Letters to Gramma: Envy in Grief

Dear Gramma,

I had a dream this morning, a nightmare actually.  I dreamed that it was the day you died and I was alone in your house.  I’ve had this dream before, a memory that comes back to me at night sometimes.  But this time I was in your old house, in the house I visited as a kid, not the house you lived in when you died.  I was walking through the house, crying up the creaky stairs.  In the face of such a devastating loss, I crammed myself in the little closet that used to be a telephone room and I closed the door.

Your doorbell rang and I untucked myself from the corner of the closet.  Out on the front steps was a real estate agent and a family ready to look at the house.  In my dream I didn’t even know the house was for sale.  I explained to the agent that you had just passed away that morning and it really wasn’t a good time.  The agent pushed the door open and showed the family in.  The mother started asking me all these questions.  I gave them a tour of your house, staggering through the rooms of memories with a lump in my throat and tears welling in my eyes.

My alarm clock sounded and I’ve never been so glad for it to go off.  I woke with that lump in my throat and swallowed it back down.  My pillow was wet from crying.  The dream felt so real that it took me a few minutes to realize it couldn’t have been real because you haven’t lived in that house for over 20 years.  I swept away the cobwebs of the dream and pulled the covers up under my chin, wiping my eyes with the sheet.  I miss you so much that sometimes it’s a physical ache in my chest.  This morning was one of those times.

I got up to ride my bike with Terry and Nick.  A good hard ride was just what I needed.  I pedaled up and across Shasta Dam, the water in the lake blue and glassy.  We followed a new piece of trail and at a split I jumped on the old the river trail and Terry and Nick followed the road back home.  I wanted to be by the river, to be near something beautiful.  I rode fast, pushing a big gear, passing everyone I encountered.

I reached the Sundial Bridge where there was a breast cancer awareness walk.  I got caught in a crowd of people dressed in pink.  I felt the lump rise up from my belly and bob in my throat.  I saw people walking in memory of loved ones lost and the ache stabbed at my chest.

Then I saw people walking with the word “Survivor” pinned to their shirts.  There were stickers and pins and hats and everything else rightly proclaiming survivorship.

White hot envy bubbled up.  And I know I shouldn’t be envious that they survived and you didn’t, but sometimes I am.  Most days I think you won, Gramma, that you lived the best life of anyone I know.  But some days I feel like cancer won, that it’s unfair that other people survived cancer and you didn’t.  It’s the ugly part of grief, Gramma, the part I hate the most.  It’s not that I wish these other people didn’t survive.  It’s not that at all.  It’s that I wish you were still here, too.

I tried to get out of the crowd of walkers, but no matter how many times I called out “On your left!” or “Coming through!” they didn’t move aside.  The entire bridge was filled from one side to the other with walkers and survivors and pink shirts.  I felt the tears pricking my eyelashes.  I needed to be anywhere but there.  I unclipped and walked my bike through the crowd, keeping my head down until I got to the road and onto the trail that would lead me home.  I rode uphill, stomping on my pedals, crying until hot snot ran with my tears.  By the time I got home I’d stopped crying, but the sadness remained.

Gramma, I don’t mind dreaming of you.  In fact, I love it when you talk to me in my dreams.  But this dream was different.  You weren’t in it at all.  And that’s what makes the sadness stay, the fact that each day I get further and further away from the life that had you in it.  Sometimes that loss devastates me all over again.

Come talk to me in my sleep, Gramma.  Sidle up next to me and drawl “Hi, honey.  How are you?”  Make me watch Jeopardy with you while we eat ice cream for dinner.  Come back, for just a little bit, even if it’s only in my dreams.

Love,

Alicia

Hanging Out With Lance Armstrong

I had a dream that Lance Armstrong stood at my kitchen counter eating a bowl of cereal with Terry and my brother, Pete.  I never bothered to ask what Lance was doing there.  Matter of fact I never bothered to ask what Pete, who recently moved to Las Vegas, was doing there either.  Just chalk it up to dream magic, okay?

Pete was talking to Lance about something or other.  My brother can talk to anyone about anything.  I, on the other hand, was a bundle of nerves to meet Lance Armstrong.  Darn, even in my dreams I can’t play it cool.

