I was a morose child, but I’ve always been determined to capture light. Summers growing up in Alabama, I’d demand to chase fireflies. Granny Mil would look after me in the yard ’til after dark. She’d help me put the ones I caught into a mason jar. She’d cut holes in the lid so they could breathe. I’d put them by my bedside so they could help me dream.
Now that I’m grieving her as an adult, I’m stitching together our little ritual of making firefly nightlights. I’m trying to remember her alive. Granny Mil had a way of suspending time, of holding magic up to the light. I’m looking for flashes that could bring her back. I don’t need signs and wonders, just subtle sparks to soothe my heart’s desire to see her again.
But you can’t hold light in a jar. You can’t quite find the seam between living and dying. And so you stitch and try to remember.
The last time I saw Granny Mil alive, she was in the ICU, with fluid in her lungs. She’d developed pneumonia in the hospital, after a fall that caused a hematoma in her leg. She was drifting in and out of a tenuous lucidity.
One time, a nurse came in and asked, “Can you tell me your name and birth date?”
“428-8506,” Granny Mil said, quick on the uptake.
“Mother, that’s your phone number,” her seventy-five-year-old daughter Ceil said. Ceil had been taking care of Granny Mil at her house for over a year. Every day was a battle of wills: Mostly over the compression hose Granny Mil was supposed to wear to prevent blood clots. And coffee: Ceil wouldn’t let her have caffeine at home anymore—said it made her rowdy, with the Gabapentin she had to take for her neuropathy.
During her little mental functioning quiz with the ICU nurse, Granny Mil slipped a few sips of her favorite drink. Coffee came on the breakfast tray, with an opaque bendy straw. She brought it to her lips and flashed me a spry wink, as Ceil tried to prompt her to tell the nurse her date of birth: “Mother, say your birthday, like we practiced for going to the doctor.”
“9/13/21.” Certain numbers were easier for her to retrieve than precise words sometimes.
“Yes, Ma’am,” the nurse said, lifting Granny Mil’s bruise-blue wrist. “That’s what it says on your hospital bracelet. Now, how about your first and last name?”
“Granny Mil,” she said.
“What do people call you who don’t know you well?” Ceil chimed in, “like at the bank.”
“Granny Mil,” she said, more matter-of-factly this time.
Everybody did call her Granny Mil. In the forty years since her first grandchild started talking, Granny Mil had pretty much become her name: to her daughters, to her sons-in-law, to the younger ladies at the beauty parlor, where they would sit and reminisce under the helmet-shaped hair dryers. Even the postal worker who’d been delivering her mail since 1982 had taken to calling her Granny Mil. I wouldn’t put it past a familiar bank teller to do the same.
She’d always been Granny Mil to me, even though I’m not one of her biological grandchildren. She came, when I was just under two years old, after my parents’ disastrous divorce. She’d answered an ad in The Birmingham News for a live-in babysitter for a 22-month-old girl. (Granny Mil had retired from her job selling drapes door-to-door, and she wasn’t necessarily looking for work, but she read every inch of the paper every morning, even the classifieds, even when she wasn’t seeking anything in particular.)
Some of my earliest memories are of Granny Mil’s voice singing me to sleep: “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, how I wonder what you are…” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily…” And whatever scared or hurt me would drift off into “life is but a dream…”
Granny Mil’s life was far from a dream. When she was nine years old, she witnessed her mother die of a heart attack. By the time she came into my life, she’d buried two alcoholic husbands. But Granny Mil had a way of mending history, of stitching up and moving through. She had an ease in believing that everything would turn out alright. And so she sang the hardest parts of life into a dream for me, when I was too young to know how to grieve. She wasn’t lying. She was giving me a lullaby to heal by.
Whenever I would get tangled up in a fit of catastrophizing, Granny Mil could help me unravel. “Just doze on off to sleep, and maybe everything will be better when you wake up,” she would say. “The Lord is lookin’ after you.” And that became a refrain of my childhood.
Granny Mil “nurtured the eternal in me,” to borrow a phrase from Fred Rogers. She “sang me into singing.”
