There are two tile steps with razor sharp edges near the living room which lead to a small landing. I have tripped over them many times, especially when I would chase my sister up and down the house. The joy would instantaneously turn to sharp pain, as the fresh scrapes on my shins began to bleed. My grandmother hated seeing me in tears and always helped me back up, without a single scolding for my careless behavior.
Past the two steps, tucked into the corner of our house, is my grandma’s bedroom. She would always complain about the two steep steps leading to her room, laughing that one day she would end up falling like me. I would always giggle and help her up the steps, even though my petite frame was barely enough to keep her steady. I walked on those steps every morning to help her down, and every night, to help her up.
But I haven’t walked on those two steps in twelve months. The number “twelve” dances around in my head––it was only one year ago, yet feels like an eternity since I stepped into her bedroom. I wasn’t ready to go inside.
But when my mother asked me to fetch a pillow from my grandma’s bedroom, I had no choice but to revisit the familiar space. One. Two. I slowly made my way up the steps to find a neatly made bed, the lingering scent of sandalwood, and a deafening stillness. Time stopped in that room, and I, too, felt frozen in time standing in it. Everything was in its place. So tidy as to feel unlived in. I felt a sharp pain, like a punch to my stomach, tears stinging my hot cheeks, as I was reminded bythe framed picture on the table of my smiling grandmother, seeing her twinkling eyes before she got sick. She looked nothing like that in those last months as she lay in her bed barely able to open her eyes.
“Just…breathe!” I remember my grandmother exclaiming slowly in English one evening as I panicked about my schoolwork. She was furiously writing in a tiny, black journal, copying English sentences from her iPad over and over again. She regularly did this, usually with poetic lines and difficult words, quoting some of these later on, in an attempt to impress the nurses that tended to her during her prolonged treatment. She would often listen to news on a small radio, which I could hear late into the night as I did my homework, feeling comforted that I wasn’t the only one awake. The medicines made her restless, and I knew that the radio soothed her. I can’t imagine what thoughts clouded her mind then.
It’s the little things I remember. I had the privilege of being the one to set up a password on her iPad that she could actually remember. Every time she tried to log in, she would forget, and we would all take turns resetting it, making her swear to remember it the next time––even though we all knew what would happen. I decided to write it down in her black journal in bold letters so that we would never forget it again. That did the trick.
In the final months when her fingers trembled uncontrollably from all the chemotherapy and radiation, she rarely opened the journal to remember the password or to practice her English. It disappeared from the family room, eventually ending up somewhere behind dozens of other forgotten items in a cupboard. She slowly stopped using her iPad to video chat her family and friends, not wanting them to see her looking so sick.
My grandmother took pride in the way she looked. Every morning, her gold jewelry jangled as she made her way into the kitchen for coffee. She loved her gaajulu, decorated metal bracelets that she color coordinated with her freshly pressed sareesevery day. Her silver hair put up into a neat knot at the nape of her neck, her hands fragrant with sandalwood lotion. This is how I remember her.
Her green saree in the framed photograph, decorated with golden peacocks along the border, was what she wore whenever there was a special occasion. Green was her favorite color. It represented growth, safety, success, and luck. She always told me she felt lucky, as she was my grandmother. I was unsure if she told this to all of her grandchildren, but it always made me feel special.
There was a kumkum box next to the photograph in the bedroom. My grandmother used it every day, and I used to love watching her put the red paste on her forehead with her right thumb and the index finger. I used to marvel at her dexterity.
“Bamma can I try once?” I would beg her, playing with both the little black velvet box where she kept her kumkum and a handheld wooden mirror. The mirror was my favorite, as it had a tiny elephant engraved on the back of it. Every time my grandmother used the mirror to put kumkum on her forehead, I felt as if the elephant was glowing.
But soon, when her fingers lost their dexterity, she had to take my mom’s help. My mom cleaned her face with a washcloth and applied the kumkum every morning. My grandmother used to weakly ask for her mirror and looked at herself with sadness in her eyes. I would always watch them from the doorframe, wishing that I could see the faded elephant on the mirror glow just one more time. When my uncle surprised her with brand new, expensive sarees last year, she said, “I’ll wear them once I recover so that I can look even better.” Appreciating her optimism, my uncle kept them neatly folded in her closet.
