I was 15 when my dad died, and Mom took our family to live with Grandma and Grandpa. They were a perfect pair of opposites. She was short and plump; he was tall and skinny. She had a head full of wild white hair; he had a thin band of fuzz from ear to ear. She was always in high gear; he walked with an easy shuffle. Grandma went to church on Sundays; Grandpa didn't. "Why doesn't Grandpa go with us?" I finally asked my mother one Sunday while we were getting ready.
"He just doesn't," Mom said. "And you shouldn't ask such personal questions of people. It's just not polite." I hadn't meant to be hurtful. I loved Grandpa. After school I'd stop off at his barbershop and watch him cut hair in his careful, deliberate way. On warm summer evenings we'd sit under the pecan tree, and Grandpa would teach me life lessons. "If you borrow money and say you'll pay it back Friday morning, then do it," he said. "Even if you have to borrow it again on Friday night." Some nights, when Grandpa fell asleep in his old lounge chair, I'd put on red lipstick and kiss him on his bald head. When he woke up and came into the kitchen, Grandma would burst out laughing.
"What's so funny?" Grandpa would ask, two red lips standing out on his shiny head. Then he'd see me struggling to keep a straight face and go to the mirror, knowing I'd gotten him again.
Much as I became Grandpa's shadow, though, some things remained a mystery. Like why did Grandpa smell of cherry pipe tobacco during the week and on the weekends smell like whiskey? Plus, I'd seen his name on the church roll. Why had he stopped going?
One weekend I found Grandma frantically pulling towels out of the closet in the bathroom. "Did you lose something?" I asked. Grandma shook her head and stuffed a few more towels under her arm. "There it is," she said, sounding relieved. She held an unmarked bottle of amber liquid I knew was whiskey. As I watched, Grandma poured a trickle down the drain of the chipped porcelain sink. "If I empty it he'll just buy another bottle," she explained as she added water. "So I dilute it a little at a time. By tomorrow he'll be sober enough to go to work." Grandma put the bottle back in the closet. "I can't let him lose the barbershop." Without asking any questions, I handed her the towels, one by one, until everything was back in its place.
I watched Grandpa closely that week, but didn't notice anything unusual until Friday night. I smelled whiskey on him. When we got back from church on Sunday afternoon he was dozing in his easy chair. He doesn't look drunk, I thought. But when he got up and walked past me, eyes downcast, he didn't smile. His feet dragged like lead weights across the floor and into the bathroom.
I went to find my mother. She was reading in her bedroom. "What is it, Deb?" Mom asked. I hesitated.
"Is Grandpa okay?" I managed finally.
"Sure," Mom said, her tone clipped. "He's just tired. He worked hard all week." She went back to her book. Grandpa's just tired, I repeated to myself. Then I heard Grandma wrestling with the towels in the bathroom closet and went to help her. She stacked them in my outstretched arms. Grandpa must have been ashamed of his drinking, I figured, and that's why he tried to hide it from Grandma. Maybe that's why he doesn't go to church anymore. He wants to hide from God. Like the week before, Grandma stuck the bottle under the faucet without a word.
After a while our Sunday routine seemed almost normal. Almost. Grandpa remained the same loving man, and he continued to be "tired" on the weekends. I grew up and moved out on my own, but I still visited my family regularly.
"You should have asked God for help," I whispered to Grandpa, kissing his bald head. "We all should have."
Then I had an awful thought: If Grandpa's secret had kept him from church, could it keep him out of heaven as well? Please, God, forgive us all. And take my grandpa into heaven.
After Grandpa died, the thought continued to haunt me. One night I had a strange dream. Grandpa was standing at the bottom of a steep, pearl-white staircase that reached way into the clouds. He gazed up at a huge angel, who held out a satiny, emerald-colored robe, open and waiting, it seemed, for Grandpa himself. When Grandpa headed up the stairs, he wasn't shuffling. At the top of the stairs, the angel helped Grandpa into the robe and tied the sash so the rich folds of material fell around him. Then the angel took Grandpa's hand, and together they disappeared into the clouds.
The picture of Grandpa wrapped in that shiny emerald-green robe was fresh in my mind when I met Grandma for lunch the next day.
Grandma was adjusting slowly to life without Grandpa. "I miss him terribly," she admitted. "He was a good man. Even though he had a drinking problem."
I couldn't believe she had said it openly. "Yes," I said, "he did have a drinking problem." It was a relief to admit it aloud. But Grandma looked frightened.
"He didn't go to church," she said. "I don't know if he asked God's forgiveness. I'm so afraid he didn't go to heaven!"
I wrapped my arms around Grandma, feeling closer to her than I ever had in all the years I'd lived in her house. The secret that had always stood between us was gone. "Last night I dreamed about Grandpa," I said. Grandma sat very still and listened. When I got to the part where Grandpa slipped into the green robe, her eyes filled with tears. "He made it, Deb," she said. "He really made it."
"But, Grandma, it was just a dream."
Grandma shook her head. "Let me tell you something," she said. An expression came over her face that I'd never seen before. "Something we never told anybody else. One Sunday at church when we were first married, your grandpa saw an angel standing right on the altar. He said that angel was at least ten feet tall, standing right behind the preacher and smiling down at him during the service. And your grandpa said that angel was wearing the most beautiful green robe—'a robe that glistened like emeralds were the words he used. 'When I get to heaven,' he said, 'I want a green robe just like the one that angel was wearing.' What else could that dream be but a sign from God that Grandpa is with him?"
What else, indeed. God sees our weaknesses, and he loves us despite them. I believe he has an angel with an emerald-green robe waiting to welcome each of us, flaws and all.
'Nothing to Hide' by Deb Sistare reprinted with permission from Angels on Earth Magazine. Copyright © 2007 by Guideposts, Carmel, New York 10512. All rights reserved.
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