I walk into the cold, barren waiting room. It smells like stale peppermints and dust bunnies. My dad has his hand on my shoulder, and I feel the warmth through my jacket. It’s the only thing I can feel right now.
The clerk stands behind the desk, typing loudly on her giant computer. Her lips are glistening with bright fuchsia lipstick, and the mascara is clumped on her eyelashes. She has a gigantic smile plastered on her face, and it makes bile wash into my throat.
“Hello,” she sings, tossing back her streaming, golden hair.
“Good evening,” my dad greets her, with cheer that comes out of nowhere.
I keep my mouth shut.
“Would you like a mint, dear?” her voice pierces the still room. She plunges her manicured hand into the giant glass jar on the desk and shoves the plastic-wrapped candy into my hand before I can say no.
“We’re here to see Helen Browne,” my dad continues, his words smooth and in just the right tone.
I don’t know how he does that: somehow knows exactly what people want to hear and exactly how to deliver it. My mama calls him a “people person.” She says that he couldn’t be any more different than her. My mama gets this scratched-by-a-cat look whenever anyone says something she doesn’t like. Her lips disappear inside her mouth and her eyes squeeze shut and she clenches her coffee-colored hands against her skirt.
“Oh, yes,” the lady responds. Her name tag says Patty. I don’t like that name. It reminds me of the cafeteria ladies at school, hairnets stretched over their giant buns, glopping food onto plastic lunch trays.
I don’t know what happens next. All I know is that my dad puts his hand firmly on my shoulder again, and then we’re moving down the hallway and I stare at the green and black carpeting. Dad opens the door and we enter a cold, gray room that smells like clay. A single bed sits in the middle, and there sits my grandma. My heart drops and bursts open, pouring out love. My feet move me forward.
Grandma Helen has been there for me since I was born. My whole life I felt like I had to hide my emotions everywhere except my own home. Me, Mama, Dad, Jasmine, Nathan, Grandma and me. Grandma and I would sit for hours on the porch rocking chairs, and sometimes not even say anything, just sit there thinking about the dewdrops glistening on the sharp blades of grass, and the clouds fading and the stars twinkling in the night sky. I would look over at her and her eyes would be closed and she’d just be humming to herself, and once in awhile she’d nod and smile. Sunday nights were for a huge family dinner that everyone would help make. Everyone would sit around the table, laughing and talking and eating all at the same time.
I see Grandma sitting on the bed, back propped against two white pillows. She’s not who she used to be. The color has drained from her face. The wrinkles have stretched all across her skin. She’s here in this cold, sad building, not home with us painting her nails and experimenting with makeup. She’s not in the kitchen with flour and sugar all over her, cooking all day. She’s not surprising Dad with ice cold lemonade after he’d been gardening all afternoon, or giving Mom massages after a long day of law school. She looks over at us.
“Mom!” Dad cries out. “It’s me.”
Grandma cocks her head and looks right at him.
“Adam?” she whispers.
“Yes, Mom,” Dad whispers. “It’s me.”
I walk over.
“Oh, my babies,” Grandma whispers. She grabs Dad’s hand and pulls him close, and she wraps me in her arms. She kisses my cheek. And she lies back down on her bed.
“Mom?” Dad whispers, and then I watch as her chest slows, and then stops, and her body is still.
I run forward and grab her hand, squeezing it like I can bring it back to life, but I can’t, and then Dad is wrapping me in his arms and I feel him but I can’t think, and I just know that all of a sudden it feels like someone has thrown me off a sinking ship and I smack the water, and feel a rock hit hard against my head.
* * *
My grandma had been such a big part of my life, it didn’t seem right that she was just gone. She wasn’t afraid to put my dad in his place around the house, but she was always so sweet to my mom. She always told her, “Aisha, you need to relax.”
