I was 10 when I last held her hand. Beside me was my father and my aunt — her son and her daughter. I didn’t understand a word she spoke as dementia had taken her away from us. For how long, I didn’t know. As a naive child, my grasp of the situation was encumbered by the surreality of it all. It was the first that marked my life.
I never knew my grandmother well. When death took her, 10 year-old-me wept as I held my dad’s hand tightly. I watched her lifeless body being wheeled slowly into the furnace, and I was too afraid to ask what was going on. To this day, all I know of her is through fragments of family photo albums and stories. I didn’t speak her language. I know little of her lived experiences. Yet, my father tells me grandma and I share the same stubbornness, the trail blazing nomadism that makes us alike.
I have only seen my dad cry once. A full, ugly cry that swelled with regret.
When grandma left her earthly existence, he did not cry. It was as if he knew her death was due, and only I was kept in the dark. Over the years, I understood why he didn’t. Why I think about it so much.
The more I think about death, the more I fear it less.
I began grouping them into actual deaths and small deaths.
The first are the ones that cause hot tears to fall down my cheeks. The ones that make me clench my heart and hyperventilate, struggling not to black out in an emotional haze. The ones that also took my uncle, my co-worker, my friends, and my pets. The ones that grip Hollywood stars and compel people to point guns and plant flowers.
These only hurt less over time, but never quite disappear.
Then there are the small deaths. These are the ones that are a little kinder.
These are the ones that mark milestones. Transitions through life, symbolizing new beginnings. My childhood, my awkward puberty, my freeing adulthood. Moving to a new country. Breaking up, loving again. Coming out to friends and family. Coming home after several years.
For each small death, I celebrate my next life. I conjure a ladder in the mountains and climb upwards.
The more small deaths I celebrate, the stronger I become, the higher I climb.
The more symbols they carve into my bones, the more I chronicle their parting wisdom.
The most important is to keep going. My grandma would be proud. I hope I’ve made her proud. Despite her dementia, I know she recognized me that day. I know as I held her hand for the last time, the glimpse of a smile passed her eyes. She left me both deaths that day — the actual one that remained in the hospital, and the small one that I still keep with me.
Death to me, is beginning backwards. After shedding each past life, I make its grave and plant flowers on it. I make peace with all the past lives I’ve lived and celebrated.
Death to me, is to keep going, forwards.