Granny Mil always kept a light clasp on life. And when she started dying at 96 years old, she was ready to go. “I never thought I would live this long,” she kept saying. In ICU, the oxygen tube kept falling out of her nostrils when she would sigh. She didn’t pity herself. She was just tired.
She’d already marked in her Bible the verses she wanted to be read at her memorial service: Let not your heart be troubled… I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. (John 14:1-3)
She’d marked those verses years ago, when she was still mobile enough to go to the little Baptist church where her son-in-law was the head pastor. The day he preached on the way Jesus said goodbye to his disciples, she wrote funeral next to the verses, in that looping cursive Palmer method of penmanship she’d learned in school, the u curving into the n with as much ease as she weathered any suffering that came her way. For Granny Mil, life and death and what happens after is plain as day: Like Jesus, we walk with our wounds. When we die, it’s time to go home to the Lord, who has prepared a room for us in heaven.
When I was nine, she gave me my first Bible, an illustrated King James, with a picture of Jesus on the front surrounded by children. The cover zips up, as if to provide extra protection for the pages that are so thin you have to lick your finger to turn them one at a time. The front cover has pictures of the flora and fauna of Galilee inside: myrrh trees, locusts, antelopes. And the back pages have “Spiritual Memory Gems,” the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes, with decorative crests and big calligraphic first letters whose looping shapes thrilled me.
I treasured that Bible as a gift from Granny Mil, a zippered keepsake I could hold and open when she wasn’t with me. And as my very own illuminated manuscript of the book everybody I knew in Alabama believed you were supposed to live by. I didn’t question it, but I didn’t read it, either. I was fine with sound bites I’d hear in church and in the grocery store check-out line and the variations on “Jesus Saves” I would see on giant signs on the side of the highway. I didn’t go to Sunday School. I had the vernacular Bible in my child psyche. And I was more into sci-fi: The Neverending Story and A Wrinkle in Time, my first favorite chapter book. I realize now as an adult that Granny Mil was like Madeleine L’Engle’s Mrs. Whatsit character for me: a disheveled old lady who seemed to have come from a starlit sky, to help the family through a hard time.
In the mix of swiftly tilting planets and neverending stories, I had some darker obsessions as a child. The Old Yellermovie that depicts the shattering story of a family and their beloved dog who gets rabies. I would watch it over and over and cry every time at the end, when the boy has to shoot Old Yeller.
During one of Granny Mil’s especially lucid spells in the ICU, I asked her a question my dad would ask every once in awhile before he died. He would reminisce about my habit of watching Old Yeller over and over, as if reliving his fascination with the little girl he didn’t understand, as if I might have an answer as an adult. He’d say to me and my brother, laughing and somewhat rhetorically, “You knew he was going to die. Why did you cry every time?”
When I asked Granny Mil why I cried every time I watched Old Yeller as a child, she said, “Reckon you wanted to cry.”
As hard as it was to know Granny Mil was near the end of her life, it was such a gift to witness her drifting off. She didn’t have enough breath in her lungs to sing anymore. But I still had her voice, telling stories that would dwindle into one another like the day giving way to twilight.
I spent the last night before I had to fly back to Connecticut with Granny Mil in her hospital room. We made a little slumber party of our last time together: I fed her the chocolate cake from her dinner tray, and she asked them to bring another piece for me. “Let’s look at TV,” she said. I turned on the wall-mounted monitor and flipped channels until I found The Golden Girls. When we decided it was time to go to sleep, I muted the television, but left the screen on in case she woke up during the night and wanted something besides the IV bags and the heart monitor and the hazard-orange “Fall Risk” sign look at. She kept asking if I had enough pillows in the recliner chair beside her bed. And we laughed about how awful the hospital blankets are. She kept saying, “Now just get as comfortable as you can, and let’s doze on off to sleep.” Even when she was dying, she was taking care of me.
After awhile she said, “I cain’t hardly keep my eyes open.” And as she drifted off to sleep, I sang back: “Life is but a dream…”
Since I lost Granny Mil, I’ve been looking hard at the stars. I’m trying to see the ones that died, whose light is still traveling here. She’s still helping me unravel. Grieving is not dark to me. It’s a lit cave in the heart.
Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.