My mother’s fiancé died when I was nine years old and for years after that, we would commemorate the anniversary of his death by sharing a box of Ferrero Rochers, his and our favourite chocolates. I don’t remember exactly how long we upheld this ritual before, gradually, year after year grief began to slowly loosen its grasp and now the day passes without me even registering its historical significance.
I don’t want that to be the case with the memory of my grandmother’s last days. In fact, I have a vivid fear of letting the memory slip away into a blur, especially since the memory is already so blurred over with overwhelming emotion and regret.
It hit me in the face the other day when the first anniversary of her death came and went and I nearly passed the day by, blissfully unaware of its bitter undertones. My mother brought me back to reality when she phoned and mentioned that the rest of my family back home would be going out for breakfast to commemorate the day and “just be together.” I felt guilty for forgetting, and my heart stiffened into a knot, tangled with a mixture of warmth, longing, and regret at the sudden conjuring up of the last memory I have of her.
On her deathbed, holding my hand and looking intently into my eyes, she added a few more inches to the incredibly large shoes she was leaving for me to fill by imparting on me this profound purpose:
“Be everything to everyone,” she said.
That phrase clouds every memory I have of her now, because only after her death did I discover what she really meant and the great extent to which she embodied that phrase throughout her life. People of all different ages would come to me and tell me how my beloved grandmother had touched their lives, and I soon began to realize that although I was an only child, and had no siblings to share my gran with, she wasn’t only my grandmother. She fulfilled the role of mother and grandmother to so many other people that had need of the love she had to give. I inherited a family formed not only by blood but bonded by her love and acceptance.
Maya Angelou writes in her memoir, Letters to my daughter, that while she gave birth to one son, she has “thousands of daughters.”
“You are black and white, Jewish and Muslim, spanish-speaking, Native-American and Aleut. You are fat and thin, pretty and plain, gay and straight, educated and unlettered, and I am speaking to you all, here is my offering to you.” -Maya Angelou
This quote reminds me of my grandmother, my very own Maya Angelou.
In her life, she served as mother, mayoress, music teacher, company director, an excellent cook, a good wife and a treasured friend. The list goes on. She lived out her life being everything to everyone, and she did so with enthusiasm, grace, generosity, and gentleness. She epitomized the art of being formidable without raising your voice.
How do I commemorate the memory of a life so well lived? Maya Angelou also said that “Life loves the liver of it,” and my grandmother certainly knew how to live life. Boldly and with colour.
So here I am, sitting in a coffee shop, all alone. Sipping my cappuccino and filling the empty chair next to me with all my memories of her. I’m trying to refresh them, to see them clearer; shuffle them around and place them in order, but most importantly I’m trying to reassure myself that the memory of her; all that she means to me, hasn’t slipped away and faded like an old, colourless photograph that no longer captures the life of its subjects.
Three months before my entrance into this world, my grandmother was involved in a life-threatening head-on collision motor accident. The deciding factor of whether or not she would live to meet her only grand-daughter rested on a single heartbeat. Her heart stopped beating at the scene of the accident and if the paramedic hadn’t listened to that ludicrous voice urging him to give ONE more attempt at resuscitation, I would never have been blessed with the experience of knowing and having my grandmother in my life just long enough for her to witness me emerge into the first stage of adulthood.
I’m reminded of that bible story when King Hezekiah’s life was due to come to an end, but he pleaded with God for an extension, and God proved to be more lenient than some of my University Professors and granted him an extra 15 years.
My gran was supposed to die that day. She actually did die. For a few minutes, her heart ceased to beat. But thanks to a persevering paramedic, who went over and above his normal lengths of duty, my grandmother was given a second chance at life, and I was given a chance to have my grandmother around for just as long as it took her to teach me and shape me into the person I am, and into the person her influence and her life constantly inspires me to aspire to become.
I like to think of it as borrowed time. Time leased out to fulfill a purpose. Time, that does not belong to us but is lent to us and the only way to pay it back is to pay it forward. She was certainly a gift to me, a gift I can only repay and express my gratitude for by aspiring to follow in her footsteps, to continue her legacy.
All of our lives serve a purpose; we are all given ‘borrowed time’— time that one day we will have to give back. We better spend wisely because what we give back, is what we leave behind, and essentially, what we pass on to others.
We are all women, who in some way or another, at some stage of our lives, are called, or expected to be ‘everything to everyone’. Some see it as a curse, others, like Maya Angelou, and my grandmother, use it as a blessing to build others up and leave behind a legacy of love.
My grandmother was an exceptional woman, and I’m not just saying that in an attempt to ‘immortalize the dead’. She had her faults and her failures, but she never allowed herself to be defined by them.
She proved, to me at least, that you can do it all, and have it all, yet not be defined by it all. She was many different things, to many different people, but she is everything to me. And yes, she left very large shoes to fill, and it’s my life-long prayer, that I may never forget, that from her dying lips, she left them to me.
Featured image: Jade le Roux