I remember walking up to the funeral home’s front porch, seeing my mother’s skin mellowed by green and yellow hews—her face sunken with sorrow. Passing through the front door, I am greeted by large whiteboards filled with photos. Attached to these photos are memories. There is a low murmur of recollection, “That was the time when he carried the shark two miles from the pier to show us” or “That was the time we took him to the petting zoo.”
Past this room was an even bigger one with a more somber tone. The room filled with slight sniffles and robust whales from newcomers. In the corner, hidden by a small wall, sat my grandmother. My grandmother always strategically placed herself close enough to allow others to see her there in support but far enough to shield herself from facing her fear of funerals.
As I walked up to the casket, I was riddled with fear. I had been to funerals before, but it was never for someone I truly knew. I did not know what seeing him lying there would do to me. I feared seeing him dead would make me forget about who he was when he was alive.
It was my turn to go.
As I reached the casket, I was greeted by my cousin in the shirt we had purchased together when he came to visit me a few months prior. We spent hours in the Harley Davidson looking for shirts, talking about motorcycles, and laughing—his laugh was my favorite part about him. Soon after, I am ushered to the back to accept condolences from family members and distant friends. I, too, extend these pleasantries and begin searching for his oldest brother. I find him, a shell of himself. I hand him a water, and we stand in silence.
The next day, we follow the large black Cadillac to the place where we will leave him forever.
In the days following, I shifted my attention to my mother. Her frame grew frail, her skin tore at the slightest touch, and her appetite diminished. We sat in hospitals and doctor appointments until, finally, she was admitted. Her kidney was rejecting.
Most of my life had been spent in and out of hospitals with my mother. One time, she told me she felt like a human pin cushion. Her veins had become weak and ran at the sight of needles. This was her second time receiving a kidney and her second time losing the gift of life.
Just a few short months after the news, my mother was welcomed into the same funeral home. Only, this time, she was not sitting on the front porch. As I walk in, I see the week’s worth of preparation. The whiteboards filled with memories and flowers sent by loved ones. I, again, walk to the somber room. I am greeted by my beautiful mother lying peacefully at the front. I remember thinking, “She looks so beautiful and at peace.” I placed the “world’s best mom” pin I bought for her at the Scholastic Book Fair in, I don’t know, 2nd grade, on her and hid a sunflower deep in her casket.
My grandmother, nestled closer to the casket, just on the other side of the wall she used to shield her the last time. Still far enough, but this time closer. She laughed and joked with those who came to greet her. She extended pleasantries and continued diverting her eyes away from my mother.
At the night’s end, my grandmother and grandfather approached the casket to say one final goodbye. Hand in hand, they crept toward my mother, their baby, to say one last goodbye.
Not long after, my grandmother’s health began to decline. My brother and sister-in-law cared for her while I was stuck in Nashville, wishing I could be there. As soon as I could, I hopped on a plane and flew to care for her and give my family a break. We spent time together, laughed, cried, ate, and bathed.
Her health did not improve, but it also did not decline. I found myself stuck between wanting to stay and knowing I was also needed in Nashville. I left again, and all was well until it wasn’t. I got the call that she was not going to make it. I booked a flight. I called an Uber to pick me up and take me to the airport. As we pulled up to the “departing flights” area, I got the call that she had passed. I spent the flight silent crying into my cloth covid mask with my head resting on my best friend’s shoulder. I was welcomed home with the swollen, blood shot eyes of my family, gathered in the living room.
We made the whiteboards, stood by her casket, and followed the large black Cadillac once again.
In nine short months, I lost my cousin, mother, and grandmother. I was riddled with grief, anger, and an overwhelming sense of urgency—the urgency to do anything and everything except feel my feelings.
One day, in a fit of rage, I found myself screaming in the car in the Planet Fitness parking lot. My car windows fogged with tears and sweat. “Why do I have to wake up without a mother? Why do I have to pretend this pain is temporary when it won’t leave me alone? Why do I have to feel like this? ”
And then, it happened, like flipping a light switch or snapping your fingers, I began to talk back to myself. I answered my own questions:
Why do I have to wake up without a mother? “Because her body could no longer support her spirit.
Why do I have to pretend this pain is temporary when it won’t leave me alone? “You don’t. Nobody ever said you did. You’re the one who said that.”
I sat there in the Planet Fitness parking lot a bit longer:
“Why do I have to feel like this? Why do I have to feel like this? Why do I have to feel like this?” Finally, I blurted out, “I don’t have to feel like this, I get to feel like this.” And all at once, my anguish was extinguished.
I get to feel like this because I got to feel loved.
In the coming weeks, I remembered to tell myself, “I get to feel like this.” I reminded myself that I was lucky to carry the grief because it proved how strong I loved and was loved. In times of weakness, I celebrated my emotions, looked lovingly at my brokenness, and created space for my sorrows. Instead of running from it, I ran towards it. I became grateful for my grief.
It still baffles me how changing one small word changed my reality. I do not have to do anything, but I get to.