Honeyrun

Honeyrun.

Even the name brings goosebumps to my arms.  It’s one of those words that I feel like I have to utter in hushed, reverent tones.  Honeyrun is the towering mountain on the Chico Wildflower bike ride.

We go way back and my memories of Honeyrun are anything but sweet.  There was the time I couldn’t ride all the way to the top and had to hoof it for miles.  Then there was the time my pants kept falling down, showing a full moon in broad daylight.  These memories are punctuated by frustrated grunts and unchurchly words spewed while my legs and lungs threatened to collapse.

Today I faced Honeyrun again.  The morning was cool and the fog that sometimes masks the valley below was nowhere to be found.  I’d begun the ride early enough that I had Honeyrun mostly to myself.  I dropped into my lowest gear, spinning slow, careful circles, craning my neck to see the pieces of the valley that had previously been kept secret from me.  The green of the trees was the deep green of growth, of roots pressing down into the soil and drinking deep.  Everything was hushed, save for the quiet rhythm of my legs pressing and pulling my pedals.

Each year, people spray paint messages over the gritty asphalt of the road.  This year someone had spray painted the words “hope and serenity”.  As the words passed underneath my tires, I pondered them, savored them in my mouth like a rich chocolate.  Amazingly enough, I was not out of breath and I chatted with other cyclists who passed me or the occasional cyclist that I happened to pass.  But mostly I kept to the quiet of my mind, thinking of hope and serenity.

I thought of how I hoped the crest of the hill was just around the next corner.  I thought of how serene Honeyrun really is before she is crushed by throngs of neon clad cyclists, carving her corners and cursing her voluptuous hills.  I thought of how hope is hard to have in the envelope of grief.  I thought of how serenity has eluded me so much of the year.  And yet here they were, serenity and hope, rising up from the pavement to greet me on Honeyrun.

Further up someone had painted the Olympic rings and the Olympic Creed “Citius, Altius, Fortius.”  Swifter.  Higher.  Stronger.  I know the Olympic Creed because my grandmother and I talked about it during the last winter games.  I wished I could send her a picture of the Olympic motto, painted yellow against the black asphalt.  How appropriate to be pressed with being swifter, higher and stronger here on this particular road that was carrying me higher until I touched the top of the treeline.  And the simple act of turning the cranks over again and again was making me stronger right here, right now.  As for swifter, well there’s just no hope of that.

And there I was again, thinking of hope and serenity.  I thought of how serene my grandmother looked when she was asleep and I kissed her goodnight one last time.  I thought of Psalm 31:24.  “Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the LORD.”  I thought of how my heart was keeping time so effortlessly up this climb.

Before I knew it all of this thinking and pedaling brought the crest within sight.  I was sorry to leave the beauty of the valley, sorry to turn onto a regular road void of words to ponder.  I looked over my shoulder at Honeyrun splayed out behind me and for a second I thought about riding back down and pressing up that mountain again.  Instead I took my heart, full of hope and serenity, and pedaled to the top, making sure my pedal strokes were just a little bit swifter than before.

Letter #2: My Stone Face

Dear Gramma,

I wrote about you on Saturday during the writing workshop I was leading.  I write about you all the time actually.  On Saturday I wrote about sitting on the edge of your hospital bed, reading poetry to you.  You kissed a lipstick print onto my cheek and I wiped it away, a quick reflex, a careless gesture.  I wish I hadn’t wiped it away.  Had I known it would be the last time, I would have left the shape of your lips on my skin a little longer.

I’m sorry that my last words to you weren’t ‘I love you.’  I said it probably hundreds of times during your last days here and countless times during my life.  It’s not that I question whether or not you knew I loved you, love you still.  I know you knew, that you know right now.  And I know that you loved me.  I do.  Telling each other so was the period at the end of each of our conversations.  I’m sorry, then, that when I kissed your forehead and said goodnight that I didn’t say ‘I love you’ one more time.  I thought I’d see you the next morning, but you slipped into Heaven while I dreamed in your house.  I didn’t know.  I just didn’t know.

On Saturday one of the workshop participants wrote about her grandmother dying of cancer.  When snippets of her piece were read aloud, I froze thinking ‘Did I write that?  I had to have written that.  I don’t think I wrote that, but I must have written that, right?  How could someone else have written about my life like that?’  I listened to the lines and I tried to keep my composure.  Underneath the veneer of my face I could feel the blood seeping from my cheeks.  I felt pale.  And exposed.

