“One of those mornings” didn’t begin to describe it. It had been a
cacophony of verbal miscues, stumbling missteps, and unexpected phone
calls, most of them demanding more than I felt I could give. This was
shaping up to be what folks in my house like to call a “nibbled day.” The
phrase referred to a statement once made by Eric Sevareid, a network
news anchor back when Tom and I were kids, about how working for the
networks was “like being nibbled to death by ducks”: no major wounds
or arterial bleeding, just the little bruises piling up, one upon another.
I had finally completed the agenda for my presidency meeting and
was just taking the casserole out of the oven when the cell phone in my
pocket started playing. My first thought was to ignore it, but the music
was “Pinball wizard” from the rock opera Tommy, the ring tone for my
husband, Tom. He often calls around midday just to check in, and I
usually look forward to the chat. This time I looked at the open oven
door and back at the hot casserole. within a minute, that heat would be
burning right through those flimsy oven mitts to my hands. I looked at
the door to the garage, which I had carefully propped open less than a
minute ago, and the open door to the backseat of my Hyundai, where
a thick pad of old newspapers was waiting. The clock said 11:55, and I
knew the sisters planned to start serving lunch just after noon. I live only
three minutes from the stake center, but still . . .
Promising myself I’d get back to Tom after I’d made my delivery, I
grasped the casserole dish, pushed the oven door closed with my elbow,
and headed for the car, where I plugged the phone into the car charger.
I wiped sweat from my brow with the back of my hand and hoped I
wouldn’t look too disheveled once I got there. As I started for the church,
I had a feeling that I needed to speak to Tom ASAP, but it seemed an odd,
random thought, so I dismissed it.
Sister Reedley, Relief Society president in the fourth ward, was
directing traffic in the kitchen when I arrived. She said, “Hi, Karen.
Thanks!” and sent me out to set the casserole on the serving table
alongside the ham, Jell-O salads, rolls, and green bean casseroles
furnished by other sisters from her ward. Almost immediately one of the
mourners stepped forward to offer a blessing, and the lunch began, so I
knew I’d arrived not a moment too soon. I was glad I’d hurried things
I didn’t know this family or the elderly sister who had died—they’re
all from the fourth ward—but the gathering looked just like the dozen
or more I had coordinated during the past year, and I felt great empathy
for these grieving people. who knew when our turn might come?
As I headed back to the car, the random thought returned that I needed
to call Tom and quickly, only this time it was clearly a prompting—a
somewhat urgent prompting—and I knew I needed to get to the phone
and get back to Tom right away. I quickened my pace.
It was good to have repaid the favor I owed Sister Reedley. She had
certainly come through for me a few weeks before when three sisters
called in sick on the same day we had a big funeral lunch in our ward. I
had needed to repay that favor, and I was just crossing it off my mental
checklist when I saw Anna Campbell coming toward me. I grinned
but thought, Oh no, at the same time and tried to think of a quick way
to dodge her without seeming to, but it was too late; she had already
spotted me. “Sister Burnett!” she called. “Glad I caught you!”
Anna Campbell is a sweetheart, one of the few elderly people in our
ward who always has fun and happy stories to tell, and I always enjoy
my visits with her, even the small, impromptu ones. I very much wished
I could stop to visit today, since she always sends me away cheerful, yet I
really didn’t have time—not when I was so preoccupied by that prompting.
Even on a day that was already so full of commitments—a presidency
meeting, a last-minute request to accompany my daughter’s summer
choir rehearsal, serving dinner to the missionaries, attending the choir’s
concert at the mall, not to mention all the simple tasks necessary to put
the just-finished school year behind us and get ready for a small family
vacation—that prompting took priority.
That’s when I realized I hadn’t really been listening to Sister Campbell.
I told Anna I’d call before the weekend and rushed back to the car. By the
time I reached my Sonata, the music from Tommy was playing again, and
I knew there must be an urgent need for Tom to call again this soon.
