When I met Grief

Written by Montez Louria
Art by Mohammad reza Fathian

cw: death, deceased children

Grief has followed for as long as I can remember. It’s a familiar comfort and a familiar pain. I think of grief as a distance relative, a fuzzy memory of an aunt or cousin. I don’t see her often, yet when she comes around, you will remember her visit. She wanted me to know she would always be with me whether I wanted her around or not. I didn’t know, so her first impression was lasting when my pregnant aunt and unborn son were killed.

I wanted to be her. I wanted to have lips lined with black pencil, long denim skirts, and witch boots that covered my ankles. Growing up, my aunt was my idol and she could do no wrong in my eyes. I remember her belting out classic R&B classics. I remember her running up and down the block practicing for a track meet. She wanted to be the best and the fastest. She wanted to manage a sports team or be a sports writer. 

My aunt was 4 feet 11 yet her presence seemed giant to me. We would take long bus trips to the mall and eat snowballs from the indoor snowball stand. My mother tells me that before I was born she would ask about my arrival. She would cling to my mother’s large belly, impatiently, waiting for my birth. Eventually, I was born with a best friend who was 12 years older than me. She promised me a gift for my seventh birthday, a surprise that I would never see because five days before I turned seven she died. She was pregnant, hit by a cowboy boot cladded, blonde man rushing to the bank from a fishing trip. He tried to hit and run, but was stopped by a courageous man who blocked his car that now had her blood smeared across the headlights. The front of the car was smashed and my aunt was severely bruised. He never made it, and she never made it to the department store to meet her boyfriend. 

For many years, I prayed that the reason she went to the department store was not for the gift she promised to buy me. I would never know. 

“I couldn’t see her.”

“Her clothes were too dark.”

“Why is a pregnant girl in the road anyway?”

Phrases from officers and the driver himself. From that moment on, my aunt would run her final race against time and life itself. A mother fighting for the life of her son and herself, time steadily slowing down.  I wonder if her life flashed before her eyes. I wonder if she thought of her son taking his first steps, the only grandson my grandmother would have had. But what can one think about in their final moments? Things they wish they could’ve done? Promises they couldn’t keep? Or did life play like a movie as you slipped into eternal slumber?

It was a brisk November night when an eerie knock echoed through the house. Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat,” played ominously in the background. The knock came just after the video’s dedication to Aaliyah’s final moments. I heard the door creak open, my grandmother’s laughter interrupted. I sat on the edge of my bed, eyes glued to the tv screen.

As the music began, Aaliyah’s first few words were cut with a shrill scream. I furrowed my brows. My attention was drawn to the newfound commotion downstairs. I creeped to the banister. I could hear my grandmother screaming and my mother’s voice. My mother’s words were short and breathy. 

I inched closer to the stairs. The sounds varied from shrieks, loud yet short dialogue, police sirens, and the murmurs of neighbors outside. I gulped. I gained the courage to walk downstairs. There was my grandmother, the pillar of our family, crumbling, like the tattered walls of our old house. 

No one realized that I had wandered downstairs. My grandmother was on the floor, wailing. She repeated, “My baby. My baby.” I had never seen my grandmother cry before that day. I moved around silently, trying to gather what happened. Hours later, my mother sat me on the edge of the bed.

My mother took a deep breath. “…Latana and Ajah… passed away.”

I titled my head to the side, “…Like my goldfish?” I straightened my back. “…She’s not coming back home.”

My mother nodded her head yes. I didn’t respond. At that moment, I felt like I had to be strong for my family. The women I grew up with were like the Sailor Scouts. They didn’t cry. They worked long hours. They built furniture and used power tools. They were called “men,” by people in the neighborhood. At this moment, the persona was broken. This was the first time many of them cried tears that weren’t from laughing. But at 3 am, I woke up with a loud cry, calling for my mother.She came to me, hugging me tightly. Even though I was only seven, I said “my heart was sad” when describing my pain.

Time froze in my house. There was no more Sunday church. There was no more visiting Cactus Willie’s’ restaurant on Saturdays or family trips to the movies. There was Shrek and How The Grinch Stole Christmas repeatedly playing on the television in the large brown entertainment center in the living room. My family drew attached to these films after my grandmother cracked a smile while watching. The Grinch was the closest thing to Christmas we would have that year. My aunt’s clothes were still in the dresser drawers. Her cap and gown from her high school graduation hung on the back of my grandmother’s bedroom door.

