When my grandmother died somewhere in the Dominican Republic, in 2012, I got a series of texts in the middle of a college lecture. I didn’t check my phone until after class — I knew what the texts meant.
Mamá Susa’s first stroke happened in my house, in 2009. She had been staying in what was then the guest room on the first floor. It was past 10 a.m., and she hadn’t come upstairs for breakfast yet, so my mother went to check on her. I heard my mom screaming and ran down the stairs to see her panicking. Mamá was lying still on her bed. Her face looked different.
I sat Mamá up and talked to her until the paramedics came. She tried to respond but the left side of her body could barely move.
Somewhere, there’s a photo of me at around five years old; I’m sitting in a chair with my grandmother nearby. It reminds me of how strong and healthy Mamá had always been, even as an older woman. It’s how I remember her, even after the strokes happened. After she died, I practically tore my basement apart looking for the photo. But all I found was her pink plastic powder box and puff. It smelled just like her, so I took it to my room.
I kept the ghost of my grandmother trapped in that box while I mourned her. I’d play a little game where I’d shake the puff and pretend that I saw the outline of Mamá’s face in the little cloud of powder. I’d catch it under the lid of the compact and imagine that it was her soul, that she was there with me.
She used powder to “stay fresh” in the Caribbean humidity. She always wore chic heels, prayed the rosary every night, and warned me that I shouldn’t get married until I finished school (she never graduated from middle school). She also warned me against casual dating, crop tops, and getting “too tan.” She was frustrated that I insisted on cold showers and deodorant and didn’t wear heels.
“Ven aquí,” she’d say, calling me over. “I have to powder you up.”
After the stroke, she couldn’t powder herself and wasn’t able to cook rice or sancocho. I figured it would be a matter of time before she could do anything normal again after all the medication and physical therapy and doctors’ appointments. It took months of rehabilitation, staying with my family in New York for over a year, before she returned to the Dominican Republic. I thought everything would be back to normal after some time and enough physical therapy.
But when I went to Bonao in the summer of 2012, she had a cane. And when Mamá tried to powder herself, she covered her face and her dress. That’s when I knew she wasn’t going to cook ever again. Soon, I started imagining her death.
Months after Mamá passed, my mother, sister, cousin, and I all had a dream where Mamá stood in the yard of her house in Bonao. In my dream we were both barefoot, standing on the rocks by the cacao tree. She didn’t say anything, but she seemed healthy. I just stood there with her.
In my cousin’s dream, Mamá began to float up into the sky. My cousin grabbed her ankle and wanted to know where her brother was (he had died in 2012 as well).
“When I grabbed her, all I felt was bone,” my cousin told us. “That’s how I finally accepted that Mamá was gone.”
But I couldn’t accept it yet.