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Gran died early this morning, before most of the family had woken up, much less gotten to the hospital. I can't think about that too much, or I'll start crying again; I know how badly she would have wanted to see my dad once more. The cousins, too, especially Rachel. God, how she wanted to live to see Rachel's baby --
But that's my own grief talking, my own loss. Death comes to everybody, and I think Gran had it better than most. A long life, a large family -- happier than not -- who stayed near her, friends she knew and loved for decades, important work that kept her involved until the end. And she didn't die alone; I was there at the foot of her bed. Aunt Elizabeth was by her side, holding her hand. And in the corner was the man all the nurses think is her grandson. We let them think that -- it's easier than lying and a lot easier than the truth.
He was the last one she looked at, a few minutes before she slipped away. Gran opened her eyes, and the stupor of the drugs and her illness seemed to have left her as she looked into his eyes. I could see a shadow of the young woman she used to be, years before I was born. That image -- that moment of clarity and strength -- for some reason, it moved me to tears. Aunt Elizabeth, too, though I doubt either of us could tell you even now why we were crying.
But he managed to smile at her. She whispered, "You're still here," with a ghost of that same smile on her face.
"Always," he answered. "Always, Cordelia."
Then she closed her eyes.
I'm glad that's the last thing she saw, a smiling face. I'm glad he had the strength to smile.
But then, Angel knows better than any of us that death is not an end.
The afternoon passed in a blur. Dad and Aunt Elizabeth made the arrangements. Mom and I tried to calm Rachel down while Henry and Uncle Price went to the airport to pick up the out-of-town relatives who didn't get here in time for anything but the funeral. That left Angel to deal with the little ones, something he does very well for a man who's never had children of his own. He got their lunch, kept them busy, even did his much-beloved "amazing flying kid" routine in front of the mirror about a dozen times before they got tired of it. They were laughing, giggling, carrying on. Price's children didn't know Gran as well as the rest of us, and they were too young to appreciate what had happened. They wanted to play, and Angel played with them; I was shocked at first, when I heard him laughing.
But it shouldn't have surprised me that he could carry on, even when he's suffering as much as any of us. More, perhaps. Maybe he thought of it as something he was doing for Gran. Maybe Angel's just learned to take his joys where he can find them. It's a lesson I could stand to learn, probably.
But finally, as afternoon became evening and the miserable craziness of the day faded, the house became quiet. The parents relieved Angel of his babysitting duties; they wanted the children close. Dad went out to walk by the lake, and Mom followed him -- not standing too close, just watching him, there if he wanted her. Everyone else was being good and strong and wise. I, of course, engaged in my usual brand of masochism by going into Gran's room.
She didn't keep much in the way of possessions. ("I am such the slob," she would say, shaking her head. "If I have stuff, it ends up on the floor. God, do I miss having live-in help." Apparently Gran was wealthy when she was younger, way back in the 20th century. Even though she lost everything when she was still a teenager, she somehow managed to keep somebody around to clean and cook even when she was a struggling actress in Los Angeles. I've never figured out how she managed that one.) So I was looking at a bare little room, pared down to essentials, reflecting almost nothing of the strong, vibrant woman who loved and guided me so well.
Hands shaking, I reached under the bed for the cedar box I knew she kept there; what few mementos Gran kept of her past had to fit in this tiny thing. How do you put 86 years of a life in something like this? Especially a life as extraordinary as hers?
Just as tears started to fill my eyes again, I heard his voice. "I thought I'd find you here," Angel said.
I nodded and swallowed hard. "How are you?" I asked.
Most people would say something banal, something cliche. "Holding up", or "I'm all right." Angel actually stood there in the doorway, considering how to answer before he spoke. He's one of those few people who really listens, who never autopilots his way through a conversation. The sincerity is welcome; the intensity sometimes isn't.
"I'm happy for her," Angel said. Off my shocked look, he continued, "Margaret, you can't appreciate what gifts a long life and natural death are. Cordelia lived as well as anyone I've ever known. And now she's out of pain forever."
I said slowly, "You envy her."
"In some respects," Angel said. He stepped forward to take the box from my hands. "She was always throwing things away. What did she keep?"
"Let's see," I said, shaking off my confused thoughts. "She showed me this long ago, but I've forgotten most of it."
We sat side-by-side on the bed and opened the lid. There was only a handful of items inside: a locket with a picture of a chubby-cheeked baby that, I had been told against all belief, was my father. A crucifix she used to use for work. Some weird, blobby shape outlined on yellow paper; it was in a cracked frame with some soot down in the glass -- why she kept that, I'll never know. A construction-paper valentine I made for her in third grade.
There was a picture of her with Angel at my parents' wedding; at least, that's what I guessed, given the tuxedo he was wearing and the "6/12/36" jotted on the back. I thought Angel would be drawn to that, but instead he fished around to pull out the book at the bottom of the box. I thought it would be a photo album, or a journal of some sort. Instead, I realized, it was an old- fashioned high-school yearbook.
"Sunnydale High, Class of 1999," I read. "You knew her back then?"
Angel nodded, silently opening the book. He skimmed through it for a moment, then let the pages fall open to a spread devoted to the cheerleading squad. "There's your grandmother."
