I’ve been thinking a lot about this unfinished draft since I wrote about it on Sunday, and there’s no doubt in my mind that although a lot of other things occupy my time, this draft has been an overwhelming mental and emotional roadblock for me, and I really need to put it behind me. I’m not so naive that I think clicking “publish” will take away the weight in my heart that this piece represents, but it’s time for me to let this one go.
You were there again last night, standing off to the side in that dream I had about–what? I don’t even remember what it was about, just random bits of place and sound, and you. Always you. You have been in my dreams almost nightly since that Saturday in August, the Saturday before you took your leave, the Saturday I had THAT dream. That’s the dream I can’t forget. I’m willing to bet I never will.
I’m sure you’ve heard the stories. You know the ones where people swear their mother or grandfather or lifelong best friend was sitting at the kitchen table or standing in the dimly lit corner of the bedroom hours or days or weeks after they breathed their last. The survivors speak with sincere conviction, and they will talk of how serene they felt after the encounter, how they found peace and closure and the strength they needed to heal. Don’t mistake my tone for skepticism; I believe those people. I just hope I’m never one of them. I have always been very clear with my loved ones on this issue: I don’t want you to come back for a visit, because you would scare me right into the grave with you. Just musing about it right now makes the back of my neck prickle. I’ll miss you terribly, I have explained, but please don’t haunt me.
In all the dreams sinced that first one you have been a quiet figure at the table, a part of some nondescript crowd, a silent passenger in my car. Is there something you are trying to tell me? Because I’m not getting it. This standing around watching thing you’re doing–it’s lost on me. Say something already. It’s like that time we were having dinner at some Italian restaurant after Derek’s college graduation, and we were sitting at different tables, but every time I looked up you were burning a hole into my glass of Chardonnay, shaking your head in silent disapproval but saying nary a word. Of course, the silent treatment only lasted until we were in the car, and then I got the alcohol lecture. You never were one to hold your tongue. So spit it out. I’m listening.
The week before my grandmother died–wait, let’s cut the formality. We called her MaMa. The week before MaMa died my mom and sisters and I sat in the room where she slept and reexamined the pictures and keepsakes we’d been looking at our entire lives. We tucked some things away in our pockets, trying, I’m sure, to maintain some connection to this person who was so suddenly so vacant and absent. It’s what we do when someone is dying or has recently died: we handle their belongings, breathe in their fleeting scent, make every feeble attempt to wrap them around us even as they are departing. It’s been three months since we huddled over those photo albums and glass jars, and those few things we slipped into our pockets that week are the only things we’ve got left of MaMa, save what’s in our hearts and minds. For the last eight years she was married to someone who now has decided he’ll let us know when we can carry out that final ritual. At first it was all I could think about–what he was keeping from me, what he was denying my family. And then I started seeing her–in my dreams.
I guess you know there were a lot of things that went unsaid between us. I have been mad at you for a long time–eight years, to be exact. You left me when you married him, physically, but also in some other way I can’t explain very well. A part of you went away for good eight years ago, and I have missed that part of you terribly. It’s a tricky combination, this mixture of immense love and hurt and anger, more so now that I don’t see any chance of resolution. There’s the rub, see. I have always believed there would come a time when we would clear the bad air and set things right, but now, well, you see the problem. I came to square things away with you that last Sunday afternoon, to say my piece, to make sure you knew how much I loved you, how good my life had been because of you. But you were mostly already gone by then, and I have been dragging around these heavy chains of regret and sadness and, yes, the anger, it’s still there, ever since. If I knew how to break free I would, but for some reason I am convinced you are holding the key, and I don’t know how to get it from you.
She drove me crazy a lot of the time. She knew everything, everything, I tell you, and she repeated everything she knew. A lot. She was only 73, so I’m pretty sure she was just that way by nature and NOT because of her age. I can remember her arguing with my PaPa when I was little, and he knew everything, too, so for an introverted kid like me it was always best to find a seat out of the line of fire and keep an eye on the door, just in case I needed a quick escape.
And I’m not entirely sure, but I think you are almost certainly frowning at me. Is that for real, or am I just projecting my own disappointment in myself on your dream face? That’s the trouble with dreams, isn’t it? They can’t ever really be trusted, and yet, there they are, night after night.
