Excerpt: Sleeping Alone

As a young boy we visited my grandmother very often. I dreaded these visits. There was nothing for me to do, and the trips seemed the equivalent of rattling the cage of a molting and miserable parrot. My grandmother was always very feeble; thin and withered, unsteady. I imagined that she constantly walked along the fine line dividing the land of the living from the land of the dead. The only surprise to me, when she died-by this time I was twenty-two, I hadn’t seen her in four years-was the fact that she managed to hang on for as long as she did. Terrible thoughts, I know, but I could muster no sympathy for her.

Throughout my childhood she was the omnipresent spectre of death, the most mundane, and therefore effective, of nightmares. When we stayed overnight at her old house in Leaside (as we sometimes did, for special occasions) I was forced to sleep alone in a musty and seldom-used guest bedroom hidden away in the basement. Everything about the place was old, and therefore terrifying: it wore the fine perfume of the long dead. The sheets seemed to me one hundred years old, the paint might have been, for all I knew, applied by my great-great-grandfather, or perhaps the Roman Caesar Nero. The furnishings, I was sure, came from Europe-an old place that carried with it the thick stench of death-or from Canada’s unmapped interior, resonant with dark and ancient magics I couldn’t even begin to comprehend. The paintings I remember quite vividly. With the lights off the darkness was not so complete as to completely eradicate the ghastly visages of those Princes, Saints, and dancers that are now burned into my memory. I had no cousins, none of my aunts and uncles were ready to stoop to children; no avenue of comfort was available to me. And yet what I feared most-what made me hold my tongue even when I felt the icy hand of some cruel oil Duchess on my shoulder-was still my grandmother. I could not risk calling into the room the woman who was, and still is, my most poignant symbol of death… what’s worse, I knew she would be totally helpless. There was nothing she could do to comfort me… Oh, I know now, looking back, that my parents wouldn’t have been very far behind. That any moment alone with my grandmother would be cut mercifully short, that upon their arrival she would melt into the oak panelling or quickly find some excuse to leave. Even still, I remain glad that I managed to avoid as much time with the woman as possible.

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