Gran wasn't dead, but she was dying. Everybody agreed. It could come at any minute. We should be ready.
Which is what she was doing.
Gran was a toddler in the earliest picture, held up between her two older sisters, the prettiest of the trio. Then a little older, the three sisters in a row, wearing identical dresses and dark hats. There was only one picture of Gran alone and she had written on the back: Me, 12 years old, California.
Me. 12 years old, Claire said to herself. Me. 12 years old. Minnesota. She took the picture into the bathroom and stared at the picture, then stared at herself in the mirror, back and forth, the picture, herself, the picture, herself. Two 12-year-old girls, same oval face, big eyes, full lips. Claire felt an immediate pull towards the girl in the picture.
The boxes waited on the ping-pong table. There was Gran with her sisters at 14, still the prettiest at 16, graduating from high school at 17, playing tennis, getting married. Now Grandpa replaced the sisters in every picture. It was all there, in two boxes, the life of Gran, the girl at 12, getting older and older until now she lay upstairs rasping for breath.
Claire went back to the bathroom and held her head at the same angle as the girl in the picture, parted her lips in a faint smile. She imagined a picture of herself. Snap. Me at 12. She imagined a second box on the table with me at 16, me at 18, me graduating from high school. College? Gran didn’t go to college, but Clare would. What would her life in a box be? How many boxes? Gran had only two.
Claire slid the picture in her pocket and went upstairs.
Finished already, Claire?
“I want to see Gran,” she said.
Gran was turned towards the window when Claire entered. She took her grandmother’s hand in her own and noted how long and bony the fingers were, how creased the back of the hand, how ridged the nails were.
“I saw you,” she said.
Gran slowly turned towards her.
“I saw you when you were like me,” Claire said. “12 years old.” She pulled the picture out of her pocket and pressed it against her chest, under her chin so Gran could see both girls.
“Ah,” Gran said. “That picture.”
Gran closed her eyes, let out a shattered breath, opened her eyes. “I remember,” she said.
“You remember her. That girl. You at 12?”
Gran blinked her eyes. Of course she remembered.
Claire thought of the two boxes of pictures on the pingpong table, Gran’s whole life in a box. Was that it? Was there more? Was that all? “How did it turn out?” she said.
Claire heard the labored breath and knew Gran was storing up oxygen before she spoke again
Another wait, then, “Well, I don’t know, do I?”
“But they say . . .”
A fire flashed across Gran’s face, and she squeezed Claire’s hand as if to sit up. “I’m not dead yet,” she rasped and smiled. “It’s not over,” she said and sank back on the pillow. “But so far, it’s turning out fine.” Pause. Wait. Soft rattle of air in her lungs. “I’m still kicking.”
Claire looked at Me at 12, then at Gran, and back at the picture. She put her hand on her own long hair. ”That girl in the picture would be happy she was you,” Claire said. “She would love you.”
Gran’s lips parted, more air in. “She’d like you too.” By the way she held her head, Claire knew she had more to say as soon as she got her breath again. “You and she would have been great friends.”
“But we are great friends,” Claire said. “Aren’t we?”
“Yes, Sweetheart, we are and . . .”
Claire waited for her to take in another gulp of oxygen.
“We all die you know?”
“But…” Pause. Breathe. “Now, at this minute, I’m like you. I’m . . .”
“Still kicking,” Claire said. “We’re alive and still kicking.”