By Brook Bhagat
For Grandma Muriel
Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place. ~Zora Neale Hurston
“And there’s Brook, coming out of the bathroom.” My grandmother said these words with so much love, such complete joy—as if she were witness to a gift, a miracle, some awe-inspiring stellar phenomena or a comet that comes only once in a lifetime. She beamed at me, following me with her eyes as I awkwardly tried to close the enormous bathroom door behind me and made my way back to my place at the foot of the hospital bed. It was September and my mother and I had come to visit for her birthday, not knowing when we booked the tickets that Grandma would be rushed in for emergency surgery. She was so happy we had come.
It is December now, and my grandmother died yesterday. She was a creator, a writer, a painter, a poet; she was a musician and a seeker of truth. She was brilliant and strong, brave and righteous. She was a rare diamond, an authentic human being; but the loss, to me, is of that look in her eyes when she saw me, that love in her voice. The world has lost someone truly unique, the world suffered a great loss yesterday—but I don’t care about the world. I lost someone who knew me. I lost someone who really, really loved me.
Grandma had a soft spot for me, and I had one for her. I don’t know how or why; all the words and experiences put together don’t explain it. I would like to think there was something quite the same about us—some element of brutal honesty, of making trouble if we have to, of being night owls and feeling overwhelmed with the beauty of the sky. I am a writer, yes, she loved that, but that wasn’t it. It started long before that. She knew me better than I knew myself, somehow, and she still loved me. She saw something magnificent in me, something beyond me, something I couldn’t see myself—but something I could feel was real when I saw it reflected in her eyes, in her love. Not like when some grownup says, Oh, look at you! Such a good girl!—and you know that you are not a good girl, and the grownup is an idiot. Not like that… more like when someone believes in you, really believes in you, with such complete trust and confidence that you begin to believe it yourself.
They say that you can’t really love anyone until you love yourself, and maybe it’s true, but it’s not so neat and clean. It’s all mixed in the river, like mud and leaves and ice breaking off and melting. When someone loves you like that, so totally, a beautiful person like Grandma thinks you’re worth loving—you open up to the possibility, simply because there’s no way she could be wrong. If I don’t love myself, I know the mistake is mine—there must be something I’m not seeing, something Grandma can see that I can’t see yet, that’s all. I must be valuable, lovable, because the proof is right there in her eyes.
Grandma had a way of making me believe that everything was going to be all right; deep down, I still know she is right. When I was eleven or twelve, I had a fight with my mother about something—I don’t even remember what—and decided to run away, taking only the cat with me because, as I had written in the note I left on the kitchen table, she was “the only one who truly appreciated me.” It was cold and I left the house crying, the cat desperately trying to claw her way out of my snapped-up jean jacket. She did not appreciate me as much as I thought, apparently, and growled and fought until I finally had to let her go. That’s when Grandma caught up with me. “I’m not going back,” I told her. “I’m not going to talk to her, and I’m not going to make up with her.”
“No, no,” Grandma said. “You don’t have to talk to her. I will talk to her, and you can take a bubble bath.”
What is the taste, the element of a grandmother’s love that is different? Like the ingredient you can’t quite place, something distinct yet indescribable… some certain distance. A parent’s love may be unconditional, but it has a quality of work in it; they have to discipline you, parent you, they have to be responsible and do their job. A grandparent’s love has a different flavor: recreation, freedom, enjoyment. Their work is done; school is out for the summer and it’s time to celebrate, to enjoy. I remember visiting Grandma years before, on the island. She would plan the most pleasurable days she could imagine for us: we should walk along the beach, we should see the shops, we should eat shrimp and drink white Russians. Everything was a sort of celebration, and the occasion was just me, my visit, our being together again.
My grandmother also knew her own worth; she loved herself as thoroughly as she loved me. Some women, even to the end of life, can give their lives for others yet cannot give a scrap to themselves. Grandma never stood on ceremony with me. At one family reunion, we shared a little cabin by a river. Whenever I would ask her if she wanted to drink chai, she didn’t tell me not to take any trouble, or say no so that I would ask again. She would just say, “Yes.”
In September, the last time I saw her, on the first and second night there in the hospital room, she was so happy to see us that she was trying to force herself to stay awake to enjoy the visit. She was exhausted, and even nodding off, but she didn’t want us to go. “Are you tired? Do you want to go to sleep?” we kept asking her, but she kept saying no, no.
Finally, I asked her if I could sing her to sleep, and she said, simply, “Yes.” There was no chair near enough, and I pulled up a tiny marble-topped table to sit on. I was outside of space and time as I sang, the hospital light on the dimmest setting, my body buzzing with the song and the honor, the preciousness of the moment. I stroked her forehead, her hair so soft and white. We sang together until she fell asleep, and then I kept singing the handful of Billie Holiday standards I know by heart over and over:
The snow is snowing, the wind is blowing
But I can weather the storm!
What do I care how much it may storm?
I’ve got my love to keep me warm.
I can’t remember a worse December
Just watch those icicles form!
What do I care if icicles form?
I’ve got my love to keep me warm. i
It is really December now, and she is gone. I can’t sing with her, I can’t call her, I can’t listen to her troubles or her funny stories or tell her mine. We didn’t finish the book we were making together, and we never will. There won’t be any more visits or walks on the beach; it’s over, it’s all over...
But love is not subject to space and time and bodies—I don’t just think it, I feel it. Love is alive, all mixed in the river; there is no such thing as a separate person. If there is any way to honor her, her vision, it is to trust the depth of her love for me, and let myself believe it, let myself deserve it, even give it to myself in her name. Grandma had a way of making me believe that everything was going to be all right; deep down, I still know she is right.
i “I’ve Got my Love to Keep Me Warm,” written by Irving Berlin, 1937.
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