Bitter Grief

by

DW McKinney

In the nascent months following my grandfather’s death, I packed away grief before its fragile shell cracked, expelling cold wetness. I stared at the carpet to still my eyes, afraid that the slightest movements would loosen tears. I dulled my senses, specifically my hearing, to muffle words that would trigger a sonic blast of pain to my heart.

Denial is changing the entry in my phone’s contacts list from “Grandparents” to “Grandma” and staring at it dumbstruck, temporarily unable to accept my reason for doing so. Denial is realizing that as I have typed these words, there are other entries for my grandfather’s cell and business phone numbers hidden amongst my contacts, but I ignore them. Erasing them solidifies his place in the ethereal.

Anger arises when I yell at my father. My parents and I have finally left my grandparents’—no, grandmother’s—house now several hours after the funeral and repast. Four hours after sitting in a crowded room eating crawfish and various fried things, dodging questions about how I am and watching a young woman in a backless top parade around my grandfather’s homegoing, I hunger for something more than what food can fill. But I am hungry just the same.

“Let’s go to The Barrel.”

My mother has always been the one to break the silence in tense moments even as she is the one most broken by this experience. However, this is quickly replaced by tallying my father’s sins as he drives slowly through the darkened streets. Electricity crackles the air in the next few minutes. How it happens, I do not know. I goad my father to speak his mind instead of speaking in half-truths. I throw my phone and words spew out in volcanic bursts that scorch the car’s interior. Then as everyone stews in the violence of my words, I wonder, “Are they going to order a carne asada burrito for me, too?”

What do I have left to bargain? I was shrewd in the years before, asking my grandmother to hand over the phone so that I could talk to my grandfather. A man of few words, every one of our two-minute conversations together meant the world to me. I did this as often as possible, even to my grandmother’s ire. We had conversations that lasted months and, now, I do not need to give up anything to ask for one last word from him.

Depression is the hollowness that spreads from my gut to my mind like the pancreatic cancer that ravaged my grandfather’s body. It creeps along unseen until I find myself crying in the middle of movies or while applying my makeup before work. It flattens me as I refuse to get out of bed or put on anything besides pajamas. It clatters behind my eyes and restarts the grieving process again with the mention of Irish Springs—the soap my grandfather used—or a question about candy bars—my favorites are the mini Mr. Goodbars he kept in a crinkled paper bag in the back of his bathroom closet.

Acceptance is an amorphous creature.

***

My grandfather died one month short of his 89th birthday. My mother heard Gran’pa’s last breath rattle from his throat and slip into the stale air of his den turned hospice center. Psychogenic fireworks burned my brain as Death clawed telepathically across 1,300 miles to ignite pain in the deepest parts of my mind. When Mom called, I knew. Her words cracked the dam that kept me from crying about nothing or being a crybaby or doing all those other over-sensitive things that earned me disdain from family members over the years.

We exchanged four words between us.

I still think about that moment, how I yearned to hear my mother mourn. How those four words muted me, forced me to choke back pain and questions, forced me to hang up and grieve separately. I double checked my phone’s blackened screen before I cried and slapped my mattress damp with grief. I did not want Mom to hear me, or worse, hear her muffled voice on the other end ask, “Why’re you crying like that?”

My husband watched, his hand rubbing my back. I never looked Kevin in his eyes. I was ashamed of the loudness of my wailing and the way I was completely vulnerable. He never shied from showing me his emotions. Even when we were dating, he wept openly in my arms after his grandmother’s funeral. But…then there I was, shackled. I was ashamed of the twisting of my face, the long mournful moans that burbled past my lips. I feared the echo of Why you act like that resounding from my childhood.

I don’t remember when I started crying—as my Daddy would say—for no reason. When I first had the chance to, Mom informing me of my birth father’s unexpected death when I was six years old, I blinked at her wrenched face and turned away to read Little Women atop the guest bed in my grandmother’s sewing room. Maybe the seed of my sensitivity lay dormant, scared of all the big personalities around me. When it bloomed, my tears frustrated everyone.

You get called crybaby enough, have your arm squeezed and jerked for making a scene, and you quickly learn that tears are weakness. Black women in our family are strong because I’ve seen burdens broken under clenched fists and between gritted teeth while thirsting for salted teardrops that never fell. I’ve never fathomed what it meant for Black men to cry as all emotion in them seemed to be settled with an “Oh, is that right?” They all taught me to bottle up my sorrow and shelve my sadness for a day that might never come.

