Hey, Pretty Girl.
I imagine you waving me away right now with that laugh of yours. Brushing off the “pretty” or asking me with that smirk if I liked your hair. Thirty-one years of seeing it every which way; wet, sweaty, tousled from sleep or surgery, you never stopped being a little embarrassed about your hair.
You taught me to tease it, or was it back comb? wincing as I practiced on you because you were so tender-headed. Later, I’d use that skill when your hands shook and your arms couldn’t lift that far for that long to do it yourself.
God. You were always so precious about your hair. Always asking if you could borrow some of mine, saying I had enough for two people as your fingers ran over it with a look of pride and envy. You were always fussing with your own, even after you’d get back from the salon, never completely satisfied.
That was you, though. You were never entirely satisfied. It’s what drove you. What took you from being passed from house-to-house, feeling unwanted and unloved as a little girl to snatching Papa up at 17, straightening his ass out, and building a family and a home and a life.
You always wanted a little better. You’d hover over crafts, a frown on your face, then drag me out to another secondhand shop, searching the shelves of discarded, neglected items, picturing a new life for them. I hated those secondhand shops. I was so worried I’d be seen there, that someone would think we needed to shop there, but you’d pull me in anyway, stop at every yard sale, and give me that eagle-eyed look and say there was no shame in being poor, only in acting poorly.
I keep thinking of those random things. Random memories. Little stuff, like the allowance jar you made me. It was a soup can, you’d cleaned it out and wrapped in pretty tack paper and filled it with dollar bills for random jobs I did around the house. Not my chores, I didn’t get money for things I was expected to do, but you rewarded the extras. Cleaning my sister’s room or watering your flowers or sweeping the porch. Kindness brought blessings, you said. Then you blessed me to prove it.
I’m not a fool. I know you weren’t perfect. You could be meaner than a rattlesnake and stubborn as a bull. Sometimes it was funny. Sometimes it frustrated me to no end. But you said that stubbornness kept you alive. That you were too stubborn to die. Papa had always said you’d outlive us all.
I guess, in that place in my heart that believes in impossible things, that you always nurtured and fed into, I kinda believed you would.
I always asked first before I’d sit on your bed. I don’t know why. I knew I was allowed. I knew I was allowed most anything. But still, I’d always ask first. Always felt a little guilty about rumpling your comforter.
I didn’t expect it to hurt like this. I thought I was ready. I thought I was prepared. But I guess you’re never prepared for your foundation to crumble. You’re never ready for the moment your world stops for a minute while the rest of the world keeps spinning on.
It seems so unfair. That the sun still rose the next day and life kept happening. It seems so unfair that we are so weighted down with grief while others broke bread, sat at tables with their families, when your spot at our table will always be empty now.
The world isn’t fair, Kissy, you’d say. And then you’d tell me about a time you were wronged, and finish it with a shake of your head and a shrug. “That’s life.” You got more bitter about it at the end, but you always said it. “That’s life, Kissy.”
Who’s gonna call me Kissy now? Who can say it like you did? Turning the “I” into a drawn out “E.”
Mom said you’d told her the day before to tell me to hurry up and get there. We wonder, now, if you knew. Could feel it coming and it wasn’t just your normal request. You wanted me there for her.
That feels like something you would do. You always had a way of knowing things.
I love you. I said it so many times over the years. I rarely left your room without saying it. I got to say it one last time, but it’s still on my tongue. I love you. I love you. I love you. You knew, but there’s no way you could truly know. Hell, I didn’t truly know just how deep that love ran and how consuming it is. I love you. God, Gramma. I love you so much.
I’m screwing up my tenses. You’re here and you’re not. Past and present merging in my mind, switching out places. Eventually past tense will win out. But for now, you’re both.
Remember when I had 9? They kicked everyone out of the room but you were so worried and weren’t content to sit in the waiting room. I still don’t know how you did it, but you sneaked past the small army of nurses and suddenly you were at the side of my bed, leaning over the rails, fussing and slipping me sips of forbidden water. I was in so much pain, I couldn’t see around it, but I could see you and I told you I loved you but shut up. You laughed and held my hand and stuck around until they discovered you. Or maybe you left on your own. But you were the first face I saw in the triage room. While everyone was cooing over brand new 9, you came around that curtain to check on me.
A week later. In your bathroom. The staph infection in my incision site. Mom ran, terrified of what was happening. Bless her heart, she’s always been awful in crisis. But you stayed. Poured peroxide over it while I stared up at you with wide, panicked eyes and you didn’t say anything soothing words. Opposite of that. You had your nose covered with your shirt while spraying Lysol into the air and you kept pouring that peroxide. When you deemed it Taken Care Of, you helped me out of the bathroom. Followed a few paces behind me, as if your much smaller frame could catch me before I hit the ground if I was going that way.
Hell. Maybe you could have.
You cried when I cried. I’m crying now. Sobbing, really. And I can’t call you to ask you to pray.
Who am I gonna ask to pray for me?
I asked mom to bury you with that zebra blanket I got you for Christmas last year. Asked that you’d be covered up in it. You always complained about being cold. I know you’re not now, but still. We’re gonna tuck you in one last time.
