On her deathbed she asked for his teeth. Where are his teeth? I need my husband.
Dad and I just looked at each other in bewilderment. Babcia’s husband, dziadek, my grandpa, had been dead for decades. He died before my dad was born. I knew very little about dziadek.
Babcia yelled, “Kurwa! Gdzie moja zapalniczka! I need a cigarette!” In her state of delirium she still wanted to smoke, and of course, she needed her precious lighter. She’d recently lost her mind and finally had to let go of that lighter. She held onto it until she couldn’t hold it anymore. The lighter was made of gold, but not just any old regular gold.
Babcia was a chronic smoker, and it eventually consumed her. Ate her up inside. Cancer didn’t stop her from smoking though. The nurses had to pry the gold lighter out of her hand before each session of radiation therapy. She’d yell at them in Polish, “Zostawcie mnie w spokoju, kurwa!” Leave me the fuck alone!
I remember the lighter as far back as I can first remember my babcia. She didn’t exist without her gold lighter and cigarettes. Babcia lived alone in a 1913 Chicago style bungalow next to St. Adalbert’s Cemetery. As soon as you walked into babcia’s house, you were hit with the smell of cigarettes and lilies. Her house was scattered with crystal vases full of tiger lilies and crystal bowls filled with cigarette butts and ashes. She once told me that lilies were her favorite flower and cigarettes her favorite vice. She’d sit at her kitchen table smoking one Virginia Slim after the other listening to the Polish radio staring out into the cemetery. I wasn’t allowed to touch her faithful lighter. Ever.
Every year on All Saints’ Day we’d go to St. Adalbert’s and put her dead lily flowers on dziadek’s grave. Babcia said she loved him just enough, dead flowers what he is deserved. She’d light another cigarette and go for a walk alone in the cemetery. Dad and I would leave her. We knew better than to stop her or join her. I’d watch her from the window puffing her long Virginia Slims in one hand, while clutching the gold lighter in the palm of her other hand. She’d talk to herself. It looked like she was praying. Babcia didn’t go to church and didn’t believe in prayer. She said, “Prayer is for the weak. Just believe in yourself and you won’t need prayer.” But out there, in the cemetery, I wondered if she really was praying. Every year, I’d watch her walk alone, smoking and muttering, and eventually, she’d stop at an unmarked grave, spit on it, and walk back to the house.
Babcia didn’t talk about dziadek very much. From the little that she shared, I did know that he had worked and made the money, and he had “a mouth full of gold teeth worth thousands of dollars. That American money was worth a lot back then!” Babcia told dad and me after a few Vodkas one Christmas Eve.
The night before she died she woke in a fit of panic: “Give me his teeth. Where are his gold teeth?”
Dad and I didn’t know what she was talking about.
“I need my lighter. His teeth. Give it to me.” She groped around the hospital bed. “I pulled his gold teeth out one-by-one. I loved him so much. I need the lighter. It’s what’s left of him. Where is the lighter?”
“Mom, want are you talking about?” dad asked.
She stared right through him and said, “I loved him so. I pulled his teeth out one-by-one. I made [her] watch me do it. Then, I killed her too.”
XENIA SYLVIA MURTAUGH (pub name?) is a MFA candidate at Mississippi University for Women. She has a MA from Jagiellonian University in Krakow, and a BA from Loyola University Chicago. She is an assistant editor of Ponder Review and Poetry South. She lives and teaches literature in rural Oregon.