Clumps of wrinkled, white flesh hang from grandmother’s face and pool in the nape of her neck like turkey waddle. Her eyelids flutter but never quite open. I stroke her left hand, liver-spotted and marked with bluish-green bruises from the IVs. She still wears the gold wedding band grandfather slipped on her finger six decades earlier. It is the only sign of sentimentality I have ever known her to display.
Once bright white, grandmother’s shortly cropped hair is now a pale shade of piss yellow. She looks small and shriveled beneath the stacks of hospital blankets someone has piled on top of her. No tears or sobs emanate from the handful of family members holding vigil at her bedside. They come from tough Nordic stock. To be regarded as tough is the highest form of flattery mother’s family can bestow. I have always resented mother’s ability to emotionally detach whenever life became too painful to endure. And she has equally resented how easily I submit to emotions better left suppressed until one is safely locked away behind closed doors. My eyes are swollen and my head throbs from crying. I don’t know any other way to greet death.
I have always resented mother’s ability to emotionally detach whenever life became too painful to endure.
My public display of grief is not the only thing that sets me apart from this stoic bunch.
A mop of frizzy curls sit atop my head and my skin is the color of coffee with a generous helping of cream. I am a reminder of mother’s ill-fated marriage to an African man that spanned more than three decades and two continents before ending in divorce and bitterness. The aunts, uncles and cousins who surround me today are all pale-skinned, blonde and blue-eyed. Many of these relatives I have not seen in twenty years and won’t for another twenty or until the next passing, whichever comes first.
Whether grandmother was oblivious to the pain she inflicted or purposely set out to wound me I will never know with any real certainty.
She would scoff at hairstyles that made me look “too Black.” Racial slurs such as “nigger” would occasionally slip from her lips when referring to Black people who were acting ‘too black’ as she passed them on the street or watched them on television. I imagine she would have preferred it if the whiteness that ran through me had diluted the Blackness just a tad bit more, so as to make me less offensive. Maybe then I would have resembled one of those light-skinned, green-eyed, straight haired mulattos like Rashida Jones or Jennifer Beals who could pass as Italian, Latina or even white if they chose. How odd that I should find myself here now, mourning grandmother’s imminent passing while at the same time feeling relieved because all of the ugliness and hate will die too.
I imagine she would have preferred it if the whiteness that ran through me had diluted the Blackness just a tad bit more, so as to make me less offensive.
Mother sits at the head of the hospital bed, eyes glued to the lights and numbers flashing across the screen of the machine that monitors grandmother’s vital signs. Mother is loquacious and making jokes that are not funny. I hate that about her. I have always hated that about her but I have come to understand that is just how she copes. Mother looks older than when I last saw her six years ago. She is still beautiful but faded, like wallpaper that has been washed out after years of exposure to the strong afternoon sunlight. Her once long, chestnut brown hair has been cut into a bob that is streaked with grey. Her face is free of make-up. She has never been one to bother with such frivolities. The crow’s feet surrounding the corners of her eyes and frown lines etched across her forehead weren’t there before.
The seconds turn into minutes and the minutes into hours inside the four walls of this white, soulless hospital room that reeks of disinfectant and Purell. My hands begin to ache from massaging Yardley of London English Lavender lotion, grandmother’s favorite, into the dry skin that is stretched across her feet, legs and arms like aged parchment paper. I brush my lips against her cheek and whisper words of thanks for all she has done for me and all she has been to me. I tell her that I will see her on the other side even though I am not entirely convinced that this is true. I do not know if she can hear me but I choose to believe she can.
It is time for me to leave now. I don’t want to be here when the end finally comes. I have never been good at goodbyes. I will head back to the airport, find an unoccupied barstool and get drunk on overpriced gin and tonics before flying home to my husband and our toddler son, neither of whom have ever met my family.
Mother and I exchange an awkward hug and squeeze hands but no words pass between us. I walk out of the room, down the long hospital corridor and into the humid evening air.
I will return to my life and mother will return to hers.
It is just like that with us.
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Photo credit: Jon Tyson
Sekai K. Ward was born in Nigeria and raised in between Wisconsin and Zimbabwe. She earned an MFA in creative writing at Antioch-Los Angeles and a masters degree in clinical social work at the University of Michigan. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with her husband Stephen and their son Che.