“She died, didn’t she?” The nod that followed my question shattered a part of me forever. My worst nightmare had come true; Grandma had died while I was away on my eighth grade trip.
March 15th 2001 was the last time I saw Grandma alive. I walked to her house every day after school, but this time my step-father drove me there so I could say goodbye before I left for my class trip to Washington D.C.
I’ll never forget how frail she looked, a shell of the powerful woman who had helped to raise me. I stood at the edge of her bed and fought the staggering urge to cry; crying would make it real and this just couldn’t be real. So I bit down hard on my bottom lip, the taste of mercury filling my mouth, and I kept myself numb to it all.
As I moved closer to her bed, her eyelids fluttered open and she gave me a feeble smile.
“Hi, honey,” she croaked through her chapped and swollen lips.
“Hi, Grandma,” I replied. I could feel my throat begin to swell and burn as I attempted to swallow those unshed tears.
“Leaving for your trip soon?” she asked. I knew she was excited for me to go on this trip as she’d previously made it clear that under no circumstances was I allowed to stay behind and watch her die.
All I could bring myself to do was nod in reply.
“Well…have fun, okay?”
I again gave a soft nod and turned to leave. To this day I cannot say for sure whether or not I even told her “I love you.”
When I returned from Washington D.C. a few days later, I stepped off the bus and with a quick glance, I saw my mom waiting for me beside our little blue Ford Focus. I had to force myself to look up at her.
“She died, didn’t she,” I asked.
My mom’s lips remained in a tight firm line as she made eye contact and nodded.
It’s that nod that still burns in my brain.
Grandma’s funeral went by quickly and yet I remember so much.
Almost as if thirteen year old me is still stuck there, forever looped in time…
I remember looking down at her in the casket, soft and frozen in time, willing her to just breathe. To just please come back to me.
I remember my school friends stopping by with their parents, awkward hugs and hand drawn cards.
I remember sitting in the bathroom with a friend, both of us sobbing into the couches and begging the pain to stop.
I remember the final glance I took before once again turning away from Grandma, this time forever.
The time following her death saw me tumbling into darkness.
First, my step-grandpa died of a heart attack.
Then the dog I’d had since my first birthday had to be put to sleep.
A month later, we adopted a puppy only to watch it slowly die of Parvo over the course of half a week.
And then as the summer faded to fall, my mom announced we’d be moving. We left Chicago and I became “the new girl” in a town that had less people than my grade school.
Every morning my eyes would flutter open only for my brain to immediately beg for the release that sleep provided. I lived each day simply to move on to the next.
With no friends and a mother lost in her own sorrowful oblivion, I let myself fall away from reality.
Then one night, a dream…
In it, I was sitting at the feet of my grandmother as she stroked my hair and soothed my sorrow. For a moment, I relished the comfort.
Then suddenly, I looked up at her.
“You’re dead,” I stated as if it were a fact we’d both just forgotten.
“I know,” she replied, still stroking my hair.
“But…but you can’t be. You’re here!” I cried.
“I am,” she said softly.
“You’re not supposed to be. Please, please come back,” I clung to her, willing the dream to continue on forever.
“It’s time to go, Amber,” she told me with one final caress, “You have to wake up now.”
With that, I felt a white light pull me toward the front door. I reached and screamed and begged…
And woke up.
It’s been seventeen years, three months, and twenty-seven days since Grandma died. Surviving in a world without her was (and sometimes still is) almost more than I can bear, but I push on.
I look to my children now and think about how she would have adored them. Unlike most Grandmas, mine was fairly strict, much more a mother than a grandmother. But oh how she would’ve spoiled my babies, especially my little girl, who was given the same middle name as my grandmother – Arlene Margaret Lewner.
I often think about how different my life would have been had she beaten that colon cancer and survived beyond her fifty-three short years. Oh how different the path would have been, but surely the destinations would have remained the same.
Every day I will work harder. Each day I will push a bit more. While I may never be as great as she once was, I will be a Lewner woman. I will make her proud.