The Blue Dress
“When all is said and done, what is clear is that all lives end before their time.”
The year was 2003 and I was twelve years old.
I woke up early on a Saturday morning and could hear the murmurs of my mother and step-father as they talked in bed in the room above mine.
When I finally got up I ate cereal from the box on the sofa and watched the latest developments. This seemed to remind me that I had failed to take my morning pee, and as I came out of the toilet my mother called to me from their room.
“Gray?” she said.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Can you come in here a minute?” she asked me.
My stomach tightened, this was abnormal. I approached the door and pushed it open softly. My mother was sitting up in bed with her phone in her hand, wearing an old pink pajama top. My step-dad was lying sideways next her; his head still against his pillow, hairy naked shoulders protruding from the top of the duvet. Both pairs of eyes met mine.
“We have some bad news,” she told me. I didn’t speak; internally my mind was flipping through all the possible scenarios, but part of me knew already what she was about to tell me.
“Okay,” I said as I moved over to the bed and sat down next to her. She placed the phone in her hand on the bed-side locker.
“Granny died this morning.”
I knew she meant her granny and not mine. She had been sick for months and I had come to expect that this moment wasn’t far away. I just sat and let the news sink in. I turned my face away from them, felt vulnerable. The news was numbing and cold; this was the first time someone I knew personally had died.
The actual experience of processing my great-grandmother’s death was strange and entirely unemotional. I turned and hugged my mother, probably giving her the impression that I had much more grief in my heart than I actually did. When the hug was over my step-dad sat up and we hugged too.
“Are you okay?” he asked me.
“I’m fine, it’s just sad,” I told the two of them.
“She was very sick, and not herself anymore. Everyone will be fine… in time,” my mother told me. This gave me a sense of comfort and reassurance.
“We’ll have to travel down to Westmeath over the next few days for the funeral. Everything has already been organized, okay?”
“Yeah, it’ll be nice to see everyone again… even though it’s not the best occasion,” I said.
I returned to my room and began looking through my old camcorder tapes until I found the one I was looking for, marked Great-Granny’s 90th.
Less than a year before, she’d celebrated what would be her last birthday. We traveled over to her retirement home in the countryside and the family spent the day with her. I had recorded it all on my Sony Hi-8.
I connected the camera into the back of the television set and inserted the tape.
It was strange indeed. I quickly realized the real reason I was watching it: my attempt to provoke an emotion. I knew I had to feel something somewhere.
As I watched the tape I saw her face lit by candlelight. She didn’t have the breath to blow the candles out herself so the grandchildren did it for her instead. It was hard to tell how aware she was of what was going on. The dementia was advanced. Sometimes she would confuse me for my grandfather; perhaps she thought she was young again and her son was still just becoming a man.
We traveled down again months after that when her condition worsened, and I watched her as she lay on her death bed surrounded by her sons and her sister. She looked so small in that massive bed, the mattress wheezeing and moaning as a series of pumps and pipes continually inflated sections underneath her to help prevent bed sores.
Her eyes remained closed the whole time I was there.
Within a couple of days I found myself back down at the same retirement home, the smell of fresh grass in the air outside while inside smelt of runny mashed potato.
I was following my grandfather and my grandmother through the hallways to the chapel where she was already laid out in her coffin. My grandfather had remained quiet and reserved the whole time.
We entered the chapel and I smelt the familiar smell of church: hot candle wax and soft smoke, old wooden pews that had been varnished and varnished again over decades, the faint, lingering scent of incense.
The chapel was huge and the pews curved around the altar in a semicircle fashion. Behind the altar were three great stained glass windows with imagery from the crucifixion. The sun projected red, blue, green, yellow and orange light onto the people who had already gathered.
The pews were already half full of mourners and as my grandfather entered, people noticed and began to move towards him and give their condolences. My grandmother stopped behind him and began to shake hands as each “Sorry” was offered and returned with a “Thank you”.
She turned to me and pointed towards a small set of double doors to the left of the altar. These doors were made completely from frosted glass, except for a large cross centered across the middle of each that allowed you to glimpse the inside of the room.
“Granny’s in there. Now go say Hello,” she told me.
“Okay,” I said and made my way across the chapel to the frosted doors. I looked through the cross and saw the coffin for the first time. It was sitting alone in the centre of what appeared to be an empty room, other than her corpse. I pushed open the door, stepped inside and let it close softly behind myself.
My eyes were struck by a flash, silky blue that spilt from the opening in the casket. The room smelt of embalming chemicals and flowers; a strange, unexpected mixture.
She was dressed in a long, pale-blue silk ankle-length dress; across her breast the dress was embroiled with a large image of the Virgin Mary stepping on a serpent barefoot.
I followed the shine and curve of the fabric until it bent around her shoulders and down to her wrists where it ended in a frilly white sleeve that reminded me of a tea doily. Her hands were clasped tightly together, fingers interlaced across her stomach. They looked as unmovable as a stone cliff yet as soft and brittle as old yellowed paper. Wooden rosary beads had been wrapped through her fingers and the cross lay just below the image of Mary.
Finally I looked at her face. It was uncanny, bizarre. Her skin was as soft and puffy and pale as fresh white pillows with a balmy, almost plastic sheen, but her eyelids were sunken and deep in the wells of her eye sockets. Her lips were thin, stretched and sown shut.
I thought of finding the courage to put my hand on top of hers and in that moment, a man spoke from behind me.