Another lifetime with you: A personal essay

Photo of Shahinfar's grandmother
Alexandra Sasha Shahinfar/Staff

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There are two memories that contour the day my grandmother left. 

That morning, my brother decided to bake fresh cinnamon rolls, and the sickly sweet aroma was inescapable, spreading to every room of our home. What was once an otherwise decadent aroma is now the culprit that makes my stomach turn when he bakes. 

The second would be the color of my grandmother’s paling skin. It was cream-yellow, stiff like she’d gone swimming in beeswax. 

When my grandmother died, it seemed like the number of moths in our house grew exponentially. Suddenly they were eating holes in all the sweaters, curtains and piano strings, crawling and fluttering their little sparkly moth bodies about the space she left behind. 

And it was so heavy, that emptiness which remained. It hung in the air and perched in the corners. No matter how many windows we opened, the air was still.  

My babushka, my mother’s mother, was a nonverbal stroke patient for the last 19 years of her life. The stroke rendered her unable to speak and paralyzed the right side of her body. She lived with us since then.

Growing up, caring for her was part of each day — pouring tea, counting out colorful pills, bringing her a blanket or cooking oatmeal. We were quiet in the early mornings and the evenings because she was asleep, we had four hour time limits for daytrips, and all of us were calibrated to my grandmother. With her gone, suddenly nothing was grounding us.

We each swallowed the bitterness differently, which led me to ponder:

How long are we permitted to grieve? How much time is enough? And how much is too little? 

While my brother continues to bake, I find myself circling that day, or rather it circles me. The longer it does, I realize it’s impossible to overcome a moment like this, only growing more used to the feeling. It is always there. It just feels duller. 

Still, I feel overwhelmingly guilty. There were words left unsaid, embraces left behind. So my hope is that somehow, by writing this letter, I can reach her.

 

Dear Babushka, 

The house feels too empty now. Every time I pass by your room I glance inside almost by reflex, wondering if you’ve had dinner yet. It still smells like you.

Though you were in bed most days, your tiny folded frame cushioned by an army of pillows, I never quite grasped how much space you took up. 

Today, Mama and I started clearing out your room, but after a few minutes we couldn’t go on. 

She hasn’t been herself, or at least not all the way. She didn’t brush her hair at all today and was somewhere else when I spoke to her. In the last few days before you left, she was getting upset with you for not eating. I’m sorry if that made it more difficult somehow. I think she was frustrated because she knew what was coming.  

It strikes me that everything I know about you, I’ve heard from someone else.

My mother told me that you loved to garden. Springtime and the blooming flowers lifted you up. I suppose the old photographs of you and fat baby me under brilliantly blooming silver wattles stands testament. Auntie laughed when she told me you loved sweets and Russian bread with tea. After that I tried to sneak you a piece of something sugary every once in a while. It was our little secret — as soon as you saw the dessert, your eager eyes lit up. You loved butter biscuits the most. 

It reminds me of this story my mother told me about you. When you were about 7, the famine swept through Russia and all the little villages. You were so hungry, you went to the village miller to ask for some bread, so he told you that flour is made from ground-up stones. You spent hours picking white pebbles from the road, hoping to have enough flour for a single loaf. I think of your hands, the strength folded into each crease running across your open palms.

Babushka, I miss your hands, I miss rubbing balm into your fingers and palms. I miss folding your clean linens. I miss combing your silver hair. I miss how you’d grip my thumb, and your breathy laughter. I wish that we spent more time outside. I wish we went on more strolls in the neighborhood. I should have brought you more flowers. I hate myself for it. I visited your room the day before and your eyes opened up for a moment, but I wasn’t sure if you recognized me. 

I miss measuring your oatmeal and brewing your tea. Mashing a banana into a bowl or peeling back the lid off of a yogurt. I miss spooning mash into your mouth, watching you gurgle and grin like a baby. I miss caring for you, because it was the only way I could show you I loved you. 

Too often, I liked to imagine another lifetime where a stroke did not ravage your body. A lifetime where your speech was bountiful and your body free to walk and bask in the sun. We could have spoken, and giggled, and exchanged stories. You would tell me about surviving war in Russia, I would’ve told you about surviving American high schools. And how we’d garden, planting wildflowers for the spring, tomatoes for the summer and squash for the fall. We’d frequent nurseries, losing ourselves among the plants and seed packets. I know it’s too late for this lifetime, but maybe in the next one. 

So instead, I’ll live those moments. I’ll go on all the trips we should have gone on. I’ll plant flowers and bake bread and travel, so I’ll have stories for when we meet again. I’ll see you soon.

Your ласточка forever and ever,

Sashinka 

Contact Alexandra (Sasha) Shahinfar at [email protected].