The first time it happens is the worst, because there is nothing familiar. Nothing repeated, no outline. Yet it happens the same: a phone call and then a before and after. A list of regrets, explanations. I wasn’t taught how to grieve so I learned it, went through the steps, the emotions. The requirements needed to process.
The first time it was my grandfather. The last person I’d ever thought would die—it just wasn’t something he could do. He had served in the Korean War, had survived Jim Crow. Was a New York Giants fan. Printed out Google Maps directions and moved me into an apartment that sat near the site of the old Dodgers stadium. He emailed me a picture to prove it.
My phone rang several times before I answered, before I was awake and aware. As my mother spoke I let out a sound like a scream and a sob. I didn’t get to say goodbye.
I emailed my former boss and cried to Penn Station, to a Great Neck bound train. He use to meet me at the station when I spent the weekend—he was never late. My mother is always late.
We drove to pick up his belongings from the rehabilitation center he was recovering in—how fast everything seemed. One minute, then the next.
A day later I went back to work & began pretending things were ok. That I didn’t tear up each time I saw an older man who reminded me of him. That I wasn’t crying in the private bathroom on the sixth floor at work. That the first man I loved wasn’t gone, would never call me Nicey again or lead the family in prayer at Thanksgiving.
I couldn’t bring myself to let others know that I was failing, that I was empty. I kept my grief to myself, carried it with me from Crown Heights to Midtown, back to Mount Olive Baptist Church, were I attended his funeral alone. No one came with me because I never asked anyone to. I read aloud the obituary my mother had asked me to write to the pews of family and his friends. Later I hid in my brother’s room, sweating into my black dress.
No one tells you what to do, how to grieve. I kept my grief to myself because I didn’t want to burden anyone with it. Couldn’t peel back a layer of myself to reveal something tender and messy, something I had no control over. I swept it away out of reach with a forced smile, a plate full of food I didn’t want to eat, an excuse to leave early.
That was the first time.
The second time contains similar elements. Details. Again a phone call, this time to my mother after receiving a text in all caps—CALL ME NOW. This time me crying into the phone in a stairway in Harlem. I came back into the office & announced that my Nana had passed. All I could think about was my brother, traveling abroad for the first time. He had spent the previous weekend with me, I had helped him catch the train to JFK. He didn’t know she was gone.
I went home, taking the same Far Rockaway bound train to my apartment and fell into bed. Huxley, my cat, poked his face into mine, then sat curled next to me as I cried.
The last time I had seen her was the previous December—the house I’d grown up in sold and dismantled for my family’s move back to Georgia. Boxes marked for different bedrooms, photo albums, Earth Wind & Fire records. I’d taken the train to visit them almost every Sunday that fall and winter. My brother and I had been given the task to cleaned out my Nana’s dresser, found her old license, notes with lines of scripture. Patinaed necklaces knotted together. She sat downstairs watching TV, unaware. Sometimes she would remember, wouldn’t repeat the same question 15 minutes later. It’s hard watching someone you love begin to forget you.
This time I didn’t want to be alone, didn’t want to carry the weight. My friend Bridget, who as we like to tell I met the first day we moved to Brooklyn to spend four years at art school, wanted to know what I needed, what she could do. What I wanted was to say goodbye, to tell my Nana how much she meant to me, taught me. I wanted to ask if she remembered us getting dressed for an event, most likely a church function. I was 8, maybe 9, and struggling to get a pair of pantyhose over my underwear without it bunching. She, a room over, instructed me to remove my tights, then my underwear, then put my tights back on. I protested—go out the house without underwear? She came into the room & said “No one but you & me will know & no one else has to.”
Instead I said I needed to be out of my apartment. A polaroid of my grandparents at the Golden Gate Bridge sits on my nightstand, and on that day it was painful to see. “Whatever you need” Bridget wrote back. “Let’s go somewhere.”
Two glasses of wine later I felt guilty. Was this the right way to mourn, to grieve. Listening to Motown at a loud volume in a dark bar on a Monday night. I remembered playing Diana Ross & The Supremes for my grandparents in my dorm room on my old iPod, my grandfather tapping his foot. “This sounds like my music Nicey” he said. I got off my stool and danced like my Nana had, picturing her wide smile, her church hats, her painted nails and bottles of Chanel #5. Bridget & I ordered another round and raised our glasses between us. “To Eunice” I said. “I love you and miss you.”
At my grandfather’s burial at the military cemetery I read i carry your heart with me, the ee cummings poem more often heard at weddings. I do carry my grandfather in my heart, and now my Nana. It made the most sense to read that poem in the middle of the woods in Long Island as it did to step outside myself and ask a friend to drink with me that Monday night in May last year. You aren’t prepared for the first time, and it does not get easier. But you learn you don’t have to burden alone.
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart).