Herb is dead

The first night my Grandma stayed with us, I woke up in the middle of the night because of her terrible screams. The first thought that came to my mind was to leave the house, to abandon everything and run for it because something horrible must have happened. But instead I ran into my brother’s room to wake him up, but he was already out of bed, pulling on his pants.

We ran down the hallway which was still filled with her screams, only to meet Dad who was sprinting to her room.

“What is going on?”

“Just wait, ok? Just wait!” he panted.


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He went inside her room and stayed there for a while. The screams had died. Finally, he came out and looked exhausted.

“Well, what the hell is going on?” my brother asked.

“She’s fine, fine. She’s just…confused.”

He mumbled something and stumbled off to his own room where he disappeared. The house was quiet at last. Me and my brother returned to bed, but it did not take long until the screams came back. And so it was every night for the rest of her stay.

My grandmother had lived by herself for the past six years but since her Alzheimer-disease got worse, Dad agreed to take her in. He said she’d be a threat to herself. My brother and I said she was a threat for our good-night sleep. We did not have a close relationship to Grandma since we were just two of altogether sixteen grandkids but none of her other children had the patience to take her. Of all of them, our dad had to be the noble one, of course.

Despite of forgetting everything short-termed, it also slipped her mind on a regular basis that my grandfather had died six years ago. When she was clear, she was aware of that, so she carried a picture of him around to remind her but that did not help much, especially at night. My grandfather had died of his second heart attack in the middle of the day. After he had had the first one, he had gotten a cardiac pacemaker and everything was going fine for a couple of years. But one night, his pacemaker had a misfiring and Grandma had noticed it in time: he had been awfully quiet and did not snore anymore so she kicked him hard across the bed but he did not complain. Grandma called an ambulance and they fixed it, it was not a big deal, after all, but since that very night, my grandmother had always been afraid to fall asleep. Sometimes she would stay up all night and listen to her husband’s breathing. And in case she did fall asleep and woke up without snoring sounds next to her, she had to kick him hard and could only relax again when he would complain grumpily.

Due to forgetting the small incident of my grandfather’s death six years ago, naturally, she would wake up without sleeping sounds around. Her immediate reaction was to kick and hit the spot next to her but since there was nobody there and nothing to kick, she panicked. Hence, the screaming.

Dad explained that to us the next morning while Grandma was talking to her sister on the phone who lived in another city. Me and my brother understood but we were not comfortable with the thought of being woken up every night from now on. Just then, my Grandma hung up the phone and announced she would like to call her sister.

“You just talked to her”, Dad said.

“No, actually, it’s been a while. I’m just gonna give her a quick call.”

“No, really, Mom, you literally just called her!”

Grandma was confused about Dad’s idle talk but then seemed to slumber off.

After lunch, she asked me where my grandfather was.

“Where is your grandfather, dear? Where is Herb?”

“He’s dead”, I replied.

She looked at me as if I was out of my mind: “What?”

“Sorry”, I said, “he died about six years ago.”

“That’s strange”, she contemplated, “I was thinking about the clothes-pegs, too.”

“Excuse me?”

“Excuse me?”

Talking to her was like solving the same riddle over and over again. First, you had to remind her of something. Then she would reply something completely unrelated. The third step was to ask her what she had meant and then she could not remember what she had said or meant or what was going on in the first place. It was clear we weren’t going anywhere.

“Where is your grandfather, dear?” she asked me again. “Where is Herb?”

After a few weeks without much sleep, me and my brother grew tired of explaining the same thing to her over and over again.

“Where is Herb?”

“Have a look at his picture”, we said.

She looked at the picture she carried around and then back at us.

“Well, where is he?”

“Grandma, what do you think could be the reason why he’s not here?”

She shrugged.

“Why do you think are you carrying a picture of him around?”

“That’s a very old one! There is a much nicer one of him, taken in the backyard, just a couple of months ago…”

“No, Grandma, think! What could’ve happened?”

“What do you mean, what could’ve happened?”

I sighed.

After a couple of months my father tried to pursue my grandmother’s sister to take her in. But she replied that she was very close to the need of a walking cane and her tongue was hurting and anyways, the days were shorter where she lived and it was too cold/hot and there weren’t enough blankets for both of them.

“Why don’t we just ‘drive her off’?” my insensitive brother suggested.

“You mean a nursing home? Nah, can’t do that”, father said, “and by the way, Alzheimer-disease is genetic and if I’ll be having it one day, I certainly don’t wish you guys to ‘drive me off’!”

“You mean we’ll have to go through this again?!”

Of all the questions and the memory refreshments, the screaming was the worst. It was the same every night when Grandma noticed that there was no Herb lying next to her. I started to go to bed with headphones, listening to calming classical music, but the screams were so desperate, so hysterical and grieving, they would enter my dreams and let me have terrible nightmares of chasing answers, of no logic.

When I woke up, I could understand my grandmother’s misery. In her head, everything was alright; her normal old life still existed, there still was a Herb, but then she woke up to the cruel reality, to the sad rediscovery of her husband’s death every day.

I felt sorry for her, I did. But her situation was just too annoying and too alluring to not make fun of it.

“When did Herb say we’re leaving?” she asked, looking up from her knitting.

“Herb? Who’s Herb?” I said, trying to look confused.

“Don’t be silly. Your grandfather, dear.”

“Why, I haven’t seen him in a while.”

“What? Where is he?”

“Who?”

“Herb!”

“Well, he hasn’t been around, sorry.”

She looked at me suspiciously. “Well, tell him that we gotta go soon. The front porch needs to be fixed.”

“I don’t think he’ll be able to do that.”

“Oh, your grandfather is a handyman. He is good at fixing things.”

“Well, sorry, Grandma, he’s dead. He won’t have your porch fixed before summer, that’s for sure.”

In the end, Grandma left. My uncle Ralph agreed to take her for a while. We waved her good-bye as she was getting in his car, trying to get comfortable with the thought of Herb staying with us.

“He will come shortly!” we said. “He just needs to fix our front door after his resurrection.”

It did not take long until everything was back to normal in our house. The room she had been sleeping in was Dad’s office again and the traces of her confused mind were gone by saving more time every day instead of explaining everything.

But she still called us regularly. And when we had hung up, the phone would ring again.

“It’s Grandma!” she announced happily. “How are you, dear?”

“Grandma, you just called. We just talked for twenty minutes.”

“Excuse me?”

I sighed and rubbed my forehead. But before I could answer, she had turned away, probably to my poor uncle who was sitting next to her and asked, profoundly confused:

“Where is Herb?”


About Lena Wilms

Lena Wilms lives in Berlin, Germany and writes non-fiction and fiction. Besides writing she spends time with her family and working as a freelance translator.

>> Lena Wilms's author page

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