Tag Archives: losing a grandparent

Or I can plant a tree + walk past her every morning.


My one-day, someday house will have a tree for her.

A red maple, rich like the grapes we stomped in that cobblestone driveway.

Instead of setting her a place at the kitchen table or glitter gluing her name to a Christmas stocking, the tree will be my reminder:

She’s welcome to wind her arms around me, even decades after she’s gone. She’s welcome to kick off her shoes and roll up the sleeves of her cable knit sweater and unroll a bag of Mint Milano cookies for after dinner.

She’s welcome to weave her passion into each of my steps. Each time I turn the key and open my front door, she’s welcome to remind me to be good, be present, be caring.

Her first tree was green as the grass that stained our bare feet when we planted it.

It wasn’t until months later, when autumn peaked its head out from under the covers of our grief, that we learned the truth:

The leaves turned deep shades of red, just like the fire of her hair and her fight. We belly-laughed hard into the cold winter, trying not to find meaning in the way those leaves fell one by one to the ground, shedding like her white post-chemotherapy hair just before she died.

We were lucky. For fifteen years, the tree bloomed and grew. It saw the birth of new baby boys and girls, surprise birthday parties and barbeques in the backyard. It saw forts erected in the summer heat and bridges drawn across the ever-widening creek. It saw photo shoots with grown-up girls and hide-and-seek with neighbor boys.

For fifteen years, it returned from the dead of winter.

This fall, disease took over.

And I remembered the cancer.

I remembered the first time cancer became real, the first time the light escaped her eyes. I realized all the things the tree had seen without her and started to slip into sadness.

How easy it would be to dwell on alternative endings, on what she might’ve seen if addiction hadn’t ravaged her cells.

How easy it would be to think about mornings in the hall bathroom, door wide open and vent fan on, her hairbrush tugging the knots from my hair. How easy it would be to picture her hand on my shoulder at high school graduation, at every single gymnastics meet, at the end of my college career and the day I moved into my apartment.

I could wreck myself with wishing for those moments. Or I can plant a tree and walk past her memory, her strength, her love of family, every single morning.

Nobody wants to sit inside tragedy and call it home.

When I wrote this, he was still very much alive. And a part of me thought that he would Google his oldest grandchild, the writer who walked in his worn footsteps, to see what words I had for the world post-9/11. After all, he had been a survivor.

I didn’t know that, on 11/21, 11.21 years after he walked out of the South Tower, he would die.
I didn’t know that the last thing I said to him would be in a voicemail he never returned. That we were never going to be on good terms again, that death happens in the middle of anger.

But it’s been 11 years. In the worst way, he is home.

So I am retelling it to find a way to stop yelling, because yelling doesn’t make him any more alive. Because I decided, nine months ago, to remember him at his best.

photo-3 He’s gone. There are no pretty metaphors trimmed with lace & tied with ribbon to soften his story.

I’m sorry.
I’m sorry love does not outlast terrorist attacks.
I’m sorry we weren’t good enough.
I’m sorry we can never know what it felt like to rush down 42 flights of stairs and into the ashen streets of the Lower East Side.
I’m sorry I didn’t know he was in the South Tower.
I’m sorry I wrote blog post after blog post, hoping he would find his old self in these pages.
I’m sorry I eulogized him three months before he unexpectedly died. I didn’t know. I didn’t know. I really had no idea.

I was just angry.

That morning, my life changed. I wasn’t a kid who wanted to be part of something. My black dress didn’t make an appearance on September 12, 2001, but all the things I didn’t know unraveled.

I didn’t know.
I didn’t know that morning would wreck him.
I didn’t know that losing him would take 11 years.
I didn’t know that we’d never get him back.
I didn’t know what it sounded like to hear his heart in his chest & the ache in his lungs when there was no more clean air in all of Manhattan.

That morning, I was the most uneducated sixth grader in all of suburban Philadelphia.

On September 12, 2001, I was still me. Still confused. Still unsure. But now I was the girl whose grandfather had lived.

They hauled him to the back of the history classroom, sat in clusters around his chair, asked questions in low whispers and hushed voices. They wanted to know everything.

I thought, for a while, that that was the end.
Inquiring 12-year-olds had relieved his burden.

I was wrong.
I was wrong to think tragedy is something you outlive.
I was wrong to think he could walk away from decades of commuter trains and business suits and live a quiet retiree.
I was wrong to think Tuesdays were just Tuesdays.

Nobody really wants to sit inside a tragedy and call it home, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. That doesn’t mean it didn’t wreck us.

