“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” —Anne Lamott
From clockwise: Nanny and Mom, circa 1970s; Nanny and baby Amanda, 1988; Nanny, AJ, Amanda, and I, 2007; Nanny's birthday, 2004 or 2005; Nanny and me, senior prom, 2002; Nanny and me, circa 1990.
Today is a good day for grief. Bone-white clouds hanging low, smothering the blue; branches trembling, dropping those leaves that have given up early; rain coming occasional and fingernail-sharp against the windows. Grief feels misplaced on an untroubled day, or the untroubled day feels cruel on a day of grief. The day we buried her, I think, was one of those, hot and clear and blue, all of us sweating in our black clothes, and I was crying an embarrassing, unrestrained cry that made people rub my back and say, It’s okay, or She’s in a better place, or She’s watching over you now. I wanted to hit those people because they so clearly didn’t understand—if they did, they would have said nothing, because that kind of grief does not respond to words. Words flap against it irritating and ineffectual as bees against glass.
I don’t even remember what we did after the funeral. We must have gone home, where it must have felt like part of the house was missing.
Before she was taken away—and what an awful moment that was, strangers wheeling her out the door—my brother, sister, and I silently arranged ourselves beside her in bed. I laid down on her right, Amanda to her left, and AJ sat at the foot of the bed. My dad had removed the oxygen mask from her face, he’d folded a towel or pillow beneath her neck to keep her head straight and strong, and before he left the room he kept sweeping a soft, tender hand over her forehead and to her closed eyes. AJ, Amanda, and I didn’t say a word. We all just touched some part of her—her sharp, dignified cheekbones, her wiry forearms, her swollen hands and feet. We knew, I suppose, that this would be our last chance, the closest we’d ever come to her again. We stayed with her for a long time. One of our aunts walked in and put a hand to her mouth to stifle a cry when she saw us, but we hardly looked at her. More aunts and uncles came over, my mother’s siblings—she was theirs before she was ours, after all—but we didn’t move. We were her silent guardians, untouchable in our love for her.
My last words to her had been, “Te veo in mis sueños.” I’ll see you in my dreams. And then, repeating a line she always said to us, “Te quiero mucho, mucho, mucho.” That was our first goodbye.
For a while, I did see her in my dreams—often. I saw her the night she passed, in a dream so vivid and perfectly timed that I like to think she allowed me to be with her in her moment of crossing, even though I couldn’t bring myself to stay by her side that night. Our second goodbye.
Two or three months later, on a day when the sadness was so sharp that I threw myself into sleep mid-afternoon just to escape it, I dreamed of her again. We were by her side in bed, AJ, Amanda, and I, cocooning her after she’d left us. Only in the dream, the heart monitor (which had not existed in real life) suddenly beeped again, and then she breathed—an impossible, interminable breath, as if she could fill herself with life again, head to toes—and she opened her eyes. Get up, get up, I said to AJ and Amanda, because Nanny was moving, lifting herself off the bed and landing lightly on small feet, and she was walking straight-backed and at ease with a youthfulness to her, a sense of joy that needed no words, and she led us to the backyard of our childhood home where the four of us stood in a circle on the grass, hands joined, and began to spin, faster and faster, until the ground disappeared beneath our feet and we were rising above rooftops, above trees, into a sky that swirled magenta and amethyst around us. We laughed as we spun, weightless and dazzled and free. And then, slowly, we floated back down, just AJ, Amanda, and me, like a magician’s trick in which she’d vanished without ever letting go of our hands. We looked at one another, the three of us in my dream, and everything was quiet and settled, as if a great storm had blown past and taken something crucial but left enough for us to start again.
That was our third goodbye.
Every year, the grief hits differently. The first year it was brutal. Barely survivable. It has shape-shifted since then. Last year it was gentle and forgiving, stealing upon me slowly and with great love. This year it’s slanted sideways and mean through the windows, catching me off guard with its thousands of pincers. And in a way, this comes as a relief. I welcome this grief, with its unexpected freshness, as an antidote to what I fear most: forgetting.
Because what I have left of her aren’t big stories. Her life, at least the one we could see, the one that wasn’t in her mind and in her memories, her one-time hopes or regrets, was so self-contained, there with us in our home. What I have of her are moments, small domestic rituals that have transferred to me like imperfect stencils: I imagine her smiling at how I fastidiously wipe the counters and stove after every meal, the way she always Windexed the glass kitchen table and drip pans for the electric range; I see her nodding, satisfied, at how often I sweep the house, collecting Swiffer cloths dark with dust and dog hair; I hear her giggle beside me in the warm laundry room when I struggle to fold the fitted sheet, eventually crumpling it in frustration. (She had a way; I never learned.) She’s there, always, in the scent of onions softening over oil, the curl of steam from cooking rice, the deft two-fingered flip of a tortilla.
What I have left of her are snapshots and echoes: her face, small and alert, illuminated in the kitchen window, a third set of parental eyes waiting for me to get home. Her dusty fingers sifting through a bag of pinto beans at the kitchen table. Her every-night dinner call: “KatieEh-ShehAmanda,” our names like a necklace, one connected loop. Her tight gray curls, newly permed and unfamiliar to us, every time she returned from her yearly trip to Mexico. The slow, determined clod of her walker down the hallway. The simple meals and snacks she loved—tortillas con frijoles, que ricos los frijolitos!, a spoonful of peanut butter, a pocketful of peanuts.
What I have left of her are sense-memories. She is in any snippet of Spanish I hear or speak, in every Reebok high-top I see, in any floral housedress I pass in the pajama section of a department store. I remember the shape of her kiss on my cheek, soft and dry and light, I remember the surprising smoothness of the skin on her upper back, visible above her housedresses, and the delicate, fragile curves of her shoulder blades when I hugged her. She is in the scent of my coffee in the morning, and she has snuck into several characters I’ve written, because these sense-memories are strong and they are a way of resurrecting her.
What I have left of her is a demonstration of selflessness unlike anything I’ve seen before or expect to see again, a woman who spent the last fifty years of her life loving and caring for other people’s children as if they—we—were her own. What I have of her is the memory of her strength—I never, not once in the twenty-three years I knew her, heard her complain, even though she was in pain almost constantly from the ankle she broke when we were children, and from the sharp angles into which the osteoporosis was shifting her spine, and from the pangs of arthritis in her knees and hands. What I have of her is the beauty of her humility: she lived so simply and with so much gratitude, as if we were doing her a service by letting her live with us when, in fact, she was doing us the honor of choosing to live with us. What I have of her is the residual and unforgettable feeling of being loved unconditionally. If everything else fades, if one of these years I attempt to catalogue my memories of her and fail, I will never lose the depth of feeling she inspired, the soul-knowledge that we were precious to her, that we—all five of us—were loved by her above all else and that there was nothing we could have done to change that.
So much has happened in these eight years. I find it astounding, utterly incomprehensible, that she hasn’t met Adrian or my brother-in-law, Matthew; that she hasn’t held my niece, Charlie, her arms instinctively taking the right shape to comfort her; that she hasn’t seen our homes, hasn’t seen that we learned from her, even if she didn’t know she was teaching (though of course she probably did).
I told Adrian yesterday that I hate how far away it seems, how long ago the time when she was here with us. But when I write about her, that distance seems to shrink, to lose some of its power. The memories return, such as they are, and I feel her drawing nearer. I can nearly smell the powder softness of her, can nearly hear her say my name. When I close my eyes, she’s nearly close enough to touch.
If you'd like to read last year's reflection on grief, it's here. And my tribute to Nanny, which I hope you'll read if you have the chance, is here. If you never met her, I hope you'll feel like you have through these pieces.