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Why? That simple word, most often heard from the mouth of a two year old, had become the bane of my existence. Why? It was the light switch they refused to turn on, preferring to leave me in the dark forever. Why? I still don’t know. Do they regret their decision? I doubt it. But why?
I stumbled into the funeral, my stomach a pit of dread tugging at my core. My steps were measured, hesitant, as if I were afraid to go any farther. Occasionally I whipped my head around, making sure my cousins weren’t trailing too far behind. I could feel a nervous sweat building: I had never been to a funeral before. My mind raced as I took it all in: The ridiculously tacky flower arrangements, the pictures, the relatives in black. I re-adjusted my hair in its black clip, and peered down at my dress. Pink flowers were scattered across the black background, and I glared down at them. They looked rude, obnoxiously joyful here.
My cousins were giggling behind me at a strange man they had seen in the hallway, and anger stirred within me. How could they laugh, on such a day? How could they possibly find anything in the situation funny? Just because they lived in North Carolina and hardly ever saw our grandmother did not give them the right to laugh at her funeral!
Pictures of Grammy gazed at me as I passed, their eyes following my every move. The pictures were cheerful ones: Grammy was laughing, her mouth wide open. She was grinning, shaking her head at the antics of her grandchildren. She was embracing my grandfather; their cheeks pressed together, identical smiles plastered on their faces. The pictures were lasting reminders of the things she would never do again: I wanted to shove them off the table. I felt tears well up in my eyes as I slouched towards my seat. My nose burned as I sniffed the air, the over powering scent of flowers sickly sweet. As we passed through the center aisle, I could feel everyone’s eyes boring into us. Poor things, their eyes said, to have their grandmother taken away from them at such a young age. I didn’t want their eyes, or their thoughts. I tuned them out and stared straight ahead.
That was a mistake. Grammys coffin was right smack in the middle of my eyesight. The dark wood was covered with a black cloth, and even though I knew my grandmother was in there, I didn’t allow myself to believe it. Its empty, I thought. Its empty. The words pushed me along as I finally reached my seat. Sitting down, I still kept my eyes trained forward, not even noticing my cousins settling in around me. My cousins from North Carolina were still giggling, which pushed my temper almost to its limit. I wanted to scream at them to shut up. What was wrong with me? I loved my cousins, and was always excited to see them. So why, right now, did I want them to be anywhere but here?
“Praise be to God!” the shout rang out from the back of the church. I jumped, nearly falling out of my chair, while one of my cousins muffled a scream. Whipping my head around, I saw a hook nosed; greasy haired, large mouthed pastor, who was literally screaming praises to God from the back of the church. Suddenly, it was me who was suppressing giggles. Somehow I found this new situation hilariously funny. Maybe there is something wrong with me, I thought after dodging my mom’s glare, my shoulders shaking with silent laughter. But as the sermon continued, the laughter subsided completely into anger. How dare they! I thought. How dare they never tell me!
My grandmother was sick: I had figured out that much myself. The first sign was on Thanksgiving Day, about five years ago. We were driving on the way to my great-aunts house for dinner. About halfway there, my dad turned around to look back at me. “When we get there,” he said seriously, “Don’t stare at Grammy.”
“Why would I stare?” I asked, curious.
“Well, Grammy’s hair is going to look a little different. She’s wearing a wig.”
“Why would she do that?” I wondered aloud.
“Because she’s on a medication that makes her hair fall out.”
“What’s the medication for?”
There was a pause before my dad answered. “Its nothing you need to worry about. Just don’t stare.”
When we arrived, Grammy was the first person I looked for. And when I saw her, I quickly glanced away. But not before it had the chance to shock me. Her hair was different. Blonde. And though I hugged her as usual, my eight -year -old brain knew something was up.
In passing years, I was never told what was wrong with my grandmother. All I knew was that something was. It was like solving a mystery. There were clues, puzzle pieces along the way. But no one came out and told me the answer, or confirmed that any of my suspicions were correct.
Another clue was when I came home from Natures Classroom to be greeted only by my mom and sister, my dad nowhere in sight. After a few minutes of retelling my experience, I asked, “Where’s Dad?”
“He’s at the hospital with Grammy. I don’t want you to worry: It was just a bad fever, and she’s recovering just fine.”
These were the only answers I got. If anyone was discussing it, they stopped immediately as I passed by. Even when I visited her in the hospital, no one would tell me exactly what was wrong. Why was a fever this dangerous?
My grandmother died on 9/11/08 of bone cancer. I didn’t know until her funeral. No one had ever uttered the word cancer around me. No one had told me her sickness was anything other than old age. No one trusted me with the knowledge. No one thought I was old enough. No one told my sister either. No one knew how much being in the dark hurt me.
Sitting in her funeral on the Monday after her death was like reading the end of a Sherlock Holmes book. All the pieces of my puzzle were being put together. My grandmother had bone cancer. She had gone through lots of chemotherapy. The fever wasn’t just a fever: It was part of the cancer and should have killed her. It was a miracle, the pastor had said. A miracle that my grandfather, who is nearly deaf, was able to hear her cry out in his sleep without his hearing aid in. It was God’s gift to us, he said; by giving us time to say a proper goodbye.
But had I really? Was a goodbye still the same if it was naive? My goodbye to my grandmother had been in the hospital. It was, “Goodbye, see you again when you get better!” I had no idea that day would never come. My goodbye was rushed, said quickly so I could leave: I have a phobia of hospitals. My goodbye was poorly informed, not meaningful. So had I really said goodbye?
Sitting in her funeral, listening to the sobbing relatives beside me, my mind was racing. Why echoed through my head, pounding against the sides, threatening to come out. Had they thought they were providing me with a safe haven? A refuge? Does being in the dark help when the light comes streaming in? Did my parent’s shelter really help me in the end?