Guest Post: I Had to Look at Her

My experience with death and dying has always been a bit strange. I sort of tend to block traumatic or hurtful things from my memory and redirect myself when thoughts pop up. When I was an adolescent, my aunt died from cancer, and I remember not being able to sleep because of how she looked in her casket. She didn’t look like herself (discoloration and facial structure) and every time I closed my eyes, this was the image that I was left with. It freaked me out. It was as if it was engraved into my memories and would never leave, requiring me to rely on pictures to bring back who she really was. From there, I vowed to never look at anyone in their casket. I wanted to remember them as they were.

I never really thought about what my life would be like if my grandmother died, because she seemed immortal. She was an OG, but she had the inner strength of a million men. Her name was Sylvia (that’s where I got my middle name), but everybody called her Big Mama. She wasn’t big, maybe 5 ft. 2′ and 130lbs. She was born in 1921 in Louisiana and moved to Oakland during the 1940’s. She was the coolest and most chill person I knew. Non-judgmental, peaceful, sweet, giving, affectionate, so loving. She had eight children (6 girls & 2 boys; my mom was the youngest).

I come from a single parent household and my mother worked a lot, so Big Mama helped raise me. I was her last baby and I was her favorite. She never hesitated to tell me how proud of me she was and always complimented me on my beauty and intelligence. She used to tell me that she wanted me to become the President of the United States (I never had the heart to tell her that I wasn’t interested in politics, but she believed that I could be great and it made me feel special). She was also very clean and neat. Like OCD level. Nothing was ever dirty. She wouldn’t let anybody clean anything in her house because she didn’t trust your cleanliness. She ironed everything (even pjs).

Sometime during the early months of 2008, I remember us talking on the phone while I was in college in southern California. I remember her saying that she was ready for me to come home. She didn’t make my graduation because she was sick (we both looked forward to her coming, but when she didn’t I knew she must have been feeling really bad). I graduated on June 14, 2008 and moved back to the Bay Area. I started noticing little things when I would go to visit her. One time I went over there and there were dirty dishes in the sink. In my entire lifetime (22 years), I had never seen dirty dishes in her sink. I asked her if she wanted me to wash the dishes and she said yes without hesitation.

We watched Barack Obama be elected as the president together a few weeks later. She was so proud. I cried and she said, “What you cryin’ for baby? He won!” A few weeks after that she went to the doctor and they admitted her. Her weight was low and she wasn’t eating. When I went to see her, I knew. She was agitated and a little fussy, which wasn’t who she was naturally. A day or two later, I went to visit her and she was hallucinating and didn’t know where she was. She asked an older cousin of mine to stay with her, but she couldn’t. She asked me if I could stay with her next. She told me that she was scared. I was starting a new job the next day, but there was no way that I could leave her. I said yes, and propped myself up in two chairs. My aunt told me to wait until she fell asleep and then to leave. I lied and told my aunt that I would.

She tried to remove some of the IVs from her arm, she fussed with me a bit. I tried to get her to rest so that I could rest. She started coughing a lot. I asked her if she wanted me to get a nurse. She looked at me and said no, so I kind of just stood there for a second. She coughed more and harder, so I went to get the nurse. I stepped out of the room to call my mom and lingered by the door while the nurses walked in. I leaned to peak inside of the door with my mom on the line and my Big Mama was completely unresponsive. The nurses called code blue and began attempts to resuscitate her. I screamed. I cried. Everything was moving in slow motion. I dropped down to my knees to pray.

They were able to resuscitate her and keep her alive for a few days, but she died on December 14, 2008 (exactly six months after she knew I would be coming home). I think about her a lot, but I don’t try to think about this day. There are parts of me that believe that she knew she was going to die and in some twisted way, I feel honored that God allowed me to be there to make her transition. If I hadn’t stayed, she would have died alone.

I vowed to never look at anyone in their casket years before this, but I had to look at her. This was it. My last goodbye, my last I love you. None of it seemed real and I needed to look at her, almost to reconfirm that it happened. She had looked at me and my mess: diapers, tears, sickness, teenage hormones, everything and did it with love for my entire life. So, how could I not? She looked good and very much like herself (isn’t that a hella Black thing to say?). Metallic champagne colored suit, glasses, beautiful skin. She looked peaceful and it comforted me. I think about her a lot. Once (within the first year), I picked up the phone to call her. I began to dial the number, and then remembered that she wouldn’t be there to answer. I wish that I could call her right now.

Patraya Lowe is a 31 year old Bay Area Native, social worker, and hosts a podcast called Stage 30. You can follow her on Instagram at @traytray

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