“Whoa, there, Sarah,” Jacob says as he gently lifts me to my feet. His arms are strong, much stronger than I expected for someone his age. Is he younger than he looks? Maybe I’m seeing him wrong. Maybe everything I’ve ever thought is wrong, and I really am crazy, like Karen wants everyone to believe.
Karen says nothing during this whole exchange, merely stands there, arms crossed, eyes bulging. Those eyes are the only way you would know she just saw anything out of the ordinary happening.
I wish Matt were here to lean on, but he’s long since disappeared out the back door with the minister and his wife. Probably talking about the lovely sermon the minister gave at Grandma’s service.
”I’m sorry,” I dimly hear Jacob talking, but it sounds so far away. I realize with embarrassment that I am staring at his shiny patent leather loafers, and force myself to raise my head to look him in the eyes. I need to know if this is real. “I shouldn’t have dropped bomb on you that way. Forgive my lack of tact. I should have thought of a gentler way to tell you. Obviously, it comes as a shock to you. It would to anyone. But, there’s something you have to know about your grandmother, Sarah. Lizzie is…was…a force of nature. She would never allow herself to get dementia. I’m serious. Her willpower was such that you can’t even imagine. I’m sure you saw glimpses of it here and there. The fact is, she had too much she wanted to hide. There is no way Elizabeth Morgan would ever permit herself to be in a position where she might reveal her precious secrets. She’d kill herself first, as soon as the doctor gave her the diagnosis, and she still had enough awareness of what she was doing. Lizzie was careful, so careful. She took every precaution that no one, especially you and Matt, know anything she didn’t want you to know. I’ve never known a more methodical planner than your grandmother.”
I must look like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming semi, because he smiles softly at me, almost apologetically, and continues his bizarre tale.
“Think about it, Sarah. You know how people with dementia start to mistake you for people from their past? It usually happens at the beginning. Then, as it progresses, they begin talking about things that happened to them decades ago like they are current events. They forget words, and repeat sentences they said just moments ago. They forget how to do things they’ve been experts at for decades. Did she ever do anything like that? Because they are all practically universal signs of all types of dementia.”
He’s right. Grandma never did anything like that. She just….stopped talking. It happened slowly, over the course of about a year or so, but that’s the only symptom she ever exhibited. She wandered the house silently, and eventually quit getting up from her chair without help. She still fed herself, and looked at books in her lap. She even watched TV. I didn’t think it was strange then, but I do now.
I must have been silent just a moment too long, because Karen snaps at me, bringing me back to reality. “Answer him,” she commands, nudging me in the back.
“No,” I say, my voice shaking, along with my hands, and probably other parts of me I haven’t noticed. “It wasn’t like that at all.” And, I explain just what happened with Grandma, nausea building in the pit of my stomach with each word.
Jacob gazes at my in sympathy, clearly hating to be the bearer of bad news. If he is telling the truth, I don’t understand why he decided to re-enter our lives and bring it up now, knowing it could only upset us. On the other hand, if all he says is true, I definitely need to know why.
“Lizzie deliberately stopped talking to make you think she had dementia,” Jacob said. “She paid her doctor to tell you she had it. You would be surprised what lots of money will buy. But, she never stopped engaging with the world. When she looked at those books and watched TV, she was actually reading, and enjoying her shows. She knew exactly what was going on at every moment.”
“Well, why would she pretend?” I finally demand, a little tickle of anger beginning to gnaw on my psyche, threatening to explode into full-blown rage. How could she? What Matt and I went through caring for her, worrying about her, grieving her loss years before she really left us. What kind of person does that?
“We adored her,” I finally grind out between clenched teeth. “We thought she loved us, too. Why would she be so cruel?” Tears squeeze out from the corners of my eyes, a couple of them dripping slowly down each cheek, threatening to smudge my carefully applied mascara, but I don’t care.
“Lizzie was getting old, starting to slow down,” he explains. “It happens. I think I feel it happening to me some days.”
If his unusually healthy looking exterior is anything to go by, I highly doubt he ever feels anything but terrific.
“”The thing is, Lizzie wanted to control everything,” Jacob admits, looking almost sheepish, as if it were his fault somehow. “Knowing her time with you may be becoming limited, she wanted to accomplish a few things. One, she wanted to make her passing as easy on the two of you as possible, and disengaging slowly, years ahead of time, was her way of doing it. Don’t think she didn’t love you, because she did, so much. Her methods may have been odd, but she was always her own person, and she did what she thought was best. Two, she was determined to protect you and Matt from whatever dangers she thought her secrets presented. So, she took precautions. The feigned dementia was her way of accomplishing this. Even going into assisted living two years ago was her idea. She decided her act had caused her to become enough of a burden on you kids, and so she paid her doctor to tell Matt it was time for her to move to a facility. She chose the place herself, and paid her doctor to recommend that particular facility to Matt. She also paid the staff there to pretend whenever you two came to visit. Let me ask you, Sarah. Did she always look immaculate each time you went to visit? Was her room sumptuous and equipped with ever luxury, even those you wouldn’t think someone with dementia would need?”