Whenever I came home from school, my grandma Helen was always in the kitchen. She was a cook like a lot of grandmas I knew, but she was different. She didn’t just bake pies and cakes. Grandma Helen made Duck à L’orange and Beef Wellington. Every week, she tried out a new recipe, and every day she was at the table, thumbing through her cookbook and flipping through Taste of Home.
The other thing she liked to do was listen to music, from Beethoven and Brahms to heavy metal. You could always hear music coming from her upstairs bedroom. Once, I peeked in her room and she had on her best purple evening gown and she appeared to be waltzing with an imaginary person. Her eyes were closed in bliss.
On Saturday nights, she would move the antique wood coffee table, leather couches, and our huge rocking chair that smelled like coffee and mothballs, so the entire living room was open. She’d put out bowls of popcorn and cups of apple juice and iced tea, which was her favorite drink in the world. We’d wrap ourselves in blankets and watch an old movie, and sometimes fall asleep spooned together on the living room floor.
Grandma always told us that she wanted us to love ourselves, and we would love others. Ever since we were babies, she told Jasmine, Nathan, and me that she loved us more than life itself. She told us that nowadays you’re supposed to only care for everyone else, and not care for yourself. But that, she told us, was impossible. You can’t care for others if you’re not happy. You can’t treat others with respect if you feel you don’t owe it to yourself. She told us that if we saw ourselves as wonderful, that was how we’d see the world. She told us more times than Albert Einstein could count that we could only truly love ourselves if we were ourselves and didn’t pretend to be anyone else. If you act like someone else and you love that someone else, you don’t really love your true self. Everyone is different. Nobody is any more “normal” or “regular” than anybody else. That was what she told us, up until the day she died.
* * *
For a long time afterwards, I lay in my room while everyone rushed around, preparing for the funeral: buying black clothes, calling people, and not really saying anything, making sandwiches nobody ate. I didn’t know what to think. I always got annoyed when people said someone was “gone” because it was just a sugar-coated way of saying they were dead. But now I understood. Saying somebody is dead is just saying the literal facts. They are gone. They are gone from your life, gone from their life. I could feel the place in my heart where Grandma had lived. It was barren and empty and cold, just like the nursing home where she had spent her last few months. I couldn’t understand how a person could just vanish, all the life gone from them.
This is why it doesn’t matter how someone looks. When they die, everything about them: who they are, what they think, what they like, what they want is all gone. All that’s left is a body of skin and bones. The thought sent a shiver up my spine. It seemed impossible someone that nobody could see or knew even existed could just take everything from someone whenever they felt like it. Sure, you could try to fight it, but it was just a matter of time until you surrendered.
Everyone was going about their business normally, but I knew that they were not the same either. Grandma was a huge part of our family, and now she was missing. Like the one piece that fell off the beautiful, intricate puzzle and got chewed up by the dog. I was mad at this person, whoever and wherever they were, for taking Grandma away. I buried my face in my pillow. I didn’t cry. I never cried. At least that’s what I was telling myself. But I could feel the tears, filling my eyes. I remembered how Grandma would always sit next to me and stroke my hair when I cried. I would feel her hands, running through my hair, not saying anything, just letting me cry, and somehow telling me without saying anything that she loved me more than life itself. I could almost feel her now. I could… I could! I jumped up and turned around. I didn’t see anything but I could smell Grandma’s rosemary shampoo and I could feel her hand holding mine.
“Grandma?” I whispered into the air.
Yes, it’s me, Maggie.
“Are you really there?”
I know it might seem like I am gone, but I will always be here.
“That’s what everyone says.”
It’s true. My heart may have stopped but my soul lives forever. My love for my family knows no bounds, and that includes lifespans. It will stick with you forever.
I opened my mouth to reply, but all of a sudden she had vanished. And just at that moment, the empty space in my heart filled and opened up to a flood of gold and sweet and everything that was Grandma. She was still here.
From then on, I knew that even though my grandma was dead, she could still love me, and everyone else she had always loved. She was watching over us, protecting us every second.
I love you, Grandma. And I’m going to make you proud of me.