A Letter to My Grandmother

Today is April 5, 2018. On April 5, 2017, my grandma, my dad’s mother, died. On December 5, 2016, when she was sick, I wrote this letter. I wish I had given it to her, but I can still give it to you.

Dear Grammy,

Tonight I put lotion on the burn that the angry radiation put on the back of your neck and I scratched your back for a long time while you made a sound you called “purring” and looked at the photos on my phone of my hike to Rattlesnake Ledge. Tonight Papa explained what it means to have Neanderthal DNA, which we do, and he told me, again, that he once knew a woman named Fanny Bare.

Tonight I was in Edmonds for a first date with an OkCupid guy named Tyler, so I swung by your place before going to the restaurant he had suggested, whose name made you and Papa exchange glances and wrinkle your noses. But the few and only hours with him were nothing but a blip in a lovely evening spent with you. As soon as the date was over, I drove right back and hung out until it was very late and you decided to go to sleep.

I drove home to Ballard and cried a little bit. I want you to meet the man I marry. I’m afraid you won’t. I don’t know how much time you have or if that is even something you know. I don’t know how frightened to be.

But it wasn’t fear that made me cry tonight. It was the tenderness of being with you, of dozing next to you on the bed I’ve always been welcome to climb on, of scratching your back, of sitting around the dinner table, of all three of us fiddling with our Sequence tokens and talking family history: what it was like for you to have babies, and how Papa thought he would have felt about his mother remarrying. I love you. Nights like these, of which there have been many, will become family history too.

You said the cancer makes you feel silenced. You had an appointment today. You told me, “I can speak for myself.”

Some lady told you that she hoped you were thanking God every day for your cancer and you were appalled. You told me, “I do not thank God for cancer. If I were to write a book about having cancer, it would be called I Do Not Thank God For Cancer.

You said you don’t look in the mirror because you don’t like how much weight you’ve lost. You told me, “I’m tired of this. It’s been seven months and I want to be done with it.”

I admire you when you say these things. And the reason I admire you… it’s not comforting, it’s neither here nor there, but I just couldn’t stop thinking about it the whole way home:

I admire your words. Your words are compelling. The exquisite precision of your language. You are such a speaker. You are going through hell, but your ability—perhaps it’s a compulsion, a blessed compulsion—to speak truths about how you are is divine.

You communicate your pain in that warm, grounded voice of yours and I wish someone could pray the cancer away. I wish the miracles you’ve seen rise up for others would come to you now because you more than deserve it.

And I know it doesn’t make it better, to say this, but when I see you articulating your pain, I see a bizarre alchemy: you take hellish chaos and order it into words and make it into art, into something others can enter into in a way of their own, into something that inspires reality and empowers the speaker and the hearer. It doesn’t make it better, but it makes it real and it makes it big. It doesn’t make it better, but it demands that we bear witness. It doesn’t make it big like the joy you have in Christ is big—that famous joy that made you walk to church alone as a little girl, the joy that rubs off on your friends, the joy that runs in your children’s blood as strong as our Neanderthal unibrows and love of black olives, the joy that attracts and scares strangers and invites them over for dinner, the joy that founded this family and will carry it down the generations—but it does make it real. If God created this world by speaking, you are surely made in his image.

You can indeed speak for yourself. It has become more pronounced in these hard times: you are quicker to ask for help, quicker to call people out, quicker to share embarrassing stories from your past, quicker to say when you have had enough. And you do it with grace and humor and candor. I want to be like you.

I hate that you are sick and I won’t belabor that fact because everyone hates it and you must hear it constantly. So instead of sympathy I share this: in this hard time, you are beautiful to everyone. You are an example. You don’t have to try to be, and I don’t want to put one thing more on your plate by demanding that you be. It’s just that I don’t think you can even help it at this point. Who you are is an example, even facing cancer, this evil whose continued existence is the last thing I’d ever thank God for.

Tonight I am most in awe of how true you are. Your life, including this hard time, is a work of art that makes me weep. Not with fear, like I said, but with love.

Love,

Chelsea

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