The Things We Leave Behind


My first funeral was my grandmother’s, and I was eleven years old. I remember I wore a black checked dress, and that I had recently bobbed my hair. I didn’t wear makeup yet save the usual Smackers lip-gloss you could find in the cosmetics section at Wal Mart. I put it on that morning and it tasted like watermelon. I Dream of Jeannie was on television, and I could smell coffee from the kitchen. My mother was wearing her usual maroon lipstick, and it matched her eyes. They were red, but ringed with her mascara. She wore velvet, and pantyhose, and black, thick-heeled shoes. She leaned on the kitchen counter, then straightened up and grabbed the car keys. My father and I followed her to the car.

My grandmother died of a sudden aneurism one night in late July. She’d been in a coma for a week, and my mother had practically been living at the hospital. We knew it was bad, but when the phone rang around five p.m., I think we all knew exactly what had happened. “The doctors said to come there,” was all my mother said, placing the phone back on its electronic charger. My parents then dropped me off at my other grandparents’ house and waved goodbye, and I straightened my overnight bag and went inside.

That night, I drew. I’d brought my markers and several sheets of white computer paper. I don’t remember what I ate, but I do recall sitting at the kitchen counter, coloring profusely. I did this for hours, and when my parents came to collect me around eleven at night, I had drawn several pictures of sky and trees and rainbows.

She had died, and my mother told me she’d gotten in bed with Mimi and held her. There had been prayers. My mother promised me that Mimi had known they were there, and that I loved her. And I stood there, trying to believe that with all my might. I convinced myself of it with the power of a child’s bullheadedness. I turned around at some point and ripped up every single picture I’d drawn that night, flushing the shards down the toilet. I sat and cried on my stairwell.

It was late and my parents were tired. My mother looked hollow, but wasn’t crying now, just a little unsteady, a little too loose in her movements. They went to bed at some point, but I stayed up lying on my bathroom floor. I remember staring up into the lights, making a silent deal with God. I told him that if he brought her back, I would do something remarkable. I promised him many things, many things that I now see as childish and a little bit heartbreaking. But I fully believed in the power of promise, then. I believed a small child could bargain with death.

The funeral is a blur, as most, I think, are. We came home after, and at some point in the following week, we went to her room. It smelled like her — that’s the sharpest memory I have. I wanted to keep the door closed so her smell couldn’t escape, couldn’t disappear. Her things were laid out as usual — a hairbrush, a tube of the same shade of lipstick I’d known her to wear my entire life. There was a handful of change on her dresser, dull pennies, a paperclip that was open, a ballpoint pen. Her clothes were hung up, and I pressed my face into one of her blouses. I found her hat, and ran my hand over the brim. I think this was the moment I realized that objects can make up a person. The material and immaterial both matter when it comes to the personality, the essence of a human being. That sounds strange saying it; almost sacrilegious. But I fully believe that there are bits and pieces of us spread all over in items we’ve forgotten or misplaced or given away. And with that comes a comfort of a sort. Because, she was there, right in that room. These things were what made up a familiar identity that was still so very real, and still so alive to me. But it wasn’t enough and it wasn’t the same, just a blip of a breathing memory. There was an absence, too — a strong feeling of goodbye that held within it the emptiness of death.

My mother took a few things from the room. Some clothes, some pieces of jewelry she wanted to keep safe. A few months back during a visit at home, I ran across these same items in my parents’ closet. The smell was gone, and a layer of dust was on the jewelry. They were folded in a drawer, packed tidily away, as if hidden from time. I looked at them for a minute; I patted one of the folded shirts. It was striped and cotton and looked exactly like a grandmother shirt. There was the memory of my sadness, but that hard ache I’d felt for months after her death, didn’t come. It was just a few of her things, but it had stopped me cold, sparking her once more in a portion of my mind that I’d all but forgotten. After that minute, I closed the drawer and felt something: just a small nudge of warmth, a tug of a smile, and I turned off the light.