grandma passed away this morning,
At five, the only reference to ‘passing’ I heard was from classmate Jonny who squished his nose and giggled saying, I passed wind. When I asked if Grandma passed wind, Mama sighed and left the kitchen.
I finished my breakfast and went back up. In my bedroom, Mama had laid out a black suit and tie for me. Why couldn’t I wear my favourite red t-shirt and shorts, I asked. Grandma loved it. Mama shook her head and walked away. I may not have known a lot of things at age five, but I knew not to upset Mama more than she already seemed. Even if I couldn’t understand why she was upset. After all, passing wind wasn’t such a big deal. Jonny did it all the time.
Last year when we visited Grandma, I had asked her why she stayed in bed all day. She smiled and whispered one word in my ear – larva. When we returned home, I had forgotten all about it and never asked Mama what it meant.
Dressed in the dark suit I hated, I clasped Mama’s hand, and together, we walked to the train station. The grey morning drizzled down our umbrella. A drop must have fallen on Mama as it ran down her cheeks and onto the puddled streets.
The fast train would pass any minute now and then we board the next one, she said. Staring at the vibrating train tracks, I decided maybe what Mama meant earlier was - Grandma must have passed by our house this morning just like the thundering train. Although, that too was curious as I had only seen Grandma lying in bed. I asked Mama if Grandma used her superpowers to pass. To which, Mama said nothing at first. She took a deep breath and she wished Grandma had. At least, it would have been quick and painless. I then remembered Grandma had superpowers.
Last time I met Grandma, it was the warmest day of the year. Pollen flew all over Grandma’s garden. I asked Grandma to join me by the window but she smiled and declined. She laughed and added her magical powers help her see the outside world right from the bed.
She then described the summer day transpiring outside. She told me about the robin that drinks from the birdbath. Out I looked and there the bird was. Grandma said the bumblebees buzz around the scented lavender plants and suck all the honey. There would be seven of them she stated. I looked out and counted. Sure enough, there were seven. That year, the blackberries were too sour, she said. I dashed out of the house, into the garden, plucked a few blackberries and raced back into the house. When I plopped it into my mouth, my eyes must have squinted at the sourness as Grandma laughed. That day I knew my Grandma was no ordinary old lady. She had powers. She was my magical Grandma.
During our conversation that day, I had asked her again why she stayed in bed all day. Again, she whispered one word – pupa. A five-year-old child doesn’t retain much in their heads so that too slipped deep into my memory and stayed there, unexplained.
Aunty Bex met us at the other end of the journey. She ruffled my hair and planted wet sloppy kisses on my cheeks. Then, she hugged Mama tightly. Far too much time has passed since I saw you, darling, she said to Mama. This made me think about Grandma’s age. She was as old as the dinosaur. Maybe ‘the passing’ Mama meant a lot of time passed since we saw Grandma.
Rather than go to Grandma’s house, we went to a hall I had never been to before. It smelt funny in there. A bit like Jonny’s armpits. I itched to take my leather shoes off. They were new, and they bit my feet. But Mama wouldn’t allow. She stood by a long wooden box, shaking hands with people I had never seen before.
On the sofas, several people sat and cried. At the other end of the room, many were talking about going to Grandma’s later for drinks.
She was so effervescent, so bubbly. Such a shame said an elderly man to Aunty Bex. Did you hear cousin Agatha wants a share? Another woman said to Mama. But Mama wasn’t paying much attention. Grown-ups were strange. They cried and drank at the same time. They complained and praised at the same time. But among all this, the one question that remained unanswered for me was where was Grandma?
I went up to Mama and asked her again if I could take off my shoes. Mama said no, so I peeked inside the box. Grandma lay asleep in there.
Delighted, I had finally found her; I listened hard if she was passing wind. Nope. I checked her clothes if she had a superhero outfit on, ready to fly or pass or whatever they do. But she wore a pale blue dress. I asked Grandma if she wanted us to visit more. I said she could even plant sloppy kisses like Aunty Bex but Grandma lay still, unmoving.
I returned to Mama and tugged at her arm again. The thing was I really needed to pee. I didn’t get to ask Mama.
Why don’t you understand, she screamed at me. She’s gone forever. She’s dead.
I now understood all of it. I understood what passing meant. Grandma had whispered in my ears during our visits. I tugged hard at Mama’s hand.
When her face was close to mine, I said,
“Grandma was a caterpillar. She said when she’s dead, she would turn into a butterfly.”