It was no mystery for me as to why, four days after Mom’s phone call, I sat on an airplane on my way to Gran’pa’s funeral and failed to will a tear from my eyes. How desperate I was to become what I thought I was supposed to be in that moment—a woman undone. Dust caked my heart when just a few days prior, I had wept unforgiving rain. Now I was an unmoving surface reflecting the patchwork landscape drifting below me.

***

Gran’pa’s jaundiced eyes peered at me in confusion from the hospital bed. The last time I saw him, he was walking toward his brick red Toyota pickup. He was on his way with my second-cousin Peachy to fix someone’s refrigerator or washer. He leaned heavily on his five-foot-tall walking stick. His brown and red flannel coat billowed in the breeze carried off the Pacific Coast. His rough, white stubble brushed against my cheek as he kissed and hugged me with a “Take care now.”

It had been a year and I had never seen him lying so still unless he was “getting horizontal” on his couch for an afternoon nap. Sickness filled a plastic drainage bag attached to his right side. Thickened brown slurries eked through a tube hidden under the sheet draped across his lap and dripped into the bag. A pit of disease had holed up inside my grandfather sometime ago and began rotting him away until it became too dangerous a secret for him to keep from us. I stared until it transformed into a jar of molasses I once spied on my grandparents’ kitchen counter when I was a child. My mouth watered when I caught the scent from the opened jar while Gran’ma chuckled in delight and sang my name, a spoon in her hand ready to ply me with a sample. There was no replacement for the truth before me now.

My grandfather’s head swiveled from Judge Judy on the TV near the doorway to slowly follow me around the room. His brows furrowed and unfolded as I stood beside him, carefully disregarding the sick bag dangling by my shin.

“It can’t be. Grandbaby? Are you really here?”

“Yes, Gran’pa. It’s me. Who else would it be?”

His mouth fell slack and his mustard eyes questioned my mother who followed me in the room.

“Yes, Dad. It’s really her.”

“What, what in the world are you doing here?”

“I just thought I’d stop by. I heard you were here.”

“Just for a little while is all. Just…a little while.”

For a little while, we were a strange tableau. I radiated sunlight as I stood in front of the window to block the light from blinding Gran’pa’s face. My grandmother stood erect with her Southern upbringing. Her perfectly applied makeup and gold clip-on earrings shone even in the shadowed parts of the room. Her stiff shoulders held her sport coat draped neatly around her—the affectation of a bygone era. Mom sat perched at the foot of the bed, one hand on Gran’pa’s leg, her eyes focused on the TV’s closed captioning. My sister just watched and took photos.

I turned from Judge Judy to see my grandfather studying me. I smiled and he grabbed my hand.

“It seems to me that someone told me you were getting fat. But that’s not true. You are quite beautiful.” I restrained from scowling at my grandmother and instead directed my eyes at the floor. Even now, his body wracked with an incurable disease, my grandfather found time to uplift others.

Then I was lost to him. He forgot who I was and called me someone else’s name multiple times. Panic pressed against my bulging eyes. I wanted to vomit and run from the room. I wanted to pull up the linoleum flooring and wrap it around me as I cried.

His last words to me—he asked if I would be keeper of the family tree, a passing on of his mantle. “I wanted to sit down, and er, uh, and talk to you about it. But, er, uh, it seems like we’re running out of time.” Three weeks later, he was lying in a silver casket.

***

I saw a man die when I was 18. No, not a man. He was a child like me, only 19. The local newspaper said he was a gang member. He fell on my back as I ran up the steps onto the city bus and away from the gunshots resounding around me. Lying there pinned beneath his weight, a gunman shot at the boy—at us. When the gunshots stopped, I climbed out from under him and into the crowded yet silent bus. I screamed, “Won’t somebody help him!” One of the Black women sitting up front grimaced in my direction then shushed my anguish.

I will never understand Black grief. I gave up all my sorrow in one powerful draught and it tumbled into an unwelcome abyss.

I told myself that I was numb to Death because that dead boy had slipped into the afterlife on top of me and I came out of it unscathed. I believed that when I saw my grandfather, I would be prepared for the change in his appearance that happened in the utter stillness of his life removed. The skin clinging to his muscles, now absent of blood. My grandfather’s fingers rigid and immobile. The way he looked like himself but also like a stranger. And for the way he’d feel ice cold.

My sister drove the two of us to Greenwood Memorial Park in Southeast San Diego. Its cemetery always held a mysterious beauty to me whenever I drove past it. As Toyah and I turned into its gates and became swallowed by markers of the dead, I held no reverence for it. We joked the entire way there, but when we parked, we remained glued to our seats with excuses. There was an old school jam on the radio to finish. I needed to eat an orange I stashed in my purse because I was hungry and didn’t want to eat in there. She could have one too. My legs were ashy. Did Toyah have any lotion? She needed some too. Were our parents here with our grandmother and auntie? Should we wait for everyone else before going in? Our playacting could not save us.