I could feel my eyes opening wide with surprise; I always thought Gran was beautiful, but the girl he was pointing to was gorgeous, no doubt about it. Thin, by today's standards of beauty, but stunning all the same. "She was so beautiful," I said.
"Always," Angel said, and his voice was so odd --
An entirely new, entirely strange possibility entered my mind, and for a moment I thought I would actually squeal in surprise. I'd never thought about the fact that Angel was exactly the guy he is now back when Gran was young and pretty and single. "Angel were you and Gran ever -- you know -- together?"
"Together?" he said blankly. Three hundred years plus, and the man still cannot learn to use euphemisms. But after a moment he caught on and shook his head. "No. Not that way. Though --"
"What?" I said, grief momentarily eclipsed by curiosity.
"Those first years we worked together, back in Los Angeles -- we were both lonely. Sometimes we didn't seem to have anything in the world but each other. Cordelia and I were never lovers, but -- well, it could have been very different."
"Do you wish it had happened?"
Angel sighed. "That's not how we loved each other. We were best the way we were."
Now that I think about it, that answer isn't exactly a no. At the moment, though, I was too busy watching him leaf through the annual. He was looking for something, something that interested him even more than what we'd been talking about, which I found hard to imagine.
And then he found it.
I have seen Angel in a thousand different moods and moments. I have seen him in battle, face changed into something demonic and unrecognizable. I have seen him laughing and holding his sides at Rachel's first recital, when she decided to stop dancing and just sit on the edge of the stage. I have seen the soft light in his eyes as he held my baby cousin Charles, then only hours old. But I have never seen his face so full of feeling as it was at that moment.
The picture he was looking at was on the page devoted to the prom. I saw Gran looking even more glamorous than before, dancing with a tall man in a tuxedo who, I realized with a shock, could only have been Uncle Wesley, dead and gone ten years now. At first I thought that was what had affected Angel so. But then I realized he was looking at someone else.
In a corner of the photo, I saw a girl -- light-colored hair, old-fashioned dress, even skinnier than Gran had been. She had an expression on her face not unlike the one Angel wore now. And I realized, with a shock, that he was in the photo too, taking that girl into his arms.
I have known Angel all my life, but only at that moment did I realize how little I truly understand him.
"That's her, isn't it? The one you did love."
"Yes," Angel said, his voice soft. "That's Buffy."
"What was she like?"
He was quiet for a few minutes, considering. Remembering. "She was a Slayer. Not like any you've known, though. She was determined to live in the world no matter how hard it was to balance, no matter what it cost her. She fought demons in her dress for the Homecoming dance. Did her homework after saving the world. Asked a vampire to the senior prom."
Angel shook his head, smiling ruefully. "She had a temper. Not on the caliber of your grandmother's, but formidable enough. A fantastic sense of humor that never failed her, no matter how dire everything else was around her. Beneath all that, though, she had an -- almost infinite capacity for tenderness. When she opened herself up, let all that anger or giddiness fade away, and just let her heart stand bare before the world -- she was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."
That remembered beauty glimmered in his eyes, lit him up from within. My breath caught in my throat as I saw the joy shining through him and thought that this was only a reflection, only a memory some seventy years old. And had been a memory for so long --
"How do you bear it?" I blurted out. He finally looked up from the photograph to meet my eyes. I continued, "I'm sorry -- I don't want to make this harder for you. But how can you stand it? Losing everyone, as the years go by. Watching everyone grow old and die. I feel like I can't bear it, just losing Gran and you've lost everyone --"
"Not everyone," Angel said, and his voice was a little stronger now. "I have you, and your dad, and Price -- all of you. Everyone from this picture, from this book -- yes, they're gone now. Your Gran was the last one who remembered the old days. But Cordelia was the first person I watched grow up and grow old. I saw her through her entire life. Graduation to grandchildren. My own life was taken from me a long time ago. But being with her -- loving her, loving all of you in turn -- Cordelia gave me her own life to share. I never did thank her enough for that. I never could have. Seeing her die today, surrounded by love -- that was a part of that gift. Can you understand that?"
I nodded as I wiped tears from my cheeks. "And having the rest of us to love -- the rest of us who love you -- that makes it okay? Losing Gran? Losing all the others?"
We both were looking down at the picture of Buffy again; she was frozen in time, gazing up at the Angel who was frozen with her in the past.
"I haven't lost anything," Angel said. "The things that matter -- those are the things we never lose. They can't be taken away from us. Not by time. Not by death."
I was crying too hard to answer him with anything but a tight hug; he returned it, wrapping me in his cool embrace for a few minutes as I gathered myself together. As soon as I had calmed down, he kissed me on the forehead and rose to leave.
"Wait," I said, holding out the yearbook. "Do you want this?"
Angel looked at it for a moment, then shook his head. "Thanks, but no," he said. "I don't need it to remember."
I don't need it to remember either; Gran was so much a part of my life that I remember her with everything I do, everything I am. But I'm going to keep it anyway. The look on that girl's face as Angel took her into his arms -- someone should keep that. It should exist somewhere besides one man's memory.
Even if one man's memory is enough.