Happy Music

by Anna Wood

Editor's note: the pieces in our COMPASSION series were originally submitted to the Creative Writing competition as part of Interregnum XIV at The King's College. The following piece won third place. It was submitted on behalf of the House of Thatcher.


Eight months ago, Grandma slipped and hit her head. Somewhere inside her skull, her brain began to ooze blood. Grandpa rushed her to the hospital. Once she was well enough, my mom and uncle moved her to a home. According to mom, grandma was a believer, and she was going to Heaven. So, everything was going to be ok. She told me to brace myself for the end.

When I found out Grandma died, I booked a flight home. I pulled out my duffle and stuffed it with some shirts, a pair of jeans, a handful of underwear, some socks, and a satin black dress that hung below my knees. I put on a white shirt and black jeans, curled my bangs, and left for LaGuardia.

I snaked through security and sat down in the terminal behind the Dunkin Donuts. Across from me was a man and woman with their hands coiled together resting in the man’s lap. The woman was wearing an engagement ring, no wedding band. She took her nose and rubbed it against his cheek, as if she was a cat looking for affection.

Back when I turned 16, Grandma gave me a letter on how to be a good wife. I was insulted. She had looked at me like I was a creature ever since I was small. It seemed to be her way of telling me what I needed to do if I ever hoped to get married. I stuffed it into my bookshelf and didn’t touch it for four years

I finally opened it because whenever she would see me she would just squeeze my arm, look me in the eyes as her head bobbed in circles, and tell me, “You’re great.” By this point, it was all she was able to communicate to anyone.

At the bottom of this letter, Grandma had two checklists: what a wife needs and what a husband needs. A wife needs honesty and openness, while a husband needs an attractive spouse and sexual fulfillment. She probably wrote the letter because she felt her mind begin to slip, and it was the only wisdom she felt she had the authority to pass on.

I fell asleep on the plane and woke up as we landed in Denver. From the plane, I walked into the bathroom and huddled into a stall with my duffle. I put the bag on the door and put my phone on the tampon trash box. I thought for a moment about how gross it was to put my phone there with all the exposure to unwashed hands and the used applicators concealed under the lid.

When I switched to tampons, Mom coached me through the bathroom door on how to put it in, but I thought the whole applicator was the tampon. It didn’t feel right. So, Mom interrogated me until we figured out why it felt wrong and why I felt the need to walk with my knees together. “It feels like it’s going to slip out,” I told her.

Grandma never told Mom about periods. Mom bled for three days until she brought it up to Grandma while she cooked dinner. She thought she had internal bleeding or an infection. Grandma shrugged off the panic, gave her some pads, and told her to clean her dirty underwear with hand soap and cold water. Mom learned it was normal from her friends at school. She was just shedding her uterine lining.

Usually when I fly home to Colorado, Mom greets me outside the gate. Her arms extend into the air, and she flaps her hands up and down like a happy baby about to be picked up. The closer I walk to her the smaller her gestures become. Even her smile squeezes into a small, restrained grin. This time, my mom stood with one hand holding her purse whiled the other fluttered at me. Her blue eyes were dim and bloodshot, and the skin underneath dragged down to her cheekbones. Even the wrinkle she attempted to cover with her bangs was prominent and deep.

I smiled as I walked up to her. “Hey, Dad told me he was going to pick me up.”

“Yeah, I told him I would get you. I —,” she sighed. “I needed to see you.” She nodded her head and pulled me in for a hug. Her hair was musty.

As we walked to the car, she told me the funeral details. She offered to take my duffle, but I refused. When I asked about grandpa, she told me that it was just “really hard.” It’s what she had said for the last three years whenever someone asked about Grandma’s endless descent into dementia.

As we got into Mom’s 2001 white Lexus, she asked, “When do you go back?”

“Probably next week sometime, but I’m going to wait to get the ticket until after the funeral.” I stopped and looked at my mom. Her perfume permeated the car. It was warm and strong, making it hard to breathe. “Mom, how are you doing?” She sucked air in through her nose and shook her head as she leaned it closer to the steering wheel. Her mouth gaped for a moment, and she looked out the window. “Do you want me to drive so you can just sit?” She nodded.

Mom began to cry. I was going to turn on what she called happy music, but that’s not what she needed. She needed to cry in silence.

Thumbnail image by Angel Boyd.