My grandmother died a year ago today but there are still six voicemails from her on my phone, some from as far back as 2014. I haven’t listened to any of them, can’t listen to them, not now, but I can’t delete them either. She’d call and I’d be busy – at work, at play, at the gym – and I’d leave the message unheard on my phone as a reminder to call her back, to answer for sure the next time she called. And mostly I did, except for when I didn’t.
I haven’t heard her voice in more than a year, but I already know how each message starts. She’ll say, “Hi, Terra, it’s your grandma,” and then she’ll tell me why she’s calling, give me some grief for not answering maybe and ask me to call her back. I can hear it in my head, can hear the way she says my name, the way she pronounces grandma. I know the message. I just can’t listen to it.
Five of the voicemails are between 25 and 28 seconds long. The sixth, the outlier, is shorter. It’s just 17 seconds. Half are on or near a holiday – two on Thanksgiving, one on Christmas, three just because.
My grandmother was, in a real and honest sense, the entirety of my family. I have parents, sure. They exist but to call them my parents seems dishonest and they are nonentities in my life. So it was her, my grandmother. She was the only one who sent me birthday cards, who called on Christmas. She was the one looking out for me, asking me if I needed any support in the midst of my divorce. She was always there, no matter what.
She was my family. But she died.
I was deployed when she died and her dying while I was gone was my biggest and only fear.
I saw her for the last time in Texas, over Easter weekend last year while we were at Fort Hood getting ready for the desert. She’s from Texas and it was to Texas she went after spending a whole bunch of her life in Virginia, including the part where she became my grandmother. My uncle lives in Houston, along with his family, so she moved close to him, into a retirement community.
Moving to Texas was a thing she had talked about for years. The house she left behind, in Fairfax, Virginia, was one I’d lived in during high school, was the house she’d lived in my entire life up until that point, the only real house I could ever go back to. We moved a lot when I was a kid, usually every three years or so, but there was always Grandma’s House. It was, a lot of the time, the only source of stability I had in my life. It was always a place I could go back to, and I did, for summers and holiday weekends. I picked blackberries in the backyard, made friends with the other kids in the neighborhood, played dress-up and always went to sleep warm, unafraid and well-fed. That house was my home, even when I didn’t live there. It was the only place that persisted.
I flew to Texas for the funeral, first to Houston to be with my uncle and his family and then to Midland, an hour south of Loop, where we buried my grandmother the day after Thankgiving. We buried her next to her grandmother, where she could be near her parents and her siblings and their families.
At the church, she looked small and different, the way the dead always do before we bury them.
I spoke at the funeral. We all did, my uncle, his two kids. He gave her eulogy and the kids read passages from the Bible and I talked about how I was lucky, as the oldest grandchild, to have had her all to myself for a whole decade before my sister was born. I talked about how she instilled in me a desire to travel and about how she always warned me to be careful on escalators, how to stand in the middle so the escalator teeth wouldn’t grab my shoelaces or pants and destroy my leg.
We drove around, later, my cousins and I, exploring the vast openness of west Texas, checking out the cotton fields where she used to pick cotton, the high school that’s K-12 and smaller than anything any of us had ever attended.
I was glad to be there, glad to see the land she came from, the places she always talked about. It would of been better if she’d been there to show it to me though.
Two days later I went back to Kuwait to finish my deployment.
There is not room for grief on deployments. You’re paid by the American people to do a job and so that’s what you do. There is no privacy, no place to release the torrent of emotions biting at your insides, you are isolated from your friends and your family and everyone else around you is deployed, dealing with all the things that come with a deployment, so grief is hard to process. I cried in Texas and that was it. I didn’t allow myself any grief outside of that, just locked it away. I felt too alone to even attempt to face it, so I didn’t. I didn’t write, I didn’t process it, I just put it away.
But grief found me, of course. It found me when I came home and it’s found me now, on this day, the day I’ve been dreading all year, knowing that the hurt I locked away this time last year would claw its way back out again. And of course it has. That’s how grief works. It will not be banished, it will not be silenced. It will be heard, will push and pull its way out of whatever contraption you’ve managed to stuff it into. It will come out when you see grandmothers sitting alone at the airport, when you sit down to dinner with someone else’s grandmother, when you come even close to the city she used to live in, when you least and most expect it, there it is, your grief.
The thing about my grandmother is that she loved me more than anyone else ever did. More than my parents, more than my friends, more than any of the men who loved me, she loved me more and life without her hurts. The holidays hurt, birthdays hurt, milestones hurt, all of it just fucking hurts because I miss her and I wish I’d been to see her more and I wish I could have been there for more of the last year of her life and I wish, more than anything, that she wasn’t gone.