“Yes,” I whisper, amazed I never noticed how odd it actually was. But, Jacob pointing it out to me makes it seem like the most obvious thing in the world. Matt and are obviously idiots. Did she take advantage of that, thinking we weren’t smart enough to figure out her scheme?
I shake my head, dumbfounded. It was all so calculating, diabolical even. So at odds with the beloved, sweet, gentle-natured grandmother I knew. The one who helped me with my homework with such patience when I couldn’t get the math thing quite right even after hours of trying. The one who baked the most amazing chocolate chip cookies for us nearly every day after school. The Grandma who made sure we got to participate in every after school activity we wanted to, and sat smiling and clapping proudly in the audience at every play, competition, or recital. That grandmother would never do what Jacob stands before me suggesting. But, deep inside, that still, small voice I always listen to so carefully tells me he is telling the truth. And, it crushes me.
I squint, trying to keep any more tears from falling, balling my hands up into fists at my side.
“Sarah,” Jacob says intently, reaching out to gently stroke my hair with one tentative finger, “do you even know how old your grandmother was?”
Of course I do. What a silly question. I open my eyes, my devastation momentarily forgotten as I reach into my surface memory to pull out the piece of data I know as well as my own birth date.
“Yes,” I announce, completely confident, “she was….”
Um….why isn’t the information there? Of course I know Grandma’s age. But, I don’t. I pause, unable to answer. Jacob is really bringing it home with that question, in case I had any doubts about his story. I don’t. Not anymore. Because, at that moment, I realize the horrible truth, and it hits me like an unexpected slap to the face.
I don’t know my own grandmother’s age.
“I….I…” I stammer, not knowing what to say. A lump forms in my throat, tight and painful, while tears once again began to form around the rims of my eyelids. How can I not know my own grandmother’s age? I thought I did, but like so many other things about her, it was just something I assumed I knew, and never gave a second thought to. Realizing I don’t know this most basic piece of information about the woman who raised me bothers me more than learning she didn’t really have dementia. And, the more I think about it, the clearer it becomes. We never celebrated her birthday, not once. She never brought it up, and we never thought to ask. Come to think of it, her birthplace and the names of her parents or any siblings she may have had are also mysteries. Does Matt know? He had to give that information for her death certificate. He must know. Otherwise, what did he tell them?
“Don’t worry, Sarah,” Jacob soothes me. “I don’t mean to upset you by any of this. I just felt like you deserved to know the truth. If it helps, I didn’t know how old she was, either. No one did. Even your grandfather didn’t know the exact number. She refused to reveal it. He always said he preferred it that way, because it added mystery and romance to their marriage. Lizzie told anyone who asked that a lady never revealed her true age.”
“What about her birthday?” I manage to choke out, my voice cracking. “At least the month and day. Didn’t anyone ever celebrate it?”
“She didn’t like to be reminded of the passing of the years. No, we didn’t know her birthday either, or celebrate it. The one time your grandfather asked her if she would like a birthday party at some point, she about snapped his head off, and shouted at him to never mention it again. He didn’t.”
Karen has been tapping her foot loudly and impatiently behind me this whole time, and now she is apparently ready to have her say. I shudder inside, wondering what fresh hell she will unleash on this already insane situation.
“Okay,” she says, loud enough the few remaining heads in the house turn briefly our way, before returning to their own conversations. “Let’s assume all of this is true….and that’s a big assumption. How do you know all this, when Sarah and Matt were left in the dark? And, why come forward with the truth now, just after Mrs. Morgan has died, when her estate isn’t settled yet? It’s all a tad suspicious, Mr. Morgan, if that is really who you are.”
“All valid questions,” Jacob admitts. “To answer the second question, the answer is simple. Lizzie gave me permission to come forward and tell you the truth as I know it after she was gone. She was aware I don’t know much about her, but did agree you kids deserved the truth of her situation and why she did what she did. I’m here today at her request. She wanted it revealed the day of her funeral and to be spoken of no more afterward. I can’t keep you kids from discussing it, but I can come here today and fulfill my end of the bargain. It was me who convinced her you deserved to know, so it was an agreement between us of how and when I would do it. As for the first question, that’s a bit more complex. You see, Lizzie didn’t want me contacting you kids, as you know. However, that edict did not apply to her. I was free to contact her as much as I liked, and we wrote to each other for years. We even talked on the phone once in a while. Despite her wanting me to stay away, your grandmother didn’t hate me or my family. Quite the opposite. She loved us. Besides you and Matt, we were the only family she had left. We’ve been in close touch this whole time. I even went to visit her in the assisted living home a few times. I can dutifully inform you she was sharp as a tack to the very end. I want you to know she never, ever forgot who you and Matt were. Oh, sure, she pretended when you came to visit her, but everyone down to the janitors at that place knew what she was doing. They were all paid incredibly well to keep that secret. In fact, I’m sure it was her doctor who filled out her death certificate, so Matt didn’t have to. She probably paid him in advance, just so you kids wouldn’t go looking for answers she didn’t want revealed, like her birth date, place of birth, and her parents’ names.”
