Loss Reborn

Loss is never easy. Grief is complex–so much so that we have names for stages of the processes humans experience to handle it. There’s immediate loss, of course: of a family member or friend, a familiar routine, a pet, a job, a wasted opportunity. It rips into us, shards of ice in warm blood. No matter how many times it happens, loss is always new.

But what continues to baffle me is loss reborn–a sensation of the exact feeling washing over you, years after the initial loss happened. I tell myself–I think we all tell ourselves–that it goes away. They say time heals all wounds. I’d disagree.

Today on the train, I was engaging in my usual morning commute activities–reading, listening to music. Typically, people coming in and out and shifting seats don’t really perturb me. This morning was different. A woman probably in her mid-to-late forties sat down beside me, and a wave of simultaneous surprise and nostalgia washed over me.

I’m not sure if it was wishful thinking, or a combination of an array of scents of people and the rainy weather and the places we whizzed past, but I could have sworn she was wearing my grandmother’s exact perfume.

Gramma passed away in 2011. She was essentially a second mother to me. She took something akin to childlike glee in practically everything–a strong, positive force who’d overcome adversity in her home life as a child to eventually, with my grandfather, create a beautiful new home of her own. She raised my mother and uncle with compassion and understanding (and perhaps a touch of overbearingness), and helped shape my sister and me into the young women we are now. She was my childhood best friend, a selfless individual with almost too much to give. She died within my first two weeks of college. I didn’t get to say goodbye–all that remained was an unanswered email from her in my inbox, which afterward I could not bear to open for many months.

I’m almost positive the scent that I grew up with was actually due to my mother–Gramma didn’t really have a sense of fashion (she preferred baking over beauty tips, despite running her own hairdressing business in the basement of her and Papa’s house when the kids were young); so my mom often bought her clothes, makeup, and the like. Whichever this perfume was, it certainly stuck–I don’t think Gramma ever stopped wearing it. From my very first memories of her, the scent matched exactly who she was: sweet, sharp, clean, familiar, a bit like roses (her favorite flower). I could sense when she’d just been in the room, or when the breeze of the scent indicated her walking past. With my eyes closed, I could recognize her in a crowded room.

And apparently now, I still can.

I hadn’t been exposed to the scent in almost five years. Today, jarred and completely vulnerable on a train full of jostling people, I was overwhelmed with it. I leaned back against the seat and closed my eyes. I remembered sitting in the back of Papa’s Toyota Camry (which is now mine), watching her count on her fingers in sheer delight the hours we got to spend together for the day. I recalled one of her last months in which she explored, with great effort but quiet enthusiasm, the hilly Wheaton campus to see where I’d be studying the next four years. I thought how she never saw me graduate, will never see my sister do the same. Will never see my cousins grow up.

There was a slight difference in it, too, but it was enough–at its core, it smelled like my grandmother, but it was missing the soft simplicity that came with the sensation of her hand on mine. There was so much right about it, and yet so much missing that I would never be able to experience again.

Loss reborn. It stung–stings, as if it’s September 2011 again, and I am 18 and wishing with every fiber of me that I had replied to that email. The swelling will ease, the pain will lessen throughout the day and the remainder of the week. But it will remain, humming under my skin, for the rest of my life. It’s hard to imagine it that way, but in moments like these, I realize that’s what loss is. Constant.

We just learn to deal with it.

I think of Gramma often, but it’s been so long since I could put any of my five senses to her memory.

The part of me in which spirituality has been ingrained since childhood said, It’s her saying hello to you. People have been arguing for centuries as to whether or not that’s a valid observation, so I won’t go there. But I will admit–I felt her there. Make of that what you will. I don’t know the name of the perfume, though perhaps I used to. You might ask why I wouldn’t look it up, or ask my mother about it. But truthfully, I don’t want to. Perhaps it’s best that the source of the scent remain a mystery. I don’t want it to be associated in my mind with a mixture of chemicals–but with a person who shaped my childhood and loved her family unconditionally. The kind of person I aspire to be.

For what it’s worth, I’m saying “hello” back.

A Letter to 12-Year-Old Me

Dear 12-year-old me,

I won’t write as if I know everything now–as if ten years have made that much of a difference, forged me into some kind of Buddha in navigating life. But people tend to write these every so often, and I’ve never written one before. So here goes.

You are twelve. You are in sixth grade and for some reason have perfect skin, and will throughout your teenage years when everyone else is acne-ridden (don’t worry–karma will firmly bite you in the ass in your twenties). You got kicked out of music class for refusing to sing High School Musical songs because you’re just that much of a rebel. You like fanfiction more than you like people. You’ve seen the movie Rent more times than you can count, and trust me, that number will only get higher. You’re making friends on the Internet to whom you’re maybe a bit too attached.

You’re quirky. Spoiler alert: that does not change. But let me establish right now that who you are is perfectly, marvelously okay.

I say this because right about now is when you start to believe the opposite. You are twelve and you’re embedded in twelve-year-old drama: who’s no longer speaking to whom in Social Studies class, which sweaty boy should you nab for a slow song at the next dance. But your mind takes it all to the next level. Your brain begins to set off a plethora of false truths that will make up your entire perception of yourself as you enter high school and even college. I am wrong. I am unworthy. I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be alive. 

There is a name for what’s happening to you. It’s scientific, a chemical imbalance. You don’t know this yet, though. And I wish you’d known sooner. Right now, at twelve, your mind is creating an internal environment where negativity will fester. You are learning to isolate yourself. You do little experiments here and there at school–disappearing at recess, placing your head on your desk for classes at a time–to see what people will say. What people will do. Will they notice? Will they encourage your behavior? Or–worst of all–will they not react at all?

You go through life this way–falling in and out of love with the idea of people. When they don’t return your smiles, it makes you anxious. It makes you think there’s something wrong with you, even if logic and reassurance tell you otherwise. This is the beginning of years of wearing black because you think it’s what you’re supposed to do to match the feelings you have, of sitting on long car rides wondering what it would be like if you jumped out onto the highway.

You are twelve and you already want to leave your wonderful life behind.

I’m writing this to tell you not to do that.

I’m writing this because, ten years on, you really almost did leave your life behind. I almost did. And I want to tell you that no one–no one’s reaction, or lack thereof, to your existence or your words or your actions, is worth your life. People will disappoint you. You will enter college and come into your own, only to find that even that isn’t good enough for your bile-addled brain. You’ll yearn to be “normal.” But I promise you: no one is. You are just that: you. And you might not believe me now, but people actually do like the you-ness about you.

Perhaps most detrimental, you will wish for the experience of unconditional love in someone who isn’t obligated by blood to love you.

I still wish for that. But the difference is, I know now it isn’t my fault that I haven’t found it yet. The fact that I do not “belong” to anyone else does not mean I am disgusting or unwanted. And it’s okay that I haven’t yet found this one particular thing, this thing that songs and stories are written about. There is still time. You have friends and family that truly care about me. You have a promising future that is not worth ruining.

Here is what’s important: you, in your smarts and your talents and your compassion, complete yourself. This life, this beating heart, is yours to control. Not anybody else’s. I can’t say I’ll always practice what I preach to you now, but I can try. I owe you that much, since you held on. For a decade, you held on. So thanks for that.

We’ll make it. I promise.