Aromas can captivate the soul and bring us so many memories. Memories of joy, hurt and those that have healed my spirit. I have, I admit, took a great risk to hold onto the aroma that reminds me of love, love that only my grandmother could give me. Saying goodbye is never easy, especially if we are saying goodbye to a loved one, to someone we know is dying, yet stands before us alive, breathing, smiling, loving us just as much as they did when he or she was filled with life—one of life’s saddest ironies.
I adored my grandmother, Grammy, with a love that defied the physical distance that characterized our relationship, considering most of my life has been confined to institutions. Our last moments together, thankfully, was spent in a tight embrace. Standing shackled, on my mother’s porch, holding onto Grammy, the tears that cascaded down my burning face found their resting place on her cold clammy cheek. There I stood, filled with life, with determined ambition, holding onto someone who was actively dying. As we embraced, a thick fog of cigarette smoke enveloped us; we remained suspended in an insular moment. The noise of the trees rustling with the wind, the sound of cars whirling past my mother’s house, were not enough to penetrate the serenity of this embrace. Within this fleeting moment, I held all that I loved in my arms, with my mother and two uncles watching, crying, with two officers standing by doing the very best they could to avoid being consumed by the suffocating emotions hanging over the porch like the smog floating over Delhi. My grandmother handed me a tissue. After drying my eyes, and placing the saturated tissue into the pocket of my orange prison uniform, I looked at Grammy, unable to articulate the love and appreciation I had for her. Leaving a kiss upon her cheek, knowing this would be the last time I would ever see her, I simply said, “Grammy, I love you so very much; thank you for everything.”
In September of 2018, my grandmother died. For 10 months, she battled stage-four bladder cancer. Several months before she died, it was discovered that my grandmother’s cancer had spread to other regions of her body: most notably, her lungs. Forever the stubborn French woman, my grandmother lived her last days in the same ways she lived all the others: faithfully drinking her coffee amid a thick fog of cigarette smoke. I remember her sitting at the table, cigarette in hand, with her thumb resting on the bottom of her front teeth, legs crossed, blue smoke reflecting off the many diamond rings my late grandfather bought her, staring off into a reality unknown to the rest of us. Many of the letters I received from my grandmother while in prison have the distinct smell of instant Maxwell House and Quality Light 100s. Some of the best times I had with her took place around her table, as I watched her absentmindedly inhale what perhaps contributed to the development of her cancer. But I often wondered, as I sat at the table with her, if my grandmother, at that moment, inhaled more than just tar and nicotine. What else did she breathe into that corrosive body?
Sometimes it is hard for me to imagine my grandmother as a spiteful person. The woman I had known was kind, gentle, and did the best she could for those around her. My mother and uncles, however, have always told me that I known only one side: the side Grammy reserved only for me, much to the envy and resentment of the rest of my family. I was my her favorite, and everybody knew this. My uncles told me stories of my grandmother going to great lengths to sabotage their relationships with their girlfriends, especially if she did not approve of the type of women my uncles brought home. My mother has told me how my grandmother refused to talk to her when my mother was incarcerated at the Maine Correctional Center. There are many other stories I could include, but I do not have the space, nor the interest in delving into family gossip. Nevertheless, the point is clear: she was a resentful individual, and if someone crossed her, or did something she did not like, she would turn her back on them and act as if they did not exist.
Even though our relationship was mostly a loving one, I did get a glimpse into my grandmother’s scorn. At the age of eighteen, I stole a few diamond rings from my her jewelry box to pawn. I did not have the money to buy some pot and figured Grammy would not notice a few rings missing, considering that her jewelry box could have been a small exhibit at a local Jared’s. Having a hunch that the rings before him were stolen, the downtown pawnbroker contacted the police, who contacted my grandmother after realizing who I was. Very quickly, my grandmother was able to figure out that she was missing a few rings and subsequently pressed charges. I was arrested, unable to make bail, and therefore was brought to the Kennebec County Jail, where I would eventually serve a ninety-day sentence.
Since my grandmother refused to allow me to move back in with her, I was forced to move in with my mother, a less-than-ideal arrangement, after being released from jail around Christmas. After some time had passed, my mother kicked me out, and I became homeless. I pleaded with my grandmother to take me back. I was sleeping on the streets, sleeping with strange women for a place to stay at night, and I was hungry and completely lost in the world I did not know how to navigate. What hurt me most was going to her house on Christmas Eve with my mother, where everybody received a gift from my grandmother—everyone but me. I knew this was intentional and that she wanted me to feel as low and disgusting as I did.
