After slurping up the remaining milk from her cereal bowl before school one morning, curiosity got the best of Heidi’s tongue. “Maw Maw, what are those?” she asked her grandmother.
Maw Maw held the blue plastic case in her wrinkled hands for a long moment before opening the door labeled “T” for Tuesday, as she’d already explained to Heidi the previous day. “These are my pills,” she said, and she took five tablets from the Tuesday slot and swallowed them with a swig of water.
Before she could tuck the case away Heidi asked, “What for?”
Again Maw Maw waited a minute before replying, carefully deciding how to explain medicine to a five year old child. Finally she said, “I take them because each of them makes me a better person.”
Eyes wide with intrigue, Heidi wondered, “How so?”
“Well,” Maw Maw said, removing the pills from the Wednesday slot to use as an example. She pushed a red one forward, away from the bunch, and said, “Take this one for instance. This one gives me hope.”
With Heidi completely captivated Maw Maw continued, pushing a blue one up beside the red one, “And this one makes me strong.” She did this with each of the pills, pills that gave her patience and kept her focused, and then she came to the last pill, a purple one larger and longer than the other round tablets.
Maw Maw took a deep breath before pushing it forward with the others. Heidi sat on the edge of her seat longing to know the last pill’s purpose. At last, Maw Maw said, “And this pill’s for bravery.”
Heidi eyed the pill with a sudden hungry desire for it. She thought about the day before when Tommy had knocked her down on the playground, how all the boys laughed at her when she cried. She wished she’d had a pill for bravery herself.
Her little hand reached across the table for it, but Maw Maw caught her mid-stretch. “Oh, no, Heidi, these pills are only for grownups.”
“But, Maw Maw, I need that pill,” Heidi begged.
The two of them held each other’s eyes for a full minute, Heidi’s pleading, Maw Maw’s calculating. Finally, Maw Maw released her hand, but swooped up her pills before Heidi could reach for them again.
Heidi’s bottom lip jutted out and she crossed her arms over her chest to pout. And her grandmother scolded her for it. “That’s no way for a young lady to act just because she didn’t get her way.”
Heidi sat up straighter and sucked up her disappointment. “I’m sorry, Maw Maw, it’s just that the boys at school are really mean to me sometimes and I’m too scared to stand up to them. I could really use that pill for bravery,” she said.
Maw Maw tapped her pointer finger on her lips a few times in thought and got up from the table as an idea took hold in her mind. She rummaged around in the cupboard and returned to the table with an empty pill case and five baggies full of colorful tablets that were really just confectioneries in a sugar shell that Maw Maw made candies with on special occasions. Heidi was none the wiser. She watched, bubbling in anticipation.
“Now, Heidi,” Maw Maw started, “This must be a secret between you and me, okay?”
A squeal of excitement escaped Heidi’s lips and she nodded her head. Maw Maw laid out all the separate baggies and pulled seven candies from each, one for every day of the week, and filled the plastic case with them. Heidi was nearly bouncing in her seat, eager to have pills of her own, pills that gave her all the great qualities her Maw Maw’s did.
“Here’s a set of your own,” Maw Maw said as she pushed the case across the table. “Be sure to only take them once a day, Heidi, and only the ones allotted for that day. If I catch you taking more, I won’t refill it for you at the start of each week,” she added sternly.
Heidi marveled at the slender pink case in her hands. She swept her finger across the labeled doors and spoke the days of the week aloud as her finger passed them. Slowly, she opened the Tuesday door like she’d watched her Maw Maw do and poured the pills into the palm of her hand.
Suddenly panicked, she looked up at her Maw Maw for instruction. “Do I have to swallow them? I don’t know if I can swallow them.”
Maw Maw chuckled. “No, love, yours are chewable.”
Heidi worried they’d taste bad, but her yearning for bravery was too great, so she popped them all into her mouth at the same time just in case. To her surprise, a clash of sweet and sour tickled her tongue and she smiled with delight over how easy it had been. Surely there should be a higher price to pay for bravery alone.
Maw Maw reached across the table for Heidi’s pill case and told her she’d keep it safe with hers in the cabinet. There was no argument from Heidi. She swore she could already feel the effects of them working in her body. Was she already stronger? She flexed her muscles. They seemed bigger. Heidi couldn’t remember the last time she felt so revved up to go to school.
“All right, child, we better be on our way or you’ll be late for school,” Maw Maw announced.
Heidi was out the door and waiting by the car before Maw Maw could even grab her keys. She smiled to herself over the innocent gift she’d given her granddaughter. Part of her wished the story she’d told about her own pills was actually true.
Heidi came home from school one day to find her parents pacing in Maw Maw’s kitchen, her mother desperately trying to hold back the tears fighting to escape her eyes. “What’s wrong?” she asked, confused by their behavior.
Heidi’s father sat her down at the kitchen table. “Sweetheart,” he started, but found himself struggling for the right words that wouldn’t send an eight year old child into hysterics. “Honey,” he tried again, “Maw Maw is very, very sick.” He put a lot of emphasis on the word ‘very’ but Heidi was already up out of her seat, charging up the stairs to her grandmother’s room to see for herself, before he could explain further.
