When the old lady stopped breathing, so did Blake. Holding his breath, he waited. The corners of his mouth twitched, quivering like a racehorse waiting in the gate as his mouth tried to break a smile. She was finally dead. Dead and surrounded by a small army of crying children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
His hands shot to his face just in time to conceal the wide grin that parted his cheeks. Everything had worked out perfect. Since her fall, two weeks ago, he’d prayed every day that she would hold on long enough. When the phone would ring, his heart would stop. Mom would talk low and quiet and the thought of grandma dying too soon made tears trickle down his cheek. But she hadn’t. His eighth birthday was yesterday and since then, he’d been ready to explode with excitement. Masking it with sadness had been like trying to hide a bucket of exploding firecrackers.
A hand touched his shoulder and he looked up to see his mother and his blood ran cold. He breathed heavy and sweat beads appeared on his forehead as he stared back at her in wide-eyed fear. Could she see the happiness? Would she be angry?
She picked him up and buried his head in her shoulder.
“Poor Blake,” she told somebody. “He has been dreading this day.”
He pressed his grin into her fluffy dress and almost laughed. She didn’t know. Nobody knew. He held her tight and didn’t let her put him down until she asked if he wanted to take a nap. He nodded and she carried him off into one of grandma’s cold, dark bedrooms and plopped him onto the bed.
She stayed with him for a few minutes, stroking his hair, but he kept his face buried in the pillow and pretended he was asleep until she left. Then he spun over and let his mouth go free. It stretched from ear to ear as his eyes danced with excitement. It was now only two days away.
Last year they had all gone without him. Mother, Grandma, and everyone had rode off leaving him alone with an older girl he didn’t even know. It wasn’t fair to leave him like that, to exclude him from father’s mourning just because he wasn’t eight. He’d cried all afternoon…so hard even the girl started crying, saying she was so sorry but not to worry because his father was watching from heaven. Of course father was in heaven. He never told her why he had really been crying…or told anyone why he’d cried every day since. At least every day until yesterday. Now he could go and partake like everyone else.
Waiting the next two days was torture, worse than Christmas. Mother was gone most of the time, helping with all the work. Grandma had to be prepared for the ceremony and everything had to be blessed by the elders. The church had to be set up, talks had to be prepared, friends and family notified. It was a lot of work and he was glad they were all busy. It was too hard to look sad all the time when they were around.
On the big day, he woke up before Mother, put on his church clothes, and clipped his tie into place. He climbed onto the sink and drizzled water onto his comb and ran it through his hair until it was straight like mother liked it. Then he sat on the big chair in the front room and waited.
He heard the water running when she started the shower. A short time later, the hum of the blow dryer made him think of her hair bouncing around as she fixed it up. When she came walking down the hall she stopped when she saw him.
“You look very handsome…how long have you been awake?”
“Not very,” he said.
“Did you already eat something?” she asked.
“We aren’t supposed to, remember?”
“Well, adults aren’t, but kids can if they want to. You don’t have to fast like me,” she said.
“I want to,” he answered.
She nodded, walked into the room, and sat on the couch. “Do you have any questions about what happens today?”
He shook his head, no.
“Today we honor Grandma by accepting her into our own hearts and lives forever. We take all the good in her and make it part of us.”
“I know,” he nodded. “Just like you did last year with father. And Grandma was there, so part of father is in her. And now, he will be in me, too.”
Her eyes flooded and several drops escaped down her cheeks. She opened her mouth to speak but no words escaped. She nodded and wiped her tears.
She pulled him onto her lap and squeezed. For some reason, now he knew she wouldn’t mind that he was happy. She understood.
The chapel was dark and empty when he pushed through the large double doors. He was the first to sit and he took the front row on the edge so he would be the first to partake. The lights flickered and the shadows vanished. Hushed whispers chased the silence as others entered and sat on the long wooden benches. Old lady Jergins walked up onto the stand and sat at the organ. Moments later, the pipes hummed and soft music drowned the whispers.
He didn’t have to hide his smile anymore, it was gone. This was important and even though his body shivered with excitement, he sat still with his arms folded. This was serious; he was with the adults and was expected to act like one. And it was almost time.
Mother sat next to him and put an arm around him. He felt a soft kiss on his forehead. Then the preacher walked up to the pulpit and motioned for all to stand.
Blake heard the back doors open and watched the isle anxiously as they brought her forward. The elders appeared, carrying the large, covered silver platter. It wouldn’t be long now; Father would be a part of him forever.
He sat still, arms folded, and looking ahead as if he was listening to the stories and talks. But his eyes were glazed and his mind filled with images of his father as he waited. When it was time and the preacher again asked the front row to stand, his eyes filled with tears. Mother squeezed his hand and he looked up at her. She smiled at him, through streaks of tears on her cheeks. She was the prettiest woman alive and he hugged her. His chest was tingling and more tears fell down his face. This was the happiest day of his life.
He walked up the steps, first in line, and the row followed. The elders lifted the cover and he stepped up to them. He opened his mouth and one of the elders leaned forward and put a small piece of meat in his mouth. Now, father would always be a part of him. Forever.