Hakuna Matata

My grandmother used to do fingernail inspections.

“Let’s see your nails,” she’d say whenever we had a free moment together.

She’d usually make a little clicking noise of disapproval with her tongue because, c’mon, I always bit my nails and often had dirt under their gnarly remains after playing outside with the boys.

She would make a clicking noise today.

Despite taking nail-health vitamins and frequently brushing on coats of nail strengthener, I’ve been snagging my fingernails on furniture and clothing while softening them beyond repair when I wash my dishes. Having braces forever cured me of biting my nails, but lately I’ve been taking the snagged edges and tearing at them with my fingers. The nail strengthener formula stung my exposed nailbeds just a bit ago as I brushed it on while sitting at my new kitchen island/table.

Sure, Grandma would make a clicking noise with her tongue today if she saw my fingernails, but I don’t need to worry about it. In fact, I don’t need to worry about anything. 

I have a job. I have a car. I have a roof over my head (AND A DECK AND A PORCH AND A WASHER AND DRYER AND A PARKING SPACE) and food in my pantry.

I don’t have a homework assignment due at midnight. I don’t have three projects to do and an exam to study for after I get done with work.

She’d make a clicking noise today at my fingernails, but that’s the only click of disapproval I’d get from her right now.

I’ve been sleeping deeply and dreaming –– DREAMING –– for the first time in years. I have no worries. The only clicking sound I hear now comes from my stovetop when I light one of the gas burners to make myself dinner.

Hakuna Matata.

365 days since Aug. 4, 2013

Grandma was the one constant in my life. I changed, but she never did. She sat in her chair, in her house, read the paper, made simple dinners, called me, asked me to take her out shopping.

That woman loved to shop.

Even when her cane slowed her down and I became aggravated. I tried not to let it show, but I think she could tell half the time.

But she stopped sitting in her chair in her house, stopped reading the paper, stopped making simple dinners, stopped calling me and asking me to take her out shopping. She stopped. Her heart stopped. She died of kidney failure a year ago today.

It’s hard being my age and hearing my peers talk about their grandparents. I feel like I’m too young to not have grandparents.

But, as my boyfriend says, c’est la vie. Such is life. But I miss her terribly.

So this one’s for you, Grandma.

Disconnected disjointed broken

I remember when they stopped coming.

When they stopped being able to make it to things. When they stopped hearing. When they stopped being able to walk.

The last track meet they ever watched me run in was when I was in seventh grade. I ran the 4X8 and the 1500. My coach let me skip the 800 because I’d almost beaten the school record in the 1500. I had earned the privilege of going home. I remember leaving the track with Grandma and Papa trailing along. Grandma probably carried the scratchy blanket they always used to keep in their car.

We stopped telling them about musicals and plays I acted in because they couldn’t hear the performers anyway. Even home track meets and cross country meets were impossible because they just couldn’t get around to them.

Papa fell at Jordan’s college graduation ceremony when he got up to use the restroom. Adam blamed me because I’d been in front of him. I cried in my black and white polka-dotted dress. My shoes matched perfectly. It’s all a tear-soaked blur, but I can still see him falling. Falling. Falling. The army veteran and former hardworking Cummins salesman was so embarrassed.

I just wrote that we didn’t take them to Trevor’s college graduation, but “them” wasn’t even possible. Papa had died the year before. He saw everyone graduate from high school except me.

I’m all disconnected disjointed broken with my words because my tear ducts still haven’t run dry. I think about last year when Grandma was around for Easter.

Easter was early my senior year of high school and Grandma and Papa watched my brothers and I scramble around outside for an Easter egg hunt.

I won.

Papa went to the hospital a few weeks later.

He died.

I know you’re not supposed to regret things in life, but I regret all the times I told Grandma and Papa, “no thank you” when they asked me to do things. I regret complaining about how slow Grandma walked during our shopping trips, how I had to keep track of her cane, how she never stopped talking. I’d give anything to have the voicemail she left on my phone that I accidentally deleted a year ago.

I’d give anything to have either of them back.

I remember when they stopped coming, but I also remember when I stopped going. Stopped wanting to visit them, then stopped wanting to visit her when she lived there alone. When we stopped inviting them over because it was just too hard and then stopped inviting her over because she never shut up.

