I'd finished my freshman year at Winthrop University and was back home in Charleston for the summer. In the fall, I'd begin my sophomore year at the University of South Carolina. I'd traded elementary education for a major in broadcast journalism, and USC had the best program in the state.
I told her, "I'll be so much closer now."
She hadn't quite recovered since my grandfather died. And I thought being closer would make things better somehow. I needed her to be okay.
When she went to the doctor that morning, she was reluctant. She acted annoyed my mom was making her go. "What are you going to do when they tell you I have cancer?"
And then the phone call that afternoon. I can still hear the words cancer and it's everywhere. I hung up and slammed my fists into the carpet. Unbridled grief. It pulled me under.
She died three weeks later, on her wedding anniversary. A few weeks after that, I pulled out a big, yellow legal pad and wrote about how it felt to lose her. I ripped out the page and saved it.
That fall, I headed off to USC. I joined a sorority and moved to the hall. One night, I felt grief rising up again. I released a muffled sob, and my roommate jumped out of bed and wrapped her arms around me. She didn't even ask.
"I miss her so much," I cried.
Not long after that, I had a dream. My grandmother stood before me. Beautiful. The way she looked on Fridays after her appointment at the beauty shop. She told me she was fine. That she loved me. She was proud of me. When I woke up, much of the heaviness I'd been carrying around was gone.
In the spring, I took a nonfiction writing class. For the first assignment, I pulled out the yellow paper, typed it up and turned it in.
The professor gave it back to me with her notes. Expand here. Describe more. What did you mean here? And that's how the class worked. We'd write. The professor would edit. And each night, I'd sit in the library, revise my draft and feel myself come alive. I wrote four essays that semester.
I left with a folder. The one with the A on it. And the note from the professor telling me I could "build a career around my writing ability." I read those words over and over. I still have it. Two decades later.
Because that's when I realized the power of personal story. How it helps. How it heals. How it touches on the universal thread—the connection—that holds us all together.
A few years ago, I finally decided to have a "coming out" party as a writer. I submitted a guest column to our local paper and it was published.
In that essay I confessed how losing my grandmother had made me terrified—paralyzed—by the passing of time. It had made me afraid to make choices. Afraid to leave. Because when you leave people die. But losing her, and learning to write about it, also taught me to embrace the fleeting nature of the present moment. Clinging to what we love, out of fear, doesn't make it stay.
We breathe in, and we must exhale. We have to let go. It's the only way to live.
She is gone. Her pictures are in a box. Her love is in my heart. I catch a glimpse of her spirit sometimes, in my own personality. In the little things I say and do. Even though I didn't want her to go when she did—way too quickly, way too young—I like who I've become. Learning to live without her. I don't know why it's that way sometimes. Why we have to lose to learn.
They say the final stage of grief is acceptance. And I've learned to accept the things I cannot change.
**Author update** per reader Mark's request, here is the link to the guest column that was published in the Charleston paper: http://www.postandcourier.com/article/20090515/ARCHIVES/305159912