My knotted breath lay tangled in my stomach as the mortuary attendant escorted us through the hallways to our viewing room. The floors creaked and groaned under our weight. Our breathing was too loud. I was aware of the brushing of my dress against my thighs. I worried that my legs were too bare for this space and that my body was shifting obscenely in my dress. Everything felt unnatural.

There is nothing comfortable about a funeral parlor despite the staff’s efforts to put the grieving at ease. The furniture is too stiff. Everything is too polished and clean, steadfast reminders that you are in transition. The rooms are curated with too much care. Everything feels like it is for sale, an advertisement for death. Come see the best models for your grief!

The attendant ushered us through a door in the farthest wing of the parlor and my eyes immediately skirted away from the object at the end of the room. I dropped my purse in a chair and stared at the wall. The dam broke in my head and the tears fell. There lingered the constant pressure to be mindful, to keep my grief somewhere far beneath a moan and near discreet weeping.

“Ah dammit. I forgot you hadn’t seen him yet.” Toyah rubbed my back for a minute and then stopped. “I can’t. I have to—or I’ll start crying too.” She shuffled away.

I wiped my face before approaching my grandfather’s casket. Grey tinged his cocoa brown skin. I willed myself to think about him parting the vegetable stalks in his gardens and feigning surprise when I jumped out to scare him. There would be no more folktales on the back porch or contented sighs as his body rested in a lawn chair under the cover of sunlight filtering through pepper trees.

My grandmother swiftly crossed the gulf between us when a muted sob escaped my lips. A blazer remained unmoved from around her shoulders. She was still a model of poise.

“It’s fine, pun’kin. It’s ok. He’s gone now.” I stared deep at the lines in Gran’pa’s fingers to suppress the rage scraping against my gritted teeth. “It’s fine. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.”

Here and now, standing in front of her dead husband, the proper way to grieve was no grief at all.

“They shaved off too much of his mustache,” she said to me or to no one in particular. “We’ll have to talk to them about this.”

My grand-auntie Martha smoothed her slacks as she walked over to us. “You chose a good suit though, Elsie. Yeah. Daddy Gus looks real nice.” They fussed with his suit and critiqued how he looked. “Still looks handsome lying there.” I left when I felt myself teetering, unsure if my heels had done me in early or if I was collapsing under the weight of unsaid things. There was too much madness for me to withstand, so I sat in a chair, stared at the door, and waited for visitors.

I hated the pageantry of that afternoon. People came and went in all manner of attire. Some wore formal suits and dresses. Their buffed shoes reflected the harsh overhead lights. Others wore Adidas sliders and sweatpants or shorts and sandals best saved for a cookout. It was as if they had walked in from enjoying a stroll around the block and were popping in to see a show. People strode in and glanced at my grandfather’s body as if deliberating between which melons to buy in the produce bin. They peered into the casket, devoid of emotion for a man who they supposedly adored. They had seen it all before. His body had become like all the other bodies
pockmarking their histories. Indifference glazed their eyes then they moved on for an animated conversation with a relative.

These kinfolk were strangers to me. They were people I had met 30 years ago or somehow I should inherently know based on the laws of genetics. Every older relative I was supposed to know tried to force me into accepting Gran’pa’s death.

“We can’t be sad now. We must celebrate ‘cause he’s surely in Heaven.”

“He’s in a better place. There’s nothing to be sad about.”

“There’s no need to shed any tears.”

“Now, now, dear,” they began as they patronizingly patted my leg or arm. “It’ll be fine.” Their words grabbed ahold of my shoulders and pushed me away from my grandfather lying in the casket to “It’s alright”—a place far beyond the mortuary’s door.

The Castro family dominated the back of the viewing room. My grandfather had befriended Mr. Castro sometime before I was born and probably before my mother was born too. I never bothered to ask. Mr. Castro was simply a fixture of the family. He was the reason I wanted to learn Spanish as a child. I was enamored by the way he and Gran’pa spoke to each other. Their conversations sounded like rhythmic love.

Mr. Castro passed away years back, but Gran’pa remained loyal to his family and when my grandfather passed, the Castro family marched in. Each one arrived with red-rimmed eyes and clutched fistfuls of tissues. They anchored each other when their legs wavered and their shoulders crumpled. The Castros grew in number, sitting on every inch of the room’s lone couch and occupying two chairs. Sometimes they sat atop each other. They let their sobs escape and the men shed just as many tears as the women. I in turn pressed my legs tighter together and kept my back ramrod straight while I fielded questions about my life back in Texas.

