At the age of ten, I am on my grandmother’s green couch on 233 Jackson Street, my knees knocking against my twin sister Leah’s. Her knees are knocking against my Cousin Melaine whose own knees are knocking against her twin sister, Mykele. There is glitter everywhere, the source: a pink butterfly on a white tee shirt. Leah is ready to eat, we all are. The glitter from her butterfly is reflecting off the window. We are still in the stage of matching clothes, my sister and I. The stage twins are often stuck in long after they shouldn’t be. We were no exception. We are having our Sunday family dinner a day early. A basketball game is on, Syracuse is likely playing and my Aunts Regina, Renee and Michelle are laughing in the corner at something my mother said while my mother sits back, a satisfied smirk on her face. Grandma is in the kitchen pulling the tuna noodle casserole out of the oven when my uncle comes out of his room with the radio blaring. Without missing a beat, we join him as he raps along to a song I don’t know all of the words to yet. The song will end and grandma will tell us to come eat. Her voice is gentle, easy but laced with the kind of force and love that only comes from long nights of changing the diapers and kissing the booboos of everyone in the room.
We lost my grandma Vera in 2009. I was seventeen and attending the State University of New York at Fredonia in my first semester of college. There was a scholarship award dinner that weekend and I was invited. When I got the news, my roommate was in class and I was alone. In a small room on a twin bed I sat wrapped in denial and fear of who I’d become without her.
The thing about death is that while it is unavoidable, it takes more than the person you love. It takes pieces of you too, leaving only the feeling of absence in its wake. Absence is the thing you will feel on your deceased loved ones birthdays and on the anniversaries of their deaths, when you ready yourself to remind them of a funny joke they once told and when you call to share good and bad news. You’ll feel their absence so completely that it will feel like you’re learning they passed for the first time, even years later.
On October 13, 2009 my cousins came home from school and found my grandmother on the living room floor. The paramedics believed that she was heading back from her room when she passed, the house phone in her pocket. After I got the news of her death, on my used twin bed, pressed against the sole Twilight poster on my wall with tears streaming unapologetically down my face; despite being an hour drive away, I had never felt further away from my family, from her. The scholarship award dinner long forgotten. The walls were closing in as if the air was actually being sucked out of my shared tiny room as my roommates’ paper birds were preparing to fall off her wall again. I wiped my tears and ran across the hall to my friend. I knocked on her door repeatedly until she answered; falling into her arms before she could ask what was wrong.
During my first week of classes just two months earlier, my grandmother called and told me that if school ever became too much I could call my Uncle Scott and he would come\bring me home, no questions asked. I assured her I was fine but still promised to let her know if anything changed. I didn’t know then that just five years later, at the age of twenty three, I would lose my Uncle Scott too.
When we got the news that cancer took him just two years shy of fifty with so much more to do, I was sitting again. This time, we had just gotten home from Roswell believing that we would be able to go back in the morning to say goodbye. When my Aunt Regina called I was staring at the wall in front of me. The irony wasn’t lost on me that instead of a poster, a clock was staring back at me, an unwanted reminder that we have so little time with the people we love. He passed away on August 5, 2014 even though he promised to walk me down the aisle whenever the time came, even though there were many more Father’s Day shout outs to give him on Facebook and even though I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the man who was the embodiment of love. Cancer took him before we could go see another movie or rap another song or say another I love you. The last sound that filled my ears that night before sleep finally caught up to me, in the quietest corner of my room, where I sat on another twin sized bed pressed against a white wall, knees to my chest, was his absence. We have these great memories of the man who helped raise us, helped mold us into the men and women we are today. These memories are still not enough.
Every morning when my sister and mother go off to work, the weight of their absences becomes my constant companion, a constant reminder of the good things and bad that I can no longer share. Absence will be the thing that keeps you, grounds you and breaks you like you were never a whole human being in the first place. Absence reminds you that there is always something to lose, that there is always someone to lose.
