No room for grief

It is almost Christmas, and my mother is standing in the kitchen, between things. “What am I doing?” her question resounds, but it’s not because she’s forgotten. She looks lost in the room. I’ve never seen her like this before, absent. I hold the shell of her in long hugs when she can’t decide what she is doing.

In California, her younger sister, Denise, is dying of cancer, a quickly metastasizing, hard-to-combat cancer that was diagnosed in October 2014, diagnosed in one of those almost inevitable “we can try to fight it” ways that belies hope of coming out alive. The calls from California over winter break are daily, the progress, the health care decisions, hospices or hospitals, another treatment or acceptance.

My mother’s lost look, the absence in her demeanor, as she moves between making dinner and putting the dish in the oven, is a function of some deepening fear and heavy grief. The phone calls, the decision to-buy-or-not-buy-yet a plane ticket out where her sister is still fighting with her children, saying she is not dying, yet. 

I can’t stop hugging my mother, the strongest woman I know, who raised and homeschooled seven children, who spends her free time in homeless shelters to fight indifference and poverty, who cries her love and feeds people, children, and hearts to do her part to stop the hurt in the world. I meet her in quiet spaces between rooms, in the disoriented sorrow. She says, “I don’t know.” It feels too early to buy the death-side, bedside plane ticket. “The doctor says, ‘Ten days left.’” My mother hesitates after talking to my cousin who says, “Maman is still fighting.”

Two weeks earlier, I stayed at the house of my aunt, Regine, in New Jersey, and the sadness for my aunt Denise’s cancer held us all in a feeling we wished we didn’t have to face. Regine comes into my sister’s room upstairs with a wet face and despair, and my sister and I hold her in a three-way, long hug when she cries, “She’s too young to die. She’s too young.” Younger than my mother, my father, younger than wishing for twenty years back to live it again.

“We were always as thick as thieves,” my mother says, “like you all are,” reminding me of my sisters and I.

Dans le train Avril 1957

It’s abrupt how my aunt, Denise, slips into death. I get the message from my father on December 30th when I am driving with my sister down to Maryland. My aunt slipped into the death no one wanted to believe was possible, with her children and husband by her side. My mother flies out for the funeral but not for a goodbye. She mentions it briefly, like it doesn’t pain her, “I didn’t get to say goodbye.” The goodbyes are for us.

The day after my aunt dies, on December 30th while I’m driving down to Maryland, my friend from college, Priya posts an innocuous post about the depressing state of affairs in 2015, “Sometimes it feels like things won’t ever get better” but reminds me, “but 2015 was a revolutionary year, and that’s something to hold onto.” The next message I get is from my college mentor messaging me urgently, Priya killed herself. Sometimes it feels like things won’t ever get better. I re-read some of the messages Priya and I exchanged over the years to remind myself of her hopes and dreams, and my hopes, my dreams. We shared so many of the same dreams. I grieve in a way; it becomes a combined grief with my mother, my cousins, my aunt, my uncle. A distant grief for lost pieces of love in the world.

Afterward, I move quickly back into law school, intersession courses with exams that I can’t focus on. I listen to the silence on Sundays in the space of afternoons where my mother used to sit in the kitchen and talk to Denise in French, catching up, every Sunday. Now, Sunday afternoons hang empty with her missing. The quiet. I am back in the space before law school, getting out of a taxi with my best friend in Harlem telling her about my aunt’s battle with cancer, and now that battle has ended and a new one started. The one of living, left behind.


the last card from my aunt, in May 2014, on graduating social work school




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