Ever since I was a little girl my grandma would tell me that there was a mistake in our family’s timeline because I should have been born as her sister instead of her granddaughter. Cuddled together on the couch, usually with a nature documentary or some conservative news program blaring in the background, she would tell me stories from her childhood and emphasize how much fun we would have had growing up together as sisters. Lost in her own memories she would transport herself back in time and her melodic voice would take me from the night clubs of California to the shores of Hawaii, the combination of her rich language and my vivid imagination allowing me to paint myself into her world as if I had existed there all along. Often she would pull out her jewelry box and drape me in her long lavish necklaces and the stories of their origins were always more beautifully crafted then the piece of jewelry itself. From that point on, I always felt a bit like destiny had cheated me, like I was born after my intended time, and however much time I spent with her on this earth would never be enough.
I woke up Friday morning to the usual sounds of birds partying on my tin roof and the school children rushing up the dirt road above my room and saw that I had 12 missed calls from home over the course of the night. I prepared myself, knowing the news wouldn’t be great, but never imagined it would be my mother telling me that my Grammie had died the night before. She wasn’t even sick, I suppose it was just her time. Or maybe she just made the decision herself to go, she always claimed to have the power to die whenever she chose. In my heart I know she went just the way she would have wanted to die, fully dressed with makeup on and without pain or prolonged illness. I find comfort in the fact that it was a dignified and peaceful way to die, but I have yet to make peace with her death. For her it is a time of joy and celebration, reunited with my grandfather and living in the Kingdom of God where I imagine she is consuming endless amounts of properly thick mocha milkshakes, watching a CNN broadcast with Grandad close by so they can judge the democrats together, and a newly acquired Sheltie nestled in her lap. Hopefully with this dog she doesn’t feel compelled to name it after me like her last one.
I know that she is happy, that she is at peace. But even though I can accept her departure as a joyful occasion for her, I have yet to make peace with the fact that she will never again be a part of my life on this earth. I know it is selfish, but even with my happiness for her it doesn’t quite cancel out the overwhelming sadness that I feel for myself. My heart is broken and the process of putting it back together and accepting the harsh reality of death is proving to be the biggest challenge I have yet to face in my 24 years. The morning I learned of her death I spent hours in bed with the teddy bear my family had made for me that has voice recordings from everyone inside. I listened to her message over and over again as if hearing her voice talking to me meant she wasn’t really gone. Then, in a moment of sheer panic, I realized the more I played her message the faster it would die. And once that little white box inside my teddy bear dies I will never again hear her voice. On the day when that happens I am not sure how I will cope, but for now I can cuddle up in bed and listen to her tell me how much she loves me, encouraging me to be proud of myself and follow my dreams, and maybe her voice can help me start to heal.
The other teachers at my school have been wonderful. I left my headmistress a note telling her why I was in Kigali and she apparently posted the note in the teacher’s room because I started getting texts from the teachers about an hour after I left the village. Here is an assorted sampling of some of those messages:
- I’m so sorry to hear the sad information that you miss your grandmother. May she rest in the peace of God. (Alice- the biology teacher)
- Suzi, I pray that you can be strong in this moment of losing your lovely grandmother. As you are my good friend I am very very sad. My whole family and close friends told me that they’re together with you in this bad moment of sadness! WE ALL LOVE YOU AND BE STRONG, BE STRONG FOREVER. Yours, Gogo. (Goreth- math teacher and best friend)
- My family and I are with you in your sadness of missing your grandmother, God with you. (Louis- English teacher and father of Remy)
My mother has been encouraging me to write down my memories of Grammie, and I have found that once I start writing it is hard to stop. In some ways I find the process therapeutic and in some ways I am overwhelmed by a sense of desperation that I have to continue to write everything down, right then, or I will forget important details or stories. Here are some of the top ones so far:
* One of the first memories I have of our outings together was sitting in her Volvo in the drive-thru lane to Arby’s listening to her interrogate the attendant about the thickness of their milkshakes in a manner that would border on verbal assault. After a few minutes of invasive questions regarding the density of their blended milk products I heard the man sigh and out of the speaker box crackling with excess static energy came his exasperated reply, inviting us to pull forward and sample the consistency of the shakes. Pull forward we did and Grammie proceeded to teach me a valuable lesson: it is ok to ask for what you want, just be nice about it. Or in this case you can be annoying and persistent until the person just gives in to get rid of you. We drove away with our milkshakes so thick you needed a spoon, or a straw with a vacuum attached, and we looked over and smiled at each other. That day our delicious milky treats tasted like sweet victory.
* My senior year of high school I went through a bit of a naughty phase when I didn’t attend class quite as frequently as prescribed by my class schedule. I maintained a 4.0 GPA so it was pretty easy to fly under the radar and after a while I had it down to an exact science. Once mom, the hard working nurse, would leave for work, I would call Grammie to inform her of whatever mysterious aliment was plaguing me that particular morning. Some days I would go back to bed or maybe just spend some time putzing around the house before finally heading into school. Towards the end of the year she had the attendance desk number memorized. Last year I finally asked her if she knew that I was never really sick all those days she called me in. She smiled and replied, “I may not have a lot of money to spoil you with gifts but I sure knew how to get you out of school.” She was my faithful partner in crime and always willing to alter the North on her moral compass when it came to making me happy.
* One of my favorite childhood pastimes was watching Grammie paint and create art of any kind. I loved watching her elegant fingers as she laid out all of her water pastels, and the confidence she exuded as she swept the fancy crayons across the canvas in broad, seemingly careless strokes, that magically transformed into beautiful landscapes or portraits as all the meticulous strokes blended together. I have never been a great artist. It is one of my greatest woes in life that I feel like I have an artist’s soul and vision but lack the ability to bring those visions to life. Sadly my portraits never evolved past stick figures and my art went through a phase where all my animals looked like dead squirrels. In saying that I am not artistic I am not being humble, I assure you, the absence my artistic ability is a fact. But sweet Grammie encouraged me to paint and mold and draw and praised me like my heinous road kill mammals belonged next to the Mona Lisa. She always found a way to be true to her compliment, finding beauty in whatever eyesore of a creation I had produced that day. And that was really important to me, because children eventually learn how to recognize genuine praise and differentiate it from an adult lavishing you in praise for a stick drawing of you mother that you forget to draw a neck on- a constant problem in my earliest creations. She had true passion for art, and even though her lessons never quite turned me into the artist I dreamed of being, she taught me to love and appreciate all the arts and to respect what I create, even when your best efforts turn out like an epileptic monkey seized your pen in the midst of your most inspired drawing session. She always valued what I created as an extension of me, and her love and encouragement always meant the world to me.
So my sweet Grammie, I pray that you are at peace and enjoying your reunion with Grandad and the rest of your family. I pray that you are happy and filled with eternal joy, and that you are immensely proud of the life you lived. You had a wonderful life with your husband of 62 years, raised four extraordinarily caring and competent children, and lavished your grandchildren (and dogs) with a constant stream of praise and love that came from a place so deep in your heart that it was always genuine and pure. You are the love of my life. My broken heart will slowly heal with time, but the place you occupied in my heart will be forever reserved for you. I pray that you will continue to watch over me and help guide me through my life as I adjust to a world without you here, and that you send your love down from the Heavens so that I may draw from your strength and encouragement as I continue on without you by my side.
You are forever the love of my life and I miss you to a degree that could never be articulated by mere words. Sending you all my love and prayers,