Katja watched her grandmother die when she was thirteen years old, and she had always remembered it. It had been odd, for the old lady to be there one moment and gone the next: the spark of life so quickly extinguished. Katja was perplexed by the entire situation. She had never been able to pin-point exactly the difference between life and death, but she knew it existed. She knew it when she saw it- though it was more than just sight, of course. Death was something you could feel. Not only with your fingers, but with your heart, and your mind, and your soul, too.
Of course, people- like her father, for example, and her grandfather- said there were no such things as souls. Katja doubted that, on some vague, existential level that she’d felt ever since she was a young girl. Maybe only since around the time she was thirteen. It seemed to her to have started earlier than that, though. Maybe since the day she’d been born.
There was always the memory of death: cold hands growing colder as Katja watched in fascination while the old woman expired. Her once shining blue eyes were clouded over with cataracts, a curious phenomenon that always made Katja think of rainstorms. They had grown even cloudier with death.
Katja’s mother had been out dancing, alone. Like many women, Nina had been madly in love with her husband, absolutely crazy about him from the day she met him. And like many women, Nina had been devastated to learn of his philandering; his crude habits and deceitful words had muted her wild heart for the better part of her young adult life. Her ocean blue eyes carried the sadness of betrayal until well into her forties, with the exception of dancing. When she danced, her eyes came alive with happiness and hope, and her dance partners were forgiven for her husband’s mistakes, at least until the next time he snuck off with a new mistress.
It had been during one of those treasured excursions thats Mormor had given up the ghost. Katja was daydreaming in her small and crowded bedroom, when Hanna’s ancient voice had called down the hallway.
“Lille venn… lille venn, come here…” Katja was stolen away from her secret world of adolescent fantasies. She had already brought her grandmother a glass of water, and her evening pills. She had expected the woman to fall asleep peacefully like she usually did around ten p.m. Tonight though, her trembling voice was impatient and urgent, and she called again.
Katja sighed, resigning herself to the old woman’s summons, and plodded softly across the creaky floor of their Victorian home to the small set of stairs that led to her grandmother’s attic bedroom. She climbed them slowly, praying the old woman just needed her pillows adjusted. The door squealed as she pushed it open all the way. The room smelled like fresh cut lavender, the one request her otherwise unimposing grandma had. Her neck had curved sharply to the left, the result of an unfortunate stroke shortly before her eighty-third birthday. Katja had only been three at the time, so as far as she new, her Mormor had always been set at an angle. This was her true and perfect form, and Katja never thought anything about it. Not until after she was gone, anyway.
“Lille venn…” the old woman said again, her voice strong and clear, but quieter now that she sensed Katja’s presence in the room. Her cloudy eyes moved toward the door, and though Katja knew Mormor couldn’t see, she still felt as though she was being looked straight through.
“I’m here, Mormor, your little friend is here.” She came closer and fussed with the blanket, pulling it up over the woman’s bent shoulders, and fluffed the pillow with her other hand. Mormor shifted impatiently, excitedly, and batted Katja’s small hands away.
“Lille venn! I’m cold.”
“Then let me cover you up.” But the old woman’s hands once again pushed away her comforts. She was smiling radiantly, and Katja could see the young woman Mormor once was hiding in her old and wrinkled face. It made the girl slightly uncomfortable, that glowing face of so many years past, and she shifted nervously as Mormor reached for her hand.
“I need to tell you something,” she said sternly.
“I am cold because I am going to die tonight.” That proud and raptured smile expanded, the corners of her mouth as curved as a cheshire cat.
“Oh, Mormor, don’t say that. You just went to the doctor yesterday and they said you’re healthy as a horse, except for the cataracts. And the recovery from the hip surgery.”
“They were right! But it is still my time.” Katja looked around anxiously, wishing her mother was home to put Mormor at ease. The old woman’s reached out and squeezed Katja’s hand. Her fingers were cold, and her palms clammy. Katja shivered, suddenly understanding the truth of her grandmother’s impending death. She sat down on the regal, high-back chair at the side of the bed, holding Mormor’s hand tightly. She didn’t know what to say. She’d never known anyone who had died before.
“Do not be afraid, lille venn,” the aged tongue was thicker with accent than Katja had ever heard it before, “we must all die to be born again.”
“I’m not afraid. I’m just… confused.” The old woman laughed, a whimsical, young laugh.
“Ah, life is confusing, little Katja. You know that. But that is why it is beautiful.”
