My grandmother passed away in February of 2013, but I still find that I get teary-eyed thinking that she is no longer with us. If you’re familiar with How God Ends Us, the first-third of the book chronicles the deaths of my beloveds–many of whom passed within a very short span.
If you’ll believe my young 23 year old self, when my dad’s younger brother passed away in 2008, I told myself that I had grieved enough. I knew what the loss of death felt like, and I knew that I would survive it. So that meant that I wouldn’t cry. I was not in a financial place to be able to leave New York to make it to his funeral, and in a way, it was my first death experienced, alone, in New York City, with all of my family back in South Carolina. Besides, I had built up a type of dislike for my uncle and convinced myself that in some way it was justice that he should go when and how he did for how he handled the affairs of his mother’s house. I know now how foolish my hard heart was. For my father, I can’t even begin to imagine what that loss was–the only living person in his immediate family. He had survived his older sister, his mother, his father, and now his younger brother. Save for the twins my uncle adopted literally months before he passed away, I was the last in the line of Damerons; I am the last in the Dameron blood line.
At any rate, so my 23 year old self did not set aside time to mourn my uncle, or mourn with my father. I cooked and did my laundry, commuted to and from work, and carried on and went out to drinks like I had grown accustomed to after work. One late night I had gone out with my coworker for drinks, and lost my phone. I panicked not because I was without communication, but because in my phone was a recorded voicemail of my uncle calling to wish me a merry christmas and that he hoped to see me soon that I had never erased, and his name on my call list and in my contacts, and when I held my phone, in it I had a reminder that he lived among us, and I had his voice to ground me in a way that no funeral could, that no amount of mourning could. I didn’t think about what would happen when that was gone. And then it was. And I was without him. He was no longer here in my phone. He was no longer here on this earth.
As you might imagine I absolutely lost it and was a blubbery mess in the diner with my coworker who I wouldn’t exactly call a friend–certainly not someone I would have been comfortable crying my eyes out in front of over losing a phone, over losing my uncle. I think that reality made it even worse for me–that I was in some big city dealing with big, adult things, and I had tried to deal with them in my own way only to be reminded how inexplicably lonely I was, and even though I wasn’t alone, I was in no place I should be to finally let myself feel it–to feel the void he left.
In other ways I sough to never let that happen again. I called my family more often. I went home more often because I was working part time and didn’t mind the cheap but long train rides and could stay in South Carolina for weeks at a time. I went several years before anyone close to me passed away. And when I sensed my grandmother slipping away from me, I made surprise trips to South Carolina when my bank account and calendar at my new full-time job would allow. Each time in the last three years of her life that I was home to visit, all or part of it was in a hospital. And I thought I began to prepare myself. The first time that I visited at a time that was not marked by a holiday (when I started working full-time, really the only way I could make the trip down), my grandmother was sleeping in her hospital bed, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I tried to imagine if this would be what it would feel like to walk into her funeral. I watched her sleep; I had come to South Carolina only for her. I waited until a nurse came in to check her vitals and then waited until she turned to see that I was there, to see her. We talked; she called me beautiful. She was happy to see me. Somehow we got to talking about who was doing what, how this cousin was doing in what state–she always had the gossip, until her final days, she always had the gossip–and we landed on her house.
She asked me, “Have you thought about what of mine you would like when I die?”
Just like that.
I wasn’t ready to answer that question. I hadn’t thought about it. She listed off what her other grandchildren had said they wanted, and then asked me if I remembered the days we used to ride bicycles around Newcastle neighborhood when doctors told her she needed to exercise lest she die like her mother. I recalled the shiny red single-speed she purchased from Sears, her favorite store, and my purple 10-speed bike that I would ride beside her without my hands on the handle bars down the big hill two blocks from the house. She asked me if I wanted it, said they don’t make bikes like that anymore, and insisted I take it when she’s gone. I say OK, and help her eat a ham sandwich and bring the can of Gingerale with bent straw to her lips, and she pulls it to her mouth just like her mother did, and just like my 7 year old self did for her mother (Great Grandma Georgia) in the nursing home, and the fact that I would lose her soon became so real to me in a way it hadn’t ever before, in a way that I still was unable to believe.
So when I came home on the first flight out of New York City after I got the call and told my office I wasn’t sure when I would be back, the first night I went to my grandmother’s house, and to the back shed my grandfather had built for me those so many years ago and opened the door looking for the red bike. It wasn’t there. It was no where to be found. My purple 10-speed was there, with broken chain, but the bright-red cycle that was mine was gone, and then I had wanted nothing else.
I stayed in South Carolina for 8 days. I held my little cousins I helped raise during the funeral. I helped to clean and scrub the house down so as to better ‘set-up’ at her house for well-wishers to come by and bring their dirty rice and pound cake and fried chicken and biscuits and corn. I sat and listened and told stories of her and grandpa with cousins and family friends that I hadn’t seen in years, who I will probably–and I know this now–never see again.
My family keeps asking me what I want from my grandmother’s house because they have to sell it. All I really want is that red bicycle. And a room where I can sit, like I did as a child, and wait for her grits and sausage and fried eggs. Or wait for Sammy or Mattie or Betty or Essie to stop in and say hello. But I can’t have that. My mother asks me if I want the curio that was in the living room that I could never go in without permission (even in her death, we did not ‘set-up’ in the living room for fear she would come out of some room and scold us for being there), and I say yes because I think it means that it is helping her mourn, and I’m still mourning and crying, and sobbing into my husband’s chest. And at Easter, my grandparent’s holiday with their easter egg hunts, and macaroni and cheese, and potato salad and sweet potato casserole and cabbage and ham, came this year and I asked my husband if I could cook a big meal, and I wanted so much for there to be an easter egg hunt, or those sugar-only candied eggs that she kept by the hundreds in the Den. Instead, I remembered her by making by hand a pineapple upside down cake, and watched my nephew run circles through my Brooklyn apartment.
In the camera I brought down the last Thanksgiving my grandmother was alive are two videos of my grandmother. My mother thought she was taking a picture both times, but instead I hear my grandmother’s voice, see her reach her hand up to the camera to wave my mother away so as not to capture her trying to struggle to get out of the car, and then smile her smile. Or her joking and telling my mother to hurry up and take the picture and the rest of us sighing that she wanted to take “so many”–we never got a picture, per se. But we have video. We have my grandmother moving, and talking, and looking at us in a way that we will never have again. That was the last time I saw her in the flesh, alive. I talked to her many times on the phone between that November and then a week before she died in Feburary. I try to replay our conversations in my head so as not to lose them. But I know, just as all of the other deaths before hers, that it fades, the memory, the way we remember their voices, how their faces looked, how they smelled hwen you hugged their neck. And I was trying to skip past the part of hurting all those days that it faded to nothing when my uncle died by pretending I was already without him. This time around, I’ve been letting myself feel everything. Even if it means crying in my husband’s arms while we’re watching Modern Family. Even if it means I won’t ever again use the camera that holds her living.