By Amber Butts
Grandmother. The alchemist. You spun gold out of this hard life. Conjured beauty from the things left behind. Found healing where it did not live. Discovered the antidote in your own kitchen. Broke the curse with your own two hands. You passed these instructions down to your daughter, who then passed them down to her daughter.- Warsan Shire
The whole house heard my grandmother call my sister 8 months after she died.
It was normal. A thing that always happened. I think this time she wanted the remote. When I walked downstairs, I expected her to be sitting on the couch, the remote on the Black and grey wobbly table 6 feet in front of her. A speech on her lips about my sister’s attitude. A “You need to do better” glittering her tongue.
She wasn’t there.
I’m still waiting for the earth to explode. For everything to catch fire. Sure, there are cracks as big as the ocean. There are moments when I wish she was alive in my dreams, that I’d at least get that. The light sockets in my room shock me. I don’t look at mirrors at night. I search for herr text messages in my phone. They’re gone.
Audrie Jean Stafford-Lowe was the fifth child of Ella D. Martin and Warner Stafford Sr. She became a widow with two children before she turned 23. She had seven children. Timothy, her fifth child, was hit by a drunk driver while crossing the street at the age of 8.
She was expert at holding what was beyond her. She was safety, mirror, shit talker. She loved children, enjoyed telling them stories and teaching them how to play card games. She was a listener. And she was hard. Sometimes it took more energy to love her. She had trouble navigating this world and the others.
She requested that everyone call her Bubbie. Grandma felt “too regular”. She died on October 4th, 2016 at 1:30pm. She was surrounded by family. I lifted my arm, which lost its strength in the moments it took my aunt and me to drive from Oakland to Richmond and listen to the doctor tell us about the loss of oxygen to her brain. I held it to her ear so that her eldest brother could say his goodbyes. All I heard was sorry.
Bubbie was lonely and she was my favorite. She never sugarcoated the world. She promised to prepare all the food if I promised to become a chef and open a restaurant. I loved feeding her. Whenever I make fried chicken or eggplant parmesan, her voice encourages me. And I struggle because I want to encourage her, want to help ease her into a new world. But I’m not ready.
Her faith was steady. And I’m angry that we didn’t get enough time, though I know that the time was right for her. She tried to prepare our family for her departure. And when she left, it was 36 hours after her first stroke. Not nearly enough time for any of us. My mama especially. It was almost peaceful. My cousin had a panic attack. I held mine in because I didn’t know what would happen if I let go.
Her mouth pulled in as she took her last breath. Her hair felt different.
I looked up to the sun shining and asked everyone to do so as well. Five minutes before the day was cloudy. I want to believe that this was her goodbye.
I worry that she is not resting. That she is afraid and not sensing support. I hope that her spirit isn’t tethered to this land because in all my selfish grief, I’ve held her here. I worry that I will not survive this grief. That one day, I will have a panic attack and forget to breathe through my mouth when my nose refuses. I worry that I’m making it all about me.
I have tried to write this essay many times. Each time I stop. It’s different than speaking it out loud. Writing makes her death permanent and impenetrable, like Annie’s shell on Attack on Titan. Like when Julia Roberts finally kills her husband in Sleeping with The Enemy. We loved movies. I thought we had forever.
She stopped taking her high blood pressure medication. No one but a friend of hers knew it.
A month before a stroke took her life, she told me she’d like for me to have her car when she passed. I irritably responded with a, “Bubbie, by the time that you pass, your car will be decades old. I won’t need it then.” A month and a week later, I was driving it.
She was my favorite person to twerk on. She’d chase me away and say she doesn’t know why I choose to twerk on her and not my partner or a pole. I’m still listening for the earth to stop spinning. For the galaxy to cry out in a long “No”. For some part of nature to let me know that it also misses her. I’d rather we all blow up than live without her. This woman who I am still just coming to know. Who was fascinating, and hurting and magical.
We cremated her. And sometimes I imagine her screaming. Her telling us we were wrong for letting her burn and for getting rid of her things and for pretending like we don’t hear her. I imagine her big and soft and angry and not letting up. Just like she was in real life. I do not imagine her peaceful.
She had the best style in the world. She loved lace and see through tops. My mama hated this but she kept wearing them because she felt good in them and remarked that she had “small titties” so it was no big deal.
Her favorite song was Usher’s “Do It To Me”. She hated Erykah Badu’s voice, loved rocky road ice cream, was a hoarder and could not cook. Oh, but she made the best french fries. She was the best vegetable chopper. She had lovely handwriting. She was a storyteller and a bruja and a woman of God. Her faith carried her when the world tried to break her everything.
We’d planned a birthday party for her and she cancelled it two weeks before. She asked for a sleepover with her grandchildren instead of a big celebration of her 64th year on earth. She never made it to the party or the sleepover.
She wrote each of her granddaughters (including a niece she considered a granddaughter) letters. I made sure they received them. As the eldest, I had a really hard time with not finding a letter for myself. In one letter I found a note saying, “Amber is such a wonderful person. I am so proud of her. She loves you.” I pray that she knows I loved her. That my spirit and joy come from her.
She taught me accountability. She taught me what it looks like to admit mistakes without letting pride get in the way. She was expert at saying, “ You know, I’ve thought about what you said and you were right.” She never pretended to be perfect. She gave so much of herself to those around her. Her spirit wasn’t prideful and she was honest about the things she thought she needed to work on.
I called you and you did not answer.
Having to continue without you.
Not having you at my birthday party.
Not listening to you talk about your relationship with Sam.
Not hearing you with the babies on Thanksgiving.
Not having you curse me out.
Not asking for more stories.
Having to face the world over and over again without you.
Knowing that there is a missing hole inside my mama because she misses you that much.
Listening to stories about you from the babies.
I have not seen my ten year old brother pick up a single card since you left.
Was I too much for you?
Did I tire you out?
Someone broke into your car last month. They stole two of your notebooks. I searched the neighborhood for them with no luck. I want them back. I want you back. I want to detangle and twist your hair. I’d give you a lifetime supply of the leave in conditioners you love for me to make. I’d give it all for you to be here.
And then I remember that you were struggling on earth. That you were lonely and ready to leave. I remember that you continuously asked for love from a man that would not love you back. Not the way you wanted to be loved. That you lost children, friends and family and were starting to get visits from ghosts. I remember that you were tired and beautiful and tired. You needed a break. You deserved more than what this world offered and gave you a portion of.
Two weeks ago I opened the jewelry box holding the vase with your ashes. I think this is progress.
I pray that you are well. I will honor you by taking care of myself. By breathing deeply, especially when I think it doesn’t matter. In time, I will release you.