I’m dizzy, my head spinning with all this new, crazy information. If there was a chair nearby, I’d sit down. The floor may end up being an option. Nausea flows over me in waves, each one more intense than the other. Can I make it to the kitchen in time if I need to? Throwing up in front of Karen would be so embarrassing, and just more fuel for her case against my sanity. Oh, poor Sarah is so mentally fragile, she gets ill when people talk to her. I can imagine her saying it.
Of course, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t doubting my sanity a bit myself right now. None of this is remotely normal. What Jacob is telling me is what movie scripts are made of, not real life. People don’t actually do these things. Do they?
“You say you visited her,” I mumble, looking at the floor to try to regain my equilibrium, and to quell the nausea. “Your son lives in California. You don’t?”
“No. I live in Portsmouth.”
Portsmouth. I shake my head, the hint of a laugh forming in my mouth. It disappears as quickly as it came, as another wave of nausea rolls over me. Portsmouth is one county over, a twenty minute drive from here at most, depending on traffic. He’s been here all this time, right next to us, and we never knew it.
He visited her, wrote to her, talked to her. They’ve been in touch since before Matt and I lived here, and that communication never stopped. They talked when she was living in the facility, while we were at home, thinking she was slipping away into the recesses of dementia. Only, she wasn’t doing that at all. She was fine.
Did my grandmother ever tell me anything that was the truth? Or, was her whole life one carefully constructed and flawlessly maintained lie?
“This is crazy,” I say, my voice squeaky as I try to hold back sobs that are begging to break free.
Karen, naturally, is having none of it. “He wants to get your sympathy, so you’ll give him part of the estate,” she growls like an angry cat. “That’s all this is about, Sarah. Money.”
If I could have slapped her and gotten away with it without a psychiatric hold being placed on me, I would without hesitation. Did she ever stop being a bitch to anyone but Matt?
To his credit, Jacob seems as irritated with her as I feel. He narrows his piercing eyes at her, his look so sharp I’m surprised it doesn’t bore two pupil-sized holes right through her. Leaning forward in her direction, he addresses her, his gentle voice taking on a stern, steely edge that would stop even the most dangerous men in their tracks. To my delight, Karen’s mouth snaps shut, and she even takes a step back.
“I told you before, young lady, I am quite financially comfortable, and I’ve no interest in Lizzie’s money. My presence here is me fulfilling my obligation regarding Lizzie’s last wishes as they pertain to Sarah and Matt knowing about her real situation at the assisted living facility, and because I want to re-connect with my family, now that I’m able. That is all. If she hadn’t given me permission, I wouldn’t be here, even though she’s gone now, because, frankly, the old girl could be terrifying when she wanted to be. I have no desire to cross her. It’s why I went along with her whole convoluted scheme in the first place. Honestly, I’m surprised she actually died. Part of me always thought she was a witch--the good kind, mind you—and would live forever. Gracious, for all I know, she did, and is still out there somewhere, starting anew.”
My God, could she still be alive? Out there, wandering the world to begin a new life? I mean, she was old, but not so old a new beginning was out of the question. After what Jacob just told me, I wouldn’t be surprised. Honestly, I don’t know what to believe anymore. And, with Karen around, that is a bad position to be in.
Maybe I should ask. If there’s a possibility Grandma might still be alive, I want to know. I miss her, and would love to see her again. One more hug from her would mean the world to me. Maybe, just maybe, I could convince her to get Karen off my back. More importantly, I could ask her to her face if what Jacob said was true, and try to find out what she had to hide.
But, no. If I act like I’m entertaining such a notion, however slight it might be, Karen will have all the evidence she needs to put my sanity into question. I can’t allow it under any circumstances.
Jacob must have seen the conflict playing across my face. “Are you okay, Sarah?” he asks, genuine concern in his eyes. “I didn’t mean to overwhelm you with all of this, especially on what must already be a hard day. It was my hope that knowing Lizzie didn’t have dementia would bring you some peace.”
“It does,” I assure him, and it is true. I would much rather think my grandmother died being fully herself, however weird that self was, than believe she simply faded away and forgot us, as well as herself. It was less painful that way. Her passing still left a big, gaping, Grandma-sized hole in my life, but knowing she didn’t have dementia took the sting off the edges. “Thank you for coming, and thank you for telling me.”
