The sore bloomed like a rose, slightly left of center and fiery red, the day after my grandmother died — twenty-two years ago, this week. It arrived in direct contrast with the single, flawless white rose that bloomed outside her window the morning of her death.
Its origins were mysterious. I had not injured myself. A bug did not bite me. It wasn’t a rash. No doctors were ever able diagnose its cause – or the effects it produced — a general malaise, low-grade fever, extreme thirst, and the haunting feeling that something simply wasn’t right that lasted for months.
It wept in itchy, angry scales of grief, a physical manifestation of an internal pain. And when it finally shed all its sugared petals, it left behind the palest primrose scar.
For a while, I could easily see it, shimmering just beneath the surface, pulsing with the pain of her loss, but also telling me she was there, she was with me.
Somewhere in the last two decades, as I learned to cope with my life without her, it slipped under the surface. Went dormant and invisible. I would search for it sometimes, run my fingertips over its resting place. Especially on those days when I most wished she were there to hold my hand. My wedding day. The morning of our first IVF appointment. The day we brought our boys home from the NICU.
I miss the light, mothy touch of her fingers. I miss her reassurance and her love. I miss the holidays at her house. Seeing her settled into her plush, padded lazy boy nest, blowsy with blankets and pillows, eyes and mouth animated with story after hyperbolic story. Tall tales of horses and hogs and uncles and cousins. Histories I should’ve recorded. Should’ve written down.
I should’ve done something.
Especially when she got sick. When she gave up her nest for a hospital bed in the back bedroom. When her face turned sallow as parchment. When her hair came out in fuzzy tufts on her pillow. When the mothy touch of those fingers took to frantically pinching pleats in the bedsheets. When my cousin and I spoon fed her cream of wheat three times a day because it was all she would eat.
Until she wouldn’t. Until she told us she’d had enough of that infernal cream of shit.
Why didn’t I record them then? I’ve forgotten the major details of most of her stories. I’ve failed her.
The scar surfaced again this weekend. It swam back to me on the anniversary of its original appearance. It has to be a sign. And I believe in signs.
She’s made plenty of other appearances along the way, but it was always her scent that appeared. I would catch a whiff of her Tennessee scotch snuff and know she was there: in the elevator the day of our IVF transfer; in the centerpieces at our wedding (ok, I put her scent there on purpose, but she was there when she held back the rain – a halo of sun in the midst of a radar of storms); when Mike pushed my wheelchair through the halls of the hospital on our way to hold our boys for the first time. A sniff of snuff told me this is my path, this is my destiny. And it is beautiful.
Twenty-two years ago, this week, my grandmother made her way to heaven on the buoyant chords of Pachelbel’s Canon in D. My cousin Jenny and I knew it was time. We brought in the recorded piano music our cousin Teresa had given her years before and we pushed play. When the Canon came on, grandma quietly slid into the current and swam to the stars.
The doctors couldn’t diagnose the rose that bloomed on my chest over two decades ago this week. But e.e. cummings could. He diagnosed it in a prophetic poem in 1952:
Here is the deeper secret nobody knows
(the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
I carry [her] heart (I carry it in my heart)
And her heart has swum to the surface once more. She’s trying to tell me something. So I’m listening. I hope it’s her stories. I won’t fail her this time.