A little more than two years ago my grandma died and I still haven't quite come to terms with that loss, but in an attempt to grieve properly, I wrote about it. [Warning: this is a bit long]
I was worried that she wouldn’t be there, but there she was, in her favorite tracksuit trying not to look tired. Relief flooded my brain and the complex scenarios I imagined faded away. We were both tired, but I was so happy to see her. My grandmother, like my mother, was hard to contact by phone. She was an excellent pen pal, and checked her email obsessively, but getting her on the phone was no small feat. Texts went unanswered, voicemails weren’t listened to, and return calls weren’t made.
When I was in St. Louis on the final day of a college visit, a blizzard came. I was busy playing Never Have I Ever and truth or dare with my new, temporary, best friends. We were up at 3:00am when the snow started and we were up at 5:00am when the first shuttle to the airport was supposed to arrive. When the first person of our group left in a hurry to catch the shuttle, I saw that the snow was six inches high and I was wearing canvas shoes, so I ran back to the room where my stuff was. Despite the snow, my first flight to Tampa Bay was on time. However, just to be safe, the people organizing my college visit thought it would be best to put me on a later flight anyway. Instead of arriving in Florida at 5:00pm, I got there past midnight and I didn’t know if my grandmother would show up. As soon as the landing gear hit the ground and jostled the plane, I took my phone off airplane mode. I was biting my cuticles hoping for an update. Grandma still hadn’t called me back, but a text from my dad told me she’d be there. I didn’t believe him until I walked into the airport’s arrivals section and saw her standing there looking just as I remembered. She may have smiled. I know I did. I jog-skipped to meet her and maybe we hugged but I know that I never felt so happy to see her because it meant that I wasn’t stranded. I didn’t have to spend the night in an airport hotel calling her every fifteen minutes hoping for a response. I didn’t have to worry anymore. We said hello to each other and immediately headed to her car. My socks were still a little damp from the snow in St. Louis and I was too emotionally exhausted to speak. We drove in silence, or maybe some smooth jazz was playing. Either way, I was relaxed.
There is a four-mile stretch of highway on the way from Tampa Bay to Sarasota where you are driving over the water. It is called the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and the asphalt lanes rise above the ocean in a feat of engineering. During the day, it's pretty; the water sparkles in the sunlight and it feels like you are floating in the car in the middle of the ocean. During the day, it’s easy to see why the Travel Channel ranked it as one of the top ten bridges in the world. At night, it's terrifying. The water that sparkled turns a dangerous shade of black. The waves reflect the moonlight and suggest monsters and death. Grandma kept her eyes on the road while mine were glued to the water churning below. I imagined us veering off the road and crashing into the sea. I imagined us drowning and I remember wishing that we didn’t die, because I didn’t want my parents to mourn me. After the four miles of the bridge my anxiety eased and I could abandon my daydreams of death. Instead I slept, like I often did in the car.
The last time Grandma and I were in a car together, my two cousins were with us. Those cousins, Shabria and Safiya, are sisters and while we used to be thick as theives as time passed we grew apart. The four of us were in Grandma’s van driving from Chicago to New York City. I’d never been to New York but my oldest, girl cousin lived there and I wanted so badly to be like her and do the things she did. It was June 2012 and I went to Grandma’s house armed with a few changes of clothes and $300 that my parents gave me. I didn’t know why she insisted on driving but I didn’t ask because to ask was to challenge her decision which always started an argument. The plan was to drive to New York, with an overnight stop in Ohio, and spend five days exploring Manhattan. We left after three days and she did the entire drive back without stopping once. The exact reason why we left was only known my grandma, but it’s probably because we grandchildren complained nonstop and only wanted to go shopping and were picky eaters and were all-around unpleasant. When she dropped me off at my mom’s house I thought that she wouldn’t speak to me for months. I was a bad grandchild and according to my mom, kids who disobey Grandma or who are less than absolutely grateful are subjected to silence.
