Goodbye To My Abuelita

My abuelita died this morning.

Or rather, has rested, a much deserved rest after a difficult life. This is my goodbye; the piece I wanted to write months ago.

She raised me as a little girl, until about the age of seven when we moved. I was born in Boston and I remember my funny, little grandma always being there. She would talk in Spanish and taught me some songs, and it used to make her laugh to have me sing them...badly. She was feisty. Once, she jumped off of a piano bench to prove that she still could; I had been trying to describe to her the difference between flying and gliding.

“Oh, you think I can’t jump??” She’d said. It was the story for years to come, among others...stories we told about how funny she was. She was funny, I think, because she had to be; I don’t think she always tried to be, but she was good-natured; life is rough and for her it had been particularly so, ever since she’d come to New York from Puerto Rico, and even back then, in her childhood, on my ancestors’ island. A place I have never been.

We left, as I said, when I was seven.

From that time on, I think I never knew where my home was. I have been trying to get back to it ever since, and that is why I never want to be far from family.

Here’s how I came to realize this:

A few years ago, I was doing a chakra meditation, a practice I did frequently at the time. I always had this funny sense, as I pulled my awareness up from the root to the crown, that there were some chakras I felt more strongly than others. My weakest one by far was my heart. At the time, I think I shrugged that off and maybe was even a little proud of it, as if it somehow confirmed I was not a sentimental, “heart” person. Silly, to think about it.

But one day I decided I wanted to know if there was a reason. I got the idea from a funny place; the cartoon show, Avatar: The Last Air-bender. My husband and I watched it religiously. It influenced me a lot but also expressed and resonated with me.

One of the episodes I returned to in my thoughts was the chakra episode. As the avatar is guided through them by his guru - he’s just a kid - he stirred his walking stick in a stream where the water had pooled and gotten stuck in a few places. Like the stream, there were certain things that blocked the energy flowing through the chakras, and so the avatar was introduced to them, and released them.

I had been delighted that the show was talking about so many things I knew something about, but I did not know a lot; I was solitary, and had no teacher, so I found inspiration wherever I could, and my practice and spiritual journey is made up of many such memorable moments of clarity.

I wondered, could something be stuck in my heart, and that’s why I have difficulty “feeling” it?

So I went through my meditation, feeling my way up through each center, becoming aware of the distinct sensation of each. When I got to my heart I stopped, and sort of “felt” around. I would say, I wondered around it, almost as if I’d asked myself, if there were something blocking my heart chakra, what would it be? And there it was.

My grandmother’s eyes...were full of tears. They did not spill over...but she looked sad in a way I was not used to seeing adults look; she did not try to hide her sadness. It was as if we shared the exact same sadness, the same heart, the same despair.

When we moved, I didn’t know anything about what a new life would be like. I had never really been anywhere else, and of course it had not occurred to me that I ever would be. So it was truly traumatic when we left Boston for North Carolina; exciting, but also traumatic. Moreso than I realized, than I ever let myself remember, because I had to be strong to survive, and I did not think there was anything I could do with those feelings. So I talked about them very little and pushed them down. But I think I was grieving for a long time.

I remember hugging my grandmother when we said goodbye, the car running, my mom, dad and little brother already in it, as I remained, sobbing openly as only children can do. We let go of each other, and the last thing I saw of her was her sad, sad eyes, saying goodbye, as we were taken away from each other.

We had no choice; no one did. My father had to go where the work was, and finding work became increasingly difficult in the years that followed. Everyone was traumatized. I have no idea how, though. We didn’t talk about it much. I wonder now if we should have. But I didn’t know any better, and maybe no one else did, either...we were all just trying to survive in a new life.

As I paused in my heart, feeling around, her eyes swam up into my inner vision, her eyes full of sadness and loss, a kind of hopelessness.

And then the tears came, my tears. They spilled over. Oh, did they ever spill over. And I cried...hard. I cried so hard I could not ever remember having cried that way before. And it felt like I would never stop; my insides were emptying, like vomit, being pulled through and from me, being pulled inside out. I don’t know how long I sat there crying that hard, but at least an hour. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. It was grief. Grief that I had never expressed, and loss I had never acknowledged.

It’s not that we never saw her again; we did, many times, after that. She even lived with us for a while. But when I was little she had been a fixture in my house, had helped raise me, had helped me, and my mother, be connected to our Puerto Rican heritage, something no one ever saw or acknowledged or allowed us to celebrate once we moved to parts of the country where people don’t understand anything but “black” and “white.”

So I was growing up apart from her, and while I saw her, it wasn’t the same. We had lost something, and we could never get it back; there had been a break instead of a seamlessness in our relationship and shared experiences. She was now a “relative” we went to visit and who visited us sometimes. Not my closest family, living in the same house, as families used to live.

