I have avoided Orlando for four years. In my most honest places, that is what’s whispered to me as we pull in and see a small figure waiting for us in the doorway: that of my 94-year-old grandmother, Catherine. She is smaller than I remember, frailer too, but she still gives the best hugs: the kind where her hands run up and down your back, making a final squeeze near your shoulder blades. The kind that give you enough time to take in her scent: Swiss lotion mixed with a hint of Neutrogena.
The house remains the same: the kitchen linoleum still feels tacky beneath my bare feet, the pictures lining the shelves and walls are in precisely the same place, the back bathroom still smells of Dove soap.
Four years ago we were here and found out we were expecting for the second time. The first hadn’t ended well, but we were hopeful despite. I remembered the wee hours of that July morning, waiting for EPT to confirm what my heart already had. I remembered our walk afterward, talking about how everything would change. How the blessing of that sacred knowledge would remain Ours until the right time.
How the right time never came.
How it has never come.
I had looked Brazil in the face, thanked her and scorned her for all she gave and took. But I hadn’t done so here. I hadn’t traced the lines of rooms where I’d been so happy before being so sad. I hadn’t wanted to. I wasn’t ready to. Until now.
Maybe Grandma knew. Maybe she knew that grief had pushed me away. But healing had brought me back. And I was reminded then how both come in waves: some that roar and crash into your deepest places, others that touch so softly, you barely realize they’re even there.
On our third day together, Grandma mentioned the two things she’d like to do before she dies: see the ocean and visit the cemetery where my aunt and grandfather are buried. R and I had planned to make the trip to Daytona to do the same, so I told her we’d take her. The next morning she told me she thought she’d stay behind. She gave reasons, reasons similar to the ones I’d told myself during my four years away. And I knew what was happening. The waves were crashing in. She knew it. And so did I.
I told her we’d be there with her, that God had given us a beautiful day, and that we’d understand if she decided to stay. But she didn’t; thirty minutes later we were heading to Ormond Beach with Grandma in tow. I had forgotten the palms on I-4 East, the lush green peppering both sides. I had forgotten Atlantic Avenue’s concrete jungle and the number 1015, where my grandparents’ motel, The Holiday Shores, had stood. And I’d forgotten the exact spot of the graves, but found them after walking a familiar path: two rows in and toward the middle.
Grandma had chatted the whole way down. She told us how she’d been so mad after hearing the news that Grandpa Paul had bought a yacht, that she’d taken the children and driven 90 miles an hour all the way home. “The Good Lord got us there safely,” she’d said. And I knew she believed it. When we crossed the Halifax River, she told us that’s where she’d learned to fly a seaplane. She was pregnant at the time, but Grandpa Paul has insisted, growing belly and all. She told us about his sit-down with Norman Brinker and the subsequent opening of their very first Steak and Ale restaurant. And then, in the hush of the cemetery, she told us about my grandfather’s last days. How her last words to him were, “Are you feeling okay, Chuck?” And how he fell over afterward, right there at the breakfast table. “I think he knew it was coming,” she said. “He knew.”
We were quiet then: R and Grandma in front of Grandpa Paul’s grave, me in front of Aunt Kathy’s. And I felt a surge of emotion so strong, I began to cry: for them (All of them) and for us left behind. I cried for my aunt, who was only 18 when she passed. I cried for her life, short-lived. For those who truly knew her, like Mom. And those who’d longed to, like me. I cried. One hand on my heart, the other on her grave. One hand saying goodbye, the other a heartfelt hello.
On the way back to Orlando, Grandma talked about Aunt Kathy. How she’d wanted that car so badly. How her girlfriend had had one. How Grandpa Paul went to Miami to get it. How it was a surprise. And how that morning, my Aunt’s last morning, she’d left Grandma a note, which read: “I took some change from the cupboard, Mom.” She’d signed it, “The Brat,” a name she called herself. A name that, looking at my Grandma, I knew had not and will not be forgotten.
The waves of grief and healing come. I relearned this with Grandma. Sometimes one is pushed by the other. Sometimes they arrive in tandem. But always, always, they come.
Those four days with my grandmother were sacred. We shared and rode the waves together, whether she knew it or not. She helped me remember that one does reach the other side of grief. And that the other side is written with gratefulness for what was had, not bitterness for what was lost.
Thank you, Grandma.
For your time. For your lesson.
And for your love.