 

Dear Emily from a Year Ago,

Stop complaining and go fucking visit her. Give her a hug from me because the clock’s ticking and pretty soon she’ll be gone.

Love,

An older, wiser you

 

I carry them with me everywhere, but the cold metal pendant can’t provide me with the full dosage of warmth I need.

It never will.

Their memories haven’t reduced me to tears since the first day I saw the bed missing from their bedroom. I cried and cried and cried and my dad just enveloped me.

I think my problem is that I just got back from another trip to New York City and I remember telling my grandma all about it last year. I sat on her brand-new couch (that now has my name on it) and she sat in her usual chair. She told me about the time she spent in the city when she and Papa were first married. How they had a bedroom in a house where they lived with a few other people. Papa taught her how to drive in the city, she and Papa played cards in the city. She took a part-time job in a department store(?) while he began his career. If my mom, aunt and uncle can’t tell me more about my grandparents’ lives as newlyweds, those memories are lost forever.

Because he died.

She followed (basically) suit.

Next time I see them, I’ll be sure to invite them to things. Something tells me they’re able to hear and walk better in their post-life adventure.

 

The trigger for tears. Thanks, Mom.

It’s been six months.

Six months and I didn’t even realize it. Logging in to Facebook yesterday morning brought this post made by my mother to my attention:

Screenshot 2014-02-05 00.12.01

…followed by some silent tears because Emily, of course, tries to hold back emotions when she’s in public places. She’d rather be overwhelmed by them late at night when she can pull the flower-shaped capsule containing her grandparents’ ashes up to her mouth to kiss.

I had never seen that photo before, the one on the left where my mother clasped her mother’s worn, battered hands shortly after life escaped her.

Grandma always had messed-up knuckles. She used to scold me for cracking my knuckles as often as I do (who knew her loss of hearing would actually be a blessing in disguise? No more scolding!). “Do you want your hands to look like these?” she’d say, holding up her tired-looking hands to taunt me. If I’m not mistaken, her brother or someone in her family had shut the car door on her hand as a child, creating some funky-looking joints and misshapen fingernails.

Yep. Me. Grandma. Braces. Papa in the background a year before his death.
Yep. Me. Grandma. Braces. Papa in the background a year before his death.

Her sun-spotted hands combed my hair, poured water over my head in the bathtub and kneaded apple pie crust just enough without overworking the dough. She taught me how to do needlepoint, played Go Fish! with me and played the piano for me back when she took lessons in her 70s. Those hands did a lot. She was quite the lady.

We moved what I call my “Big-Girl Bed” into my room over this past winter break from my grandparents’ house. I went into the house ahead of my dad to collect the sheets and prep the mattress and box spring.

Big mistake.

“Emmie?” Dad asked when he walked in through the garage door, but I didn’t answer. My sobs had forced me to sink into myself as a headache crept over my brain from all the scrunching and frowning. He found me, blinked back tears himself and just held me. “I know… this sucks,” he said. That only made me sob harder.

Yeah. Emily got her Big-Girl Bed. But she lost her grandma.

I don’t think about her as often as I did. She’s on my ankle, she’s around my neck, she’s on the walls, she’s everywhere, but I don’t break down as often as I used to. It takes certain triggers to set me off. My mom’s Facebook post did the trick.

____________________________________________

Below is my poem from the 2013 Poetry Slam at St. Bonaventure University. I sat down afterward, put my head between my knees and sobbed. Hope you do the same…?

Blog posts and birthdays

When I turned 13, I got my room redone. We covered the ugly mauve walls with bright raspberry, periwinkle, lime green and orange. I had my first boy-girl party that year. My crush came. He gave me AFI’s Decemberunderground CDNothing happened.

When I turned 14, I got my first iPod, a square, silver Nano that I promptly named “Pandora.” I wish I could access my mom’s computer right now to upload those pictures. My hair was long and curly. My crush-turned-boyfriend gave me a beautiful little heart necklace. If I remember correctly. Maybe that was Christmas…

When I turned 15, my mom made homemade pizza and wings, but didn’t think to thaw out the wings before putting them in the deep fryer. It overflowed, spilling oil all over the floor. Grandma and Papa came over with cleaning supplies to save our ship. With my brand-new camera (an orange Kodak EasyShare point-and-shoot), I took a “selfie” of my Papa and me. I have pizza sauce in the corners of my mouth.

