“Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
– Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas
When my grandfather died, my family came together very early in the morning at a secret location — kept secret not because of tradition, but for questions of legality — and spread his ashes where they could float away and travel the world. He died suddenly, having decided that it was better not to tell his family that he had terminal cancer in order to spare us further suffering. He didn’t want us to see it coming. He was a proud man and he wanted to protect us all.
I was in high school and I couldn’t even bring myself to sit with him in the hospital. The sadness was too much. I felt like the world was ending. I tried to be strong and brave, keeping my broken heart to myself, as he had done. When I was told that he had died, I continued trying to keep my feelings in. I walked away from my mother, father, and sister, into my bedroom, but I quickly broke down into loud sobs. When my father overheard me and barged into my room, I clung to him, grateful for the comfort. As I mourned, my grief was vocal, loud, and public. At school the day after he died, I ended up sobbing on the floor of a public bathroom. I wore white and covered my hair for a month in an effort to show the world that I had been altered.
A Stranger in the Family
Dementia is not an illness that you rage against. It is not sudden, it does not come as a surprise. It took my grandmother slowly, over many years. During college, she would call me every Sunday. But as we both got older, she started to forget me. She would miss our weekly call or call me several times without realizing it. Then there were the forgotten bits of conversation and the conversations we would have again and again. “Yes, I live in Washington. No, I am not seeing anyone. Yes, I am more focused on my career right now.” She wanted to learn about my life and make sure I was happy. She was careful to withhold judgment of the choices I was making even when they were at odds with her own values. The only time she expressed an opinion on what I was doing was to ask that I make choices that would bring me closer to her — come back to Chicago, come visit more often, stay for longer.
And yet, the woman I loved always had a destination in mind.
It took many years to realize that she was sick, drifting away from me on a vast, empty ocean. By the time I really realized, her best years were behind her. One Christmas, she turned to look at me and there was no recognition in her eyes. She didn’t know who I was anymore. I was devastated. Family was everything to her, second only to God Himself. And I was her baby. She loved me. There is little in this world that I am more certain of. One of the things I would never dare to question is the love of my grandmother. She had built a shrine to us — her living room was covered in dozens of family photos from our most shining moments. More photos surrounded the edge of her bedroom mirror so that when she woke up every morning to face the world, she started with us. We — the family she had made and loved and nurtured, the family she had fought for and taught to fight in return — were central to her identity. And if she had lost us, if she had forgotten me, then she had also lost herself. She was gone, I realized that Christmas. She had slipped past the line of the horizon and she was lost to me.
Without consciously realizing it, I began to mourn her as if she had already died. But she hadn’t, she was right in front of me. The last memory I have of my grandmother is walking her around the parking lot of a Red Lobster, one of her favorite restaurants. In many ways, it was so like her — always moving, lover of long walks, willful and active. And yet, the woman I loved always had a destination in mind. This woman mumbled to herself without the need for response, with no idea of who her family was. I remember wishing so ardently that I could tell her that I was her family, that she was not lost because I would take care of her. But I knew that she wouldn’t understand. And anyway, I wasn’t taking care of her, her daughters were. I was still in Washington, still focused on my career, and I was a stranger to her. So I walked her around the parking lot and gave her all the kindness an old woman could ask of a stranger, and all the kindness my grandmother deserved.
The thought that my grandmother, who had loved me my whole life, was a stranger to me felt like a complete betrayal. I knew I could never say such thoughts aloud and I wished I had not thought them. As my grandmother slipped slowly away from me, I realized that her death slipped ever closer. It sat in the hallows of her cheeks that used to be full, in the far off look in her eyes, and the washing away of the same fire that I have inherited. My mother tried to do me the small kindness of preparing for the inevitable by warning me consistently that “it won’t be long now.” But other than these rushed conversation, we had to ignore that my grandmother was gone and that death waited in her place. We had to ignore that death loomed at every meal, an unwelcome guest that we couldn’t acknowledge, a silent phantom that I had to entertain because it held my grandmother.
Facing the Inevitable
I thought that when she died, my world would stop. I would stop whatever I was doing and go home and stay there for a good long time. I thought I wouldn’t be able to go out in public because of all of the crying. I thought that I would rage because she could not. I assumed my grief would be total, all consuming, and incapacitating.