“I just can’t yet… I can’t,” my grandmother said tearfully. She kept her cap and gown on her bedroom door until we moved from that house. Finally, her clothes were moved to totes alongside her favorite soap and perfumes preserved with her clothes.

Because her death was November 15, my grandmother didn’t have the time or capacity to plan for Thanksgiving. Usually, we would have a giant feast with ham, turkey, and all the side dishes. She couldn’t bring herself to cook. We already had about 4 hams, two of which were doused in honey. We had so many fruit baskets. That was the year my mother learned to cut a pineapple. For the rest of the year, laughter died at the doorstep of my house. I remember my grandmother having a friend who had a problem with alcoholism, and because I was young, she amused me.“I ran into the kitchen gleefully, saying her name.  “Hey,” my aunt said to me, “… you need to stop, please. I just lost my sister. Nothing is funny.”

I stopped mid run. I scanned the kitchen, to which another aunt nodded in agreement. I put my head down, my eyes warm and wet. I sat in the living room, alone. I didn’t smile for the rest of the year. 

Smiles happened seldomly, only in reference to a good memory with  my aunt. My mother and her remaining sisters would discuss a future that my aunt or her son would never have. I met death and grief together. This was the year I started and never stopped thinking about death. Before this moment, the only death I knew was my army of goldfish dying. I had never thought about death, or had anyone talk to me about death. This was a crash course on living, existing, and dying. This was my introduction to grief and emotion. The only time we could be emotional. This was the year I developed what would seem like permanent survivor’s guilt. 

I desperately wanted to understand what grief meant. On November 15, 2001, a part of myself died and I could never express with words what it was. 2001 was a memorable year. Both my aunts were pregnant. The twin towers crumbled. Aaliyah died and yet somehow out of all of that, the death of my aunt was the thing that hit me the hardest. 

The funeral was bizarre. It was my first one. I remember seeing the man who I thought was responsible for all this, standing over the casket. In the monotonous sea of brown and hazel eyes, I caught a glimpse of blue. My hands clutched the stale candy bar melting in my denim jacket pocket. There was a dead yet curious look in his eyes. His name, Mark Adams, will always be burned in my brain. He was amazed by the Black Baptist church and the singing of church mothers who fried chicken. He cupped his hands together and surveyed the front pews.

Maybe he wanted to ask God for forgiveness or maybe he wanted to see how good they hid the black bruise that covered half of her face. MAybe he wondered how a person so young could be loved by so many. Either way, in this span of time that seemed to never end, I watched him stop the assembly line of people circling the casket. I thought to myself, “would he cry?” “Is he going to say… sorry?” Nothing. Not a single tear from those icy blue eyes. 

Maybe he has never seen dead bodies before. Maybe he has never seen a dead baby… I never had until that day. A dead baby was something I couldn’t wrap my head around until my cousin died the day he was born, just minutes after his mother’s hand went cold. My grandmother held on for as long as they allowed. She said she remembered the warmth leaving her hand slowly as it went limp. I wondered what it was like to hold the hand of the dead, especially her hand one last time. I wondered what it was like to watch my cousin breathe, if only for a moment. Small fragments that I will never know that lead to the moment he attended the funeral of my pregnant aunt whom he “accidentally” killed. It seemed that I was the only person to notice his presence. I wondered what motivated him to attend the funeral in a Baptist church in East Baltimore. Everyone in the church could only focus on my aunt and her son, perfectly placed together in the casket. Everyone was too busy to notice, but I noticed.

 His face was a blur, but his blue eyes, cowboy boots, and the statue of the Virgin Mary holding an infant Jesus he sent the family as a gift would be burned into my memory. “How awful,” seven-year-old me thought, “a mother and son to say I’m sorry for a mother and son.” 

That’s the last memory I have of her. The only memory of my cousin and a distance from Thanksgiving. It truly is the saddest holiday.

I worry that she will become distorted in my head. I worry that I’ll forget her voice, and a small part of me cringes because I have. I vaguely remember her. I have so many questions and wonders that I can never know the answers to, like if she would’ve been the first woman to manage or own a sports team. 

All we have left are clothes, limited edition Timberland boots, and a can of grape soda that was never open and the moments frozen in time from photos.

After a while, scents fade, pictures fade, and dust settles. That’s all that you have left of anyone. When the keeper of those materials fades, the objects that preserved a person won’t matter: they too will succumb to grief. They might be sold or given away to someone who has no idea of the story behind it. Or do these objects even carry a story? I would like to ask that question to my old friend, grief.