When I turned 16, my dad couldn’t find my birth certificate. We rushed out to the DMV after he found it, but they had already stopped offering driver’s permit tests for the day. I pouted. And I couldn’t eat cake because I had the most important cross-country meet of the season (Sectionals) the next day. I made it to the state championship meet. Then I bought myself another iPod with my birthday money.

When I turned 17, I ran at Sectionals and qualified for the state championship meet again. Robby and his mom both gave me iPods. (I know…) And, to my mother’s dismay, I told our waitress at Red Robin it was my birthday and the wait staff gathered around our table and sang. My mom sat with her head in her hands.

When I turned 18, Robby gave me a diamond promise ring. I haven’t worn it in almost a year.

When I turned 19, Mom and I went on a shopping spree and Robby gave me diamond earrings. The cross-country girls sang to me at my door when I returned to school.

When I turned 20, my parents and brothers gave me my grandparents. I cried.

I love my family so much.

They’re all I need.

There they are.
There they are.

What the ‘M’ stands for

My middle name is Margaret.

There.

I said it.

But, like Junie B. Jones and her ‘B’ for “Beatrice,” I’ve never particularly liked Margaret. I always liked the sound of Emily Kathrynor “Emmy Kate” for short (my parents’ original plan). But Grandma was in the hospital when I was born and they didn’t think she would make it.

She lived. But I still became Margaret.

I used to tell this story with such disdain. Emmy Kate seemed like a cool name –– why the hell did they have to switch it to “Margaret” at the last minute?

…but I don’t really mind anymore. I’m proud that I am a “Margaret.”

image
Deep in conversation. I love this photo.

Before dementia really began kicking in, Grandma and I did a lot together. She loved brushing my hair and always –– always –– conducted fingernail inspections. “Let me see your nails,” she’d say when I dropped by for a visit. And –– sorry, Grandma! –– she wouldn’t be too pleased with their appearance right now.

I don’t plan on telling the Emily Kathryn story anymore. I’m happy with Margaret.

From the box to the grave

I wrote this poem in a cemetery I found nearby. In the beginning of the summer, I’d ride my bike there to sit and think. (I’ve spent a lot of time alone over the past couple of months.)

Such a gorgeous, gorgeous couple.
Such a gorgeous, gorgeous couple.

The poem is about my papa. I started crying and ended up calling my boyfriend while he was at work –– I needed to talk to someone. I’m my own worst enemy and often beat myself up mentally. I sat there under my tree near Harriet’s grave (died in the 1870s, no last name on stone), and wished I could visit one for Papa. I wished I could go somewhere to be alone, but still be with him.

When he died, my grandma decided they would wait to open the grave until their combined cremains could be buried together. So his cremains sat in a bag, in a box, on a shelf. And I just wanted closure.

Looking back now, I’ve realized that, to have closure with him, she had to die, too.

And she did.

I just didn’t think about it at the time.

And I can’t go back to that cemetery ever again. I just can’t.

 

No smiling allowed

It’s pretty bad when you have to remind yourself to be happy.

That you seriously have plenty of reasons to be happy. And yet, you still aren’t.

Generally, when I’m out in public, I like to smile at passersby. But those who fail to smile back or just look downright miserable tend to piss me off.

I would have pissed myself off tonight. I lay in bed in the fetal position for awhile before deciding to get up and do something. I changed into shorts, laced up my pink Nikes and off I went, knapsack on back. I walked by the museum, across the bridge, in front of the headquarters building and around near the draw tower. I. Didn’t. Smile. Once.

I had time to think about things –– I decided I’m not going to get pissed off at people who look like they are miserable. Maybe they are. Maybe absolutely nothing has worked out in his/her life, giving him/her the right to frown. Or maybe his/her grandmother just passed away and he/she is having a really tough time. Does that last one describe someone you know? Because you should be making a connection right about now.

I’m not okay. I have nearly every reason in the world to be okay, but I’m really not.

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The draw tower. Have you figured out where I’ve been living all summer yet?

