Forever and Always
By: Emily Nettesheim
Creative Nonfiction, 2019
As the seasons change and leaves turn from a bright green to a crispy orange, I am brought back to what I know as my childhood. The smell of Werther’s caramels reminds me of the small, compact, one-bedroom apartment where I once spent my days with my grandma, playing cards, matching puzzle pieces to their correct position, and taking long strolls around the small town of Sussex, Wisconsin. As more seasons continued to change, long strolls around the park shortened. The wind that blew the leaves off the trees in fall became colder and harsher, like needles pressing against my cheeks. My grandmother fell ill. Days spent with my grandma doing activities began to diminish. Looking back as a young adult, grandparents become some of the most important people in our young lives. They teach us how to behave, how to fill our bellies (even when we are not hungry), and most importantly, how to love.
In 2008, eight short years after I was born, my grandmother passed away. Since I never experienced the loss of a loved one, I learned to cope by trying to remain positive, assured that she would show up back at my front door ready to pick me up as she once did so frequently. Months passed before I realized that I would never see the face of my grandma again. I would never be able to hug her or laugh with her while playing some card game over and over again. I replayed precious moments; some that still live in my mind today.
During the course of a typical warm, sunny day with no clouds in sight, my grandma asked If I wanted to go to the grocery store with her. The thought of the cold aisles and the old-smelling concrete floors came to my mind as I abruptly said “no”. What child would want to? Knowing me, she then asked if I wanted to go for a walk, which quickly changed my clueless answer. We were walking out of her cozy apartment building, which felt like my second home. We took the elevator as usual due to my fascination with the bright yellow buttons and the idea of a pulley system, which I asked about every time that we rode it. On the ground floor, I was greeted by many of the other elders living in the building at the time. The way they all knew my name didn’t mean anything at the time, but looking back, it makes me curious when I think about what would happen if I showed up today to talk to them. Would they remember me? Would they have any stories to share about my grandma? Is anyone from there alive? No, probably not. Walking on the paved sidewalk, my grandma turned to me and handed me my favorite candy of all time, a Werther’s caramel. She told me that she was sick. I could never understand why she wore a bandana around her soft, sweet head. “I have cancer.” She spoke softly; I could feel the air around me grow thinner. She told me something that nobody wants to hear, something that is not understandable, and something that lives with us forever. We continued to talk as we walked.
After crying with my grandma and expressing our feelings, she brought me to a place I knew all too well, the grocery store. Normally, the grocery store was a cold, bothersome place to buy milk, bread, and any other item that my grandma needed, but not that day. That day, the grocery store was a blurry, teary-eyed place where I cherished every moment that I could spend with my grandma. After buying more candy and a pack of toilet paper, my grandma and I walked back to her apartment. Not long after arriving at her apartment, my grandma told me that she got me a gift. My flushed and puffy face turned to normal color, and with a smile on my face, I opened the gift. Puddles. My grandma had gotten me a puppy Webkinz poodle that was white and as soft as silk. She had always known that I wanted one; she would watch me as I browsed the stuffed animals whenever I saw them down the aisles of any store. I remember thanking her multiple times; I cried on the way home with my mom because I didn’t think that my grandma could afford my gift. I was heartbroken to think that she had spent all of her money on me. “Puddles” is the name of my stuffed animal. I still have it, with the threads on its nose pulled apart due to the countless adventures we have been through, such as playing house and running around in the yard. It is astonishing that such a small, stuffed animal can impact my mood like it does today.
Ten years have passed since my grandma died, and all I have are pictures, memories, and my stuffed animal. Sometimes, I think about her voice and wish I could hear it one more time; I think about her fragile body giving me a hug, so soft and delicate. I think about her strong smelling perfume that I have now associated with elderly people. How it was almost so strong that it hurt to smell, yet was refreshing to my nose. After ten years, I learned more about how my grandma passed away, what cancer was, and why it happened to her. My grandma’s cancer was preventable. I learned that a few months before my grandma had been diagnosed with her cancer, she had been tested; however, the doctor who had done the testing did not complete his job to its full extent. When testing for colon cancer, doctors have to examine an entire colon for polyps, but the exam done on my grandma was only done on half. It saddens me that my grandmother’s life could’ve been extended. I still don’t understand why cancer was inflicted on such a sweet, caring person; I don’t think that I ever will. However, from her experience, she taught me how to be strong and to keep moving forward.
When people ask me who has impacted my life, I commonly reply with “my parents,” but I would not be the person I am today without my grandma. I believe that grandparents positively influence children and fill a space in their hearts that nobody else can. Grandparents teach us how to love and are some of the first people we know. Grandparents know what it is like to love with more than even thought was possible. They have experienced more than my eyes and heart can imagine. Whether it was when they were growing up, losing their own parents, or having their own children, they know when to lift you up, and when to let you find your own way.
Losing a grandparent is not easy. Losing anyone who is close is not easy, which is exactly why it is important to remember all of the good times spent with them. Having family close helped to cope with the loss of my grandma. The last time I saw my grandma, it was a cold, rainy night. The entire family (my mom, her three sisters, and the grandchildren) gathered around her hospital bed that had been transported to her room. I can still feel her fresh, warm sheets that snuggled around her. I was able to have my own time with her, to talk to her once more.
I sat next to her on a brown, wooden chair that was once in the kitchen. Although she was asleep, I told her how much I loved her and that she was my best friend. I thanked her for all of the time she spent with me. After I said what I wanted to say, I gave her a hug and a soft kiss on her cheek. That was the last time I felt my grandma’s heartbeat. I slowly exited her room and went back into the kitchen/common area with tears rolling down my face. My Aunt Lisa gathered me into her loving arms and talked to me; throughout the years, I remember our entire conversation. She knelt in front of me, wiping my tears and assuring me that it was going to be okay. “Grandma is going to be with Grandpa in heaven, she is going to be happy and she is going to miss you so much.” I continued to cry until my aunt pulled me closer and whispered in my ear, “Can I tell you a secret?” I pulled away and nodded my head, “Are you sure? You can’t tell anyone, especially your cousins.” Once again, I nodded, “Grandma has always told me that you were her favorite.” When she said that, I smiled; to this day, I still smile when I think about that conversation.
“I am just going to miss her so much,” I cried.
“Did grandma ever give you anything, like a broach or a stuffed animal?”
“A stuffed animal,” I muttered.
“She will always be with you, Em, but whenever you miss her, hold that stuffed animal up to your heart and you will feel her giving you a big hug.” My grandma always told me to stay close with my mom and my aunts. Perhaps she told me that because of all of the lost time she spent without them. Time is precious. Family is forever. Taking the time to treasure them both is something people commonly take for granted.
The day the air smelled like wet soil and tasted like sweet caramel was the day my grandma passed away. I am forever reminded of the conversation my Aunt Lisa had with me that night. My grandma’s memory will always live with me, and I will take her with me anywhere I go. I know that she looks down on me every day, giving me a boost when I need it most. My mom always says, “Everything happens for a reason, God has a plan.” I will always remember the lessons my grandma taught me and the time I spent with her. I am who I am because of her. Forever and always.