While death and absence work together like a well-oiled machine, anger is the brains of the operation. The truth is this: there will be an anger that bubbles so deep inside of you that it becomes a part of you. There will be days, weeks and months that you will feed it without even realizing. The anger will eat when you eat, shower when you shower, go out when you go out. The anger rarely ever leaves. On these days when your anger is at its busiest, you’ll also be jealous of everyone who is still able to see and talk to the loved ones that you lost. In your darkest days you’ll be convinced that your loved ones were taken from you out of spite or in punishment for the sins you can’t repent.
Once the anger settles inside of you continually stacking itself like bricks against your chest, you’ll believe for a moment that the worst is over. However, there is one layer left and that is fear. There is no way to prepare for the fear that comes with each midday call from anyone you love. The anxiety that comes with trying to make every last word in each conversation convey just how much you love your mother, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers and best friends. There will never be enough time in a day, a week, month or year. When you live every day, you’ll live because you have to. You’ll live for yourself, your family, your friends but you’ll live in many ways for your deceased loved ones, because they couldn’t, even though you know they should have, even though they are with you but in the most painful way, even though you know they deserved to.
The last conversation my grandmother and I had, on a snowy Thursday night in October was the only goodbye I ever got and I was too preoccupied with getting to class on time to hear it. I pictured her answering the phone, shifting her weight from right to left while she watched an episode of Stargate SG-1. She was likely pressed firmly into her chair, glasses on the bridge of her light brown nose, a puzzle book and a pen not too far out of her reach. She let out a huff before she spoke.
“Where are we headed now?” She asked, a smile in her voice despite the fact that she likely spent the day fielding constant calls from her seven children and grandchildren. The same reassuring “It’ll all be okay” smile that she wore when I came to her crying after I got in trouble as a kid, when I told her I hated my body after my knee gave out in front of my entire college class, the same smile she wore at my high school graduation and every day just before every hug hello and goodbye.
“I have this stupid public speaking class, Grandma,” I groaned, pausing to readjust my poster.
“I don’t think you should go to class in this snowstorm.”
“Me either but if we miss a class he drops us a full letter grade,” I said, my eyes to the ground desperate to avoid the wind. “I know it’s late Grandma so I’ll let you go. I love you.”
“Oh, no you don’t. You’re staying on this phone until you get into class,” she responded, reaching for the remote with her free hand. I waited until she landed on a channel she liked. The building the class was in was just up ahead pressed confidently between two parking lots. The walkway leading to the building was dressed in so much snow that I could no longer see my feet. I trekked on anyway.
“Okay. What are you watching now?” I asked walking as fast as possible to the entrance of the building and opening the door.
“There’s an old episode of Little House on The Prairie on.”
“A good one?” I asked. She stifled a yawn, pressing the phone to her right cheek, a few buttons making noise in the process. She lifted her left hand, covering her mouth briefly. She wiggled trying to get comfortable.
“Yes. You there yet?”
“Almost, I’m in the building now though. I can let you go Grandma.”
“What did I say?” she asked.
“You said you’ll let me go when I get into class,” I said chuckling, pressing the elevator button.
“That’s right,” she laughed slow and easy before yawning again.
“I’m in class now Grandma. I’ve really got to go. I’ll call you tomorrow. I love you,” I said quickly, the professor watching me expectantly.
“Love you too, pumpkin. Night.”
I didn’t call but I should’ve and I will forever be angry with myself because I didn’t. If I could go back, I would have never let this conversation be our last. I would’ve skipped the class and dropped a grade, wrapping myself in my warmest winter blankets and thanking my grandmother for existing in a world that I didn’t yet know could be so cruel. We could’ve talked about her favorite westerns and sports teams and yelled at the refs for not doing their job. We could’ve talked about school or avoided it entirely in favor of talking about her mother. Maybe, she could’ve sung to me the way she used to or asked me if I knew the answer to one of her crossword puzzles. Death doesn’t offer second chances but if he did I would’ve never rushed her off the phone because nothing in this world was more soothing than her voice and I can’t hear her voice anymore. That’s my own personal punishment, a constant reminder of the biggest mistake I made. When we lose loved ones, a bad grade, a snowstorm and a night class don’t matter at all.