In the spring of 2018, my mother broke the news to me of my grandmother’s impending death. At first, I was numb. I did not know what to feel, nor did what I feel correspond to the societal understanding of how we are supposed to grieve for the dying. But I knew I felt something, and this something was like a steady drip of water that causes a puddle to spread, becoming broader and deeper with each drop. My puddle only began to have significance when my mother revealed that most of my family had not stopped by to say their goodbyes to my grandmother. My aunt had completely brainwashed my two cousins into believing that my grandmother was a horrible person. Much of my aunt’s discontent with my grandmother stemmed from my grandparents’ bitter divorce, their marriage having served as the nexus that held both sides of the family together.
My grandmother died without my cousins ever saying goodbye. Ultimately, my cousins’ implanted antipathy for my grandmother was greater than their ability to see beyond my her many flaws. In retrospect, I guess it is not their fault. After all, their dismissal of Grammy was learned. I remain haunted by the prospect of letting someone die without making attempts to reconcile in some way, to make peace at the time of death. A great deal was left unsaid between my cousins and my grandmother, which is a heavy burden they will have to carry for the rest of their lives.
I was fortunate enough to receive what is called a “death bed visit” by the Maine Department of Corrections, which took place at my mother’s house in Fairfield. I had never been to my mother’s new house, so walking through the front door, and into the kitchen, promised sensory overload. Twelve years in prison will make a person forget how small and enclosed houses are, for we live in very capacious surroundings. My mother’s house smelled of Bath and Body Works; the kitchen table was neatly arranged; pictures of some of the dogs I trained were strewn across her refrigerator, and towards the back end of the kitchen was her openly inviting living room.
After offering me a Mountain Dew, an offering tacitly approved by hesitant officers, I settled on the couch with my grandmother. An unknown show was previewing on the El Rey Channel. All twelve of my mother’s dogs chaotically ran around me; the only creature in the room truly peaceful was my mother’s cat relaxing at my feet. The woman before me was anything but spiteful, and I could not help but feel as though she was a stranger. I can remember the many experiences we had together, but there was still a foreign history, an entire existence that resided behind eyes, heavy from the morphine, of which I was unaware. How could my grandmother appear to be someone I didn’t know, yet knew intimately? As I sat there, I experienced a certain awkwardness, an emotional distance from my grandmother. Maybe the emotional and physical distance, which twelve years in prison manifests, had already placed a certain death between my grandmother and me. She was my protector, my guardian, the person who loved me unconditionally despite my failures, but there was a person in her that was not the woman I knew as Grammy.
Throughout my life, my grandmother and mother had secretly engaged in battles over me. On the one hand, my grandmother would accompany my mother to visit me in prison; on the other hand, my grandmother would secretly confide in me that she hated my mother for abusing me as a child, and she blamed my mother for the way I turned out. This battle played out even during the last hour I spent with her. During that hour, my mother sat to the right of me, showering me with attention, beaming with pride that my visit with my grandmother was taking place at her house over Grammy’s. She felt the need to show me selfies from the local gym on her Galaxy, while my grandmother sat to the left of me, inhaling the nicotine and tar that had been one of her most trusted friends, exhaling secret disdain that she harbored for my mother. Even in the face of death, my grandmother could not let go of the ill-will she had for daughter’s narcissism, or at least self-centeredness. I remained in the middle of this battle, trying to figure out what I was going to hold onto.
The trip back to the prison was surreal. The first ten minutes, I was trying to process those final moments with my grandmother. Then, when this stupor began to fade, I leaned my head against the window, absentmindedly watching the trees pass me by through the vehicle’s barred windows. After some time, I realized that the tissue my grandmother had given me still sat in my pocket. I took this tissue out: it still smelled of cigarette smoke and instant coffee.
When I arrived at the prison, I prepared myself for the mandatory strip-search. Getting undressed, I inconspicuously tossed the tissue to the side of the changing room. After the strip-search, while I began to get dressed, I grabbed the tissue as quickly as possible, stuffing it into one of the pockets of my jeans. The walk back to the Medium unit was full of dread; I was petrified that the officers were going to run down on me and accuse me of trafficking in prison contraband, even though this contraband was merely a tissue. Upon arriving at my unit, I ran to my room, opened an empty vitamin bottle, and gently pressed there the last thing my grandmother ever gave me.
To this day, I still have that precious Kleenex. This tissue sits on my desk inside the same vitamin bottle in which I originally place it. Every now and then, I will open the pill bottle and smell the tissue; it has never lost the smell of cigarettes. My grandmother gave it to me during one of the most beautiful moments I have ever experienced.
My grandmother never died. She reminds with me, sitting on my desk, reminding me of the power of love and the need to let go of the anger and bitterness that ultimately means nothing at the end of a person’s life. My grandmother has always been there for me and even, in inanimate form, she speaks to me every time I smell her personal fragrance. I have chosen to remember my grandmother in the ways she propagated love and joy, not in the ways she hated. In the moments in my life, alone in my cell, when I need to remind myself of how much love she gave me, I have that aroma, the aroma that beckons my heart to remember her love, her love that continues to fuel my healing and spiritual growth.