I was ready for silence, but it didn’t come. A few days later, she asked me if I wanted to come downtown with her and Safiya. The day after we went downtown, we went to the aquarium and it was like the New York trip never happened. Still, for reasons that I can’t quite explain, after that summer I didn’t visit as much. I didn’t write. I didn’t call, save for the holidays. Nine months after we went to New York, we took a trip to Orlando, our last trip together. We being just me and her, which was a first. The two of us hadn’t been alone together in years and I was afraid we would fight. I felt guilty because I hadn’t spoken to her in so long. I wanted to say, “Sorry for not calling. Sorry for living a block away and not visiting.” But apologizing directly felt disingenuous. I didn’t think she’d accept my apology so I avoided making one.
Talking to anyone who wasn’t my parents for an extended period of time scared me. Throughout high school I was afraid that I annoyed everyone I talked to so I tried to talk less and listen more. Conversation made me anxious and too self-aware so I avoided it. Grandma, on the other hand, was a born talker. She could talk about anything for hours, given the ideal audience, but I wasn’t the ideal audience. When she asked my opinion, I pretended that I didn’t have one. Without an opinion, you can’t offend anyone. Without an opinion, there is no room for argument. Grandma hated that. The opinion itself was less important than the defense of it. She just wanted a friendly debate, but I didn’t like debates. When I used to go to holiday dinners at her house, my dad and brother would gladly rise to her challenges. They would raise their voices to prove their points and I shrank into my seat hoping the argument would end soon so that I could leave the dining room table and play Jenga.
On the first days of that Florida trip, my oldest, girl cousin was the one who responded to Grandma’s pointed questions. When the three of us were sitting at her white, embroidered, tablecloth-covered table, eating my favorite Grandma cooked meal of baked chicken, potatoes, and salad, Grandma started the debate. “Should gay couples be allowed to have children?” My oldest, girl cousin said, “Yes, of course” but Grandma disagreed and so the debate began. While they went back and forth, I timed my eating so that my mouth was always full when there was a lull in the conversation. I stared at the bowl of fruit in the center of the table and hoped that the conversation would veer out of such controversial territory. Once my oldest, girl cousin started to show her emotional distress, Grandma backed down and the conversation became mundane again. A few hours later my cousin went back to her hotel and Grandma asked me a question directly. But wasn’t about politics. I expected politics. Instead she asked me which park I wanted to visit in Orlando. The question made perfect sense but still confused me. Confused me because she was the one who planned everything. She announced when a trip began, when it ended, when we ate, and where we went, but this time I had a say. I loved rollercoasters so I asked to go to Universal Orlando and to Universal Orlando we went.
She bought the three-day multiple park pass and we planned to go to Islands of Adventure the first day, then Universal Studies the second, and we’d play the third day by ear. We ended up not going to either of the parks the third day because you can walk through each park multiple times with ease when you don’t get on any of the rides. Most of our time was spent taking pictures because Grandma couldn’t get on most rides. I took a photo in my favorite part of Islands of Adventure as did she. The picture of me from this trip is on Facebook. The picture of her is not. In my picture, I am smiling with all my teeth, wearing my newly-bought Washington University in St. Louis sweatshirt. In her picture, she is sitting down in her favorite, milky white, almost transparent-but-not-quite pullover, with blue pants and white hat. Her hair is braided in two fuzzy cornrows that peek out from the bottom of her hat. Cookie the chef from the “Beatle Bailey” comic strip is offering a pot of limburger liver goulash to the empty chair in front of Grandma.
But I didn’t come to Orlando to take pictures. I came to Orlando to go on rides. I had a laundry list of rollercoasters I was ready to go on, but I only went on one. That year “Despicable Me” exploded in popularity and the little, yellow, gibberish-speaking minions were everywhere. There were minion plushies, minion lunchboxes, minion tic-tacs; anything and everything that could have the characters on it, did. As a part of the minion fever, a minion ride was built at Universal Studios and I couldn’t wait to ride it. It was one of those simulation rides, where you sit in a stationary rig that pretends to be a rollercoaster. Since the rig wasn’t actually moving that fast I thought that it would be suitable for me and for Grandma.