Grandma’s Sentimental Journey

Grandma moved to the couch when I began to cry. She closed both of her warm hands over one of mine and looked me straight in the eye. “I don’t want you to have to leave St. Bonaventure, and your Papa wouldn’t want that either” she said. “I can help you.”

The last time I saw Grandma, 7/8/13.
The last time I saw Grandma, 7/8/13.

I bawled and sank into her warm embrace. I thanked her profusely. I shuddered and said, “Please don’t tell Mom.”

She understood. She provided a little money toward my latest tuition bill and I didn’t have to tell my parents how much I actually owed. It was our little secret. Grandma loved that she could help me and loved that we had a secret. I was her special girl.

She’s gone now.

Grandma filled the plastic pool with water and sat in a lawn chair nearby as my lifeguard. There, in the pink wading pool, I learned how to hold my breath underwater for the very first time.

My salary as a child came from Grandma. She showed me how to take Papa’s old sock, put it over my hand like a glove and spray it with Pledge. Off I went meandering around the house, moving picture frames and knickknacks out of the way to reach the dust underneath. Three dollars sure felt like a lot of money to earn back then.

She’s gone now.

…and I can’t even write this without bursting into tears.

My graduation.
My graduation.

My grandmother was such a wonderful woman and her oh-so-recent death is unfathomable to me right now. It’s not real. It can’t be real. I’ve taken up residence in a wonderful cocoon of denial, but it’s beginning to break open.

She’s gone now, Reality keeps telling me, though I try to drown him out with mindless television, conversations with my family and thinking about anything but Grandma. And, in this way, things seem okay for awhile. Grandma is over at her house, sitting in her favorite chair and reading the paper.

SHE’S GONE NOW, the voice gets louder. She disappears, the chair disintegrates, the piles of newspapers fly around and, when everything has cleared, only the walls, carpets, cupboards, windows and doors remain. Rooms empty, pictures removed from walls; nothing signifying a house made into a home for 40 years. No sign of the couple who filled the home and made it the safe haven that it was.

I’m still in my little cocoon. I catch occasional glimpses of what is actually happening –– like Grandma’s body in a casket –– but quickly dismiss them. I experience flashbacks where I could swear I’m watching short videos of times I’ve spent with her. One second we’re baking cookies, the next she’s teaching me how to make pie and then we’re in Bubbles, driving around her neighborhood as she sticks her hands out the sunroof.

A picture I INSISTED on taking back in May. I'm glad I did.
A picture I INSISTED on taking back in May. I’m glad I did.

I want to break open my phone to retrieve the voicemail messages she left years ago that I so stupidly –– and accidentally –– deleted a couple months ago. I want to delve into the files of my brain and remember every detail of every visit she and I had within the past year. Memorize how she was, hear her voice again. Feel her warmth.

The largest dose of reality came when I took a closer look at her corpse and felt her hands. I kissed her cheek, but that wasn’t my grandma.

She’s gone now.

JuneBug and the cardinal

A cardinal follows my aunt during her morning walks on the sand-covered trail near her home in Illinois. The brilliant, red bird flies from branch-to-branch, eavesdropping on my aunt and her friend’s morning gossip sessions. It is my belief that, when we die, we come back as a different being to be a guardian for the loved ones we leave behind. Cardinals that fly by me are my Papa. Pictures of cardinals and references to cardinals –– even the baseball team –– are signs from my Papa. He’s watching over me.

JuneBug, my mama's puppy
JuneBug, my mama’s puppy

It just makes sense. Grandma’s favorite bird is a cardinal, thus her husband came back as one. When I need guidance, something cardinal-esque usually pops up and reminds me of him. A lot of the time, it’s when I least expect it. As I sat at the kitchen table doing a word find during our last break, a cardinal landed on a post outside on the deck. He flew away, but not until after he had gotten a good look at me. The next day, out the bay window at my Grandma’s house, I saw red streak past. I’m so happy he watches over her, too.

And though my mom whines and says, “I wish I had my own cardinal like you guys do!”, we remind her of JuneBug, the warm ball of fur we adopted for her as a family to comfort her after her dad died.

I believe I’m not alone in seeing signs like these. Every family probably has a version of my Papa’s cardinal. I believe in reincarnation. My Papa still hangs around, looking over the family he made and the country he fought to preserve. He just looks a little different now with those bright red wings at his sides.