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

The Thing About Dragonflies

My favorite insect is the dragonfly.

Yes, they’re beautiful, but that’s not why I love them.  Adult dragonflies hunt by holding their legs together like a basket and scooping insects right out of the sky, but that’s not why I love them either.  Sure they’re the only insect that can fly backwards and while that’s amazing, that’s not why they have garnered my affection.

The thing about dragonflies is that they start out as nymphs.  Ugly, brown nymphs with grumpy faces.  They scoot around in the water and muck, shooting out their masks, catching unfortunate prey.  They spend months, sometimes years, in this stage.  Wallowing in the mire.  Camouflaging, even covering themselves in filth.

To the inattentive eye, it just looks like they’re hanging around being ugly, but what’s really happening is change.  You see, the nymph is busy growing and molting.  It grows and molts, grows and molts, leaving ghost skeletons lingering in the water.

Nymphs mostly molt in the dark of night, so that sometimes the changes go completely unnoticed until one day the nymph crawls out of the water and up a cattail.  It clings to the cattail with hooks on its legs and then a most splendid thing happens.  One last time, the exuvia cracks open and an adult dragonfly flops out of its old self.  It hangs upside down, seeing the world in a whole new way.

The new dragonfly waits.  Waits to fly.  Waits to see the world.  Waits to wheel in the wind.  When blood pulses into the wings, the dragonfly takes off.  At first the flights are clumsy.  The dragonfly bumbles around as if it’s getting acquainted with itself for the first time.  After a few test flights the dragonfly is zipping around, hovering and even jutting in reverse.  The scowl of the nymph is replaced with eager eyes and a jeweled body that shimmers even in the faintest of light.  It’s hard to imagine that the dragonfly feels anything short of joy as it skims the water, reveling in the knowledge that, at long last, it has become what it is meant to be.

At night when sad thoughts creep in and steal the remnants of sleep, I think about the dragonfly.  When I’m covered in sorrow and I can’t escape the muck, I take heart in the fact that growth is happening.  Change is taking place, even in times when I can’t see it.  I have to believe that heartache will someday become an ill-fitting skin that will eventually crack open and give way.  Give way to beauty.  Give way to love.

I think of the nymph and the day it makes the final climb up the cattail.  That must be one scary climb.  In fact the nymph will often fall back into the mud several times while trying to make that climb.  When I feel like all I’m doing is falling, I remember the perseverance of the nymph.

I swing my legs over the bed each morning.  I smile at my loved ones.  I breathe in and out.  I tell myself to keep trying.  I know one day strength will break through sorrow, leaving the mire to exist only in my memory.  I wait with anticipation for the day that I’ll soar with wings pulsing with life.

I love dragonflies for their patience.  I love dragonflies for their determination, for their strength.  I love dragonflies because they are tangible proof that ugliness and pain cannot contain the pursuit of joy.

During lonely nights, dragonflies sweep into my mind with their basket legs and scoop away brokenness, leaving room for hope.

And that is the thing I love the most about dragonflies.