Another trip to the hospice. My mother and I had developed a routine.
After the distraction of school and misery of home, off to the hospice to visit the woman who raised me from near birth, who helped shape who I was — my grandmother. Cancer had sucked her body thin and made her grip weak. That day I had on a red shirt and a pair of sunglasses. After we took the last left turn before the hospice’s driveway, the stress that usually stuffed my chest evaporated without warning. A sense of peace swept in to replace the sudden vacancy. Never had I and never have I since felt such utter calmness and relief.
We arrived inside the hospice to see my grandmother’s door closed.
“We tried to call before you guys arrived…”
My world tilted. I lost my breath. My mother wailed.
Suddenly, I knew why I felt such peace in the car. Just like my grandmother’s pain kept me awake at night miles away, the relief she probably felt at death transferred temporarily to me.
Memories were all I had left now.
People talk about the Seven Stages of Grief but never about what happens to the memories of a loved one — a desperate stranglehold, a fossilization.
Stage 1: Death and Burial
“A being dies and is buried before the remains are completely destroyed.”
I helped pack my grandma’s belongings up as my mother cried. My family gathered around my grandmother’s body and sung gospel songs so loud, the whole hospice either joined in or teared up themselves. At times, I waited for her to jump in. Her passion was singing, and the last time I knew she sang was her last radiation treatment. Rail thin but ringing the center’s “last treatment bell,” she belted a four-minute ode to God. Just as she made the doctors and nurses cry there, her family did the same to honor her. As long as her body was there, I waited to hear her voice. I waited for hours. Then the mortician arrived. A body bag covered her body. I could wait no longer.
We couldn’t afford burial. My grandmother dreamed about buying a plot of land for our family’s graves and a mansion to house us all. Mega Millions never came her away. All we could muster was $5,000 insurance policy and some smooth talking to get a “show and burn” arrangement. A wake, a funeral, and then into the furnace her shrunken body went.
At the funeral, I began collecting memories to cherish and bury.
She loved Westerns. Growing up, when her father would let them listen to the radio, she would listen cowboy radio plays. Decades later, my grandmother would watch Encore Westerns for hours, watching the movies of her favorite actor, John Wayne, and many others. She often complained about the channel’s lack of variety. She credited her several letters and calls to Comcast as the reason for the channel’s eventual expansion. She cited her persistence in filing complaints as the reason for many changes — from the the building of an IHOP in Peachtree City to getting my elementary school to re-add orange juice as a drinking option for lactose intolerant students. “If I have a problem, I have no problem telling the higher-ups about it.” I still try to forego my shyness to do that.
Then her excitement over Taylor Hicks of “American Idol” fame. “I told you so! Us old folks came on through!” she said squealing, clapping, dialing her sister Ruby for a joint celebration of Taylor’s win. The night before she enlisted my help in calling the vote line. When she couldn’t get through, she theorized Fox was trying to sabotage the win of Taylor because of his gray hair. I rolled my eyes but thought she may have been right, so I spent most of the night voting to stop the potential sabotage. By the end of voting, we both knew the call-in number by heart.
Her seasonal change of harmless addictions. During the winter, a tray full of cracked walnuts sat in her lap while she watched her Westerns and soap operas, her favorite of the latter being “Young and the Restless.” During the summer, she’d go through a box of cheap Popsicles every week. In the spring, she’d down a bag of fried pigskins and grapes, theorizing that the grapes would cushion her stomach against the abrasiveness of the skins. All I knew was that the smell of the two together made me crinkle my nose. She knew better than to offer me some. One day my grandmother got me puffcorn instead of pigskins so I could join in on her fun partly. When the puffcorn broke me out in hives, she called over our next door neighbor, a nurse, in a panic.
That one time she vacuumed the carpet and danced to “Dirrrty” by Christina Aguilera, surely not knowing what the hell Aguilera was actually singing about. I begged her to stop, but I couldn’t say why without exposing how inappropriate my music tastes were as a 10-year-old. She kept dancing, and I kept feeling embarrassed, but my heart felt full of love.
My memories. Mine.
I shared them to keep them alive. I repeated them to myself. While sitting on the family couch, I would stare at her loveseat, remembering childhood joys of watching TV together, reading books to her, and asking if we could have pizza for dinner. I’d sit on the love seat only to stare at the couch, remembering childhood lectures that would last so long, I never wanted to do whatever I did ever again. I thought of every memory over and over to bury them within the crevices of my mind.
Stage 2: Layers of Time
“Time passes. Sedimentary layers cover and press down on the buried remains.”
I became obsessed with my memories. But my thoughts kept returning to one in particular: her reaction to Taylor Hick’s American Idol win. At school –when I dared to come back — my thoughts would drift to the scene. Along with the clapping and squeals, she stomped her feet and swayed her pompadour in excitement. The memory was beautiful: her mumu, her hair, her loveseat, her laugh, and the sound of her not in pain.
I soon discovered though that memories are like VHS tapes: play the tape enough and the video will become disjointed, the sound will whirr, and, eventually, the tape will stop playing.
Years passed. Time added layers between us. I could no longer remember her voice or her laugh and then one day, the visual of her movement blurred. What did her legs look like? Her hands? Her face? And no, not what the photos showed, but the details our cheap disposable cameras failed to capture.
I’ll never know again.
Stage 3: Outside Influence
“Dissolved minerals fill tiny spaces in the bones. The combination of pressure, chemical reactions and time eventually turns the sediments into rock and the bones into mineralised fossils.”
People told me stories from a time before I “was even bein’ thought about.” My, at this point, broken memories caused gaping holes in my heart that needed to be filled. Something, anything would suffice. I needed her with me somehow. I settled for collecting stories from her distant past to fluff up the fragments I had left.
Soon the memories I buried became conglomerate pictures of who she was overall. I thought of her less intently but just as frequently. She became a concept instead of a person. Our connection felt fractured. Unlike when she was alive, I couldn’t just go to the living room and squeeze into the loveseat with her to reconnect. I did not forget what I learned about her and what I knew from my own heart, eyes, and ears. I had just let time transform her memory into a subject, a complex characterization.
Stage 4: Rediscovery
“The fossils remain within the rock until uncovered through erosion or excavation.”
Senior year of college arrives. Almost 5 years have passed since her death. I begin writing my creative senior seminar, my mind creating a character named Grandma Anne. She has the same nails as my grandmother. She has the same famous salt and pepper patterned hair. Yet Grandma Anne is different. In her differences, I rediscovered my grandmother. Her memory is with me again.
Her fossil will never leave my mind’s museum.
Source for Info on the Fossil Process: “How Fossils Are Formed?” Australian Museum https://australianmuseum.net.au/how-are-fossils-forme