“I hope you’re not mad at me, or her. You do know she only did what she thought was best for you and Matt, and I respected her wishes.”
“I’m not mad,” I promise him. “Actually, I would love to keep in touch now that we’ve re-discovered each other, if you don’t mind.”
Who could blame me for reaching out to a stranger claiming to be my long-lost great-uncle? I have no parents, no aunts or uncles, no siblings, and all my grandparents except Grandma died before I was born. All I have is Matt, my one cousin. Of course I want to reach out to any hint of family that might remain. If Jacob is my great-uncle, and I believe he is, I want to develop a relationship with him, one we should have had all along. I want to get to know his son and grandchildren, too. I’m hungry for family, and he is my newly discovered sandwich, sitting within reach on the table.
His eyes soften, and for a moment, it looks like he might let a few tears drop himself. Being too dignified for that, he quickly composes himself, but the gentle, loving expression remains. “I would like nothing better,” he assures me.
After exchanging numbers on our phones and promising to make a lunch date as soon as possible, he hugs me, and politely excuses himself to go find Matt. He has to repeat the entire story to him. As he walks away, heading toward the back door, he gives Karen one more side-eyed glare that makes me break out into a huge grin.
Matt is just coming inside as Jacob reaches the door, and the wide-eyed look of delight on my cousin’s face, followed by him throwing his arms around Jacob in an enthusiastic hug tells me everything I need to know about whether or not we are truly related. Matt definitely remembers him. Good to know.
Karen sees the reunion, too, so her waiting argument about him not being related flies out the window before she can utter a word. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have other reasons to complain. And, once he’s out of earshot, I know she’ll tell me exactly what those reasons are in 3…2…
“He’s probably a charlatan you know,” Karen seethes, hatefully. “That’s why your grandmother didn’t want him talking to you and Matt. And, if you believe he’s not here to get his hands in the inheritance, then you’re stupid as well as crazy.”
I sigh loudly, and pointedly ignore her. Karen is not going to goad me into an argument. Not this time. Never again, if I can help it.
She waits a moment to see how I will react to her taunt, but when it becomes clear to her I’m not taking the bait, she huffs off loudly, arms crossed over her chest in a gesture meant to convey she is refusing to talk to me. She doesn’t go far, though. Oh, no. That would mean letting me out of her sight, something she will never do until she gets that morsel of evidence she needs to blow up into a reason to put me in a psychiatric facility. To my irritation, she only moves a few feet down the wall, far enough away we don’t have to talk to each other anymore, but still close enough to see everything I do. Oh my God. She’s like an itch that won’t go away. Is she ever going to give me some personal space, or is she waiting for the right moment to slip a dagger in me and make it look like I did it to myself?
While Karen and I make grand gestures out of avoiding each other, Matt and Great-Uncle Jacob have an intense, lengthy conversation in the casual family room. It’s only a few feet from the wall Karen and I share, and is completely free to use now that most of the guests have left. Only three remain, lingering in the formal living room across the open hallway. Everyone is too far away for me to hear anything they’re saying, but that’s okay. All I want to do is ponder everything Jacob told me, and what it means.
A thousand questions pelt my mind. Should I look into Grandma’s past? Will her doctor tell me anything if I ask? What does her death certificate say? Matt has a copy, so that should be easy to obtain. What was her maiden name? I can’t believe I don’t know it, now that I’m thinking about these things. Can I go down to the Strafford County courthouse and get a copy of her marriage license to Grandpa? The maiden name should be on it. It’s a good place to start investigating.
At one point, my phone dings, and I look down. A text from Carter lights up the screen.
“I get off work at 9,” it reads. “Do you want to come over? I’m sorry I left you alone with Karen all day. I love you.”
“I would love to,” I text him back. “Let me know when you’re home, and I’ll be there. I’ve got to get away from this witch. Maybe I can spend the night?”
“You know it,” is his reply.
Thank God for Carter. He’s known about the Karen issue since the first time she threatened me, and has been a welcome source of refuge many times since. As soon as I can slip out of here, I will go to him. Fortunately, I always carry a packed overnight bag in my car. Nominally, it’s there in case I get stuck in the snow, which every good New Englander knows is just good sense. These days, it serves a dual purpose of allowing me to get out of the house as quickly as possible without having to go back to my room for supplies if I have to leave right away. I’ve got a backup of everything in there, even my laptop, phone, credit cards, and driver’s license.
Yeah. Karen can clean this place up herself tonight if she wants to so badly. I’m going to Carter’s. Screw her.
Eventually, around eight in the evening, all of the guests but Jacob have finally made their way out of the house. Once the last one is gone, the caterers pack up and leave.
It’s just me, Matt, Jacob, and Karen in the house now. I eye my car keys, dangling on a hook by the back door, and start to move toward them, aiming to slip out now, while it’s quiet.
That, of course, is when Karen chooses to make her move.