I rushed to grab the phone, but it had stopped ringing. That was
when I saw that Tom had called four times in the last eleven minutes, and
a feeling of dread dropped in my stomach like a brick.
Tom picked up before I heard the first ring. “Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered. “Just busy. why? what’s happened?”
“It’s Granny Adelaide. She’s bad. Can you come to the hospital?”
“I’ll be right there.” Just like that, other commitments all leapt to the
back burner. Granny Adelaide is Tom’s paternal grandmother and one
of my favorite people ever. In the twenty-some years I’d known her, I
had seen her hospitalized exactly twice—once years ago when she had
emergency gall bladder surgery and the other time two years back when
she had a stroke, a minor one, but still disabling enough to keep her
from crawling off the gurney when they hauled her away by ambulance.
She’d had her remarkable one-hundredth birthday in April and, until
this last month, had been healthier than most horses. If she was in the
hospital, it was bad.
I was choking down worry as I called my first counselor and told her
what was happening. As I knew she would, larissa promised to put the
presidency meeting on hold and to see that the missionaries were fed. I
still needed to do something about the choir rehearsal, but that could wait.
I turned toward the hospital.
As I drove, I remembered important moments in my life that
featured Granny Adelaide. She had been the first of Tom’s relatives to
welcome me into the family—even before Tom had proposed. when
Tom’s mother, bitter and angry after her own divorce, seemed lukewarm
about an upcoming wedding, it had been Adelaide who had called
Tom’s aunts and uncles, confirming addresses for the invitations and
drumming up enthusiasm to support Tom and me in our new adventure.
She even baked homemade carrot cake for the open house in Tom’s
She’d been there when we brought Melissa home from the hospital,
for the span after Melissa when I worried I might never conceive again,
and for each of the babies who came after. She had often been the first
to respond when someone in the family was sick or injured.
As I looked back over my years in the Burnett family, Adelaide
seemed the one sure rock, the steady constant I could always count on.
Nothing could ever be the same without her, and I shuddered as I thought
of the sympathy I’d been feeling only moments ago with strangers who’d
lost a relative. I hoped we weren’t “there” yet. I parked the car near the
hospital and headed for the room Tom had mentioned, praying Adelaide’s
solid presence would be able to stay in our lives a little longer.
I slid into the room at a half run to find it already filling up with
family members. Our daughter Melissa and her husband, Jason, were
seated next to Tom beside Granny’s bed, along with Ruby, Granny’s
live-in attendant. Emily was there too, standing near them. Tom must
have picked her up at the high school choir room. He looked up as I
“Karen’s here,” he said to Granny, and I got my first look at Adelaide as
she turned her face toward me. Her skin was pallid gray, her eyes rheumy,
her flesh wasted. She looked worse than I had ever seen in a living person.
She and Ruby had joined us for dinner just last Sunday. I marveled that
so much had changed in a few short days, but her eyes still crinkled with
warmth as she said, “well, hello, sweetheart. Good to see you.”
I felt my eyes filling with tears, but I couldn’t help grinning right
back at her. “Hello yourself, gorgeous. So what’s a cute young thing like
you doing in a place like this?”
She managed a weak grin. “Now, dear, I don’t want you to get all
upset or anything, but I’m pretty sure I’m dying.”
I swallowed hard, the tears already starting. “Oh, Granny . . .”
“Oh, look at you. There you go crying, and I told you not to get upset
too.” She lifted her hand with some effort and wiped a tear from my
I couldn’t respond over the lump in my throat. A tear ran down the
other side of my face and fell onto the hospital bed, but I shook my
head and attempted a smile as I took her hand.
“It’s going to be just fine, dear,” she said, her voice creaky with age
and cracking with weakness. “It’s time, really. Don’t you think? I’ve had a
full century; that’s one hundred great years, and it’s more than most folks
get. Now I need to move on and let you young folks take over.” I couldn’t
help thinking that it was only in the company of people like Adelaide
that I ever felt young anymore. At forty-eight, I’m “middle-aged,” which
is accurate in this case since I have just under half of Granny’s years.