But she died last week and life rarely turns out how you thought. In the end, last minute flights are expensive and hotels even more so. I could only fly home for a few days, over a week after her death. My family and I wore a uniform of red shirts with her picture on them, because red was her favorite color, and gathered once more in our secret location for our illicit release of her ashes and red balloons. My Uncle led the display of public mourning — falling to his knees and striking the ground. The rest of us choked back tears — holding on the edge of together. My grief is not the public, vocal sobbing that I felt for my grandfather but a silent, impotent weeping. I am despondent and I cannot find catharsis. This feels merely like the release of a long-held pain that I’ve kept too close to my heart. I have missed her for a long time — hating myself for missing someone right in front of me. I said goodbye to her years ago and now I am finally forced to let her go. I do not cry, I watch the waves roll in and think of her.
Memories of her drift back to me across the same sea that my grandma drifted away on when she became sick. Without realizing, I had locked them all away. But now I take each out and examine them. I remember her for who she was and what she meant to me, not for who she became.
Ma Ma. Grannie. Mama. Mrs. Nailor. Mrs. Jones. Sonja.
Grandma and I during graduation | Photo courtesy of the author
My grandmother was a remarkable woman. One of my first memories was her telling me that blood is thicker than water and that my sister and cousins must take care of each other. And when we defended each other in playground squabbles (or rather, when my older cousins and my sister defended me), we would reference her words. My understanding of family is a group of people who will love me unconditionally no matter what, who will accept me, and support me however they can. Family is love and light, laughter and warm hugs. I have always thanked my mother for teaching me that — for being one of my strongest forces for self-confidence and the realization that I can and should be anything I want to be. But there, just beyond my mother is her mother. Sunrise strolls to meet the day, pretending to strut down a runway when I came home from school to show off my cute outfit, a warm aromatic house and a home cooked meal, her favorite red dog which became my favorite red dog, knowing the names of all my favorite toys, a Minnie Mouse doll that says “I love you,” my little sugar bear, and all the smiles and all the hugs a little girl could want. Every graduation, every award ceremony, every bragging opportunity, any reason, no matter how small, to show that she was proud of me. My memories of my grandmother are the fuzzy reflections of a happy child who knew that she was loved. She told me that a grandma’s job was to spoil her grandchildren and that’s exactly what she did.
(from left to right) Mom, grandma, me, and my sister Talisa | Photo courtesy of the author
What she has given me is incalculable. And for years I have been navigating her loss, trying to understand a world without her. Slowly. As if her last gift to me was time to adjust.
When Death Comes
While I still feel the need to sacrifice for the dead, I do not cover my hair. I go for the much more subdued and culturally appropriate, wearing all black. In the artsy and fashionable landscape of San Francisco, where I live now, it’s barely noticeable.
Grandma Sonja Jones-Nailor | Photo courtesy of the author
I make a “Winter 2018” playlist with songs that remind me of her. It features “Me & Mrs. Jones,” of course, some songs that I know she liked and listened to, and others that are old, soft, and smooth, filling me with a gentle sort of contentment like when I think of her. I started making playlists for the seasons while researching dementia. It was one of the suggestions on a long list of things you can do if you suspect you have a predisposition for the illness. I put the red shirt with her picture in my closet, behind a shirt that belonged to my grandfather. I keep a copy of her obituary in the pocket of my fleece and I squeeze it everyday going to and from work. I give the photo of her at my college graduation a little nod every night before bed. I add a new photo to my collection — from high school this time — her eyes are a little brighter, cheeks a little fuller, long before she became sick.
Perhaps for the first time in years, I allow myself to really miss her. I acknowledge what I have lost. And I weep my silent, impotent tears. It is not the rage I thought I would have. It is not the public mourning I felt for my grandfather. I have grown older and I have learned the dignified, stoic mourning of my aunts. But it is potent and it is real. I feel a deep and persistent sadness.
I said goodbye to her years ago and now I am finally forced to let her go. I do not cry, I watch the waves roll in and think of her.
Grandpa in between myself and Talisa | Photo courtesy of the author
I realize that my grandfather was wrong. You cannot soften the blow of death by hiding from it. Fast or slow, death will come and it will hurt. Thankfully, I have learned not to try to mourn alone. I seek out my family. No matter what form my mourning comes, I know that I will need them and they will make it better.
The day we released her ashes and balloons, I spent over an hour looking at old family photos, collecting some of my favorite memories. I took them home with me and vowed to put them online. I told myself I would call my family more, text my aunts and my cousins. This is the most assured way that I could honor her memory, the thing that would mean the most to her: I could hold my family a little closer, I could make an effort to look a little cuter, cook a little more, maybe date a Black man for once. I could make a family of my own. And I can be happy. She was willing to hold her values and her judgments of my life aside so that I could pursue happiness by my own definition. So my long term plan is to do just that.