“Maw Maw?” she asked, her voice betraying the disbelief of what her father had just told her as she peeked into her room. She crept towards her grandmother unsure, taking in her colorless skin and sagging face. All of the tubes and machines connected to her. Heidi couldn’t wrap her brain around it. Her Maw Maw was supposed to be strong. That’s what the pills were for. What happened?
“Don’t be scared, Heidi,” Maw Maw said in almost a whisper. She beckoned Heidi closer with her outstretched hand until Heidi took it in hers. The warmth her Maw Maw’s hands had always held now gave her a shiver.
“Daddy says you’re really sick. That can’t be, right? He’s mistaken, isn’t he?” Heidi asked, willing herself to be as sure as her words.
Maw Maw’s entire face frowned. “I’m afraid not, love. I am very ill.”
Heidi shook her head, refusing to believe it. “But you’ll be okay, right? Everyone gets sick sometimes.”
Sadly, Maw Maw replied, “It’s not that kind of sickness, Heidi. You don’t get better from this kind of sickness.”
“But our pills, all our pills…” Heidi just didn’t understand.
“Sweetie, those pills are the only reason I lasted this long. It’s my time. We’re not invincible, after all,” Maw Maw explained with a strained smile etched on her face.
Tears threatened to leak from Heidi’s eyes, her lip shook struggling to keep them from falling. Maw Maw reached out for her, her frail body exerting far more energy than it had, to pull Heidi up into the bed with her. Heidi refused to cry, but she wrapped herself around her grandmother like a koala bear with all her might, like maybe if she held on tight enough she wouldn’t lose her.
Maw Maw ran her fingers through Heidi’s hair long into the night, until Heidi had fallen asleep and Maw Maw’s hand grew tired. Her parents offered to move her to her own bed, but Maw Maw insisted she stay. Heidi’s parents finally fell asleep against each other at the foot of Maw Maw’s bed, mourning over their daughter’s reaction and fraught with pain over what they knew was to come.
When morning arrived, warm sunlight kissed Heidi’s face. She was the first to wake. She had dreamt of better times, when Maw Maw was younger and more agile and they would play together in the backyard on hot summer days. A smile crept into her cheeks as her eyes came open and before she thought better of it, she happily began recounting the dream. But there was no reply from Maw Maw and now that Heidi paid attention, no movement beneath her cheek where she lay on Maw Maw’s chest either.
She pushed herself upright, hovering over her grandmother’s face. “Maw Maw?” she whispered, scared of what she already knew to be true. Maw Maw’s hand lay over her heart and her lips turned upward in a permanent smile. She looked peaceful even in death.
Tears finally broke free from Heidi’s eyes as she stared down at her grandmother. She wondered if Maw Maw would be mad if she took two pills for bravery that day, even though it was against their rules, because Heidi was sure she’d need them. A chorus of sobs took over the room as her parents came awake.
In the days that followed, everyone was so busy planning viewings and the funeral that it almost made them numb. But when it was time to bury Maw Maw for good, Heidi’s mom fell apart. Heidi couldn’t imagine how much worse it’d feel to lose your mother if it hurt this much to lose your grandmother.
The day after the funeral, Heidi found her mother at the kitchen table, a steady stream of tears racing down her cheeks. She went about her normal breakfast routine, pouring herself a bowl of cereal and retrieving her pills from the cupboard her Maw Maw stored them in. But instead of taking the pills herself, she rounded the table to her mother’s side and said, “Here.”
Her mother sniffled, trying to reign in her tears. “What’s this?” she asked, skeptically eyeing the medicine case in her daughter’s hand.
Heidi popped open one of the doors and dumped the pills onto the table. She pushed each pill towards her mother, explaining their purpose, and finally she pushed the large purple pill towards her proclaiming, “And this one’s the most important. This one’s a pill for bravery and I think you need it a little more than me now.”
“Where did you get these?” Heidi’s mom’s voice cracked.
Heidi wandered back to the cupboard and emerged with baggies of what her mother knew to be the candies Maw Maw used to make sweet treats. They were candy and not medicine after all, but clearly Heidi had no idea. As she dropped them on the table, she said, “Maw Maw gave them to me. It was supposed to be our secret, but it could be ours now. And, Mom, you can only have one a day of each – Maw Maw’s rules.”
Her mother picked up a baggie and eyed it thoughtfully, remembering all the times she’d baked with these very things beside her mother. She’d miss those moments terribly, but maybe it’d be something her and Heidi could do together once Heidi was ready to grow out of the pill idea.
The first smile in days reached into Heidi’s mother’s cheeks as she scooped today’s pills up off the table and dropped them on her tongue. She cringed over the sweet and sour explosion erupting inside her mouth and she was crying again, but they were happy tears.
She pulled Heidi into an embrace and whispered, “Thank you, Heidi. I already feel braver.”