The same creak and clink from the whitewashed gate. The same weary apple tree seemingly held up by the swing hanging from it. The same smell in the small hallway.
Living abroad, every visit for the last few years had to be treated as if it might be the last. My grandmother, then well into her nineties, had started to slip away.
Outspoken, independent, and above all, lethally dark humour, were traits that always made her wonderful company to be in. By the time she reached her mid nineties she had already buried half of her 8 children. Watching her fading eyesight torment and her mind failing her was uncomfortable.
My sister drove me to see her, warning me on the drive there that our grandmother hadn’t been quite ‘with it’ in recent weeks.
As was often the way, her front door was wide open and we walked straight into her kitchen. The plastic sounds of the linoleum edges where they started to curl by the doorway were enough to announce our arrival and stir her from where she dozed.
Visibly sore eyes, half blind and sleep filled squinted up at me as I stood over her. If she felt confusion she did her utmost not to be betrayed by it, and she instructed me to sit down.
I sat on the opposite side of the fireplace to her, while my sister, still unnoticed, quietly took a seat by the door and lit her cigarette.
The conversation was the most uncomfortable that I had ever known with her, as her erratic mind pulled on the threads of the memories in her head, only occasionally letting her live in the present as she juggled with the realisation of who I was.
“Martin, nana, living in Holland”.
“Ah yeah, I know sure. You’re in America now aren’t you”.
“No, nana, Holland”.
And so it continued back and forth for an hour or more as all the way from the kitchen window to her slippered feet, dust flurried on the streams of weak afternoon sunlight, as confused as the conversation.
I stayed chatting, trying to draw out the nana I remembered, throwing frustrated looks towards my sister behind her, who could only laugh between cigarettes. She'd been where I was many a time during my absence.
"Ah Martin, I was always fierce fond of you" she said, eyes closed, leaning back into her chair, adjusting the worn cushion behind the small of her back, pulling her navy cardigan across her chest.
"You're still up there" she proudly announced, blindly pointing in the direction of the place on the mantel where my first holy communion picture had been for over twenty years, long since moved by a well meaning friend or neighbour.
Believing she was having a semi lucid moment I asked her what had been said on the doctor’s latest house call.
"I told the bastard I'd cut his throat if he sent me back to hospital"
She did always like to be clear.
I was still wobbling with laughter when she started talking about two of her sons, both long since passed away.
"And sure, Mikey and John don't call to see me anymore"
I could only nervously look at my sister, what could I say to that?
"How do you mean, nana?" I asked.
"Mikey and John, your uncles sure" she replied, anxiously fingering the buttonhole on her cardigan, frustration evident in her voice "They never call anymore"
I just didn't know what to say. Her mind was taking her back to a day, only God knows how many years previous.
Should I correct her? But what right had I to yank her memory back to the cold light of today where her sons are long dead and she couldn't see her hand in front of her face?
I looked to my sister for a guide; she shrugged her shoulders and drew deep on her cigarette.
"No" she repeated and sighed "They never bother calling to me anymore"
While I hesitated, still unsure of how to break my silence, my grandmother leaned forward in her chair. She opened the one eye that hadn't yet completely deserted her, turned to the fireplace and spat dryly into the embers, sending white ash into the air before settling on her slippers and my shoes, before turning again, half peering, half squinting, directly at me.
"Although" she said, "that's 'cause they're fucking dead"
As she threw back her head laughing long and hard, we couldn’t help but join in, on my last visit.