Over the course of the last couple of months, my mother has grown weary from worry. My grandmother wasn’t doing well; she wasn’t eating and found herself in the hospital. She had some okay days, but mostly it felt like she was holding on for the sake of holding on.
“You might want to come home while you can. I don’t know how much longer she has.”
I can’t imagine what a body failing feels like. Thoughts, one by one, erasing themselves, memories running out of space. At some point in our lives, getting out of bed feels like an ache we can’t remedy, and so we learn to live with it. Each month, something new reveals itself in us and we learn an ultimate reality of humans: we live and then we die, everything in between those moments are tiny miracles. The body wrinkles and our muscles contract in such a way. We become clenched fists that lose their grip over time.
I can’t picture what it means to fall mute, to forget how to communicate in a natural and terrifying way. Only being able to hear, to fill a space in our minds that we have no control over, and to wither is the natural part of this life.
Coming to terms with death feels obtuse. It’s unparalleled.
“I know I’ve called you a few times, call me back. Your grandmother isn’t doing well,” my mother would say to my voicemail.
As much as I feel the need to lean into the discomfort that vulnerability brings, this wasn’t something I was ready to sit with. So I worked. Found myself busy with things–people, places, my daily routine–without giving myself the space to process, to face it, to explore it and feel it deeply.
Over the past few years, I would come home and she would forget. I think about how the mind can sometimes forget what it does not see every day. Out of sight, out of mind. Going away to college, then again for grad school, then one more time for my first full-time job began to take a toll on how I was remembered by her. There was a point when I was first a soldier in the Army, then her son (my uncle), then, finally, Robbie. And I know this wasn’t her doing. Life’s natural way of making people and things disappear in front of us had started well before my own realization. Still, I felt close to her in a way that the rest of our family was not. I’ve always carried that with me.
Days passed. I thought about how my grandmother was surely getting better. She was 93 and didn’t know how to give up. Surely this time wouldn’t be any different.
“She’s doing better today. Came home from the hospital and she’s eating better. I’m so happy that today is a good day for her.”
My mother would talk about how much my grandmother wanted to give up. How she wanted to see her mom again. How she felt like a burden to this family. She was always doing something with her hands, so much so that we could all see the arthritis in her bones when she moved. I remember when I saw her hands lock the first time and finally knowing what fear looks like in someone’s eyes.
The helplessness. The pain. The thought of being unworthy of living because she can’t do things with her hands.
I can’t imagine a mind harboring such a storm that nobody else can see. Do you think the brain knows its own expiration date? Knows its own milestones of forgetting? Knows each moment it mistook itself for a light so fleeting?
My grandmother’s name was Helen. From the moment I could talk, I let the world know that she was my Yia Yia. This Greek woman who knew what it meant to work, to struggle, to love; this woman was the light of my life during a time when I questioned myself. When I would fold into myself, she would teach me how to unfurl one limb at a time.
The second-youngest of five (all brothers), this woman knew what it meant to live a life. She was born in a different world than the one we live in today. 1923 was a long time ago. Growing up meant using her hands. Today, he callouses would run rampant. The friction of life was evident in the way she coiled into a small smile.
“I don’t know how much longer she has. You should come home.”
I called. Mom answered. “Put Yia Yia on the phone.”
Mom gets up, walks to another room, “It’s your grandson, Robbie.”
Static, then silence.
Then she was there. Listening. Hearing. Wondering who I am. Her breath barely audible in the receiver, she would pant.
“Hi, Yia Yia. How are you?”
“Oh dear, is that you, Robbie? I’m okay. When are you coming to see us?”
A quarter-sized dollar forms in my throat where breath used to be. I swallow. “Soon, Yia Yia. Really soon.”
“She’s really not doing well today. Her body is shutting down. I don’t know how much longer she’s going to be here. We miss you.”
I resolve to make a trip home. Saturday will be the day. Will this be the last time? I mentally prepare myself for what that looks like, what life is like without her.
Thursday, my phone buzzes. A text from my mom that reads, “Call me when you get off work.”
My heart shifts. I call immediately, hoping that a voicemail never comes. On the first ring, my mother answers. Even hundreds of miles away, I will always know what my mother’s voice sounds like when her heart is breaking.
“She passed away at 3:01 PM.”
I don’t know a world that exists without my grandmother in it. I don’t know what her last thoughts were or how heavy she felt or what holding on must have felt like.
People keep telling me that she lives in me. She’s gone from this world, yes, but her love lives through me. And I want to believe that but I don’t right now. Right now is reserved for remembering to mourn. Right now is for retreating, for feeling deeply, for allowing that grief to sit with me. Right now is for remembering even when she couldn’t, even though she can’t and never will again. Right now is for allowing myself to be tender, to understand that I don’t have to minimize myself. Right now is for crying, for the catharsis of grief, for all of the things that exit me when I think of something she taught me.
Right now is for every moment I can muster enough courage to take all of my masks off and set them neatly on the shelf. Right now is for closing the door on not forgiving myself for not going to see her when I had the chance to. Right now is for letting go of all the heavy feelings I have when I think about how I could have sat with her longer when I did visit. Right now is for learning to love deeper, for giving more grace to myself. Right now is for holding my family closer. One less person does not mean less love.
Right now is for time. Space. A grief that will create an unforgiving void in my heart. This is what my world will look like.
When Yia Yia was ready to go, my mother told her that it was okay, that we would be okay, that we would miss her but that it’s okay to not hold on any longer. My grandmother’s eyes closed for maybe the last time. Her heart fluttered–an old motor that spits and sputters but always beat for someone else’s drum–and finally beat for herself for the last time.
And then she let go.
Even now, she is teaching me what it means to not hold on. To be okay in losing my grip. To curl into myself and be heavy with all that courses through me. She is teaching me to let go.
One day I will observe how I am transformed by this grief. Today is not that day. But I’m finally stepping into it, exploring it, allowing myself to be changed by it, and I’m moving forward in the only way that I know how.
One day this will get easier. One day I will understand.