Anniversary a poignant reminder: cherish loved ones now

Last Wednesday marked the eight-year anniversary of my grandmother’s passing. She was 83 when she died, surrounded by her children at her home in St. Lucia, having been plagued for years by various ailments that finally took their toll.

Given how much time it’s been since her death, I might have overlooked this day had it not been for her appearance in two recent dreams and the strongest sensation lately that she is still with me, ever watchful and protective and happy, too, for the turning events of my life.

Una Francis, known simply as Granny to my cousins and me, was my dad’s mom, and for many reasons my favorite grandmother (my mom’s dad, on the other hand, easily claimed that top spot in the grandfather department). It seems I shared a special bond with her from early on, as my parents and I lived downstairs from her for a year after I was born. My grandmother lived in a three-story house just outside the city of Castries, with each floor a self-contained unit, and my aunts have often told the story of how I would totter up the stairs every morning to eagerly proclaim my presence. “Granny, I come up already,” I would say, as if my day could not officially begin without seeing her.

I suppose I was like all little girls who, blessed with a doting grandmother, live for those moments of being swept up in the vast expanse of her love. Hers was a cradle for my brother Joachim and me, as well as my cousins Sarai, Janelle and Germaine, all of us thriving on her lavish generosity, and the joy and care with which she fussed over every detail of our lives.

When my family returned to St. Lucia after several years in Antigua and Barbados, the school that my brother and I attended was within walking distance of Granny’s house. And so my cousins and I would make our boisterous way there during lunch, eager to see what special treats she would have for us that day, whether it was the fried plantains coated in brown sugar, the doughy breadfruit balls that melted in our mouths or the sticky gooseberry jam that we would swallow by the spoonful.

We often sat on the porch overlooking the schoolyard, the same porch that was the site of many a tea party, where Sarai and I would gather our favorite dolls, flip our large chalkboard over to rest on two small chairs as our makeshift table and serve up the finest cheese balls, cookies, and for a really grand occasion, coconut cake or water biscuits liberally smeared with guava jelly.

There was little in our lively imaginations that my grandmother did not entertain, whether we wanted to play dress-up in the scraps from her sewing projects or cavort through her garden, feigning fright of the old recluse who had moved into the bottom floor of the house.

When any of us got sick, she was there with her folk medicine remedies: among them, shiningbush tea for skin rashes and eye irritations, a rub of nutmeg, bay rum and the compound known as soft candle for fevers, or for the flu, a similar concoction with coconut oil, red lavender and mentholated crystals added in. And she happily took to her sewing machine for any occasion that warranted a new outfit, whether it was the annual Carnival celebrations or the Smurf induction ceremony that I organized at my school when some friends and I decided to form a Smurfs Club (a Smurfettes Club, however, would have been more apt considering how few guys were willing to join). She even dressed my Cabbage Patch Kids in custom attire and agreed to baby-sit them in those days when they accompanied me everywhere that I went.

As I got older, I came to appreciate Granny for so much more than all the fun times she created for us. She became an inspiration, a model of strength and patience, kindness and optimism, rising above the inevitable divisions and struggles in a family of seven kids with a tireless insistence on love’s prevailing grace.

Yet it wasn’t until she was on her deathbed that I realized I hadn’t shared any of this with her. Once I left St. Lucia at age 10, moving to Pennsylvania with my family, I spent more of my visits back home goofing off with my cousins than sitting at her side or helping her in the garden or escorting her into town, as I wish I had done.

It had been almost four years since I’d seen her when I got the call that she was slipping away, barely conscious of her surroundings. But she had thwarted such dire predictions before, so I believed her feistiness would triumph once again. Yet something guided me to the computer that night, where I poured all my welling emotions and fond memories, my gratitude and appreciation for the woman she was and the amazing grandmother she’d been into a letter. When I sent it to the only two relatives who had e-mail at the time, I knew the chances were slim that either one would be checking their accounts at such a disconsolate hour and feared that a phone call to make such a request would somehow intrude on a delicate, fleeting space.

My grandmother passed that night, but I later learned that one of my aunts did go to the computer, found my e-mail and printed out my letter. She read it to Granny in the company of the other family members who had gathered at her side, and though my grandmother had been unresponsive for most of the day, a smile flittered across her lips.

When my mom’s parents passed away unexpectedly within a year and a half of each other while I was still in college, I did not have the opportunity to acknowledge how much they’d meant to me. And even though I wasn’t as close to my dad’s father, he, too, died without any direct words of appreciation from me.

I should have learned the lesson then, with the sting of not having a final moment even to say “Thank you” or “I love you” and no recollection of when I’d last expressed those sentiments.

But my grandmother’s death jolted me into the awareness of just how fragile life can be. We never know how much time we have left to say the things we put off or assume are already known. And while it can be easy to take our loved ones for granted, it doesn’t take much to make a habit of expressing our love, gratitude and appreciation — not only on special occasions but for every day we get to experience this miracle called life.

– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times