Do you remember that castle we saw on our trip?  Not Dracula’s castle.  Not Kalemegdon.  The other castle.  The pretty one.

It was drizzly that day and I took this picture of a stone cherub.

Something about the cherub’s face moved me.  Like being exposed to the elements somehow peeled away the layers revealing a more honest face, a scarred face.  That’s how I felt on Saturday listening to another person’s words so accurately narrate my own life.  I was terrified that my face, still raw with all my missing you, would show.  And maybe it did.  I don’t know.  I stood there, an exposed statue, and said something to close the session.  I have no idea what I said.  I hope it was coherent.  Or at least real words and not just a mash of stuttered consonants.  I don’t know.  I really don’t know.

My mom wore your favorite turquoise shirt tonight.  It looks pretty on her.  For a moment tonight she was standing in front of your photo, the one from your birthday where you’re wearing the turquoise shirt.  I looked back and forth from my mom’s face to your face.  You are so much alike.  I wish you were still here finishing her sentences and laughing at the same things.

Mother’s Day and your birthday are just around the corner.  It doesn’t seem fair that I have my mother and she doesn’t have you.  The rows and rows of Mother’s Day cards in the stores are so unkind, so cruel to the motherless.  I wish you could tell me words to say to her that will make those days easier, words that would flush away some of the anguish.  I’m afraid that when the time comes, I will stutter consonants and cry and the right words will lodge in a lump in my throat.  I need those words.

I believe God speaks to me in dreams and I dream of you almost every night.  Sometimes they are dreams invented in my imagination, but other times they’re dreams pulled from the pages of my memories.  I hope I’ll dream a memory of your words tonight, that I dream of something to write, something to give my mom on Mother’s Day.

Love,

Alicia

P.S-And just so it’s the last thing I say to you tonight, I love you, Gramma.

Letter #1: Dear Gramma

Dear Gramma,

The day before you died I walked the pier, breathing in the tang of the salty air.  Beneath me volleyball nets stretched taut across the sand and balls popped in the air like popcorn.  Surfers dotted the ocean below in their wetsuits.  They bobbed in the water, feet dangling, black sea dwellers waiting for the right wave to curl up underneath them.  An old surfer paddled alone on a bright red longboard and I thought of the bright red lipstick marks you used to leave on my cheek and then I thought of all the blood that had to be transfused into your body, how the cancer ruined all that pristine blood.

I stopped in a shop on the pier.  It was a kaleidoscope of windsocks and flags shivering in the wind.  The kid behind the counter said “How are you today?” and before I could stop it, the word “fine” fell out of my mouth and broke into pieces on the ground.  Tears threatened to spill onto the floor with it, but then my eye caught sight of a dragonfly flag and I thought of how you are a dragonfly, waiting to break free from your old skin, waiting to soar away.

I walked to the end of the pier behind Ruby’s where you and I used to slurp chocolate milkshakes.  A fisherman baited all of his poles and leaned them in a row against the railing.  I stood between the poles and leaned over the edge watching the gray ocean turn against the pillars of the pier.  And then my tears slid down my face and dropped into the deep.  I watched them fall and wondered how much of the ocean’s water is birthed by grief.  A pair of dolphins porpoised in the water below me and I marveled at how time and again they came up for air and slid back into the water with such ease.  I thought of your breathing machine and I prayed that your lungs would easily fill with air each time you needed it.

I walked in the shaded sand underneath the pier.  I wished that we were walking arm in arm together, but my arms were empty save for the socks I’d peeled off and stuffed into my shoes.  At the shore the water washed my feet and the sand was covered in thousands, maybe millions of shells.  I picked one up.  And then another.  And then another until my hands were full and I poured the shells into my sock.  I fingered each one hoping that by collecting these fragile pieces, I was keeping pieces of you.  I picked the smoothest ones, scrubbed clean by the sand under my feet and my tears in the saltwater.  They clicked against each other in my sock as I approached the number nine lifeguard station where we always met.  I set my shells inside my socks, inside my shoes on the sand and traced the smooth, black nine with the palm of my hand.  I snapped a photo, amazed that the view was the same as the one in my memory.

The day before you died I stood by your hospital bed and told you about the beach and how much I loved you and how much I’d miss you and how you were the best grandmother a girl could ever want.  I talked to you until there was nothing left to say except “I love you”.  And so I said it over and over again.  I kissed your silky forehead and held your hand and rubbed your swollen legs.  Your room was filled with our family laughing and crying, sometimes both at the same time.  Uncle Murray recited a verse about everything coming to an end, except our love for you.  I saw your face in his and wished you could see it, too.