“You’ll get better. You always do,” I said, looking to Tom and the kids
to back me up. No one said anything, and I realized the doctor must have
briefed them already.
“Not this time.” Although her eyes still shone with warmth, Adelaide
no longer smiled, and her voice was heavy with the weight of her message.
I could hear my daughters sniffling. “I’ve just been waiting for you to get
here, Karen. There’s something I want you to do. Call it my dying wish.”
“You know I’d do anything for you, Adelaide, but—”
“How’s she doing?” I heard someone whisper from the hallway, and
I looked up as Stephanie, our middle daughter, entered. Tom looked
to Granny, then back at Steph, and shook his head meaningfully. I was
grateful that Adelaide was turned toward us and couldn’t see him. Steph’s
gasp caught in her throat, but she composed her face as she stepped
forward to hug her great-grandmother. “Hi, Granny.”
“Hello, darling,” Adelaide said and reached out toward Steph, who
quickly stepped forward to offer a hug and a kiss on the paper-thin skin.
“what can we do for you?” I asked Granny. “Is there anything that
can make you more comfortable?”
Granny apparently had an agenda of her own. “I’ve already given
Tom some directions about my funeral service,” she said. Tom held up
a white business envelope as Granny pointed in his direction. Granny’s
tone was as matter-of-fact as if she’d just handed him a grocery list. “He
can handle that for me. what I need for you to do is more personal . . .
and perhaps more difficult.”
She paused, and I realized I was holding my breath. I think we all
were. Granny had done well at setting up the dramatic moment.
“The funeral lunch will be happening right around the time of my
wedding anniversary,” she said almost as if she had already scheduled it,
“and I want my whole family together.”
“Oh, Granny,” I said, starting to make some excuse.
But she went right on. “You may not remember it, dear, but I’m sure
Tom does and many of the other relatives will as well. way back in the earlier days of our family, we used to have a reunion every year on or around June twentieth to celebrate the day our family began, the anniversary of my marriage to Arthur. There were traditional recipes everyone prepared,
and we always had a big picnic in the park. It was lovely.”
“Well, of course it was,” I said, “and we shouldn’t have any trouble
getting the family together again. We’ll call Aunt Lenore and Aunt Shirley,
Mary and Steve, and the cousins. Of course Brian won’t be there,” I said,
referring to our son who had just entered the missionary training center in
Brazil, “but the rest of us—”
Granny cut me off. “No, dear. I mean my whole family. The ones in
I heard Tom choke and a look passed between us—his disapproval,
my panic. “Um, Granny, I don’t even know how to get in touch with
those people.” It was only a partial lie. Behind my husband’s back I had
exchanged some greeting cards with his sister Carrie over the years, but
he didn’t want to know about it, so I hadn’t ever told him. And I really
didn’t have contact information for any of the others, no phone for
Carrie either. I started to try to explain that. “I—”
“Don’t worry about that, dear. Everything you need is right here in
my purse.” She leaned toward the bedside table. “Ruby, dear, can you
hand me my purse?”
Ruby complied. Granny reached in with quivering hands and drew
out another carefully prepared envelope. Family members all exchanged
wry looks; Granny’s organizational envelopes had long been a joke in our
family, and I wondered how long she had been carrying these two—just
in case. “This lists all the names and telephone numbers, as well as letting
you know who’s who.”
“Have you stayed in touch with them all these years, Granny?” Melissa
“Of course, darling.” She smiled. “It’s not as if I have so many
grandchildren that I can afford to let a few drift away.”
Melissa patted Granny’s shoulder. “Oh, Granny! That really sounds
Granny turned back to me. “So take the envelope and give them
each a call, won’t you? I’d like them to come for the funeral and, of course,
the family lunch. what I need you to do is to dig up some of the old
recipes—you know, the family reunion dishes that Tom and Steve and
Mary remember from when they were little, back when the family was still
together. That’s what you need to serve when the family is all together again.”
