Grandma’s cell phone was full of dead people when I found it. I suppose that’s the way things work out over time, though. I’ve got one in my phone now too, although it wasn’t always like that.
It started two weeks back. Ma had dragged me to Golden Heart to visit Grandma and drop off some items she needed. Of course, we knew her stay wouldn’t be long. You see, Golden Heart wasn’t a palliative care center; no, those days were long over. Golden Heart was a hospice, and there was a noticeable shift felt when Grandma got there. The words got less hopeful, less optimistic. Ma however liked to play pretend, acting as if Grandma was still in the fight. It made it easier for her. I think it made it easier for me too.
We arrived and started our usual chat. Grandma asked how school was, and I complained about college and she told me to give them hell and then complained about the nurses, then Ma jumped in to complain about work. It was a typical scene for us: Three generations bonding via commiserating. It was comforting.
Usually Grandma’s room had this clinical sterility to it, despite an attempt to spruce it up with faux flora and paintings of sailboats, but that day felt different. It was midday in fall, and the soft sunlight seeping in through the open shades gave rise to a warm energy. The room had this large window that overlooked a small flowery courtyard, and outside down below Golden Heart residents sat with their visiting families.
“It’s nice out today, isn’t it, Mum?” said Ma.
“Yeah, it’s been nice.”
“Would you like to go into the courtyard for a bit before we leave?” asked Ma.
“Oh yeah,” said Grandma. “I’d really love to get a smoke while you’re here.”
“They don’t let you smoke here. Do they, Jane?”
I shook my head.
“Ah, they won’t care,” said Grandma, now agitated. She turned to me. “You’ll get me a smoke, won’t you?” she asked. Ma’s eyes narrowed in on me like arrows. This whole smoking thing had been a contentious topic for us, with Ma wanting to make sure Grandma lived as long as possible, and me feeling that if she was gonna croak then let the woman have her smoke.
“I don’t have any,” I said. “I’m trying to quit myself.”
“Shame on you, girl, giving me that bull…” Grandma started before Ma jumped in.
“Mum, we brought you a cell phone,” she said as she reached into her bag. “Look, you can call your friends while you’re here. Me and Jane’s numbers are already in it.”
Grandma looked at the phone suspiciously. “What do I need that for?”
“Well, Jane’s always at school, and I’m busy with work, so I figure you’d want to talk to someone. It’ll get boring here, you know? I brought your address book too.”
Grandma looked at the book, then turned to the window.
“Mum, are you okay? Want Jane to help you set up your contacts?” Ma turned to me. “Jane, help your grandmother.”
“It’s fine,” said Grandma. “We can do it later.”
The room was still, and Ma began to fidget with the ends of her shirt. “Well,” she said as she placed the phone and book at the foot of the bed, “I need to go down to the billing office. I’ll be back. Jane, stay with your grandmother, okay?”
I nodded, and Grandma continued to stare out the window. As Ma left, I moved to Grandma’s bed. I picked up the phone book and offered it to her. She turned and shook her head. I put the book down and looked outside.
“It is a nice day, isn’t it?” I said. Grandma didn’t respond, and so I reached down into my sock and pulled out a cigarette. “Want to go out? I won’t tell if you don’t,” I said, waving it in the air. Grandma’s eyes lit up, and her mouth curled into a grin. We made our way downstairs and to the courtyard, where we found a secluded little corner with a large hedge that blocked the staff’s line of sight. Making sure that the wind was blowing away from the other residents, we lit our cigarettes and had a talk.
Grandma passed away during the night two weeks later. I went to Golden Heart to pick up her things where I found her cell phone, and immediately felt guilty. In all that time, I hadn’t called her once. Hoping that she had at least spoken to some friends, I checked her phone log, and noticed something odd.
Grandma had transferred all her contacts to her cell, including the numbers of friends and relatives who were already dead. In fact, more than half of her phone’s contacts were dead. I was baffled. Why did she bother to preserve the numbers of those she had no way of reaching? Checking her call history, I was even more surprised by the last call she made, which occurred the night she died.
The call, which lasted for half an hour, was to her son, my uncle, who had been dead for five years. I was confused. Why call that number? Who did she hope to hear on the other line? Curious, I sat on the bed and anxiously dialed the number.
The phone rang. And then, a tinny voice came through. “The number you dialed is out of service. Please disconnect.” Following this, a wall of static. The line was dead. I felt deflated, and lay on the bed, where Grandma once lay. I listened to the static, and thought maybe this was the last thing she heard. This electronic drone, so unwelcoming, so lonely. If she called me, I wondered, would I have answered? The question itself made me feel sick. The static continued, and seemed to be getting louder and louder, growing into a deafening buzz and filling the entire room.
T. F. Turner is an emerging writer living in New York, NY. When not writing, he spends his time teaching, working as a therapist, and studying psychology, religion, and grief.