I was six when my grandmother passed away, so I don’t remember much about her. What I can piece together is vague and, because of its lack of specificity, unsatisfying.
I know that she had a large family and that she was one of just a few girls in a house dominated by brothers. I know that she had thick, coarse, black hair that contrasted against the lightness of her skin. I know that she had two children: my father and his sister.
I don’t remember the color of her eyes, but I can look back at old photographs. I don’t remember her height, but I imagine that she must have been shorter than my father.
When I was a baby we visited her house constantly. I don’t remember the colors or the smells, or even who might have lived there with her.
I know that she was well-loved and that her death, early on in her 50s, was unexpected; and because it was unexpected, tragic.
Out of the four, she was the only grandparent I could know. My mother’s mother died when my mother was young, and I didn’t know my parents’ fathers.
Because I was six, I didn’t understand grief or mourning. I knew that my father—who was always a quiet man of little expression—seemed sullen and sadder than I had ever known. I knew that my sister, who was almost 9, was affected too because Grandma was her favorite.
She started asking a lot of questions about her once she was gone, but there was little space for answers in a house of mourning.
Because we were six and almost nine, my father, who married my mother as a teen, must have been in his late 20s, a year or so shy of 30.
We were ill-equipped to console him, but I carry that memory with me.
- The memory of abrupt and sudden loss.
- The memory of youth and the inconvenience of it.
- The memory of the ways death and dying can bring the living closer.
When I was eight, we moved to a different house in a different neighborhood. The move was insignificant and anti-climactic, but the neighbors—an elderly, affectionate couple—were eccentric and warned us about benign but consistent spirits.
Sometimes they come back.
My asthma medication made me stocky. Any time I’d catch a cold it would trigger my asthma, and I’d find myself struggling to breathe. I remember taking slow, measured steps throughout the house, counting the rhythm against the pace of my breathing.
The neighbors who could sense my struggle, urged my mother to draw a horizontal line on the wall near the doorframe right above my head– to indicate my height. When I passed the line, I would grow out of my asthma.
My mother smiled politely and laughed nervously. Although she was skeptical, as soon as they left she grabbed a Sharpie and ushered me towards the door.
The strangeness that came later was subtle.
Although I’d taken my inhaler for years (and had a larger, bulkier, light blue, breathing treatment for near misses), I started to see a big purple haze whenever I used it.
The purple haze made me feel like I was floating above everyone, and I didn’t like it. Whenever I could get away with it, I’d pretend that I couldn’t find it.
I expected the lights to flicker or the doors to slam suddenly and dramatically, but there was none of that. What happened was much simpler. What happened seemed to not really happen at all.
Sometimes my sister would pile all the clean clothes up on her bed as high as she could pile them. Then she’d squeeze in tight and drift peacefully off to sleep. The first time it happened my dad froze in the doorway. He was silent, but I could tell he was affected.
When she woke later, he asked if she’d slept that way because she missed Grandma. No one understood what he meant.
We spent most of our days as kids do—creating problems, building fake sand castles, and dreaming elaborate dreams.
My mother says that my sister is just like our father’s mother. She shares her softness and her heaviness and her subtlety. She has her mannerisms and her temperament and her punctuality.
When she passed away, we always felt that she needed more time with us and more time with my father.
In our haunted house, it seemed like she was far from gone and very, very near.
Sometimes they come back.
Sometimes they come back in order to be near us. To assuage our fears and put our hearts at ease.
Sometimes, it’s to remind us that their memory lives on and that we can never truly lose them.
Sometimes, it’s to teach us something we’ve lost, or something we’ve forgotten, or something that we’re capable of but haven’t fully actualized.
Sometimes we imagine that they’ve returned. We are young or scared or overwhelmed by grief. We make ourselves see them in friends we love or friends we loathe or lovers not yet borne.
We imagine that they are with us always, because if they are gone, we will lose ourselves completely.
I grew out of my asthma a few years after college.
In grade school, I was hospitalized frequently and consistently. Three inhalers were always available, one as back up not too far behind.
After college, the first time I got sick but didn’t need my inhaler, I called my mother excitedly from Chicago. I reminded her of the little house in that quiet neighborhood back when I was eight, “I grew past the line! I grew past the line!”
She couldn’t place the reference at first, but then light but nervous laughter, “The one that was haunted by your grandmother?”
Sometimes we don’t imagine them because we are so desperate to believe.
Sometimes, they come back.