32: Heart Attack

32: Heart Attack

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Messages from Heaven

Heart Attack

Dreams are today’s answers to tomorrow’s questions.

~Edgar Cayce

“Get up, Jeanne. Get dressed!”

I try to open my eyes, but my lids are stuck closed, as if glued.

“What is it, Pop? What’s wrong?”

“Hurry, get dressed. We have to leave now.” I rise from the daybed, quickly pull my pants over my pajamas and throw a sweatshirt over my eighteen-year-old frame. My eyes try to adjust to the darkness as I maneuver down the thin hallway in my grandparent’s one-bedroom apartment in Flushing, Queens.

“Don’t turn on the light,” my grandfather says. “Take Grandma’s hand and follow me.”

“Ed, where are we going? What’s wrong?” Grandma asks.

“Just follow me. Don’t say a word,” he whispers.

I run my hand along the bumpy stucco walls as we pass by the kitchen, into the living room and out the front door. I’m not sure of the time. We quickly leave the apartment and descend the short staircase to the street and then turn right. We pass the well-manicured shrubs that Pop has tended to as property manager since he and Grandma moved there nearly thirty years ago. Walking a little further, we make another right up the narrow path that leads us toward the basement door. I can smell the fresh mint that comes up every year for my grandmother’s tea. Clutching the cool, damp, wrought-iron railing, we descend the narrow staircase.

Pop gently grabs Grandma’s elbow, guiding her to the basement door. He picks one key from a ring of many, and inserts it. As he opens the outside door to the basement, a hard, stale smell smacks me in the face, waking me to the reality that something is desperately wrong.

As a child, I often played in this basement. Grandma would hang her fresh laundry on what seemed like rows and rows of laundry line. I would go downstairs and play hide-and-seek with her, running in-between Pop’s shirts and Grandma’s nightgowns, interspersed doilies occasionally falling to the ground.

Pop’s workshop is adjacent to the laundry room. It is where he stores his tools and an occasional bottle of schnapps. When I dared to venture off course from the laundry path, I would go to Pop’s room. Occasionally I would find the door slightly ajar and I would squeeze my way into his world. Pop spent a lot of time down there, fixing things that needed to be fixed and, I suspect, fixing things that did not need to be fixed. It was his private space where he found refuge.

Once inside the basement, the three of us travel in and out of Grandma’s hanging laundry. Each touch of clothing brings a clean, light smell and then we are back to the heavy, stale darkness. We approach Pop’s workroom, which is locked. He takes out his ring of keys, and once again, immediately picks the right one.

The door creaks as he slowly opens it. He turns on a small flashlight, the tiny light illuminating our way. I look at Pop and see a look of terror on his face. I have never known my grandfather to be afraid. Indifferent, mad, loving, intoxicated, proud, but never afraid.

He guides us in and starts up a dark stairway. A crackling sound follows behind us. I look at Grandma. She cannot keep up the pace.

Pop looks up and spots a narrow space hidden under the staircase. “Help Grandma in there,” he says to me.

Somehow, I am able to pick her up and slide her into the small space. “Grams, stay here and don’t make a sound. You must be quiet.” She looks so tiny, so frightened. I hate to leave her, but I trust this to be the best course.

“We’ll be back for you. You’ll be safe here,” I promise.

Pop stretches up to touch her hand. “Stay here, Anna. Jeanne will be back for you soon. She will take care of you.” We leave my grandmother there, hidden from something or someone that I don’t know.

Pop and I continue on. Out of nowhere, a huge shadow appears behind us. Pop pushes me aside and tells me to run. “Run, Jeanne. Don’t look back. Take care of Grandma. Run.” Despite his warning, I can’t help but look behind me, only to see a massive silhouette lift my grandfather and then stab him through the heart.

I spring up in bed, shaking uncontrollable, crying, and realize I have woken from a nightmare.

I go back to sleep, managing to get in an hour or so before going to work and then an afternoon lecture at the local college I am attending as a freshman. By the time I get to class, last night’s dream has left my immediate thoughts and my mind is focused on Psychology 101. I find my seat among 200-plus students and settle in to hear about abnormal behavior. Midway through the lecture, I stand up abruptly. My friend sitting next to me grabs my arm and asks what’s wrong. She tugs at me to sit down.

“My grandfather just died,” I say almost matter-of-factly and storm out, leaving abnormal behavior behind.

Tears flow as I drive home. I park the car, knowing in my heart that Pop is gone.

Later that night I learn that Pop had died from a heart attack at the same moment I stood up during class. That day, he had worked outside raking leaves and was feeling tired, Grandma said. He had given her a big kiss and laid down on the daybed, arms crossed, with a content look on his face as if he knew. Pop was ready.

After his death, I visited my grandmother as often as I could. She was exhibiting signs of dementia, although back then, it was simply labeled old age. I would visit weekly and we would do her shopping, watch her soaps and play Scrabble. I worried about her living alone, so I called daily.

That spring, Grandma had a slight heart attack. I went to visit her in the hospital. It was a dreary place. She was in a large dim room with rows of patients separated mostly by visitors sitting in short, narrow aisles. I saw her lying in her bed at the far end. Trying to maintain a brave front, I called to her, “Grandma, I’m here.” As I approached her bed, I could see she looked anxious.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, as she pulled me down next to her on the hospital bed.

“Thank goodness you’re okay,” she said desperately.

“Grandma, what’s the matter? What are you taking about?”

“I thought you were dead. I thought he got you,” she whispered loudly.

Figuring that she was hallucinating because of the heart attack, I asked again, “Who got me?”

“That man.”

“What man?”

“The man that killed Pop in the basement.”

I froze.

“You saved me, Jeanne. You hid me under the staircase. I was so afraid but Pop said you would come back and you did. He said you would come back and take care of me and you have.”

I had thought that my dream wasn’t real. I had never told my grandmother about it, knowing it would just confuse and upset her, as it had me. It wasn’t until I heard her recite the same events, months after my grandfather’s death, that I realized that just maybe it had been more than a dream. Just maybe it was Pop’s final message asking me to watch over my grandmother and keep her safe.

~Jeanne Blandford

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