From my father’s bedroom, on a small narrow folding bed on which I barely fit and only if I bent my knees and my head inwards, I overheard my grandmother in the next room, very early in the morning. She was alone, she was talking in a soft, thin and trembling voice. She was asking for her mother, she was saying "mama" (mother) and "mamita" (little mother) and "mamaita" (even littler mother) and her voice crackled with need and sadness, a kind of sadness and weakness that transcended the weakness of her body. This was the same grandmother who stood up to powerful men when they owed her or offended her in any way, the same grandmother who drove around during the war without fear in a tiny red car which seemed more like a toy than a car, the same one who laughed at the fake poses of others, who beat my father’s military friend with a thick broomstick when she caught him taking some of her paintings away. She was always the image of raw will and strength, even as her body deteriorated into thinness and her skin started to hang on her brittle bones like a badly measured coat and her face grew smaller and she had to groan with effort every time she was going to speak up, but then, when the energy finally rose, she spoke up clearly and surely and with the same intensity that I knew from so many years ago.
Listening to her through the closed door, I felt the weight of so many years that had fallen upon her skinny back, and I could sense how she had carried them all alone. I saw in my mind’s eye the picture of her mother which was hanging in front of her bed, a thick woman in a blue dress who was looking to the side and wasn’t smiling for the camera. It was a photograph but it was so old that it almost looked like a painting and I could see that my grandmother was staring up at it in a haze and calling her, asking her to come down from the photograph and talk to her for a while, tell her that things would be alright, that the days would grow shorter and then there would be no days at all, and when the days disappeared so would the pain and weakness and constant effort to breathe one more time. Maybe she just needed her to smile, as she always looked away without smiling, because that was how she was in the picture and maybe that is how she was when she walked under the sun but I would never know. And as I pictured her living and holding my grandmother as a child, I could hear my grandmother’s voice, and it was little and thin and soft and open like a child’s, without shame, without personality, without hesitation. "Mama… mamita… mamaita…?"
Lydia, my friend back in San Francisco, called me just then and she told me that my mom missed me and that they both felt that the house felt different without me, that she could feel it as soon as she walked in, that it was not subtle, that my absence was palpable and my mother had nodded at her and she had said that she felt the same, that the house was vacant and still and lonely without me. And as Lydia told me this, I heard my grandmother again, "mama, mamita, mamaita", and to be alone without your mother, or to be alone without your son, or to simply be alone, it all felt like a wave of cold wind that penetrated deep within my bones, a final goodbye to assumptions of warmth and love, a surge of closure that signaled that now I, the "I" that is my grandmother and my mother and me, now I must stand alone and I must now know that I was always alone even when "I" cared for "me" and protected me and held me with love even if sometimes without a smile. Even when "I" felt cared for and protected because "I" was there, even then "I" was alone.
I remembered a transdimensional journey from so many years ago, when I rose up to a space where there could be no one else beside me, where I had expanded into everything that was around me and found it to be me, and so there could be nothing that wasn’t me, and without something that wasn’t me, I was alone, and that was a terrible thought because it meant that all others were me and so I could never truly find another to love and to love me and to meld with, because underneath all appearances and characteristics, that Other was always me in another guise, me playing at being another, just like when I would play with little soldiers and make up stories in which I would play all the roles but it was ultimately just me playing, alone in a big house full of angles and edges and places to hide. I remembered then what I had realized in a moment of blue lights and electrical buzzing that roared through my skull like a thousand bees: I am alone as long as I don’t want to be alone. As long as I yearn for another, I will be alone. When I fall back into my loneliness and let the world spread out from me like an ocean of colored dreams, then I am no longer alone and someone else that is of me and part of me may step up to take my place. But only then, when I give myself to the loneliness completely and the fear evaporates like ice melting into water.
As I remembered my thoughts, my grandmother kept on asking for her mother, "mama, mamita, mamaita" and I remembered her saying to me many years ago: "why do they love you so much if they will eventually go away and leave you all alone?" and she then was wishing that her mother had not been so good to her so that she wouldn’t miss her so much right then, if our ultimate fate was to be alone, why accept the gift of caring and compassion if it had to be taken away eventually?
I felt a rush of warmth that I called love and it resonated in my chest, in the center that I call my heart, and I could feel her alone through the door but I was with her, across the wooden barrier and the barrier made of flesh and the barrier made of years and the barrier of being another which was not another. I was right then so close that I trembled with her tremors and I swam in the deep breaths that threatened to rip her little body apart. She wasn’t alone because I was there with her, but she had to be alone, terribly alone, if only just a little bit longer, just until the picture on the wall would no longer be a picture and her mother would no longer be just her mother and the little old aching body would let her free to roam in lands where her constant calls would not have to go unanswered.