Facing the mirror and makeshift altar Clara was again on her knees with her head bowed in prayer.
Space and privacy were a challenge, so the closet became her ‘space’ while a closed door and turned off lights became her ‘privacy’. The altar was no more than a cardboard box used as a table and a small pillow used as a kneeler.
The box was covered with a pink satin sheet cut to size. Atop the sheet lay a small framed photo of her grandmother, a pocket watch her grandfather once owned but that no longer worked, a compass of the same size, a mini pieta, a mini buddha, a rosary, a purple crayon and white burning candle. The only thing near to her on the floor besides the pillow was a box of Kleenex.
She’d been told her prayers were fire hazards yet if anyone held their ear against the door they’d swear she was singing joyful hymns. It was why they never knocked and always silently walked away.
One particular week she’d felt quite defeated and as soon as she closed the closet door to pray heard Mahalia Jackson singing. With a soft smile she got down on her knees and began talking to her grandmother.
“Hi Grandma. You do know Mahalia is up there with you right? I’m sure she’d sing live if you just asked her.”
“Hi Sugar. She is singing live. How are you?”
Clara stopped for a second realizing how Mahalia’s voice did sound concert-like in the small space. She sometimes felt ashamed that of all the places she had to take her troubles to she most often chose her grandmother first.
Clara had grown up supporting others and found herself often auditioning for support roles in her life. It wasn’t until she met him that she realized how much true joy there could be in supporting another and how a person can be assigned to another and not even realize it.
“I suspect I’ll be fine seeing as I have no choice to be much of anything else for too long. The thing is, I failed real bad this time Grandma.” Clara said her head still bowed.
“Hmmm. Well, go on and explain.” She replied.
Clara didn’t know how to explain and suspected this was part of the reason behind her failure but tried anyways.
“I wanted to prepare him but I wasn’t even prepared and then the towers were burning but more than one and I had no water, not even an extinguisher and people were jumping while he stayed in each one like the captain on a boat and he didn’t know and I didn’t know how to tell him and my wishes got mixed in with his pain or my pain got mixed in with his wishes or pain got mixed with pain and he never knew that I knew but even when he knew it was the wrong kind of knowing. So I failed my assignment, lost my wish and supporting role all at once.” Clara explained.
Her Grandma didn’t respond for at least fifteen minutes as she remained on her knees, head bowed and listening to Mahalia while tears fell softly and quietly down her cheeks.
“What makes you think you failed Clara?” her Grandmother finally asked.
“I was too focused on my wish of him to show him what I was seeing. He believed in the burning towers, the dark night of the soul and the solo walk just like so many others Grandma. I didn’t know how to show him what was really happening cause what was happening to him felt like it was happening to me and I didn’t even know what ‘it’ was, only that the pain was never-ending and that the sorrow hadn’t been allowed to cycle before being recycled. But my assignment had no rules so I called on my imagination and it was easier to imagine we were both burning towers cause then we could use clichés and go on about our individual lives believing in strength and rising from ashes and Arizona an all that but we hate clichés Grandma. Sometimes the truth is so different than what everybody is believing or feeding that it’s too hard to wear or too hard to take off but I guess you know that. I’m not even sure why I was assigned if He knew I’d fail.” Clara said.
“It’s a good thing I’ve crossed over, otherwise I’d think you’d lost your marbles Sugar. I do however know exactly what you’re talking about and I don’t see everything anymore but I see a whole lot. You’re just in love honey. There ain’t nothing wrong with being in love and feeling like you failed the one you love. A sense of failure and success is just as much a part of love and relationships as life itself. Life doesn’t hold a grudge any more than love does. Only individuals assign the power of grudges and even then that power is against only themselves and no one else. You of all people should know you don’t fail unless you give up.” Grandma said, her voice getting lighter and more distant.
Clara knew this meant she would need to begin praying to God, Jesus, Moses or Buddha in her place at any moment.
“Grandma, can you tell me then how I can show him what I was seeing?” Clara asked.
“Some would say your prayer time and place is a fire hazard and some would think you were joyful in song if their ear was against the closet door and only you know why you keep your Grandfather’s broken pocket watch on your altar.” her Grandma answered as her voice trailed off to silence.
Opening her eyes and lifting her head Clara began sobbing in earnest. After several minutes she grabbed a handful of Kleenex and blew her nose before slowing her breath to calm herself. Her Grandma never failed to cover her in peace.
In her mind she saw the burning towers he’d felt consumed by but in reality knew they were the castles assigned to him and that he’d been convinced he was somewhere else and someone else in need of rebuilding. She knew they were not burning towers but fires that had erupted deep down from the passions he’d long subdued in his soul that could no longer be contained and that like her had been told his prayers were fire hazards.
How her Grandma knew about the watch connection Clara couldn’t be sure.
Her Grandpa died before her Grandma and before she passed was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Towards the end of her life she’d taken to complete nonsensical conversation with her Grandpa as she stood by in witness. Not knowing what to make of speaking to ghosts as if alive Clara always left the room frightened. When her Grandma died she’d been found holding tight to something in her hand. It was her Grandpa’s pocket watch which hadn’t worked in years.
In death her Grandma taught her that no matter how the world measures and discounts a diseased mind, love remains lucid and no matter how the world measures a life by hours and minutes, love keeps watch eternally.
Remembering the day the nurse gave it to her she began sobbing again. The sound of Mahalia’s singing returned as she looked down at the Buddha. With a soft smile she understood the answer, that failure was illusion, not an option.