I am ashamed
I never had the words
to carry a friend from her death
to the stars
- "The Creation Story" Joy Harjo
I will not pretend that I know her as a mother. Nor a wife. And hardly as a woman. Every woman knows you take many secrets to the grave.
I will not use these words to summarize her life. I will not declare this anything but my own truth.
I know her as my grandmother. My mother's mother. A sharp, witty woman.
In this year 2015, nothing is private. Moments are torn open by the connectivity of technology, and it is rare I can hold anything close for long. I do not want to announce her death. I did not want to say the words: My grandmother is dead.
That's not who she was to me. That's not the image I want in everyone's head. She was not your grandmother.
She didn't cook family recipes. She did not cuddle nor spoil nor make things better. That image disgusts me. She was not that person.
She was a survivor. She out-lasted medicine's best prediction. She was time and again The Comeback Kid.
She raised four children. She told me secrets no one else would. She didn't cut corners, and she didn't mince words, and she didn't take shit from no one.
She was my mother's mother. She was a woman. She was my inspiration. My high bar.
She made dessert first. She valued family and tradition. She respected integrity. She was the matriarch.
Her house was a museum. A gallery. One curated for her, by her, and I explored every nook and cranny with open eyes, my aesthetic forming under her tutelage. I might never sew a seam as fine as hers. I may never piece a quilt with her deftness.
She was my favorite person. There. I said it. I have a favorite, and it is her. I give her so much credit for who I am, and she is to blame, as well. I hold both equally, with love for both sides.
It is said she never wanted to reach the state she spent her last years in. Roll me off the cliff. Smother me with a pillow. We all say that now, don't we? We do. We all do.
And we all dread being the witness to that state. Watching your own mother decline and sit, and rot, and shit themselves. Revert to a child, a toddler, an infant. Swing back towards the beginning of our own circle. The place we all begin: as stardust, as a cluster of cells.
But as I sat at her side Friday night, late, her body quite warm, I saw the beauty in it all.
I believe in time travel. I believe in the expansion and contraction of time. I believe that we live a million tiny lifetimes during our years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, seconds in this body we call home in this life right now. We pass through states with such fluidity that many never realize their own watery habits.
We are fearful children trapped in grown bodies. We are adults screaming for autonomy as toddlers. We are infants again, needing to be swaddled and shushed.
I have said that the woman we knew as Mary Ellen passed on Friday the 13th of October in 2000 under a full moon. She died that day. She came back to life. And she was different.
We all mourned the woman that faded out, and learned to love the woman she then became. Her hands curled in. Her words decomposed and were never to be heard again. But her eyes twinkled. And her smile said EAT SHIT when it needed to. And we could guess what she was thinking because we knew her. She had let us in.
Friday afternoon I rifled through my fabrics, searching for a single piece long enough for a new window covering. Coming up short, I went over to her bins. As I unfolded some yardage, that smell – her smell – the scent of so much smoking and sewing and old furniture, entered my nose and I buried my face and cried. I sat there, face in fabric, crying, connected to her and all her lives lived.
I arranged to visit her Saturday. I knew it would mean sitting by her bed. Talking to her. Or knitting a bit while sitting at her side. I knew it would just be the two of us, alone. Abandoning the drapery project, I finished a photo calendar, using an image of her from this last Christmas, knowing, in all likelihood, she wouldn't be alive when we flipped to that month, but that we'd appreciate the memory.
She died hours later.
So late Friday night I took her in one more time. Her skin had yellowed with jaundice. Her mouth gaping open from labored breathing. Her hands in knots. Her knees much larger than the femur. And she was beautiful. Here was a body, a being, who had let herself be cared for by so many hands. She had been washed and fed, dressed and groomed. Read to. Talked with. Loved. And loved. And loved.
Her circle had closed.
We are cared for, then care, and, if we're lucky, we get cared for one last time. We spend one half our lives growing up and growing old, and one half grown. The tragic death is one that occurs before the circle can spin back upon itself. The tragic death is the one that robs us of that last quarter-life of being rocked and cradled and cared for, once again.
I will remember her as the toddler I cared for before she became an infant who needed more care than we could give. I was grown, and incubating my own first child, so I had the time, and was in the place, to be there with her. I will remember with tenderness the scared child I tucked into bed one night. I took her for drives to see former homes, in search of the next place she needed to go. She was in transition, and she knew it, too. I am grateful for that time spent together, just the two of us. It was time I had pined for as a child.
I will remember her as the smoker. The swimmer. The coiffed woman just back from the hairdresser. The quilter. The woman who put my playdough up on the highest shelf when I mixed the colors. The tap dancer. The ice skater. The collector. The hoarder. The hands that could morph trash into treasure. The sharp eye that never missed a damn thing.
I sort out my feelings by thinking them. And then I write them down. I write and write and write until it's wrung out. I type them out and move them around until they're arranged just so. That is the only way I know. This is my best defense.
But once it is written I'll be buried in calicos, inhaling memories.