Terry left on a bike ride with a friend.  Pete went into the guest room to change into cycling clothes, leaving me alone to make small talk with Lance.  I was already suited up in a Fat Cyclist jersey and bike shorts.  The bike shorts were black with orange and pink plaid running down the sides.  I don’t own a pair of bike shorts like that in real life, but if I did I would totally wear them, like all of the time.  Even when not on a bike because they were that awesome.  But back to small talk with Lance.

“Sexy.” said Lance, his voice laden with sarcasm.

“Spandex are always sexy.”  I replied.  This axiom is always true, even in dreams.

“Uh, your jersey is on inside out.” Lance pointed.  See previous reference to my inability to be cool even in my dreams.

I quickly pulled my jersey off and yanked it back on the right way, which I would never do in front of anyone in real life, let alone Lance Armstrong.  The flesh on my stomach hasn’t seen the light of day in years and is blindingly white.  Not to mention the fact that it’s a bit squidgy.  Apparently my dream self has no shame.

“So where are you riding today?”  Lance asked, kindly ignoring my stomach.

“Up to Shasta Dam.  Where are you riding today?”

“To Mt. Shasta and back.  Is that close to Shasta Dam?”

“Not at all.”

“Too bad.”

“But you’ll have a great view of Lake Shasta as you ride.  Although I think it’s snowing in Mt. Shasta.  You should eat something warm at Mike and Tony’s before you turn back around to Redding.  Are you allowed to eat regular food or are you on a specialized diet right now?”

“I can eat regular food sometimes.”  I gave Lance a sympathy pat on the back because that is a sad, sad statement.

Then Pete and I left Lance in the kitchen and rode up to the Dam and back.  It was a great ride and afterward, I popped into school to do a couple of things in the office.  And that’s when I got the call from Lance that he needed a rescue pick up.  I don’t know how he tracked me down at school.  Dream magic strikes again.

“My sprocket snapped and I was wondering if you could pick me up?”  Lance asked.

“Sure.  Where are you?”

“Let’s see, I’m about 60 miles in.”

“Okay.  I’ll be there in a little while.”

“Are you sure?  It’s a long way to drive.”

“It’s no problem.  I didn’t have anything else going on today.”  Seriously, I have got to teach my dream self how to sound a little less pathetic.  “Hole up somewhere warm and I’ll be there in about an hour.”

I zipped home and threw my bike rack on the back of my car.  Just as I was getting ready to leave, Terry’s friend rode up and told me that Terry also needed a rescue pick up.

I had to choose between my husband and my new best friend, Lance Armstrong.

Who would I rescue first?

And then my dream self did me proud.

“Okay, I’ll swing by and get Terry and then I’ll get Lance.”  I assured Terry’s friend.  As I was dialing Terry to get his exact location, Lance showed up at my house.  Even in my dream I was baffled by how he got there and how he got there so quickly.  The dream magic was starting to wear thin.

“I hitched a ride back to Redding.”  Lance said, hopping in the car.  “But I had to leave my bike hidden in a bush.  Would you mind driving me to pick it up?”

“No problem.  We just have to swing by and grab Terry first.”

“I really need to get my bike fixed before tomorrow, but the bike shops will probably be closed by the time we get back.”

“Don’t worry, Lance. I’ll call the mechanic at the bike shop.  I’m sure he’ll open up.”

“You mean he’ll open up for me?”

“No, I mean he’ll open up for me.”  Finally, my dream self found a smidge of cool.

I woke up with a big smile on my face.  I so wished my dream was real.

Yes, hanging with Lance Armstrong would be awesome, but that’s actually not the part I of my dream I wished would come true.

As my dream faded away and I listened to the rain patter on the roof, I wished that my brother hadn’t moved to Las Vegas.

I wish that he still lived here so we could ride our bikes together up to Shasta Dam.

Pete and I riding for Team Fatty & LiveStrong

NaNoWriMo: Help Wanted

It is October 31st, known to most as Halloween, but known to insane writers everywhere as the night before NaNoWriMo.  That’s right, National Novel Writing Month is standing tiptoe at my door and I am, at best, unprepared.

Last year I did all sorts of things to prepare for a crazy month of writing.  This year I have done nothing.  Last year my plot came to me in a dream.  My dream life has been overactive as usual, but nothing worth putting on paper.  In short, I am skint.

Last year I was a NaNoWriMo winner, meaning I cranked out 1,667 words a day for 30 days for a total of just over 50,000 words.  I’m not saying they were interesting words or that my novel was any good, but I crossed the finish line and that’s what counts.

