Posted in Longform Excerpts, Memoir, Personal Update

Church Bells: An excerpt, ‘From Your Lips to God’s Ear’

The stories I have cataloged in my memory from my Grandmother have acquired a level of resource scarcity since she left.
Each memory comes to me with a spark of fear that it may one day be forgotten.
Each comes with an intensity that it must be immaculately preserved for the rest of my existence.
That this is my ultimate duty and a part of her legacy.

Imagine being awakened every single morning of your life by church bells that have tolled the same melodies as if they were Scripture since long before your existence.
One morning you don’t hear their chimes ringing through your window.
You look out and see that they have stopped ringing completely because the church is no more.
Without any warning, and unbeknownst to you, one day the church just ceases to exist.

Where its steeple had been is now just blue sky, with birds chirping instead of bells chiming. But those melodies,
that lifelong repertoire that you had taken for granted,
that greeted you every morning,
now have to be replicated in your head before you can begin your day.
You have to wake yourself up every morning with your memory of their sound.
And you start to worry that you’ll forget some of the melodies,
forget which song played on Sunday mornings
and which one played on Fridays at dusk.
The sounds that surrounded you your entire life have been cataloged in your bones but still, you worry that you’ll forget some of them.
That you’ll lose some of the intricacies of their accidentals, the beauty of their resonance.
The likes of which, you now have to hum on your own.

Last week I quietly observed an anniversary.

I had a whole post drafted and ready to publish, but this was the first year I felt called to keep the occasion to myself.

A week ago Wednesday marked six whole years since the day my Grandma died.
Her name was Mary. And you woul’da loved her. Everybody did.

She wasn’t only my grandmother. She was the most charismatic human being I’ve ever laid eyes on. She was my greatest teacher, my eternal confidant, my home.

The anniversary came and went last week. I thought about her on the day, I spoke with family members who loved her as much as I did, I looked at some old photos that I’ve brought with me here to South Africa. But I didn’t grieve her on the anniversary of the day she died.
I wondered why. I worried about it.

The ache came the following day.
That anniversary felt far more significant—not the day she left this world, but the first full day of my life without her on it.

Last week on her day-after anniversary, I wrote and wrote and wrote—retracing the memories of how I had spent that day five years prior.

On the afternoon she died, the magnitude of her loss had a (merciful) delayed arrival. The bottom didn’t fall out until the following day, the loss wasn’t yet real.
I left the dinner shift at the restaurant where I worked in TriBeCa and realized my brain was a step ahead of my heart, that grief had yet to set in.
I wandered around lower Manhattan in this remarkably surreal daze—I could still cling to normalcy for a few hours.
I knew if I went to sleep and woke up, it would feel real.
So I stayed up for approximately three (four?) days straight, frantically planning her funeral.

The morning after she died I went back home to Bucks County and met my family at the funeral home we’d only ever driven past for the previous 20 years. When I got back home, with the rest of my broken and bewildered tribe, that’s when reality set in.
And I guess now, after half a decade (holy shit! time is crazy!), it makes sense that I don’t ache on the day she left this world, peacefully in her nightgown. I ache on the anniversary of the day when the bottom fell out. The day when the first crisis came that she wasn’t there to help us all through.

The last photo I took of my Grandmother, Mary.
Mother’s Day 2015, five weeks before her death.

Grief’s a funny thing—When I was in the midst of it, I couldn’t bring myself to write a single word of my own. I could only cling to the words of other women who’d encountered it before me and written their ways through it, works like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Alice Walker’s Hard Times Require Furious Dancing, and Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye (a memoir about grief by a female writer with a name almost like mine), and

But now grief is one of the topics I am called to the most in my creative writing.
I’ve done a lot of writing about grief since then.

Writing: From Your Lips to God’s Ear—the abridged story of my grandmother and grandfather’s 60-year romance.

The grief doesn’t ever subside, but it does calcify. It’s like the pain scabs over so that it takes the form of an eternal scar instead of an open wound. My scar still throbs sometimes, but not as much these days. Sometimes on Sundays when I make her spaghetti sauce, sometimes when I hang laundry and quietly sing Schubert’s Ave Maria to myself, sometimes when I pray. But in the past five years I’ve (begrudgingly) grown accustomed to living on this planet without her, despite being able to still stew in anger about her being gone if I allow myself to.

My best friend Kelly lost her Nana last year on the same day two years ago- June 17th.
Now we have this anniversary in common. A fact that doesn’t so much lessen the grief, as much as it strengthens our respective abilities to endure it. A shared camaraderie, a comparable pain.

We joke about our grandmothers sitting under neighboring hair dryers at the beauty parlor in heaven. We message each about the superstitious little signs we each receive from heaven. We share adages about grief from literary idols, photos that we take when we see their favorite flowers.

My other best friend, Amelia, lost her grandmother (Savta) last week a year ago. Just a few days before my Grandma’s anniversary. She attended her Savta’s funeral in Ottawa from her couch in Brooklyn, watching via Zoom. I can think of nothing more painful than a virtual goodbye. I am thinking of Nana and Savta too, as I share the above passage about my own Grandmother.

The passage at the top of this post is an excerpt from a long-form narrative piece that I’ve been writing for years now, called “From Your Lips to God’s Ear.”

This part was written to confront a feeling that, in itself, is one of the loneliest I’ve experienced. The same feeling that nearly every soul will experience to some extent—that of inevitable loss.

It was also written about the responsibility of preserving a familial legacy, of being the keeper of the stories—the only one in my generation that was so closely exposed to the thick volume of anecdotes and lessons from the greater part of the 20th century. The responsibility of being a storyteller, a granddaughter, parts Gilmartin, Colligan, and Rourke.


Stories of travels, of tribulations, and of learning to tell the difference.

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