When I told her I wanted to ride the minions ride she looked at the little sign with the wait time on it and said, “How about you wait in line for the ride you want to go on and I’ll wait in the lines for my rides and we’ll meet up in the gift shop in a couple of hours”. The wait was more than two hours long. I thought she would stay with me because it was just the two of us, but that’s not how she did amusement parks. Her modus operandi was to divide and conquer. She goes on the rides she likes; the grandchildren go on the rides they like; the two parties convene after all the rides are ridden. At eighty, she couldn’t handle rollercoasters. The quick movement was too much for her body to deal with. This I knew and was familiar with it. Neither of my parents can ride roller coasters. They’re too scary for my mom and my dad has too many aches and pains to deal with the excessive g-forces. I didn’t fully expect her to go on the ride with me, even though there were no sudden drops and no spinning and the ride wasn’t moving all that much. I did expect her to stay with me.
Yes, I was seventeen. Yes, I was going to college the next year. But I did not do things alone. My mom always waited with me in the lines, even though standing hurt her feet and even though she couldn’t actually get on the ride. My dad didn’t even make me drive myself to school, despite the fact that it would save him an extra thirty minutes and that I had a car sitting in front of our house. I was, and still am, a coddled child so I thought she would stay with me. She did not. When she shuffled off to wherever she wanted to go I felt tears burning my eyes. I was hurt that she didn’t want to spend time with me. I had my phone with me, but the battery got dangerously low after an hour of playing games. I didn’t want it to die so I started eavesdropping on the conversation of the family in front of me. I chewed on my cuticles and tried not to look lonely or awkward. I imagined conversations with my grandmother. I pretended that my parents were with me. I kicked at the ground and tried my hardest not to cry in front of all those people. The two hours passed and I rode the ride and it was disappointing and I felt stupid for spending two hours waiting to ride a disappointing ride. But now that it was over, I didn’t have to be alone anymore.
I went to the gift shop where we were supposed to meet but she wasn’t there. I made multiple circuits around the store, looking at random things to hide my panic. Despite my best efforts, my phone died. All I could do was wait. Again, scenarios flooded my head. What if I was stuck in Florida? What if she got hurt? How will I get home? What do I do if she’s gone? I kept walking around the store but she still didn’t appear. I went outside and there she was. Sitting on a ledge outside the store. She looked content, unbothered. Again, I felt so relieved, I felt dizzy. I plopped down next to her and all she said was “There you are!”. Her phone died too and she was charging it so she could call me. I think I hugged her. But I probably didn’t. I wanted to tell her how worried I was. How scared I was. I told her that my phone died instead. I didn’t attempt to go on any more rides after that. I didn’t want to be apart.
It would be nice to say that after that trip we were closer, but we weren’t. I started college a few months later and couldn’t find it in myself to call her. Instead I sent emails and wrote letters. We corresponded once a week my first semester in college. I made sure to respond to every email she sent as soon as I received it so that she knew I wasn’t ignoring her. After winter break, we emailed every couple of weeks. At the end of my freshman year she sent me an email announcing that she had inoperable, stage four pancreatic cancer. She wrote that the diabetes she was diagnosed with the year before was a symptom of the cancer. All I could think to write was “I appreciate you telling me this. Thank you and I love you very much”.
Even when I knew that she had cancer, I couldn’t imagine life without her. Even after her first stroke and after the second stroke that killed her, I couldn’t imagine my existence without a grandparent. Sometimes I still forget that she died. There was no funeral for her. No memorial service. No way for me to truly admit that the only grandparent I ever knew is no longer alive. Sometimes, I think that maybe if I wait long enough, she’ll be there, just around the corner, waiting for me like always.