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Her death transformed the way that I looked at life
I learned what death is when I was five years old.
I would place my steps carefully on the worn-out hardwood floor and tiptoe through the hallway making sure the boards did not creak beneath my feet. Patiently waiting outside my mother’s bedroom door, I would listen to her cry. She would weep quietly in her room after she held it together in the kitchen long enough to put the last dish in the dishwasher. She would manage to finish whatever housework needed to be done and, eventually, go back to her room to grieve.
It was a battle in my head on whether to be there for her in the little ways a five-year-old could, or to let her grieve alone. I stayed by the door, controlling my breath and peeking my head in from time to time, until I finally built up enough courage to walk in and console her. The room felt heavy and dark.
Reluctantly, I would come to the edge of the bed and rest my head on my mother’s chest. Wiping her tears from her bloodshot and tired eyes, she’d wrap her arms around me and kiss my forehead.
“Don’t cry,” I would whisper softly, my voice ringing in the room like small bells. “You have me and Rei and Baba.”
My parents decided to leave Albania when I was two, and come to Canada to give my brother and me a better life. Like many immigrant families, my parents sacrificed their own lives by coming here. My mother left behind her best friend: her mother. To this day, this is something I’m not sure she forgives herself for.
Before we moved to Canada, my Grandma was diagnosed with breast cancer. But she had beaten it once before. She was strong and, although heartbroken when my parents decided to immigrate, understood the choice my mom was making by moving to Canada.
“Do not feel sorry that you are leaving. Your children come first,” my mother told me my Grandma would say to her.
My mom’s plan was to move her parents to Canada to live with us as soon as we got on our feet and stabilized our lives here. This was something I was always excited about. I would purposely play outside to watch an airplane go by, and would eagerly tug on my mother’s shirt. I would point toward the airplane in the sky and say, Nena. Gjyshi. (which translates to Grandma and Grandpa in Albanian). I had also learned about the powers of a dandelion. You plucked one from the ground, closed your eyes, blew and made a wish. Whatever you wished for, the wind would take it and make it come true. I always wished to see them again. I was yearning to be with them, and make memories every child should have with their grandparents.
The phone would go off in the kitchen and my body would tingle up with excitement, since there was a chance it could be them. I would perk my ears up from the other room to hear my mother say “Ma-” on the phone, ready to run down the hallway and beg her to hand it to me. I’d tell my Grandma foolish details, such as how my nails were painted red that week and what I had eaten that day.
I often feel jealous of the four-year-old version of myself because I don’t remember what my Grandma’s laugh sounded like and I don’t think four-year-old Dea appreciated it enough. I wish I could trade telling her what colour my nails were that week, for something more important now. I know I always told her I loved her, so at least there’s that.
But the phone calls started to come with bad news, and the excitement in me began to fade as the tone in people’s voices no longer sounded upbeat and hopeful. My Grandma’s health started to deteriorate as her cancer came back.
My mom decided to go to Albania alone to take care of her. I do not remember much about the time she was gone. But I remember the night she came back; my body went into shock when I saw my mom come home from the airport. I hyperventilated so quickly my vision began to blur.
“I’m never going to leave you again,” my mother whispered in my ear as she held me.
She brought back a seed of hope because I thought this meant my Grandma was healthy again. I did not get to plant that seed. Nena was still ill, but there was not much my mother could do at that time, so she returned home. Time passed. The phone rang. The cancer spread.
One night my brother and I were awakened by the sound of my mother screaming. The pitter-patter of our steps echoed through the hallway like heavy rain until we made it to my parents’ bedroom. She was sweating and crying from a nightmare she just had about my grandmother leading her back to Albania. My dad frantically got up to get her a glass of water. By the time he made it to the kitchen, the phone rang.
On the other line, you could hear my Grandpa crying and a cousin urging her to come back because my Grandma was dying.
“Promise me she isn’t gone already,” my mother said. They promised.
My mom decided to take me with her to Albania this time because she couldn’t bear to leave me alone again. She quickly packed our bags that night and booked a flight for the next day.
There was a huge storm that evening and our flight to Greece was cancelled. After waiting a day, we finally made it out to Greece. The connecting flight from Greece to Albania had just left; and my mother was busy fighting with a flight attendant when the phone rang and there was someone wanting to speak to my mother.
I remember bits and pieces as if it were a scene in a movie I’m trying to clip together. Now that I am older, my mother has told me what happened in that phone call.
She picked up the phone, pacing as she held my hand and explained everything to my cousin who was on the other end. My cousin apologized and told her that her mother who lives in Greece was on that connecting flight, and could not wait for my mom to catch the next plane to Albania. This was because she needed to make it in time to my Grandma’s funeral. They broke their promise earlier.
I felt my mother’s grip loosen from my hand as she fainted and fell to the floor. I don’t remember what happened next. Maybe because I was too young and can’t remember everything from that time. Or maybe because I blocked it out as a way to cope with what had just happened.
As soon as we landed in Albania, my cousin, my mother and I caught a cab to the cemetery where my Grandma was being buried. As I waited in the cab with my cousin, I stared outside the window to see tombstones packed so tightly together they looked like rows of dominoes.
Her death transformed the way that I looked at life, as I saw it take a piece of my mother.
Back in Canada, when the phone rang, I knew there were no longer two voices waiting for me on the other end of the line. When a plane would fly over my head, I pointed up and only said Gjyshi. And when I blew on a dandelion, I wished for her to come back, knowing she never could.