Today marks a year since I got that horrible call. A year since she passed.
I wrote this that day. I wanted to read it at her funeral, but I couldn’t even finish it. It is a rare occasion when words fail me, but they did that day; and they have ever since. Because how can words ever do justice to her?
I couldn’t say this a year ago. I am saying it now.
Today, it is hard to feel blessed. It is all too easy to feel saddened, or bitter, or even angry, but it is hard to count blessings.
I am blessed to have learned so much from Nan. She had this incredible ability to teach without the learner ever feeling that a lesson was being taught. I have patience – not much, but a little – and I learned it from her. I watched her diligently counting stitches and rows, and I couldn’t even comprehend that level of patience. I still struggle. I watched her knitting so often that the click-clack of knitting needles became a soundtrack to my childhood, and when she tried to teach me how to knit, she would not let me give up. She sat with me and guided me. She picked up the knitting when I threw it to the ground in frustration. She kept saying “just one more row”, “just one more row”, until I had this thing; this messy knitted strip full of holes.
She pushed us intellectually. When we went to her house, we didn’t watch TV or play board games. She had these little exercise books (composition books) that she kept for all of us, and a huge stash of craft supplies. Me? I wrote. I drew. I practiced French. When I showed her these things – the terrible stories, the laughable artwork – she asked for more. She told me where I could make improvements. Her love flowed through the way that she helped us all with these things, and nurtured our talents. She even helped me design clothes for the Tooth Fairy. She promised that if ever I lost a tooth when I was at her house, we would make the Tooth Fairy her clothes together, and you know what? There is no doubt in my mind: it wasn’t an empty promise.
She taught me about budgeting. She would take us to boot sales and give us a little money, and it was up to us to decide what to spend it on. We had to choose wisely, because we wouldn’t get another penny from her. I used to think that she was being unfair. Now, I look back and I see that she was trying to teach us a little about real life budgeting; about how there is no pot to dip into if we overspend. I remember there was a stall run by the Cats Protection League. They mostly sold cat toys and treats, and this was in the days before Sinbad, so it was of no use to me. Then, they began selling sweets. One day, I tried to trick her. I told her that I was going to donate my money at the Cats Protection League stall, so could I please have a little extra? She gave me extra money and I bought sweets with it. Technically, I hadn’t lied to her – after all, Cats Protection League took the money as a ‘donation’ for the sweets I bought – but I had deceived her into giving me more so I could buy more, and she never fell for that again. From then on, donations had to come out of my own pocket, just as they do in real life.
She taught me how to love. I think every one of her grandchildren thought that they were her favourite, and it wasn’t because she showed any favouritism, but because she loved us all so much. Each of us could not imagine a love greater than that, so, naturally, we had to be the favourite. When I was very young, I made her some paper flowers. I carefully cut them out, and the idea came to me that if I had some tape, I could make a ‘vase’. Nan was on the phone, and I followed her around the house, interrupting her, waving a note in her face that said “I NEED SELLATAPE FOR MY FLOWAS”. She gave in. She had the patience of a saint, and could have let me bug her for hours; but what she could not do was bear to see my disappointed face. I found those flowers about three years ago. She kept them, all these years.
It has been a year. Three hundred and sixty five days, and my heart is still broken into three hundred and sixty five pieces. Memory, as it turns out, is a cruel thing. Memories can be false. Memories can be forgotten. But the worst kinds of memories are the ones that come from the faintest of connections, or spring out of nowhere at all.
Watering my plants, and the smell of wet earth takes me back to her garden. I’m six years old again, stripped down to my underwear, running through the sprinkler as she watches from a close distance. She’s baking in the sun, slathered in coconut oil, her skin the colour of mahogany. Or I’m in her greenhouse and she is showing me how well her tomatoes are growing. Or I’m playing under the runner beans. Or I’m skipping across the stepping stones and a bee stings me on my little finger, and she is there.
Putting up a Christmas tree, and I’m back in her living room, in awe of her tree; amazed that every year I forget how beautiful she makes it. The way she fluffs cotton wool to look like snow coating the branches. The way she perches robins just so. She is humming to O Come, All Ye Faithful, and she is telling me that it’s her favourite. I want to tell her that she’s already told me that, but her brown eyes are sparkling and there is a smile so innocent across her face that she looks like a child on Christmas morning.
Bathing my child, and I remember washing her back for her. I remember turning my eyes away, and the way she would ask me what I was so embarrassed about. She told me that our bodies are nothing to be ashamed of. If she was feeling particularly bold, she would threaten to show me her “white bits”.
And, suddenly, out of nowhere, I’m sixteen again and I’m sitting in her living room, on the floor, by the fire. I’ve got a cup of tea on the sandstone hearth and she’s telling me that she doesn’t care if my jeans are wet from the rain, I can sit on the sofa if I want to. I tell her I’m cozy by the fire, and what I don’t tell her is the simple act of placing a cup of tea on the hearth reminds me of being young, and writing stories lying on her living room floor because I wasn’t allowed on the furniture with a drink. Sitting on the pink rug and playing with the tassels reminds me of the time when I was younger still, and she walked in on me playing with the rug with one hand and picking my nose with the other, but swore she would never tell. Sitting on the rug by the fireplace, at age sixteen, I can pretend that I’m still a young child and she is still a sixty-something-year-old woman. I can pretend that she doesn’t know what it is to be in a near-fatal car wreck or have cancer or Alzheimer’s.
I am angry. I am angry that she was taken from me. This damn warrior of a woman, who has been wife, widow, mother, and matriarch. I am angrier still that memories were taken from her. I am angry that if I wrote a thousand stupid poems or a whole novel, I can never do her justice.
I am angry that everyone said “it will get easier”, and it hasn’t. The days where she is on my mind have become less frequent, but nothing about it is easier.
I had to take a break while writing this post, because that anger was consuming me. You can probably spot it. It had me wanting to punch my fist through a wall. See, just before I sat down to write this, I stumbled upon the last birthday card she ever wrote me; because of course I did. It was for my 18th birthday, four years before she passed on. Everything was getting to be too much, so I shut myself away for a little while.
While I was shut away, a friend sent me a text. I told him I wasn’t really up for talking tonight, and probably wouldn’t be tomorrow, either, and he asked what he could do to help.
I told him this:
Cherish every moment with the ones you love.
Moments are fleeting, and they can be taken away. Do not ever let yourself wonder if they knew how much you loved them. Do not ever fool yourself into thinking that the sheer power of their love with keep them with you forever. Love them as they love you, and then love them a little more.
I have lived a thousand different heartbreaks in the last 18 months or so, but I would live them all over again if I could have just one more of those moments.