In cycling there is a term for people who do not cross the finish line.  It is DNF, as in Did Not Finish.  It is the most shameful of acronyms.  I know this because I DNF’d  once.  After a nasty sports drink incident, I found myself puking in front of scads of teeny tiny soccer kids, but even that was not as embarrassing as the DNF that appeared by my name.

So as I sit here on NaNoWriMo Eve, I am determined to win again, to outrun the dreaded DNF.  And I need your help.  Yes, you, the one averting your eyes and trying to click away from here.  Here’s how you can help: For the next month I need you to leave stuff in this post’s comments section.  Stuff like:

  • names
  • places
  • snippets of conversations you overhear
  • links to articles you find interesting or entertaining
  • favorite quotes
  • stuff your pet does
  • stuff your parents say or do
  • stories from your childhood
  • weird stuff your friends do
  • words you love
  • words you loathe
  • songs I should add to my writing playlist
  • anything and everything else that comes to mind

I am confident that with your help I’ll be able to pound out 50k words by November 30th and instead of a horrid DNF appearing by my name, it will instead say WINNER.  There’s a certificate and everything.

I. Must. Have.  It.

Letter #7: Your Voice

Dear Gramma,

Today I woke up in the small morning hours and wandered out to the living room.  The house was cool and dark and I tapped away on my computer, writing in the stillness.  All the windows were open and the croaking frogs were the perfect metronome to my words.  When I was done, I crept back into bed as Terry was getting ready for work.  I drifted off to sleep for one last precious hour.

In that snippet of morning sleep, I dreamed that our family was having a party.  It was a backyard party with crisp white tablecloths snapping in the breeze.  Aunt Nancy poured some sort of exotic soup into bright white ramekins.  She filled one too full, and soup dribbled over the edge, seeping into the tablecloth like a tea stain.

My mom and I set the tables and I stopped for just a moment to watch Terry.  He sat near the grass and looked so handsome.  He didn’t see me sneak a peek.  You always told me he just gets better and better looking with age and I couldn’t agree more.

You arrived at the party and came up from behind me, putting your arm around my waist.  I put my arm around your shoulder and kissed your cheek.  It was so soft, like the cheek of a baby.  You said “Hi, honey.”  Your voice was so clear.  In my waking hours I have trouble recalling the particular lilt of your voice, the rhythm of Texas buried under years of California.  But in my dream your voice was so familiar, so filled with love.

In my dream you had cancer, but it appeared you were undergoing treatment.  I asked you “How are you feeling?”  You squeezed my waist and said “Much better.  How are you feeling?”  I laughed and said “I’m feeling fine, Gramma, just fine.”  You said “That’s good.” and patted my bottom twice, like you always did.  I have no idea why you always patted my bottom like that.  Was it because I’m so tall and you were so small?  Is that all you could reach?

There was music in the background and Uncle Jon and Aunt Jill danced close together on the patio.  Hayley was mortified until Katie pulled her on the dance floor.  Katie wore a gorgeous, dark pink dress that made her rosy cheeks even more striking.  Katie and Hayley danced and laughed.  Everyone laughed with them.  You and I stood there, your arm still around my waist, my arm draped around your shoulder.  You leaned into me, just the slightest little bit until your hair was touching my chest.  We watched them dance and we were so happy.

You turned to me and asked “Is everyone here?”  Before I could answer, I woke with a start back in my own bed.  I gasped for air like I was breaking through the water’s surface after swimming down deep.

My dream hung around me like gauzy sheets and as I sat up in bed, I realized my alarm hadn’t gone off.  I swung my legs over the edge and for a second my mind convinced me that my dream was real, that your cancer was responding to treatments.  That you were indeed feeling better.  That you were still here.  My feet touched the carpet and I realized it was not real, that it was just a dream.  A cruel dream that left tear drops on my shirt as I got dressed.  The dream looped in my mind, always stopping when you asked “Is everyone here?”.

In the unforgiving light of day, I answered your question.  Everyone is not here.  And today that thought has seeped into me, leaving me stained with sadness.

I love you, Gramma.  Come talk to me in my dreams again soon.

