Letters from my Grandmother

The road through grief and healing from grandson to grandmother.

I was at my desk in the office where I work in downtown Manhattan, texting my mother in San Antonio, TX and nervously optimistic about my grandmother’s prognosis. “Let me know what I can do when we know more,” I said.

“I will.” my mom replied. “Could send a nice card.”

“Okay.”

My grandmother had driven herself to the hospital after complaining about not feeling well, something that was concerning but not atypical. Treatment for pain turned into rapid deterioration over the coming days as she receded into a semi-conscious, then unconscious state. As an octogenarian, she was no stranger to the hospital, but what I took for a routine visit was now much more serious.

I went to a card store a block from my office, browsing the aisles for something to send. I dislike shopping for cards; I can be finicky about words, and the pre-written messages are almost never quite right. I don’t like crude joke cards either, least of all in a situation like this. Amid aisles of greetings and well-wishes and condolences for any type—births, deaths, anniversaries, in Spanish as well if you’d like—was a small, narrow rack: “Blank Inside.” Perfect.

I wrote my message, more of a letter than a greeting, talking to my grandmother about how I’d heard she wasn’t feeling well. I hoped she would recover soon, I said, and I pictured her back out in the world of her retirement village, socializing with Air Force veterans and their spouses in between the occasional river cruise to some interesting destination. I hoped for more conversations like the ones we’d had over the holidays, long mornings where we talked for hours about anything and everything. I felt a heaviness, and I was scared. She seemed fine, but what if something was really wrong? The past decade has held a lot of loss for my mother’s side of the family, and we were, and are, exhausted from it. I needed her, so she had to get better. I sent the card.

Four days later, she died. The CT scan showed hundreds of spots all along her brain and spine. The diagnosis was likely non-cancerous lymphoma, but swirling questions about the amount of oxygen she was getting remain. In her last days, she never came to. The card didn’t make it in time. I was devastated.

Cards weren’t always so important to me. For much of my childhood, post-Christmas thank you notes were a chore. Like many kids, I was all too happy to dash off an extensive list of demands to Santa Claus, but hated the drudgery of going through and methodically handwriting thank you notes to send to my relatives. It was a process I regarded as homework outside of school and therefore wildly unethical. As a teenager through my first year of college, I resigned myself to it as the responsibility of a would-be mature adult. Later, I would take to making digital illustrations for my cards, often in celebration of Chinese New Year (yes, that’s how long it took me to get to them), willing to go through an hours-long design process to justify printed—not handwritten—messages. In my immaturity, I would often fail to see writing a note as anything but an obligation. Why thank someone again for a gift I thanked them for in person?

My grandmother, or “Grammy,” befitting a writer and storyteller, sent many notes: on paper, on postcards, and tucked into gifts—often handwritten, always enjoyable. Whether they came with presents or news of her latest travels, they were upbeat and brief, written in an ascendant, distinctive cursive, and always containing an interesting fact or some gem of imparted wisdom she’d found over the years. One of my favorites was a summary of Kahil Gilbran’s On Children: that our children are the arrows we shoot into the future, where we cannot go. It’s a beautiful message on parenthood and the future, with a delicate warning: by design, parent and child are destined to be separated.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, 
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

I’ve always felt a special connection to my grandmother; like fine wine or a well-traveled, cherished sweater, that relationship would only get better, more complex, and more beloved with time. We shared a love of art, and her talent for painting linked us as I walked my own path as an artist, taking advanced classes in grade school and going on to study design and illustration in college. As I found my voice as a writer, I saw in my grandmother the wisdom and expertise of a woman who had found curiosity and intrigue everywhere she went. In her self-determination—starting her writing career as a volunteer, writing for Heloise, and continuing to write up until her death—I saw lifelong creative passion.

She taught me to keep my eyes open, and to recognize a story in unexpected places. A few years ago, when I dragged her along to a trendy menswear store in New Orleans, I was surprised to see her make a purchase as well: Tacopedia, an expansive survey of the Mexican taco. “I think it could be a great idea for a newspaper column,” she said matter-of-factly, but her eyes twinkled with a knowing mischief. She found stories in everything, and her senior living column explored a sweeping array of topics, from modern dating to the importance of kindness and the temptation and indulgence of a candy bar. My mother would clip the articles out of the San Antonio Express-News and hand me stacks of them whenever I would visit. I read every single one.

In the months after her death, I have found her notes everywhere. Sometimes I seek them out in an effort to remember her and sit with my grief. Often they catch me completely off guard. Inside the cover of my copy of The Artist’s Way is a note from my grandparents, which I’d left there intentionally but had forgotten about until after my grandmother’s funeral. While the letter is signed affectionately with “Grammy and Grandpa” I recognize my grandmother’s writing well enough to know it was mostly a solo effort, met with a final nod of approval from my stoic and kind grandfather. The book is a gift for a young kid freshly graduated from high school, off to start four years of art education. The note is equal parts encouragement, wisdom, and loving sentimentality. “Grandmothers can say such mushy things,” she writes, “because we are old and age has its privileges.” Now more than ever, the note is an indelible part of the book it came with, and her encouragement—confident and without reservation or judgement—is at the heart of everything I do as an artist.

My mother and I have exchanged photos and stories as she and my uncles go through the laborious, difficult process of sorting through my grandmother’s things. A self-described “maximalist,” she was unapologetic about her dense decorating style, cabinets and tabletops and walls heavy with memories and treasures. Folded and kept safe in a jewelry box was a note from me, written during grad school: a note where I try my best to convey just how much she means to me, how much she’s influenced my life, and how much I owe who I am to her, my grandfather, and the family they created together. My mother declared it was a diamond, tucked away and precious. The note finishes with a simple sentence, one I would return to often in my notes and emails to Grammy because it could never be stressed enough. I wish she could have seen it again, in the card I sent while she was in the hospital, one more time:

Thank you, for everything. I love you. 
-Matthew