We're Just Plain Lucky

I remember how she smiled. It never quite reached her eyes. She’d stand back, arms folded across her crew neck sweatshirt. She’d watch the joy escaping through a little girl’s butterfly knees as they bounced up and down on Christmas morning.

And we couldn’t be mad at her for dying. We couldn’t be mad at her for dying.

Those moments when she held us close without ever holding us at all, those were the ones we had to keep. Most of our lives will be built not on holding her tight but dwelling on the faith she had in us.

It’s what happens when you lose someone young.

It’s what happens when you sit in the hearse and explain the folds and the sequins of the turquoise dress they buried her in. And why the flashers are on. And why the kids standing outside for a fire drill are staring and pointing at the limo passing by.

It’s what happens when you’ve got to be the biggest kid in a silent black car.

And you’ve got to stand in front of a couple hundred strangers, tell ‘em all that, “you never met that woman, but darling didn’t she already love you like that girl on Christmas morning? Darling, wouldn’t she have squeezed you in your candy cane pajamas?”

She would have.

I can’t be sure what happens when people pass away too soon. I can’t be confident whether we would’ve met this other side of them where they weren’t so caring, but I’d like to pretend that wasn’t true. I’d like to pretend, because the truth is, we get to imagine it.

We get to carry their words, their lessons, their photographs, in our pockets.

We get to hold onto them when we need strength. When getting up in the morning feels heavier. When pushing through the day seems unbearable. We get to hold onto those words and those lessons when we’re lost and we’re just plain lucky.

That’s what I wanted those strangers to know. They were just plain lucky to have her words in their back pockets.

We Will Find Goodness In All This Sadness

No matter how many presents I wrap this holiday season, there ain’t nothing pretty and tied up nice about this December. Because when the grief rolls in and my legs get heavy, the honesty is the only thing tucked underneath my Christmas tree.

Right now, my life feels like two ends of a frayed string of lights. In one hand, the past. In the other, the future.

All because some story never got its pretty-with-a-bow ending. All because I’ll be spending this Sunday in God’s waiting room, trying not to let my voice shake when I tell these strangers and friends that some endings don’t get to look sparkly. Some endings don’t get to shine. Some endings look a little worse for the wear, a little impromptu, a little hard to swallow.

It’s what happens when somebody dies in the middle of a big ole brawl. The screaming only stops long enough to turn to silence. The searing anger only subsides so we can sob and tuck sorrow into the pockets of our black lace dresses.

I have a love-hate relationship with the month of December. It’s pretty darn pathetic the way I turn to a 13-year-old girl every year, willing myself to remember the wise words of a man who’s been beneath the ground for almost a decade now. And I guess I never thought I’d christen my Thanksgiving eve with the news that you, you are done with this little old life, this big ole battle.

I forgot what it felt like to process tragedy in all its newness. And so I sat on my parent’s fireplace and put my head in my hands and said, mouth agape, “I’m sorry, but I just can’t wrap my head around this.”

Just can’t wrap my head around the messiness of no resolutions. Just can’t wrap my life up nice and neat when you’ve got no hellos left, only goodbyes. Just can’t wrap my fingers around paper reserved for all the words I have yet to say to you.

Tell you about my first apartment, my life fresh out of college. The way I sometimes think about that last phone call back in March, the voicemail you never returned.

It’s like opening an old scar with a fresh wound. It’s like eternally ending on bad terms. It’s the fight that never ends in an apology, the kind that leaves you tossing and turning all night long for the rest of forever.

It’s hard to deal with a loose ending that leaves us torn into two halves—before you left and after.

I never intended to let my mamma call herself an orphan the week before she turned fifty. Never intended to scrape blog posts into Word documents and speak them loud and shakily in front of people.

It is much easier to write my heart into a WordPress draft when nobody, absolutely nobody, is there to judge me. And I never thought I’d have to pull these blog posts into a story. I never thought the last thing I’d ever say on the subject of you would be crafted in an HTML document and blasted out for the Internet but never your own eyeballs. That I would write you a story and never tell you about it.

But I would like to be the kind of blogger my family turns to when things get weird, when lives get messy, when hearts get achy. That’s sort of how it happens these days. That’s sort of how it plays out.

I could’ve lived with the weight of my words so long as I never had to string them together like Christmas lights brightening up a eulogy. But I do. And I am. And we will find some goodness in all this sadness, so long as we have the choice to remember the past for what it was: glorious and short-lived, quietly content and full of the fabric of this family.

But here I am, pulling a paragraph here and a sentiment there and teaching my brain how to tie up that which will never be resolved, that which you will take to your grave.