The sarees never saw the light of day. She wore dull hospital gowns during her sickness. Her cupboard with stacks of colorful clothes, some cotton and some silk, with sandalwood pouches between the layers, lay untouched as if they never left the seller’s shelves. Her night table on which lay her iPad, her small radio, and kumkum box had been replaced with a bigger table, littered with multiple medicine bottles of various sizes.
My grandmother’s room has the perfect view of my backyard. With sparse rain in the last few years, our lawn began to live in the shadow of its glorious, green past. My parents, wearing their floppy hats and sunscreen, would go out into the backyard to water the roses, hydrangeas, star jasmines, and the vegetable patch that they fretted over. Despite the drought, my grandmother made sure that we planted lemons in our backyard. She would not settle for anything else.
Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother cooking with every ounce of love and passion in her body, spending hours in the kitchen just to meet everyone’s specific requests. She never forgot to make me favorite aloo fry when I saw her, sometimes giving a little bit extra to me in secret so that my cousins wouldn’t find out. Every August, we would receive a package from India, one marked with “Express Shipping” with my grandmother’s tentative English hand addressing the package to my sister. Our house smelled like the pickle dish from inside of the package for days. Nobody ever complained.
Her most famous dish was her lemon rice, made from the tartness of the Mexican lemon. It was a perfect combination of sweet and spicy. She would fondly reflect on her own childhood, spent on a farm where she would frolic as a child in the evenings, with the citrus scent from the lemon trees tickling her nose.
It is customary to hang a large portrait of the deceased loved one in the home as a way of remembrance and respect, but my grandma disagreed with this custom. In a moment of clairvoyance, she suggested that we plant a Mexican green lemon tree in the backyard instead. Under her supervision, my father planted one right in front of her window so that she could keep her eye on it, even though she knew that she may never see the fruits blossom. As my mom became busy taking care of her, my dad stressing with balancing work and his mother’s health, and my sister occupying herself with her college applications, I felt lonelier than usual, but spent my time tending to the lemon tree, watering it despite the slow growth, waving to my grandma from the garden window. In those days, I tended to both the tree and my grandma, administering her medication, with immense dedication.
But the lemon tree wasn’t doing so well. Within months it lost its leaves instead of flourishing. Seeing my grandmother’s disappointment, my dad suggested that we plant another one, frustrated with the lack of prosperity of this plant. My grandma, however, refused and was adamant about giving this one a chance.
We carefully transplanted the lemon tree to a sunnier location in the yard, out of sight from the bedroom window. The change in location did not help, but my grandmother insisted that I check on it every day as she could no longer, her feet hurting from the chemotherapy, and my massages relieving only the pain from her heart. I felt privileged as she never asked anybody but me to look after her lemon tree. But as the days went by, my grandma slowly stopped asking me to check on the lemon tree, and I, too, gave up. And before I knew it, both my grandma and the tree had vanished from my life.
On the day of my grandmother’s funeral, I was the only grandchild to attend. I remember telling my sister who was away at school that she needn’t come––that it might be better to remember grandmother in better health, with her twinkling eyes. But on the day of the funeral, I couldn’t help but feel so alone. I knew she wouldn’t like it if I cried, but as the December wind sent chills up my spine, I could not help myself. I wish you could just breathe, Bamma, I thought to myself.
After moving here from India, she had extended her life by almost four years by insisting on chemotherapy and different treatments, much to the surprise of her doctors. Despite all her pain, she was always the liveliest person in the house, making jokes and telling stories for everyone to enjoy. In the past twelve months, I often waited to hear the tinkle of her gaajulucoming from the hallway, but instead, I only heard unnerving silence. It felt as though a layer of the house’s foundation had been permanently removed.
I entered my grandmother’s room to fetch the pillow my mother had requested with reluctance, but her benevolent smile in the photograph engulfed me in a warm embrace of memories. Memories of the days I fell on the stairs, her journal, the grin I had to hide when I got more aloo fry than my cousins. Memories of rushing to her side when she called, her tight grip on my shoulder as I helped her walk, her wise words whenever I was having a bad day. And memories of the lemon tree. I immediately forgot about the pillow and ran outside to check on the tree, but began slowing down as I realized that seeing a dark twig withering from my abandonment would only hurt me more. I approached the plant with apprehension, only to notice a small, green tinge fighting to replace the dominating brown in the stem. I could only smile with the satisfaction that Bamma was still watching the lemon tree, even though it may be from a different window.