Our stilted singing cut off abruptly as my grandmother lit her cigarette from the tip of her ninetieth birthday candle. Her painted lips cracked into a smile as she puffed a cloud of blue gray smoke towards the ceiling. My mother's hands clenched and I instinctively grabbed the knife off the table.
"Let me cut the cake," I chirped, as my mother reached for it. The cake slid slightly and the iced roses I'd placed on top started to fall. They weren't pretty but it was the thought that counted, right?
"You have lung cancer." My grandmother smiled at my mother's concerned tone and draped a papery hand across her daughter's.
I'd heard Nana’s reasons for not stopping, several times. Though I didn't tell mom, I understood them - at her age why worry with chemo or giving up a lifelong nicotine addiction. My mother was still hoping she might change her mind, give us another six months or year to say goodbye. I understood this too, she hadn’t had the chance to say goodbye to my father and was desperate to avoid this with her mother. Tragedy had forced her to accept that time was something you didn't think about until it was all you thought about.
Sliding out of the room, I located three fancy plates. Cutting into what I knew was her last birthday cake, I felt a tear run down my cheek and rubbed it against my shoulder. Today was a celebration, not a funeral. Plastering a smile against my lips, I carried three giant slices of cake into the room we'd converted to Nana's months ago. She sat alone, eyes closed, smoke slipping between her ruby lips.
"I have the cake; where's mom?" The front door slammed as I asked, and I cringed.
"Pouting over the inevitability of death." My grandmother turned her attention to the cake and twisted a fork through the top. "I would have been happy with just a tube of icing." She winked, before placing the hunk of sugar in her mouth.
I leaned over, whispering, "I still have half a container in the kitchen."
"You're a good girl, Nell. What's your plan?"
Plan? Laughing I patted her thin leg, trying desperately to ignore the feel of her bones. "After cake, we are going to play cards and then maybe a movie."
Pushing her cake aside, grandma leaned over and gripped my chin. "I mean your life plan, Nell. What are you going to do with life?"
Sounds worked their way out of my throat but words escaped me. Grandma slipped another cigarette between her teeth and laughed. The rough husky sound started a coughing fit and her tiny shoulders hunch in pain. I stood but she gripped me, her fingers digging into the delicate skin around my wrist and her eyes held mine. "Sit."
Pursing my lips, I darted a glance in the direction of her medications before slowly lowering myself into the chair. "Life’s a bridge, Nell. Some bridges are long, like mine, other's short, like your father's." I tipped my head, letting my soft auburn hair cover my eyes, hiding my tears.
"We build our bridge with action, purpose, and sometimes by accident. You've helped your mother cope this year and no doubt will help her when I pass over the final steps of my bridge, but make sure you build your own."
Her fingers slipped into my hand and grandma let us sit for several minutes, a friendly quiet settling around us, before she pressed again. "Do you enjoy being a lawyer?"
"Of course." The lie came easily, I'd rehearsed it so often I almost believed myself some days. "I graduated top of my class, I work at firm most people would die to..."
My tongue stopped wagging as the phrase hung around us. "We all die, Nell." My grandmother's raspy tone barked with laughter before coughing once more. "I swear you all act like I'm not aware of it. Even if I didn't have a tumor in my lung, I'm ninety. Death’s been my companion for many years. But listing your accomplishments isn't happiness."
Biting my lip I shrugged, "It takes a lot to make partner. I'm just over worked but once I'm a partner life will be easier."
A gentle hum echoed from my grandmother but she didn't push. "You have so many more opportunities than I did. I graduated high school, married your grandfather and worked in a factory during the war. After it ended, all that was expected of me was to raise babies. Still, I wonder why you continue to equate career success with happiness."
"I'm not looking for a husband, grandma." My tone was sharp but she clicked her tongue in annoyance.
"And I am not suggesting you need a partner." Pushing cake around on my plate, I looked towards the door, hoping my mother might stroll back through to break up this uncomfortable bonding.
"You do need happiness and you aren't happy."
It was on the tip of my tongue to deny it but then I simply shrugged. "So what if I'm not happy. Writing doesn't pay the bills and, since I went to law school, I have a lot of bills."
Scrapping the last of the icing off the top of her cake, Nana grabbed my mother's piece and began devouring its icing. "You don't have to make money at something to enjoy it. Write anyways."
"And how will I pay rent, eat, survive?"
Rolling her eyes, she put another giant slab of icing in her mouth. How she'd manage to avoid diabetes was beyond me. "You don't have to do it professionally. Work at the law firm, and then write at lunch, at night, at funerals. There are characters all over this world. Write them for yourself. If someone else reads it or pays you for it...well good for you. I swear, not everything has to be done for a paycheck and recognition."
"It helps," I grudgingly added.
"Perhaps, but take it from an old sick woman, happiness is what life is built upon. Seek it out. Now, I am going to take a nap because smoking, icing and sleeping is what makes me happy."
Five years later, it’s that last sad birthday party my mind wanders too, as I trim the grass around my grandmother's headstone. "I got into an argument with a client last week - it was crazy. That's not the reason for this visit though." Removing decayed flowers, I sit against the stone and pick up the paperback.
"It’s just a silly romance novel, selling for five whole dollars. With the money I received, I bought a burger and new laptop. Still, it has my name on the cover."
The cool stone says nothing, but I imagine Grandma smiling down, as I bend the cover and clear my throat. "The Lost Bride by Nell Gasti. For my grandmother - who taught me to always seek happiness."
The breeze carries the hint of smoke and I smile. "I figured you might haunt, if I didn't dedicate it to you." I imagine a ghostly laughter, free of coughing, as I settle in. Flipping pages, I lower my voice, "Chapter 1."