“Come in, honey—you’re letting all the warm air out.” Grandma’s voice was kind, and it would be unthinkable to disobey. Dad had explained that this was Grandma’s last Christmas, and they all had to try to be extra nice.
Mom bustled around, setting things to rights. Madelynn joined her, setting out hors d’oevres on the holly-patterned tablecloth. She had no idea what she should do. What do you say to someone who’s dying? All she could think of was “I’m sorry.” Dying scared her. It shamed her, too—that she was afraid to talk to Grandma now, as if cancer was something catching.
Everybody was acting like there was nothing wrong at all, and that felt worse than being sad. Madelynn ground her teeth and thumped the basket of rolls down on the table. She didn’t even care about getting presents. All she wanted from Christmas was for it to be over, so she could escape to her room with a book.
She got through dinner, saying polite, correct things about seventh grade. What did it matter if she got an A in history? Grandma was dying. And everyone just sat and watched it happen. It was worse when they moved to the living room, and she couldn’t even pretend to pay attention to her food. Now they were all talking about a Christmas letter Grandma had gotten from Aunt Martha. They hardly ever saw Aunt Martha.
“Madelynn, will you see if it’s snowing?” Grandma asked.
Madelynn twitched aside the curtains from her perch on the arm of the tweed couch. “Sorry, Grandma—there’s still no snow.”
“It hardly ever snows on Christmas,” Dad said gently.
Grandma seemed unruffled. “I can hope.”
Hope? Hope for what? To go to the hospital and be kept alive by machines? To hurt until one day you didn’t wake up? Madelynn fled to the bathroom. She scrubbed her face with the washcloth, trying to erase the hot tears. She didn’t know why snow was such a big deal, but it was what Grandma wanted. Hey, God, if you’re not make-believe like Santa, could you actually do something real for a change? If Grandma has to die, could you at least make it snow for her? It’s not like she’s ever even missed church.
Once she’d dried her eyes and made it back to the living room, Grandma called Madelynn over so she could read T’was the Night Before Christmas together. Madelynn smiled until her cheeks hurt. Grandma was dying and nobody cared. Why were they wasting time on this? If Santa was real, he should bring medicine, not stupid presents.
“Shall we open gifts now?” Mom said.
Dad turned away from the window. “It’s snowing.” The catch in his voice made Madelynn look up. It was hard on Dad, too, pretending.
“Now that is special,” Grandma said. “Why don’t you go to my room and get my hat and gloves, Madelynn?”
Dad was already helping Grandma into her coat when Madelynn came back, black hat and gloves in hand. At least they weren’t pretending nobody was dying.
Mom brought out a kitchen chair while Dad took Grandma’s arm and helped her out the door as if she was made of glass and might shatter. Mom set the chair down in the middle of the small backyard and stood twisting her hands together.
“How about the two of you go back inside?” Grandma said. “I’d like to spend some time with Madelynn.”
Dad gave her a short, sharp nod and fled. Mom followed.
Grandma reached over to pat her hand. “It will be good for them to have a little time together. This is hard for your dad.”
Madelynn shot Grandma a wild look. This was hard on everyone.
“I can see it’s difficult for you, too,” Grandma said. “I thought we could talk about it.”
“Don’t you mind?” Madelynn blurted out.
“Dying? Of course I do.” Grandma lifted her face to the gently sifting sky and smiled as a snowflake kissed her cheek. “But once you get past that, the weeping and the fear, you find that what you really want is to spend the time you have left with the ones you love.”
Madelynn nodded slowly. Okay, she could see that.
“And I didn’t want to be one of those old people who talk about nothing but their doctor visits and how many shots they had. I wanted to hear about you.”
“But what do my grades matter, Grandma? You’re dying.” There. She’d said it.
Grandma brushed Madelynn’s chin with her cold leather glove. “My children and grandchildren are my gift I leave to the world. I would like for you to make something of your life, and getting good grades is a step in the right direction. And I’ve always adored history.”
“A lot of it is about dying. You know, in wars and stuff.” All those deaths had never seemed real before. Just something that happened to someone else.
“Then perhaps this will be a good lesson. I imagine that most cling to their lives while they can.”
Madelynn threw her arms around Grandma. “No! Why do you have to go now?”
Grandma’s voice was full of unshed tears. “I don’t know. But I’m glad I got to see it snow this Christmas.” After a long, wordless embrace, Grandma drew back and held up a snowflake that had landed on her glove. “You know, of course, that each one is different.”
Madelynn nodded. She’d made many snowflakes from folded paper, and she always tried to change the pattern each time.
“This is what I want for you,” Grandma said. “To be beautiful and unique, like a snowflake.” She touched it to her lips, and it melted. “And when it is your time, you, too, will fade.”
Madelynn looked up in alarm, but Grandma smiled gently. “When that day comes, I’ll be waiting for you. My grandma promised she would wait for me. I’m looking forward a great deal to seeing her again. It helps.”
Madelynn turned wondering eyes to Grandma just as a snowflake landed in her hair.
It was beautiful.