I sat in an old bamboo chair -old enough to creak beneath my weight, young enough to stand strong – holding Grandma’s hands. She had placed them on her light cotton, baby blue flowered nightgown resting on the pit of her stomach. Blotchy from nearly 90 years of sun exposure, as if Picasso splattered shades of brown and beige on her hands himself, she stroked one hand with another. ” Grandma, can I hold your hand?” I whispered to her, as I leaned over so she could hear me better. With her eyes still closed, she replied. ” Of course you can darling.” Grandma is my mother’s step mother, and someone I haven’t seen in almost a decade. Call it what you will – selfishness, distance, too busy and too broke- I can’t think of one substantial reason to validate my physical absence from this beautiful and kind woman. A woman who I’d spent much of my childhood with.
The shades were drawn, sealing out any signs of a rather radiant World. Having had a stroke five years ago she was left bed ridden and in the hands of her care taker, a beautiful, loud and vibrant Jamaican women named Desiree. The TV was on, and when her eyes were open, Grandma’s gaze tended to shift towards it as I sat with her. Periodically she would look at me, as if she wasn’t 100% certain that I was in fact really there beside her. Her hands were like silk, a papery delicacy like a freshly baked French Croissant. “I’m so sorry it’s been this long Grandma. I think of you every day. I am so sorry.” I whispered to her. She moved her body so that she could face me, although still lying down and eyes still closed I knew she could hear me. “I know darling.” She replied in a frail, soft and slow voice. She slipped one hand under from mine, and with incredible effort brushed the tears that were forming around her eyes. I stayed with her for a hour, holding her hand, sitting in silence and absorbing her presence while praying, to something, that she would soon pass. After she drifted off to sleep I stole a few minutes to walk down towards the pool and the Golf Course in which the apartment complex housed.
Everything smelled and looked the same. The grass was typical Florida grass: bright green, sharp and prickly on the bottoms of my bare feet. I used to walk around with sandals on, a diaper and a golf club swinging it mindlessly and laughing. Pig tails pointing up towards the sky and my determined eyes secured at the ball in front of me. I laughed out loud thinking of myself as a little girl, captivated by everything. Not much had changed. I walked over to the pool and slipped my feet into rather warm water. I could hear the outside shower compose it’s usual song of, drip drip drop, drip drip drop.
“You once just jumped into that pool, before you had learned to swim and hadn’t realized you needed your floaties to keep you afloat. You sank right to the bottom.” My mom laughed over the phone when I called her to update her on Grandma’s health. “Well, mom how long did you leave me there for?” Shocked by her casual response. “Not long! I jumped in right after you. Obviously, you’re still here aren’t you? But it was if everything was in slow motion. You were fearless. ” My mom said as we reminisced about our vacations in Florida with Grandma and my mom’s Father, Poppy. I would climb up onto Poppy as a little girl and jump off of his shoulders into the pool. I’d race him across the width, trying to hold my breath as long as I could. I would stand on the blue and white buoys playing chicken with my sister and cousin Jarret. I would explore near by neighborhoods, collecting oranges and coconuts that had fallen from the huge and magical trees and I would chase little geckos on the smoking hot side walks. A the end of every adventurous day -before we would fall asleep on the pull out couch- Kristy and I would play Grandma in a game of Bingo. We would all be wearing night gowns. Tanned legs and rosy cheeks, tired but glowing eyes, the three of us laughed while we ate baloney and cheese sandwiches.
I had a ridiculous amount of love in my childhood. My grandparents -and I was lucky enough to have 6- were full of affection, adoration and attentiveness. My sister and I were spoiled rotten in kisses and hugs. They are the reasons why I still, so easily, give myself to love. I love to love.
I took one last large deep breath of the familiar smells and smiled as all of the memories poured into me with one quick inhale. Like my seven year old self, I hopped over the cracks on the green painted cement and made my way up to see if Grandma had awaken from her nap. Desiree was watching Doctor OZ on TV in the living room. “He’s talking about all of these foods you can eat to zap fat. Oh my. Look at him! Look at that belly! That is gross! Look at that belly! Look at that!” She started to yell at the TV laughing with the audience as someone lifted up his shirt on national television. I couldn’t help but laugh with her.
I stuck my head around the corner into Grandmas room and watched her breath. Slowly. Calmly. Peacefully. Her once bright mass of brown hair turned a snowy white. Eyebrows -which she always painted on -absent from her face. I quietly took my place in the chair next to her bed and watched her breath in a life she no longer wanted. Her eyes opened. I moved beside her. “Grandma, I have to go. I am so sorry, but I need to leave.” I said to her as my brows furrowed with regret. I knew this would be the last time I would ever have her hands in mine. The last time I would get to watch her sleep. The last time I would be in her apartment with all the familiar smells and memories lining the walls in photography, proof that we all existed in the first place. I had to call Claude- the adorably sweet Haitian cab driver – who would be picking me up in less then ten minutes. “Please don’t go.” She replied. I could feel my throat push down the overwhelming amount of emotion. “I am so sorry Grandma, I need to go.” I could just muster up enough courage to speak the words as I willed away the tears in my eyes. I bit my lip and hoped the darkness in the room could hide the pain I was feeling beneath my skin. ” I know darling. I am leaving too.” She said. “Oh you are?” I smiled, knowing and hoping she meant this life time. “Where are you going?” I asked her. She paused. “I don’t know. Somewhere.” She responded weakly. I kissed her and smoothed the hair away from her forehead with my hand. With my other hand, I squeezed hers. “I love you Grandma.” She responded with words I knew well. ” I love you too, darling.” I gave her a silent blessing and lingured until she close her eyes again.
Once in the hallway, I hugged Dessiree and before I could even say the words Desiree spoke first. “Don’t worry my dear. I will take good care of her for you.” I nodded and new that was the truth.
In a sense, we are always going somewhere. To work, to bed, to the kitchen, to the garden, to our lovers arms, to our friends arms, to the mountains, to the ocean, to Claude, to the train station, to the airport…. to somewhere. Coming and going. Living and dying. Leaving and arriving. These last couple of weeks I have said many goodbyes, to family and loved ones. Over the next few weeks I’ll say many more goodbyes, to my beloved friends. I wish I could fold some of them- like a dress- and slip inside of my backpack, taking them with me. Soon I’ll be saying goodbye to one continent and hello to another.
A friend had these parting words of wisdom, ” I’d love to send you off with a personal hug. In lieu of that, a word of advice: now, and always, ditch what you are and who you are and what you think of yourself, and be open to becoming absolutely anything. Be the you that is found in love. And love will always be you.” And so I’ll commit to anything that shows up as love. I’ll commit to holding the hands of my dying grandmother and holding the hands of a 3 year old child. I’ll commit to hugging my best friends -more often than not- and laughing at anyone who attempts a joke. I’ll listen to the heart beats of a sleeping stray dog and the music of a humming birds wings. I’ll console myself and others in times of sadness and happily allow my best friends brand new -beautiful baby- to fall asleep in my arms the entire week I’m with him.
And so it goes. We all have stories. My stories start and end with family. They start and end with laughter. They start and end with tears, like fine pearls, dangling on a clothes line.
They will always, start and end with love.