A Letter for Grandma

My Grandma and Great-Uncle in Mississippi in the 1940s.
My Grandma and Great-Uncle in Mississippi in the 1940s.

Today is not supposed to be one of the significant anniversaries.  It is not the first, the fifth or the tenth year. It is an odd year, the eleventh since you left my life. But the weight of your absence was especially profound for me today, as the calendar date coincided with the day you passed.

knew something was not right that morning. I sat at a conference table at 8am with my co-workers. Twenty minutes into it my phone started vibrating, but when I tried to call back no one answered. My mom, my cousins, aunts, uncles-no one was available. An hour later my uncle called and immediately handed the phone to mom, who sobbed that you were gone. Her words were not enough to make it real to me. As I waited for my BFF to pick me up I floated through the aisles of the grocery store that my bank was located in, seeking out the dairy products I craved in my last month of pregnancy. Grandma is dead, I whispered to myself as I grabbed a block of Tillamook Sharp Cheddar Cheese. No matter how many times I repeated it I did not want to connect the word ‘dead’ to you.

Initially I didn’t have to. By the time I arrived at your apartment, where you raised me, you were no longer there. I saw the tears of others and shed my own. I beheld the devastation in the face of your youngest child-who would be the one to ensure your burial. I watched my mama’s charismatic, witty nature go into hibernation. But it still didn’t become real for me until the day of your wake three days later.

The funeral home opened up the room for you at 3pm; I arrived around 5. I remained in the back at first, stalling, unsure whether seeing you was a good idea. But I gathered myself and slowly waddled up to the altar. Even though you were almost eighty-years old your hair was still salt-and-pepper, never making the transition to silver. My mind flashed back two weekends ago, when everyone came to visit you and say goodbye. Your hospice care-and the morphine drip-had not begun yet. You sat up, greeting your visitors with a warm smile, but as soon as you received a free minute you summoned me to your side.  “Come here, Danielleee”, you said, singing my name in the way only you  and mom could,”take this and go wash it for me in the bathroom”. I looked down at the bundle of clot you’d placed in my hands. I was perplexed but did as I was old. When I reached the bathroom and unwrapped the bundle I saw it was one of your favorite skirts. The top was covered in blood and pus from the burst tumors in your upper body. The tumors advanced rapidly, causing you pain. Seeing you in your casket I knew you were now untroubled, beyond the havoc that cancer wrought on your body. Prior to that day I never touched a deceased individual, too scared to even get close. But this time was different. This time it was the person I loved most in the world. So I caressed your arm, and that is when I finally got it: you were not with me anymore. The arms that cradled me as a baby, the dark brown eyes that glared at me from the choir stand in church, the lips that imparted both loving words and sharp correction-the  force that made those parts the whole of you all extinguished on this plane of existence.

I have never stopped missing you. Your death did not lay waste to my reality the way my mom’s would the following year. With you there was at least time to prepare. But more than that I knew you were ready to go. It was your decision not to go through a second round of chemo. Given how tough it was the first time, and that doing it again would only give you another year, I can see why you made that choice. In an ideal world you would have lived longer. I desperately wished you could have remained to see the birth of your great-granddaughter in March 2004, but I gave her part of your name in memoriam.

There were many things you were right about. I did not find our differences of opinion to be a laughing matter when I was a teenager, but when I look at them now I can smile. Sometimes you played the role that our kinship and your seniority afforded you to. But what I remember the most are the times that you did not. “Chile”, you would  say with a glint in your eye that only comes from experience”, the stick you walking with I done BEEN thrown away! You thank I’m so mean. I know. Everything you say to me now I said to my Grandma too. And you know what she told me? That when I was grown I would understand and be GRATEFUL! You will too!” And with that you would turn away, go silent and watch your TV shows. The memory of it makes me giggle to myself, and I know that you would be amused to witness me give your great-granddaughter that same speech.

Since your death those who know me but question my life’s path like to invoke your name. What would your Grandma say? That question used to really set me off. I’m now able to answer it calmly.  There are some aspects of my life that would please you and others(my lack of faith) that would bother you. But ultimately I know you would always say that I’m your grandbaby and that you love me. That was what you gave me every day, and the memory of the unwavering love you showed me will remain in me until I take my last breath.

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A native Seattleite and East Coast transplant, I have been interested in politics, religion, and race from the day I saw “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” on the bookshelf belonging to my BFF’s mom back in 1991. While my zealotry has thankfully diminished with maturity, I remain the deep thinking, passionate, and humble woman I have always been.

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