The night before you died, I told you good night and kissed your forehead.  I slept in the bed next to my mother in your house.  I’d borrowed a sweater from your closet and after I’d taken it off, I fell to sleep with the scent of you on my skin.  Under the covers I dreamed that you died and that our family took a trip together.  I wish I could tell you our destination, but the ringing phone pierced my dream and then it pierced my heart.

The morning you died I held my mom as she sobbed listening to the news that you’d taken your last breath while your oldest daughter kept watch, holding your hand.  My mom felt heavy under the weight of her grief and we held each other.  All the words I said to comfort her felt inadequate, falling short like words plucked from a greeting card.  I wish you’d been there to comfort her, to tell her all the things she needed to hear.

The morning you died I brushed my teeth and looked in the mirror to see if I could see your face in mine.  I looked for the smiling dimples you gave me, but they were ghosts.  I pulled on your sweater and drove your car, with the glove box full of peanut M & M’s, toward the hospital.  An accident blocked traffic for hours, and try as we might we could not get to the hospital to see your face again.

The afternoon of the day you died I sat alone in your house, surrounded by your pictures and the memories you collected from the corners of the world.  I willed my legs upstairs into your room where I turned one of your chairs to the window.  The trees bowed their heads in the wind as it coaxed mournful sounds from your house.  With my eyes closed, I pretended that the sounds came from you writing letters in your office or eating ice cream at the kitchen table.  I opened my eyes to see your bed empty, the covers pulled taut.  Everything in your house was still, except for my fingers writing this to you and my tears dropping onto the chair in your bedroom.

The day after you died I rode my bike, crying when I crept up behind the mountains you loved, wrecked by the fact that you would not see these earthly places of beauty again.  I pedaled by a cacti farm and wished you were there so we could talk about that cactus that had a heart filled with liquid that replenishes itself.  You would have known the name.  I took my empty heart and pedaled back to your house, half believing that you would be there to hear about my ride.

The week after you died flashed by with arrangements and plans and flowers and phone calls.  It was so fast and I wanted time to rewind or slow or stop or do anything but whip by so callously.  I put together a photo montage of your life.  You always told me that I’m a writer, a storyteller.  We always said that everyone has a story.  Your life is my favorite story of all and I loved weaving it together.

At your memorial, I spoke about our trip together and about how you used to tell me I was the perfect child.  A lump bobbed in my throat and my knees knocked so violently that I thought I was going down.  I wished you were there because we would have laughed at how grief and nerves almost did me in.  There were so many times during your memorial that I looked for you, to catch your eye during a funny story or to watch you humbly accept the compliments your loved ones lavished on you.  At memorials, people tend to exaggerate about the wonderful qualities of the deceased, but not at yours.  You were such an amazing woman and you lived such a remarkable life that it left no need for exaggeration.

The day after we lowered you into the ground, I went to your church for Easter service.  I cried when the pastor talked about Jesus’ crucifixion and ascension to Heaven.  It always makes me cry, but especially this year because you are in Heaven and I am on Earth without you.  I know I’ll see you again, but the expanse of time between now and then crushes me.

The day after Easter, I returned home.  I took the sweater I borrowed the day before you died.  And I took your mini trampoline.  Terry just shook his head when I asked him to load it into the car.  I always laughed at the sight of you bouncing around on your trampoline.  After all the times I teased you about springing around on that thing, it now sits in my living room.  Twice now I’ve started dialing your number only to get halfway through before realizing you can’t answer.  I read books and think of you.  I watch Amazing Race and wish I could call you to talk about it.  I wish I could call you to talk about lots of things.  I miss you.  I miss you so much.  And do you know what makes my sadness recede to a bearable amount?  Jumping on your old trampoline.  How’s that for irony?

I’m presenting at a writing conference Saturday and I’m nervous.  You always knew the right words to say to make me feel better and now I wish I’d written some of them down.  My mom is saving scraps of your writing that she discovers in your house because I find myself desperate to squirrel away your words, even if they’re in the form of grocery lists and reminder notes.

I love you, Gramma.  I love you in grief.  I love you in joy.  I have loved you all my life and even though cancer proved to be a swift thief, Uncle Murray had it right: my love for you does not end.

Love,

Alicia