In my memory, my grandmother is the figure of kindness, the perfect role model. That’s how I will always remember her. That summer, when my grandmother died, she was different—the woman I met there didn’t fit my memory of her, though she was my grandmother nonetheless. My grandmother always had bright eyes and a cheerful smile ready in store to use whenever I was around. That summer, when I met her, it was as though the fire in her had extinguished, like an overused candle.
The hot, humid breeze surrounded us, even though it was the middle of winter in India. It always confused me how the weather was all topsy-turvy. As a four-year-old, I didn’t know any complicated scientific or geological terms to explain why that was; however, even though I was four, I realized that like the weather, my memories didn’t match the grandmother I saw in front of me.
Back then, she and I used to play Jenga together. We played our own way: instead of following the normal rules, we built structures using the hundred mini blocks. We built houses into towns. Buildings into cities. She also taught me how to draw different animals: trace a small plate to make a circle, then add two triangles as ears and three lines on either side of the face as whiskers. The perfect cat!
That summer, that was all in the past. My family and I were walking the short journey to a nearby hospital. My grandmother was going there for her “check-up.” It was strange being in India in the first place; usually, my grandmother came to visit us in the U.S. I stared down at the organized patterns our shoes were making in the sand. I wondered why my grandmother was acting so strangely this summer. She was feeling a little sick; I knew that since my mother had told me earlier. But she couldn’t have been feeling “a little sick” to have to go to the hospital. My mother, aunt, and grandmother headed right, toward the hospital, while my dad, brother, and I continued to walk straight on our way to a restaurant for lunch.
Once we got back to the house after lunch my mother, who had arrived slightly earlier, signaled for me to come into the bedroom with her. I followed her to the bedroom. We both sat facing one another on the mesmerizing blue blanket of the bed. I stared down at the blanket. Was I in trouble? What did I do? When my mother said, “Your grandmother is sick, she is sick with cancer. Uh, cancer is a disease . . .”
I heard her stutter in the middle; my mother never stuttered. I thought confusedly about what she had said, then asked, “What’s cancer?”
My mother thought for a while before answering. “It makes your grandmother tired and sick.” She seemed nervous and was pumping her leg up and down as she said, “Your grandmother might die.”
I looked up from the blanket staring at her. I processed what she had told me. I saw her red-stained eyes and caught the quiet sniffle that I hadn’t noticed when she was talking. I started to cry. I finally was able to process what she had said; my grandmother might die, and that would mean she wouldn’t come back to visit anymore.
* * *
My grandmother had been admitted to the hospital. It had been a few weeks since she had been admitted, and the doctors were about to perform a surgery on her. My mother anxiously explained how my grandmother would either get better or she would die.
“Why would she die? I thought doctors fixed sick people,” I said.
My mother replied by saying, “Sometimes if you’re really sick, like your grandmother, you can’t fix them.”
Why couldn’t they fix her? She was fine earlier. Besides, she was feeling a little better.
I looked the hospital directly in the eyes and saw the reason everyone hates the hospital.
I saw a cold, white, stone prison with bright lights flooding its windows and doors in the pitch-black night. I realized that even though it wasn’t the doctors’ fault, only some of the patients can ever leave the prison.
It felt like an eternity when a doctor finally came out to signal my mother and aunt in. “Ms. Sinha? Yes, well, we have unfortunately come across a problem regarding your mother. Please, come inside.”
Was she dead? She couldn’t be dead. My grandmother was alive earlier, so how could she be gone now? I felt as though I was swirling in circles into the dark shadow of the hospital’s glare; it wasn’t the same kind of mesmerizing as the blue blankets. This was dark voices that were drawing me in, so many bright lights and noises that were deafening but in the background. It was as though I was falling, I couldn’t think, I was drowning in noise that wasn’t even there.
Then my dad grabbed my hand and gently led me to a taxi. I realized that I was crying. Finally the noise died down: peace after so much disruption.
The thoughts were overwhelming, and I slowly drifted off to sleep. I dreamed of grandmothers jumping over a row of hospitals, like motorcycles running over a ramp and flying into the air. The next morning, I woke up and expected to see my grandmother sitting in the chair like she always was. Instead, I saw an empty hole where she was supposed to be. It was a busy morning; the house was filled with mourning relatives who lived nearby.
We all went to her memorial for her ashes. It was enclosed in a box—black, smooth, and shiny. Prettily carved and painted. We had her memorial in her favorite place, the backyard of her childhood home. I walked toward the box containing her ashes; it smelled sweet yet solemn, like her. When I looked, I could almost see her smiling back down at me. Almost.
After a lot of tears, we headed back to New York. I felt like I was wizened and wise. When the next summer came around and she never came, I cried and realized that she wouldn’t come this summer, next summer, or any summer after that. That’s just the way it is: the only place I’ll ever see her again is in my memories.