My grandmother loved to cook, and she was good at it. My sister, my twin cousins and myself spent many summer days in her kitchen eager to watch her work, standing in a single file line to lick the spoon or hand beater. The aftermath of death is like a recipe to a meal we don’t want and didn’t ask for but have to one day make in hopes of feeling whole again. For this recipe you’ll need: a half cup of fear, a stick of regret, a teaspoon of survivor’s guilt, 3 cups of tears and a quarter of sadness that weaves its way to the back of your mind far enough away to avoid being reachable but close enough to turn itself into a dull throb that you’re constantly aware of even on good days.
To top the meal off you’ll need to add a dash of those memories mentioned earlier, the kind that simultaneously fill you up with unfiltered happiness and make your chest ache. These will be the memories that seemed insignificant at the time but mean the most to you now. These memories will trick you for a moment, like a sleight of hand, into believing you have the opportunity to make more memories. The weight of their absences gives you the false confidence to pick up a phone and call a number you can dial with your eyes closed just to hear that it’s disconnected. Memories, like the time you were getting ready for the park parade but had to run from the park back down the hill to your grandmother’s house so she could wash your shirt that got too smelly after playing outside all morning. Don’t forget the time you spent “punishments” at grandma’s house watching old Westerns and eating bologna and cheese sandwiches while begging her for sips of her coffee.
For good measure, when you’re taking a trip down memory lane, don’t forget about all those times your uncle drove you to and from physical therapy appointments with free lunch included and surprised you with the very Usher concert DVD you admitted to wanting so badly you’d behave forever just to get it. Those will be the things that stay with you today and forever because they were there. They were there for you not just when you needed them most or because they had to be, they were there for you because they wanted to be. Be aware that these trips down memory lane will break your heart and make you feel whole all at once but they will keep you going and you’ll be thankful.
I miss the jokes, the food, the security but I miss them most, when they were here with me watching TV and listening to the radio. I’d watch them sometimes when I knew they weren’t looking, overwhelmed by the love I feel for them. When I was inevitably caught, a smile and a laugh was always thrown my way and I knew that they knew how loved they were, how loved they are, even if I never said a word. Often, I find myself longing for the days when I believed in forever, in the idea of my own personal Neverland. There’s a comfort in the idea of immortality, in the idea that the ones you love the most will live forever. In reality, everyone we love will die regardless of how much we love them and in spite of the years we’d believe they would not.
At the age of twenty three, I imagine I am on my grandmother’s green couch again, my knees knocking against my sister’s. She is crying, her hand over her mouth to muffle the sound. We are no longer wearing matching outfits, the glitter long gone. There is a game on, but the TV keeps cutting in and out. The family is exhausted, pressing ourselves to the corners of chairs and doorways trying to keep something. Grandma is gone and she took the kitchen with her, first: the stove and then the counter, the walls went with her willingly and gave the floors the go ahead to do the same, next, is the big empty bottle of coca cola, it was always her favorite. She couldn’t leave her orange chair so she saved the best for last. Uncle Scott is gone too and he took the kerosene heaters to keep them warm, a pair of his favorite under armor sweat suits, his car radio and the green chair we were sitting in.
No one is making eye contact but we are all doing a mental head count. There is a quiet moment where we all agree that it is time to go. Leah is first and then my mother; Aunt Regina, Michelle and Renee are followed quietly by Uncle Michael. My Cousins Mykele, Meesha and Mahogany are next. While Cousin Kaylee slips out not too long after them. Mykele’s twin sister Melaine lingers a bit. She presses her converse covered toe into the floorboard and hugs her drawing notebook close to her heart before she sighs and walks out. I am left but I don’t leave. I am angry and scared. I feel their absence most in this moment. The laughs over nacho cheese jokes, the cheering at football games, sing-alongs to Christmas songs in July and warm hugs to fall into. We don’t have access to those anymore and I feel it. I feel the weight of missing them just before it clogs my throat with tears, before I wake up and they are gone again. There is a moment when living seems pointless and I feel tired enough to stop trying but then I feel my grandmother next to me, her hand pressed softly against my back the small smile tugging at her lips.
Photo by Sippanont Samchai