I love air travel. There are so many aspects of it that have captured my heart since my very first flight. It’s the idea of changing scenery for a moment. It’s the stories to be created on the other side. It’s knowing who is waiting at your destination with the sole intention of taking you deeply into an embrace. July 31, 2012 was a new air travel experience for me. Ultimately, it still revolved around environment, stories, and familiar faces, but it approached it from an angle that was new to me, and thus, took some time to digest. It involved sporadic cycles of smiling and feeling warmth within my heart, sitting expressionless in thought, and being that person on the plane who everyone notices has tears streaming down her cheeks, colliding with a quivering chin, but whom they all try politely to pretend they do not see.
On July 31, 2012, I was traveling to go visit what used to be the most welcoming hug only a grandmother could ever give, but what was now, as I traveled towards it thousands of feet up in the air, just a memory, a story, a spirit, a lingering remembrance. In this air travel experience, the change of scenery would be a chaotic spin on Grandma’s quirky little mobile home, where the chaos was born out of an attempt to mix together the many characters of Grandma’s love life as they each individually grappled with her loss. At the end of this air travel, stories would be created, yes, but they would also be shared. And the embrace upon arrival, that one that used to come from the delicate arms of an Amazon woman, would be replaced by the act of giving and receiving hugs to whomever, as needed.
As I mentioned, these sporadic in-flight emotions included a period of expressionless gazing from the back of the seat in front of me, to the passengers across the aisle, to my lap, and to the seat again. My body sat buckled in with my well-intentioned airplane seatbelt, but my mind floated somewhere outside of my corporal being, running through thoughts at the speed of an old-fashioned Rolodex being operated by a true and trained professional. In these expressionless explorations, I tried to understand how one reconciles a death, a loss. How is the void of this person replenished? What do you do? How should you act? What are you supposed to feel? Had I done enough?
The lachrymose portion of my in-flight emotions occurred when I would convince myself that the answers to these questions were as follows: 1.) She’s actually gone, as in, I’m never again going to be sitting on her couch across from her on that historic recliner of hers, multiple fans blowing on a hot summer day in Napa, watching Days of Our Lives and indulging in the guilty pleasure of trashy daytime television. As in, when I check my mailbox, there will never again be eager letters from her waiting there for my ecstatic hands to open; 2.) I don’t know what to do. I feel completely inept; 3.) I don’t know how to act. I must be doing this all wrong; 4.) I feel a little bit of everything, including loss and sadness and the draw toward ocular draining; 5.) No. I should’ve done more.
But then would come the smiles and warm heart phase, accompanied by the occasional audible giggle. I remembered one night when my grandma was flipping through channels. She stopped on one that displayed a voluptuous woman wearing nothing but a g-string, while exercising her pole-dancing abilities. “Oh, well look at this!” read the expression on my grandma’s face, as she would nod and send me smirks. Finally, she looked at me and laughed, “I could teach this lady a thing or two. I’ve got some experience on her, you know!” I remembered her mesmerizing, twinkling blue eyes that she gave to my mother to give to me. I remembered how much she encouraged and enjoyed my writing, how I felt she knew how therapeutic it was to me. I would print out my blogs and mail them to her, and before I could even share with her my doubts about my abilities or my dreams of writing pieces that people would actually read, she’d tell me to never doubt my abilities, to not cheat my dreams. I remembered how after many years of working in a veterans’ home, all of the meals she served were like they’d come right out of that same cafeteria, plastic trays, individually-sized milk cartons, over-cooked vegetables, mystery meat, and all. I remembered how she could never be judged by her gray afro of hair or her slow movements, for although she had a big heart, she was also one feisty woman, indeed. While I was driving her back from the grocery store one day, I was cutoff by another car. I quickly brushed it off, but not grandma. No, grandma went through the hassle of digging through her purse to find the device that helped her to speak just so that she could put it up to her throat and declare, “What an asshole! Learn how to drive, why don’t you?” My grandmother could rock pajama tops and cotton shorts with elastic waistbands like nobody’s business. She also had a truly impressive, acute ability to guilt trip people that now puts a smile on my face to consider and to shake my head at its rooted implications.