I don’t remember everything I dream, but when I do, MaMa is part of what I remember. She is silent, but her presence is unmistakable. Actually, I sort of see her everywhere, but not in the creepy afterlife sense. Last week I was dusting the antique lantern she gave me last winter, the one my mom had given her for Christmas 40 years ago, and I discovered a post-it on the back with a message in her familiar scrawl: Hand-Me-Down Lantern. There is a large manila envelope in my hall closet filled with pictures and notes she wrote to me about her childhood; she sent it to me a few years ago, and every time I get something off the shelf where it rests it falls in the floor at my feet. Other reminders are not so obvious. There are the Tazo teabags on the shelf over the sink, which my aunt gave me for Christmas at MaMa’s house, and they remind me of the truly awful cup of tea she fixed me on Christmas Eve to help me stop coughing. There’s the dust ruffle on Mia’s crib, which my mother made while MaMa and I tag-team vacuumed my floor and sorted tiny baby clothes and listened to June Carter Cash’s last recording on my laptop. There’s the light fixture on the screened porch she helped me install, and the antique scotch bottle she went for every time she came here–she wanted to see how much it was worth and spent hours at my computer, no doubt trying to hook me up with Antiques Road Show. Sometimes when I’m missing her hard, so that the mere act of breathing in and out causes tears to rush into my eyes, I cannot look around my house without thinking of her: she sat right there, she left her purse in that chair (twice) and had to come all the way back for it, she once left this door open and my cat got out, she almost set that tree on fire trying to smoke out some insect’s nest, I was going to send her those pictures of Mia and never did, she rocked my baby on that end of the sofa, and here, on this end of the sofa, she once tried to comfort me because I was emotional over some dumb movie. And I turned away from her. Can you here my chains rattling?
That night–the night before you left us–I dreamed we were at the community center where our family reunions were held every year, and it was sort of like a reunion, except for the part where your casket was on that long table at the front of the room instead of the old family pictures and keepsakes. It was the end of your funeral, and we were leaving you there, walking toward the kitchen at the back of the room. The doors were wide open and light was pouring into the dim gray light of the cinder block room, and then the side door went dark and someone walked in. It was PaPa–before his kidneys failed, before he got that stagger in his step, before me, even. I recognized him from those pictures you kept in the bottom dresser drawer, all strong and thin and handsome, and he walked right past us, walked right up to the front of the room to where you were lying. Except you were standing by the table now, no casket beside you, no vacant look on your face, no death in your eyes. Your hair was longer, and dark like it used to be before you had to “wash that gray right out,” and you were wearing a white dress I’d seen in a picture once. You reached out your arms to him, and he lifted you up and carried you out into the sunlight, and you were both gone before we all got outside. I woke the next morning feeling dazed and ethereal. That afternoon you were gone for real.
I’ve started this last paragraph seven or eight times. When I started writing I wasn’t sure where I’d end up. Turns out I’m still not sure. Maybe I thought the reflection would lend me some clarity, melt away some of these awful feelings, free me from the chains. Maybe it will over time, but for now I have to keep reminding myself: I have been missing her for three months and eight years, and now I’ll be missing her forever. This isn’t how it was supposed to be.
I originarlly started writing this piece in December of 2007, three months after my grandmother died and about two weeks before her second husband decided to allow us into their house to claim some of her belongings. A lot has changed since then. He is now on wife number 3, whom he married the April after my grandma died. Mia and I have moved into a new house. The hall closet and the couch and the tree and the screened porch and the chair and the teabags over the sink that I mention in this post as memory triggers are now memories themselves. In my attic are two plastic bins full of my grandma’s stuff, and I am gradually finding myself able to pull some of it out and examine it, ocassionally placing something on a shelf or on a wall in my new home. I don’t have those dreams every single night anymore, only every once in a while, but about once a month I dream that she has died all over again, and the events are so real that I wake up feeling like I did in those weeks just after she died, the grief so fresh and painful that I can hardly remember the motions required to get through the day.
A few things have not changed, however. I still remember every single detail of that prophetic dream, right down to where I was standing and who was standing next to me, and what we were wearing, and the way the light from the open door cast a fuzzy glow on my grandparents as they left us. I still run into reminders of MaMa on a daily basis, and sometimes I am able to smile about them, but most of the time they catch me so off guard that I am stunned into silence for hours. And if you listen closely, you can still hear my chains rattling, and I don’t know that I’ll ever find the key.