Katja was quiet, contemplating this. How could something beautiful end in death? It seemed quite odd to her. Beautiful things were forever, like they said about diamonds. She frowned slightly, though. What about the wilting roses in the kitchen, the ones her father had brought her mother two weeks ago when she had found out about his latest fling? No, she decided. If roses were given in love, they would be beautiful and surely last forever. Roses that were given in betrayal were wilted from the beginning.
It was as though Mormor had read Katja’s thoughts. She squeezed her hand again, and spoke.
“Love is confusing, too, lille venn. It doesn’t always work the way you think it should. And sometimes people do foolish things for it, like letting their heart get broken over and over again. It’s beautiful, too, but it can also be quite cruel. And sometimes it doesn’t last forever, just like old lavender or wilting roses. ”
Katja had wondered what her grandmother had truly been like, as a young girl, a girl with dreams and adventure and misguided affections, to follow Katja’s Russian grandfather from her home in Norway to a new life in the United States. He had been passing through, a mischievous young man with a handsome jaw line, and when he’d flashed his smile at Hanna, she’d fallen hopelessly in love. Katja had seen photos of the old woman in her youthful incarnation: her face was a perfect heart, with huge eyes set in perfection, and framed by thick golden hair that she’d preferred to keep back in a braid. In every photo, her lovely face was set in a sweet smile, content and kind. She had been positively breath-taking. As a teenager, Katja silently cursed the woe of genetics: her own heart-shaped face was slightly asymmetrical, her hair a dark, tangled auburn mess. The only thing she approved of were her eyes: they were a deep emerald green. This was her father’s legacy, his bloodline wholly Irish. At 16, Katja had longed to look like her perfect Nordic ancestors, her misery compounded by the bleached blondes in her sophomore class and in the movies they went to with their delicious senior boyfriends. Katja had stayed home most of her high school career: more content to paint and write than go to parties and shopping. Not that anyone invited her anyway. The extent of her social life revolved around tutoring freshman in math and science: subjects that Katja struggled with herself at times. Her Mormor had always said that the best way to understand was through teaching. Her Mormor had said many wise things that Katja committed reverently to memory, accessible in times of distress.
“But your love will last forever, lille venn. You have the curse of Eve, just like your Momma and me. Why do you think she stays?” Her cloudy eyes were wise, and Katja frowned again. She did not like what her Mormor was saying. Love was fickle; yet forever; life was beautiful, yet ends in death. Katja had been contemplating these concepts on her own for the past year or so, but her grandmother’s soft words were a new and unfamiliar perspective.
The old hand squeezed hers again, and Katja took a deep breath. She had so many questions, but felt the nearing moment of death. What answers about the world could possibly be imparted in such a short time?
“Just be wiser than we were, Katja. Never fall in love with a beautiful man. They’re as tricky as they are admirable.”
Katja’s thoughts were a tangled mess in her racing mind. No words formed, just flashes of emotion. Irritation. Disappointment. Love. Anger. They traced over her confused mind, leaving trails of color behind her eyes. Mormor took a deep, shuddery breath.
“Don’t worry, Mormor, I’ll never love any man.” Suddenly, she was overflowing. “There’s so many more important things to do with life. Like algebra. And painting. Anyway, I never want to cry the way Momma does. Why would anyone ever want to fall in love, anyway?”
The old woman chuckled, again. “Oh, little Katja! You will love and you will cry. Just remember me when you do it.” And then she had gasped, and her clouded eyes had flattened, and in spite of the thick cataract over Mormor’s irises, Katja could see that they were dead. She sat there quietly, with no tears in her eyes. Mormor’s hand was limp and still, and Katja thoughtfully turned it over and studied the gaunt old hand. She traced the landmarks of her palm: the life line, the love line, the fleshy mounds below her fingers. Mormor had read palms and tarot cards, despite being a devout Lutheran. She said life made more sense with a little help from the fantastical. Katja stared at the end of the life line, and shivered again. The fantastical couldn’t help death. She stared at the old woman’s face, turning gray now as the time passed. Katja dropped Mormor’s hand, then leaned back in the high-backed chair and closed her eyes. She was trying to figure out what the difference between dead Mormor and alive Mormor. This was the first time she tried to define it, and the first time she failed. Deep in contemplation, she fell asleep and dreamed of 20 year old Hanna. Her neck was bent uncomfortably to the left when her mother came home that evening. Nina’s mournful wail when she discovered Hanna’s lifeless body woke Katja from her sleep, and she frowned as realized that her grandmother was still dead, and still unexplainable.