I do not imagine that the cycles of numb pondering, inconsolable weeps, and soul-hugging smiles will cease right away. Sitting in her home right now, I keep waiting to hear her creaking footsteps, her remarks on how I need to put on some weight, and her never-ending attempts to organize family barbeques. Everything here looks, feels, and smells like her, but she is not here. It is melancholic joy, which can never be so quickly understood. However, as I cycle through, I have made some determinations. I suppose you always wish there was more time, that you could have absorbed more of the stories, that you just generally could have done more. But I spent many years, many solo drives, many letters personally forging a relationship with my grandmother, and my heart is eternally happy for doing so. I started to think of a message I had received earlier from someone:
“I for one will live in honor of all who come and go in this life. Would they want anything else?”
And I couldn’t think of much else my grandma would have wanted for me. And so, while on the plane, I took out some paper, and I began to do just what I had done so many times before. I wrote a letter to my grandma, and it started like this:
Dear Grandma, I wish I could have been there. I wish I could have said goodbye, that I had visited more often. I hope, wish, and pray that you know how much our relationship had grown to mean to me. Sweet Grandma Nancy, I want you to know that the reason I couldn’t be there was because I was off living in your honor. I was off living as the fruits of your labor, out of your own love and dreams, from what could have only been a twinkle in your eyes, of the opportunity that you ultimately gave me. I was soaking up as much of this life’s beauty as I could. And when I’ve been far away from home, I’ve been trying to do work to bring more of this beauty to others. I know that I cannot sit and tell you these stories in person anymore, but I’ll detail them here in this letter for you now instead because I think you would truly be proud.
And I spent the majority of the flight scrawling tales in the letter of succulent life lived. “To hell with it,” I thought, and I added in the delicious details because I knew she’d get a nice kick out of them. And then I concluded what I had written to her, to her spirit:
My dear Grandma, I’m on my way to see you now, and I want you to know that when you breathed your last breath, I was living life fully, juicily, lusciously in your honor. I love you. I always will. And I promise to do your life justice through the living of my own.
Writing her this letter put me at peace for a time and helped me begin to let her go. And then my plane landed and I was soon in her home, thumbing through her boxes and boxes of old letters. The woman never threw away a single card. I was pulling out the ones I had sent her during our correspondence over the past several years. I found ones from every address at which I’ve ever lived, including while in Greece and while working at a summer camp in New York. And then my hands got a little shaky and I got all choked up when I realized I was holding the last one she had written to me, but had forgotten to send. It was sealed and addressed, but not yet stamped.
June 22, 2012
I can’t remember if I wrote last. I’ve been back and forth at Paul’s, so get confused. I got some results from the CT scan. It does not look good for me – so I am accepting the end results. We win some and we lose some – sometimes it’s just the way it is. I am 76 years old and have had a life that’s been hard, but just – I raised 7 children the best I could. I would love to have given them more – so no regrets there. You’re a lucky girl. You will have a good life and be safe and happy. I love you dearly and I am super proud of you. If there is anything I can do for you or any family history I can help you with, I will. I have a person who has asked about buying my home. I am anxious to be rid of it. I’ll probably move in with a family member, easier for me – if I can just control this pain – cancer is so ruthless! Your mom said she will come down. I sure hope so. I need her support – I won’t keep going on and on. I have so much stuff to go through. You know how moving can be! So – write to me and don’t forget me.
I sobbed for a nice long while. I just let it all pour out from me at last. And then I resumed thumbing through these boxes of paper marked with her scribbled cursive. And I found some of her recipes, some of her stories, some of the pieces that had created her life. I found her oodles of seventies-style bifocals and her absurd amounts of address labels. And I just smiled. And I was content to just be there surrounded by the fabrics that had woven together her life. And I thought about the promise I had made her, to do her life justice through the living of my own. And I will. When my air travel lands me back in D.C., it’s on. I’m shaking off compliance with the ordinary, and I’m going to work hard. I’m going to make an impact. I’m going to live.
And I’ll be seeing you, you feisty lady, you. The afterlife isn’t going to know what hit it, my dear.