Unforgiven

Author | Riley Shai

I’ve always wondered what karma looked like. 

I stand by Grandmother’s bedside, the bones of her bruised, weathered hand clutching my own freshly manicured, moisturized. Pampered. Her eyes are on mine, tired. No – exhausted. Exhausted from defeat.

Terrified. 

She inhales. You don’t need a stethoscope to hear the bubbling fountain that has become her lungs seemingly overnight. What was she drowning in? Blood? Mucus? Salt water? Was this her return to the sea? Two months ago I had been considering ending my own life by sea water. Was this a lesson? Or a premonition? Was this my karma or hers?

Flashback.

A different bedside. A different hospital on a different side of town. This time it was Grandfather in the bed. My Grandmother was absent for this. She and Grandfather had a hard marriage at the end. While she was in their once-shared condo in Florida, my Grandfather laid on his deathbed. 

I sat next to him, a hospital mask stretched across the lower half of my face. I can’t remember if it was for his protection or mine, but I remember the way it scratched at the skin beneath my eyes. 

Unlike my ailing Grandmother, Grandfather no longer had his words to tell us what the end was like.

Cold.
Thirsty. 
Tired.
Alone.
Frightened.
Dementia. 

At first, I felt robbed. The thing that was once my Grandfather was locked inside of a rotting psyche, unable to access the freedom and tools it needed to communicate. To remember. 

My family, I believe, was grateful that my strong and stubborn Grandfather wasn’t “aware” of his own peril. I suspect they were even thankful that his wife chose to stay away rather than watch him crumble, something I thought – and still think – of as selfishness. She had been selfish for as long as I could remember. 

I watched members of my family shuffle by him, talking, asking questions. A nod for a yes. A shake of the head for a no. A quirk of the eyebrow when someone cracked a joke he liked. He never did lose his intelligence. 

When it was just me, him and my mother, whom was rattling off news about his condition to out-of-state relatives, I leaned forward in my seat, resting my elbows on his bed. 

“Hey,” I said. His eyes searched the empty air until they found mine. I knew that, even if his decaying mind recognized me, his eyes without the help of his glasses would never allow it. I had no idea where his glasses were. They had been lost between the trips back and forth between the hospital and the vet’s home. “I have to go back to school,” I went on to say, “but I’ll be back soon.” I never went more than two weeks without making the 14-hour round trip drive home. I knew I’d be able to squeeze in another visit in the following week. 

“I love you,” I told him. 

And then he reached for me, holding my small hand in his, his eyes still locked on mine. 

Love. This is what love is. 

My mother didn’t notice me crying right away, for which I’m grateful. It means I’m the only one who saw the look on his face when I started to cry; the look of horror and despair, one of crushing helplessness, of endless pain. 

And this is what death is. 

As my mother gathered me into her arms, Grandfather withdrew his hand from mine, covering his eyes. He began to weep.

I’m back to sitting with my Grandmother. She’s talking now, her voice small, shaky, fearful. So unlike the loud, rude woman who interrupted the priest’s service at Grandfather’s wake to ask, “what about me? Don’t I deserve something for putting up with him?”

Did I mention how, even after losing the ability to speak, Grandfather would blush every time his wife was around? I learned in those days that true love can truly be one-sided. It never ceased to amaze me watching Grandfather watch his wife walk through the door. He may have forgotten her name, but her hands never left unkissed. 

Next to me, Grandmother hiccups, her lungs bubbling with the effort and she begins to cry. I know that she’s afraid. I know she knows she’s dying. I wonder if she knew that Grandfather knew as well. 

I wonder if this is what unforgiveness looks like.


About the Author | Riley Shai is the pseudonym of a young dreamer who has been exploring the catacombs of her mind. You can find more of her scattered thoughts on her Instagram: TheCicadaChronicles