My throat constricted, but I croaked out, “Okay, Granny. I’ll try.”
“Nope, no trying,” Adelaide said. “I need your promise, Karen. Do this
“Of course, Granny, but I—”
Tom cleared his throat, and I looked up, my eyes pleading with him
not to say what I felt sure he was planning to. I saw him change his mind
even as he opened his mouth. “Of course we won’t need any of this,” he
said. “You’re going to be just fine, Granny. we’ll have you home in your
own place again in no time.” was this the same man who had shaken his
head at Stephanie just moments before?
“That’s right, Granny,” Melissa said, faking brightness. “Jason and I
are planning on having you around to tell old family stories to our kids.”
Jason and Steph and Emily all nodded, murmuring agreement, and
Ruby said, “we’ll have you home soon.”
But Adelaide sighed. “Remember some good stories to tell them
about me, darlings.” Then she used one shaky hand to cover a yawn.
“Granny . . .” Tom stepped forward and took her hand. “Granny, don’t
ask us to do this. You remember what he did, how he hurt us all . . .”
Granny gave him her sweetest look. “Sweetheart, let me remind you
that the he you’re referring to was your father and my son.”
“I know, Granny, but—”
“What your father did was wrong, Tommy.” She stroked his hand,
and I saw my husband soften at her use of his pet name. “It was wrong,
and he spent the rest of his life paying for it, but he’s gone now, and so
is your mother. There’s no reason to perpetuate their problems, and you
have family you really should get to know.”
“But you can’t expect us to welcome that woman—”
“That woman is the mother of the sisters and brother you have never
met. It’s time to put the past behind you, Tommy. If you can’t do it for
yourself, do it for me.” She took his hand in both of hers. “Please? For me?”
Tom swallowed hard but was saved from answering by a timely
intrusion as a nurse in bright scrubs stepped into the room. “If you’ll all
step out now, I need to wheel Mrs. Burnett down the hall for some tests.”
“Sure. we’ll go down to the waiting room,” Tom said. He dropped a
kiss on Granny’s cheek as he left. “love you, Granny,” he said. “we’ll be
Each of the children either kissed Adelaide or gripped her hand. Ruby
stroked her cheek, and I followed suit, gently stroking her arm. “See you
soon, Granny,” I said.
“Not yet,” Granny said to the nurse as she gripped onto me. “I need
your promise, Karen. You’re the only one who can do this for me. Promise
me you will.”
“You know I can’t make them come,” I began.
“Of course not. Just promise me you’ll do your best. That’s all I could
I took a moment before I responded, but Granny’s sweet look could
have melted marble. “I promise,” I answered, leaning down to peck her
“See you soon,” I said as I joined the others in the hall.
“See you, Granny,” Tom called over my head.
“Good-bye, my dears,” Granny answered, the words pregnant with
meaning. we all stood still, watching as the nurse rolled her away.
“She’ll get better,” Tom said as Granny disappeared around a corner.
He looked as if he thought it might happen simply because he demanded
“I don’t know, Dad,” Stephanie said. “I’ve never seen her like this.”
“She’ll get better!” he insisted, and the kids exchanged pointed looks.
we got to the lobby and found seats. I started to ask Emily if anyone
had made arrangements for someone to accompany her summer choir
program, but my question was interrupted by the reappearance of the
brightly dressed nurse.
“Mrs. Burnett will be in tests for a little while,” she told us, “and after that,
she’ll probably be too tired for company.
If you’d like to come back later this evening, say, after seven or so? She
might be rested enough to visit with you then.”
We looked around at one another, realizing we had been dismissed.
Ruby was the first to stand, followed quickly by Tom. “All right,
then,” he said. “we’ll be back.”
“Have a good evening,” the nurse said, and we filed out of the hospital
toward the parking lot.
“She’ll get better,” Tom said as we stepped outside. “She has to.”
“I hope so, honey,” I answered. The envelope in my purse felt as heavy