Love,

Alicia

Letter #4: Dreaming of Whales

Dear Gramma,

Last week we visited the beach.  Not our beach, but still the tang of the salt air made me miss you desperately.  I walked the beach in the mornings, forcing myself out of bed to the yawning mouth of the ocean.  I walked alone with my thoughts.  My heart pounded with the surf.

On the third morning, after an hour with the ocean, I returned to the house and peeled off my shoes and socks.  My foot was covered in blood.  My sock was soaked through.  Even my shoe was filled with blood, so filled that blood had seeped out of the top of my shoe.  The sight of all this blood scared and confused me because I wasn’t hurt.  Unbeknownst to me, I’d punctured my toe and it leaked and leaked while I left footsteps in the sand.  In the shower I watched the hot water swirl all that blood down the drain.  I sat under the streams of water and cried, but not for my toe.  I cried for all the bags of blood that could not save you.  I cried for all the times I walk the beach without you.

The night after we returned from the beach I had the most beautiful dream.  In my dream I was crossing the Sundial Bridge, but it arched over an ocean inlet, not a river.  As I crossed over, hundreds of whales swam in the water that rose just inches underneath the bridge.  There were too many species of whales for me to count and they ranged from babies I could have held in my arms to long mothers snaking in the water beneath me.  I remember humpbacks arching in the water, revealing their twin blowholes.  They twisted and danced in the water, lobtailing on the surface of the water.  They slapped their flukes up onto the bridge, leaving their foamy fingerprints for me to walk on.  The water shimmered and bubbled in the presence of all those whales and in my dream I was delighted to witness such a gathering.  I hurried to tell my friend, who was not yet to the bridge, but when my foot hit the pavement, I awoke in the cradle of my bed.  I shut my eyes and tried to return to my dream, tried to return to the whales, but only sleep availed itself to me.

The next day, I couldn’t stop thinking about the dream and the thing I couldn’t let go of was that the only sound in my dream was the water lapping at the bank.  The whales were silent, not making a sound when they fanned their huge tails on the bridge right in from of me, not singing a single note as they frolicked around me. Male humpbacks are the singers of the species and so I choose to think that the whales in my dream were females.  Mothers and daughters, aunts and nieces, grandmothers and granddaughters, happy in the good company of each other.

The average heart of a humpback weighs 430 pounds and has 4 distinct chambers.  I can’t imagine a heart that large in size, but what I can tell you is that in my dream, my heart was coursing with blood and when I woke up each chamber of my heart was filled with joy.

I hope I dream of the whales again.  And I hope that when I do, you’ll be walking beside me.

Love,

Alicia

Letter #3: Happy Birthday, Gramma!

Dear Gramma,

Tomorrow would have been your birthday.  I had a dream of your birthday or maybe it was a memory of your last birthday.  I saw you blowing out the candles and laughing.  If only it were that easy to wish you back.  I’m afraid I’m going to forget your laugh, your scent, the particular bend of your fingers.

In the hospital, you were so sure you’d be home for your birthday.  I remember my eyes welling, threatening to spill over onto your bed.  I didn’t know how to tell you I didn’t think you’d be going home again.  Instead I swallowed the lump in my throat and kissed your hand, telling you I hoped you’d be home for your birthday, too.

And you are home.  Home among hosts of angels and saints.  Home with Grandpa.  Home with your mother who gets to be with you on your birthday for the first time in stacks of decades.

Yesterday I was deleting numbers from my phone.  Numbers no longer in service.  Numbers of friends who have faded into people I once knew.  I came to your number, my finger hovering above the red delete button.  I couldn’t press the button.  Silly, I know, but I couldn’t.

I’d like to call and wish you happy birthday tomorrow.  I’d tell you about riding my bike with Pete and how proud I was when he crossed the finish line.  I’d tell you how well Terry is doing.  You’d no doubt tell me that he just gets better and better looking.  I’d agree, smiling at your love for him.  I’d tell you crazy stories from this wild year of teaching and we’d laugh.

But tomorrow my finger will just hover over your phone number.  Tomorrow I will cry and plumb my memories for happy times, like when I sat on your lap on our trip together, my arms and legs sticking out all over.  You said I was never too big to sit on your lap.  Not to point out the obvious, Gramma, but I was too big, way too big for your small lap.  But I didn’t care.  And neither did you.  You always had room for me and for that I’m grateful.

Happy birthday, Gramma.  I wish we were celebrating together.  I miss you terribly and I love you.  I love you so much.

Love,

Alicia

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.