“I told her she was beautiful all her life. ‘Since birth — you’ve been beautiful since birth,’ I told her. ‘Your husband has such piercing blue eyes.’ ‘I know,’ she said. ‘That’s the reason I married him.’ ”
My cousin sent my dad this text, and he, in turn, forwarded it to the rest of my five-person family. Being perpetually two or three weeks behind all of my family in news, I hadn’t read it at first. I was just settling down to it a week later, curled up in the back seat of an Uber, slowly inching down the 580 on my way to the San Francisco International Airport to catch a flight home for the weekend.
In all truth, I wasn’t even settling down to read it. I had forgotten the text existed until I caught a glimpse of it above the procedural trip banter with my father and scrolled to the top of our messages. The first sentence was startling.
“I had a vivid dream about Rozzie.”
Rozzie. My grandmother who died in January, just as the spring semester had begun, sending me on the same five-hour trip back to Cleveland that I was embarking on now. My father had called me on a Tuesday, my screen lighting up with the word “Daddy” while my soul preemptively began to ache.
“Hi, Bear,” he started, a soft whisper reaching me 2,500 miles away. “Your grandmother … well, she isn’t … she isn’t doing so well.” By this, he meant my grandmother had died that morning.
This was eight months ago. The mourning process was no longer so fresh but more like a small scar I remembered only when I accidentally caught sight of it in the mirror. I hadn’t thought about my grandmother in a while.
But now, I felt myself easing back into her memory, brought back to life by a text so long that I flicked my thumb across the screen five times before I reached the end. In short, it read:
“I had a vivid dream about Aunt Rozzie. We were at dinner. I kept telling your Mom how pretty she is. Told her she was beautiful all her life since birth. That her husband had beautiful piercing blue eyes. She told me that’s why she married him. I took her into the green room. Michael and Jonathan were already there, and I told her about the great things they had been doing. She told me she already was aware. Uncle Norman was showing everyone a picture book of their recent trip to China.”
(I laughed a little at how my family’s idiosyncrasies had quietly found their way into his dream: my cousins’ intense and continual successes, my grandfather’s tendency to be completely engaged in some other moment in time.)
“She kept reinforcing the importance of family dinners. Always bake. Never buy the pastry. I asked how she was doing. She said every day is a Holiday and the food is always baked. She apologized that it was so cold out at her funeral.”
I felt the subtle ache returning to my chest, a delicate twisting of a heart pump. Tears streamed down my cheeks, and I tucked my face away to hide it from the Uber driver, as if it mattered if he saw me cry. Of course she had apologized for the cold of that January morning, as if she had some say in the weather. But I knew she was apologizing for more than that.
My family is intensely good. By this, I mean intensely good at the things we set our minds to. It’s a lofty claim, but I feel like our various successes compose a full library in the back of my grandfather’s mind, in which he always has another thing to pull off the shelf and show to his friends. To be part of my family is to be successful and to work for it. I mean on-the-ground-crawling-if-you-can’t-walk, sweat-dripping-down-your-cheeks-until-you-reach-the-finish-line kind of good. This is an axiomatic truth of my being.
And although I grew up in a house deeply entrenched in love and devotion and care, I never took the time to feel deeply sad or powerfully emotional. Darker emotions were not denied, ignored or even suppressed: Those dark blues, those fiery reds were often never more than dinner guests in weeks marked by continuous successes. We felt sad, we felt angry, we felt hurt — but not for long. We continued running forward with our heads repositioned higher.
So inevitably, the weekend of the funeral was, in many ways, an odd one for us. It was an entire weekend where we rested in deep misery — misery in that we had lost the matriarch of our family, the centerpiece of our family table. We watched our bindings come undone without any effort to retie them. We simply fell. My grandmother had died.
On the morning of my grandmother’s funeral, my 11 cousins and I, with our hands callused from years of homework, sports and everything else that made us such viable potential standouts in this world, lifted my grandmother’s casket into the back of the hearse, the Ohio wind viciously biting our necks and our pudgy bundles of clothing knocking into one another. The boys, seven in all and older than I, lifted it with the effortless grace of grown-up men as tears streaked their faces, their younger selves seeming to peep at me from behind scarves and hats.
And so my grandmother apologized for this. She apologized that this morning had been so miserable, that we all ached so truly, because this was not something we did easily. My grandmother was absolutely beautiful. My memories of her consist of a woman who aged spectacularly, sitting silently yet happily in chaotic rooms filled with her family, wondering what the hell she had brought into this world. She apologized because she lamented that we had fallen into this sadness and that a day when we were all together, when she was so certainly silently observing us, she could not warm us.
I reached the end of the text. By now, the Uber driver was glancing sideways at me through his mirror, wondering if he should say something. I read the last lines of my cousin’s text.
“I said to your Mom,” he wrote. “This is a beautiful party. I would like it to last forever. She said, ‘You’ll figure it out.’ ”