When the four hours ended, the Castro family waited until everyone, except our immediate family, had left. They walked back up to the casket en masse and rendered their pain openly. They left clutching each other. Then my mother, grandmother, aunt, and sister each passed by the casket silently. My father stopped in the middle of the room and gave it a glance. I was the last to leave. I walked up to Gran’pa, stared at him, and walked away.

“Those greens sho was good.” My second-cousin Lenny lamented the loss of never again tasting my grandfather’s collard greens in a way that felt more intimate than the mourning of my grandfather’s death. “Yeah. Nobody grew greens like Gus.”

“You know, there’s still a few stalks out in the backyard.” I told Lenny this for no other reason except that it was information to trade. My junior high self, seeking inclusion and acceptance amongst people I barely knew, had awakened in the months since my grandfather first began staying in the hospital. I’d much rather the greens stayed in their place by the back patio.

“Shh! You talking too loud now,” Lenny winked and checked over his shoulder. “Don’t tell too many people. I might have to come by and visit Aunt Elsie real soon.”

Every other person at the viewing mentioned how good my grandfather’s greens were or how generous he was with them. And oh, how they’d miss eating them. I would miss the black trash bags bursting with greens as Gran’pa’s truck shuttered down the driveway on his way to deliver the bags around town. I’d miss Gran’pa moaning his satisfaction to my grandmother over dinner, his mouth dotted with cornbread crumbs and lips dripping juice from the greens. I would miss him raking the rich earth, preparing the soil for the next collard stalks.

My grandfather grew his own Eden. Violets, daisies, and sunflowers waved to visitors from along the driveway leading up to my grandparents’ house. His gardens overflowed with tomatoes, cabbages, watermelons, and an array of fruit trees. He experimented with vegetables he rarely ate just to “see how they take to the soil.”

Collard greens were everywhere, swaying in the breeze. One of my favorite pictures is a Polaroid of my grandmother standing on their wooden back patio, which is raised three feet off the ground. A collard stalk stands behind her, looming three or four feet above her head.

I’ve never been too fond of greens. I only ate them at my grandparents’ as neither Mom nor Daddy cared to make them. Gran’ma cooked them in fat and bone in a cauldron-shaped pot reserved specifically for the greens. They always tasted sharp and of pork. I ate them because my grandmother made them and my grandfather grew them and because it was a thing I had to eat like dressing or cornbread.

Gran’pa was always good-natured and loving. He shared stories freely about the land Gran’ma and he lived on, where he came from, or Black history that I needed to know. Most things slipped through my mind because I was young when we spent most of our years together. What stuck with me was watching my grandfather bent over the tilled rows. He carefully patted seeds in to divots and covered them with a soft blanket of earth, tucking his children in for the night. Then he drained oceans into his gardens. I stared through the silvered beams arcing from the hose to watch him. Sometimes he hummed. In rare moments he let loose a few lyrics from a hymn. My grandfather was always at peace with himself. It wasn’t until the sun wound beneath the earth and I followed Gran’pa back to the house did I notice that somewhere in the garden, I stopped screaming and jumping and started listening to the whispering pepper trees. He had passed his peace onto me in between the corn stalks and green beans.

Two weeks before Gran’pa passed away, leaving us for the shimmering horizon of which we do not understand, I helped empty his den to accommodate the hospital bed. I stood on the stained carpeting I had vacuumed free from pecan shells and crumbs to stare past the opened curtains into night’s blackened heart.

I held my breath as I opened the back door and security gate, pausing to make sure no one heard me. I needed to do this alone. I stepped into the yard black as road pitch. The trees sighed contentedly. The bitter smell of collard greens trailed the yard’s edge. I stopped when my face began to crumple. Someone might see me, someone might hear. I laughed at the thought and let the tears fall as I walked past fig and orange trees and let flowers kiss my fingertips. In a moment I still do not understand, I sang:

I went down in the river to pray

Studying about that good old way

And who shall wear the starry crown

Good Lord, show me the way

O sisters let’s go down

Let’s go down, come on down

O sisters let’s go down

Down in the river to pray

I went down…

I embraced the shroud of the world to find acceptance therein.

Such is the disparity in grief.


DW McKinney is a former biologist and anthropologist. Her creative nonfiction focuses on blackness, identity, womanhood, and motherhood. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Stoneboat Literary JournalTAYO Literary MagazineCagibi, honey & lime, and others. She lives in a city of neon and booze with her husband and daughters. Spark up a conversation with her on Twitter @thedwmckinney.

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