Over the years, she began to show signs of dementia. I have not counted; my mother probably has. By the time I was in college, she was starting to have moments of forgetting who I was. Once she did not believe I was my mother’s daughter, or that my dad was her husband!

I had wanted, growing up, for her to live long enough to see me married. She did get to meet my husband eventually and briefly, but I doubt she remembered him. But that’s okay; she lived to meet him and to see me grow up and be on my own.

Then the years continued, and her mind and body began to fade together. I remembered her plump and cozy; she became thin and gaunt. She sat mostly in a wheelchair, but she was still feisty...she would often try to get out of it, or move it forward with her tiny feet if we weren’t going fast enough for her. She was still so, so funny, in the way that only she could be in the saddest of times. Right to the very end.

I did not see her much in the last 10-15 years. By now, lucidity was pretty much the exception, but it happened. Then, sometime this year - was it the fourth of July? - I can’t remember, or maybe my mother’s birthday. But anyway, I was home with my parents, and a bunch of family came unexpectedly. I found out my grandmother was coming and I was so looking forward to seeing her...I knew now things I needed to say to her, like “I love you,” “thank you,” and goodbye.

I heard her before she was rolled into the house; she was babbling loudly outside. She did that a lot. It was really funny but of course I wondered if she was upset. I hoped not. I hoped she was not always unhappy and confused, but I have no way of knowing.

When she came in, my tiny grandmother, her silvery-gray, beautiful hair, had been been pulled back tightly into a tiny cute bun at the top of her head. Not a single hair was out of place. That was the way she’d always done her hair, too...never a single hair out of place. Impossibly, immaculately neat.

She was watching everyone talking on the couch and coming in and out of the room, and I was watching her. I called her a few times, saying “Grandma.” Then, I said, “Gloria” as firmly as I could so she could hear me. Her head whipped around and looked at me, her eyes piercing, trying to figure out who this new person was who was calling her by her first name as if I were someone she should remember.

I told her who I was, using Spanish as much as I could. I still know a little of it. I don’t speak Spanish; but it is there in my tongue, coming up quickly, almost easily, the minute I try to think of a word in Spanish. It is there. It is my language, just as English is, though no one ever saw me as Latina once I’d left the New England area, until I learned to forget that I was Latina, or hide it, because somehow to claim it seemed wrong, as if i did not deserve it. I was not a real Latina. I never was.

I sat with her the rest of the evening. I helped her drink some water with a sippy cup, and later to eat some food, some Spanish rice and meat and beans. I don’t know how she was able to digest it, and her teeth were so aged I wondered how much longer they would last. I marveled that she could eat solid food. I rubbed her back and kept my hand on her always, trying to keep physical contact, to tell her that I loved her, that I was someone, whether she remembered or not, who loved her, with all my heart.

As we sat in the kitchen eating, she looked at me, her eyebrows furrowed, that sharp expression in her eyes again. She asked me, “Por que something-something-something conmigo?”

“Why am I sitting with you?” I asked, and she nodded; this had been her question.

Using my phone, and the translation app I had on it for practicing Russian, I typed and read a few phrases to her that I really needed to say, and hoped she would understand:

"Because you are my grandmother. I love you. You took care of me when I was little. You taught me this song, remember?" And I sang what little of it I had from memory. I continued to try to read my phrases and then she said, suddenly, “Recuerdo.”

I remember.

She remembered me. A few hours later, she left, going back to my aunt’s, my mother’s sister, where she had been living the last years of these late stages of dementia. I felt that place in my heart, that deep place, once hurting, that felt grief for all the years I’d lost when I might have gotten to know her better, grown up with her, been in her life all along. This didn’t necessarily make up for it, but...somehow, it brought things to a close. It was, I knew, very likely my goodbye.

I am so, so, so, so glad I went there, and spent that time with her. I am so glad I did not let her strangeness cause me to hesitate, and instead I still felt, as her grown-up granddaughter, that she was mine, now to take care of, as she had once taken care of me. Maybe it was only for a couple of the entirety of our lives, spent so far apart, but I did it. I told her I loved her, and I remembered her. And she remembered me. It was enough.

I had a feeling it was very likely I might not see her again after that, so I was prepared to consider that day my goodbye, if that should be the case. Turns out it is.

Now my grandmother is...with the Lord, as my mom puts it. I don’t doubt that. Somehow, I don’t, regardless of my beliefs. I believe that, easily, just as I believe, easily, she is now with my mother, and her other daughter and son, and with her grandchildren and great grandchildren now, and with me.

Estabas dentro de mi corazon todo el tiempo; Se que siempre estaras conmigo.

You were within my heart, all along. I know you will always be with me.

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Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative