Don’t cry in front of the children—only at night as you rock the baby to sleep, when you lie in bed awake, when you sit in the car alone, when you drive, when you hear that song—but only when you’re alone. Be strong. Be helpful. Be there and don’t forget to tell her you love her. Don’t get mad—it’s no use. Sort the pills for nausea, diarrhea, anxiety, and depression taken three times a day with sleeping pills before bed. Sort them into the weekly storage case, Sunday through Saturday. Change her pain medicine patch every three days and give her morphine when she needs more—and she will. There will be a lot of pain. She will suffer, but the world will move on. Put her feet up—they will swell, her skin red and tight as if it could split open. Put a fresh pitcher of drinking water next to her; put her oxygen on. Her body will become thin and you will feel her ribs when you hug her.
Remember each day is a gift, each moment a gem that you will string together and keep in your heart: sitting near the window as she throws out peanuts to the squirrel she calls Nutty; feeding the stray cats as your daughters sit holding the kittens; and watching her bake brownies with your three-year-old son. Tell her you love her and don’t wait to bring her flowers. Forgive her for the drinking. Forgive her for not leaving your Dad when he hit her. Forgive her for the foster homes. Forgive her for not being the mom you felt you needed. Thank her for trying. Thank her for not giving up. Thank her for being the grandmother your kids needed.
Her body will become a tomb and only then will the family show up, will her mother hold her hand as they sit in silence. She will awaken in fear. Tell her it’s okay to let go. She will cough black blood and release her last breath. Stroke her arm while it is still warm. Write her obituary. Order the casket. Order the flowers. Order the condolence cards. Prepare for the Ten-Day Feast. Prepare her belongings to be given away to family and friends. Prepare her ceremonial dress and moccasins. Prepare the foods. Prepare the gifts for the cooks, the pallbearers, the helpers, and the ceremonial speakers. Prepare her body to return to the mother of us all.
Let out the cry, the anguish, the loneliness, and the loss that will rise in waves. Anger will darken a place deep inside you that will rumble until you let it go. Let go of the resentments for those who show up too late or not at all, for the suffering she endured in life and in death, for regrets and words left unspoken, and for the sun rising and setting without her. You will forget moments, memories, and sometimes you will forget the sound of her voice and her laugh as they fade like stars out of reach. Write down what you remember and tell your children. She will forever be woven around your heart, within the lives of your children and grandchildren as she watches over them. She is a part of you, a part of them. And know it’s really okay to cry in front of the children.
Tonya (K^nikanlahtá:sa’) Shenandoah is a member of the Oneida Indian Nation. She received her doctorate in Cultural Foundations of Education from Syracuse University and her master’s in American Indian studies from the University of Arizona. She’s from Upstate New York, married to an artist and traditional Haudenosaunee spiritual advisor, and the mother of four. She currently resides with their twelve-year-old in Southern California, attending the UC Irvine MFA Program. When not writing and reading, she can be found gardening, hiking and at opportune times, feeding crows. Her fiction has appeared in 100 Word Story.