I don’t know what to do without you. I thought I did. I thought I would. But I don’t. I’m selfish, Gramma. I know you were ready to go. I know you wanted to. You’d said so for months, how tired you were, and in the the end, you didn’t fight it. You went to sleep. I wanted that for you. After so many years of agonizing health struggles and medical scares and surgeries and rehab, I wanted you to ease out instead of going in the middle of a fight. I wanted you to lay down your shield and go peacefully. Willingly. I wanted you to greet Death as a friend.
I wanted better for you and you got it, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do without you being here. Always here. You’ve never not been here. You’ve never been further than within arm’s reach. Now I’ll reach and my hand will grasp at empty air instead of yours.
Your hands. You weren’t much of a hugger. Those were reserved for greetings and partings and your great-grandbabies. But you were constantly holding your hand out. Taking ours. Rubbing them with your other with that little smile and contentment in your voice and joy in your eyes.
You were always so happy to see us. Even when you lived close, when our visits were frequent, daily, even, instead of annually, you always looked like you’d been waiting all your life to see us when we walked in the door. Your eyes would light up and your face would go soft and warm and even if you didn’t say much, we always knew you felt a little more complete with us there.
I don’t think I’ll ever feel complete again.
I’m lucky, I know. You hung on and fought to be with us for 86 years. You clawed your way back every time, because you knew we wanted you here. Remember the last time we were together in person? When I was there and you looked at me with sadness and asked why you were still here. “Because we need you,” I’d said. And meant it. Fiercely. We needed you. Even at your bitchiest. Even when we stomped away from your room because my God that woman is driving me batshit, we needed you. You were our rock. The base our entire lives were built on. You were our matriarch. Our queen.
What’s a kingdom without its queen? Who are we now, without you as our guiding force?
I keep trying to make a list of everything you taught me, but I don’t know how to count to infinity. What didn’t you teach me? That list would be shorter. Even when it was me doing the opposite of you, your fingerprints are everywhere. All over who I am.
You taught me to love. Unconditionally. I don’t know who taught you. Abandoned at six, who taught you to be so unwavering in your loyalties? Who taught you to stand so firmly next to your babies, through all their faults and mishaps and screw ups?
You taught me how to be a mother. And the pride you took in those babies I made. They were yours too. You mothered them, even when you were too frail and shaky to chase after them.
You helped me raise 9.
You bought a highchair as soon as you heard we were coming back. That we were coming home to hunker down with you and mom while Betty was off learning how to be an Airman. You saw it at a yard sale and snatched it up and it was waiting for us when we came stumbling in the door.
Little things. So many little things that weaved through my entire life. I had no idea that if your thread was plucked, I’d come unraveled.
Your jewelry box. Massive and filled to the brim with cheap necklaces and earrings in every color imaginable. I’d run my hand across them and you’d tell me which outfit they were bought for. The Skin So Soft you kept in the shower and you’d always tell me to use. The scent of your perfume. Your smell. I couldn’t put a name to it if I tried, but it was yours and it meant memories and food and a safe place.
We laughed on the beach this past summer. You in your wheelchair, slathered with sunscreen and under that big hat I had to have because it made me feel fancy and you worried yourself to pieces between bites of chips, wondering if I put a high enough SPF on the boys. I laid on a blanket near your feet, sunbathing, and you shot me a couple disapproving looks until I sprayed myself down with it too. Then we laughed, made up stories about the other beach goers, and you pointed your finger, gnarled with arthritis, and shook your head. “Just look at that one,” you said. “Not a lick of sense.”
I wish I had a picture of it now. You in your hat and me on that polka dot sheet, under that blazing July sun. Memories fade and become hazy after awhile. I don’t want that to lose that one.
I’m gonna forget your voice. It’s inevitable. It happens in pieces, losing someone. It’s not like the time you yanked the band-aid off my arm and said after, “see? Over and done.” I’m gonna forget all those tiny moments, forget your smell and the way you said things. Little by little, time will take you from me until one day there’s a reminder; a song, a turn of phrase, a whiff of perfume, and the suddden clear memory of you will be a shock to my system.
I won’t forget your breathing that last phone call. Or the words I said, but you couldn’t respond to. You kinda did, though. There was a hitch between breaths, a distinct noise, and I know in my heart you heard me. That we got to have one last Talk.
God, I’m gonna miss our Talks.
You died 10, 15, maybe 20 minutes later, after we hung up. You waited for me.
You always waited for me. Always kept the light on.
The grief is so strong, I almost can’t bear it. It comes in waves and for a moment I think I’ll drown. But then I remember you after Papa, still going. Still doing. Taking time to sit, hidden away in the bathroom, to talk about him with me through your own grief.
That’s what I’m doing now. In my mind, I’m sitting on the side of your tub, in your pretty pink bathroom, you on the closed toilet with that ridiculous shaggy cover, and I’m talking, talking, talking. You always said I could talk your ear off. And I’m telling you these things, because you were always the person I brought them to. Mom, then you. You, then mom. But always you.
Always my Pretty Girl. Always my Old Broad.
Sleep easy, okay? Sleep peaceful and content and rest in love. You were so loved. You were so wanted. And you’ll be so achingly missed.
Kiss Papa for me. Tell him his Mitzy says hello. That I miss him like mad and I named my first baby for him, just like I vowed I would.
We’ll be okay here. I’m sure you knew that. I’m sure that’s why you let go. And we will be. Bit by bit, we’ll channel your strength. We’ll carry you in our bones.
Goodbye for now, Pretty Girl. Your hair looks great.