I’ll admit it: the moment the needled etched the first line into my skin, I panicked. Before I could yank my arm back in protest, three more lines scratched across my skin, each slightly longer than the last. When the man carving into me took a small break, I marveled at my own changing. Ink-dipped and buzzing, the needle traced a longer line, another, another, another. Longer now, then shorter, then longer again, and finally shorter with one last stroke. A realtime transformation. How my skin, reddened and swollen, buzzed with excitement and wonder, pained with a new hope of something to carry.
I don’t remember saying much in the 15 total minutes I spent in the shop that afternoon. It was a rainy Tuesday and my nerves had been steadily agitated. With each passing hour, I thought about this secret I was holding. I’d only told one other person—a friend whom I trusted with something so close to my heart. It reminded me of how a body can keep hidden things hidden. Small realities shared with a select few, so far away from everyone else, manifesting itself in the actions we take with one another. A memory lived over and over again with habitual repetition.
It was my grandmother’s birthday. October 24th. She would have been 94. I can’t imagine living that long I’d say to myself, trying to make meaning out of a life lived well into the decades of heartbreak and adversity, never driving a car or smoking a cigarette. A death that came so slowly and all at once.
My grandmother walked everywhere. The grocery store, bags hanging off of her arms all the way home; the park, watching us playing on the jungle gym for hours; down the street and back again. My grandmother. My Yia Yia.
There were moments when the walking would get her into trouble. When I was 8 or 9, I remember a sewer cap bulging six inches above the sidewalk being enough for her to just barely catch her foot on, her body falling, and her face finally smashing into the concrete, blood rushing down her face. She still managed to stand and walk home, washing off her scrapes. I can remember feeling so disturbed to see someone I loved so much hold in the hurt so that my sister and I weren’t more alarmed. She always found a way home.
It wasn’t until she was much older that she would fall and couldn’t get back up. She was a stubborn woman. It always seemed like there were unchartered waters in her eyes and she insisted that she had to travel them alone. Wouldn’t let anyone help her if she could help herself. I imagine this is one of the biggest parts of her that shows up in me. How I bottle things neatly and put them on a shelf for safekeeping, harboring energy not always meant for me. How I dig my heels in someone insists on helping me, especially when I don’t believe I need it.
My Yia Yia was a fierce defender of everything she loved. It didn’t matter that someone was bigger or stronger or quicker than her—if you came for someone she loved, she always found a way to stand between you and danger. Even when the trouble kept coming and she knew it was going to hurt, she’d rather feel that than you feel it. That’s how you knew she loved you. She didn’t always have to tell you. Somehow, you just knew. I got this from her, too.
Part of who I am today is predicated on the way she loved me so fiercely. I hear grandmothers aren’t supposed to have favorites, but if she did, I was definitely it. I can remember times when it was evident that my sister and brother were treated differently by her than I was. It was sort of an unspoken thing in my family. Something I didn’t fully recognize until I left home for college. I’d come home for visits—Thanksgiving, Christmas, a random weekend in May—and each time I was about to head back to school, tears would stream down her face. “Leaving so soon? When are you coming back? Don’t worry about me, I’ll be alright.”
I admit that there were times when I felt a slight pull by this. “Why does she cry every time I leave?” I’d ask my mom.
“It’s what love looks like, son. One day, you’ll understand.”
I can’t remember the last time I left her for the last time. I can’t remember what she said to me that last time. I can’t remember the date or what time it was or the last time I held her hand. I know that she cried but I can’t remember if I cried too. I can’t remember the things I can’t remember. Her laugh so quiet that right in the middle of it, you’d swear she was at a full stop, time suspended. Her look of concern, of questioning, and of wonder. Her hugs. How, over time, each of her mannerisms withered away, existing in my memory so vividly. These are the things I hope I hold onto for a long time.
I did not know what I had in her until she was gone. Someone who lived love into existence, who remained tender when you were hurting, who didn’t have to say the right thing because she was doing it instead. Someone who knew that the best parts of life are lived when you are loved well by those you look up to. When they believe in you so deeply that, even if you don’t understand it fully, you know it to be true. That’s the grandmother she was. That’s the Yia Yia I knew.
Much of what I aim to do well in this life is show up for people, to love them better every day, and to give them a reason to believe in something. Just like Yia Yia did. The weeks leading up to her passing, I didn’t show up. I didn’t give myself the space to realize that her last days were her last. I was afraid of what I would see if I went home. So I enveloped myself in my office, burying my nose in paperwork and spreadsheets and email after email until time stopped. Mom called. “She’s gone.”
All of my shortcomings came alive that day. All of the things I wanted to say to her but couldn’t. All the moments I had a chance to show up and be with her but didn’t. All of the times I wished I would have spent more time with her, drinking a cup of coffee or watching a TV show or talking about my mother’s health. We never know that the last time we spend with someone is going to be the last time.
I’ve lived with a heart broken in pieces for a year. But with each day, I grow closer to a truth I was never certain I’d reach: how love, understanding, and unabashed gratitude can be tools to build a life. Each day is another opportunity to be leveled by all that wrecks me, and to lean into that means stretching every truth I’ve ever known so that I can see how many times I can fit inside of it. How I can know it deeply and be changed by it. How I can finally let it go.
When the man etched the last line into my skin and wiped it down, I sat silent. “It’s beautiful” my friend said. Beautiful, I thought. How, even though I’d spent months in what seemed like endless darkness, I could finally carry the weight of her words with me. How it felt like light entering all the fractured parts of my heart, love swimming through, cutting the cold with a tenderness I hadn’t yet known. How I started recognizing the horizon of better days ahead. Days of forgiveness and hope, of light and love, of feeling like I could enter every room brimming with good news. Days of finding my way out, of stretching again, shaking loose my knotted muscles, finding hope in these bones again. It’s my forever story.
Every single day, I am reminded of the words she said to me and what they mean. How love, despite darkness, can free people from keyless rooms. How we can give people the time and space to be their full selves. How we can show up for those who matter the most to us despite rain clouds. How so many brighter days have yet to happen; thousands of suns will break the horizon, looming large above us, making us believe in better things despite all that sets out to break us. I can’t think of anything more beautiful.