I was lying on the bottom bunk asleep on a cold winter's night. The frigid air drifted around the crusty dry caulk barely holding in the French cut glass windowpanes. I lay there tucked safe and cuddled tightly under my thick blanket and quilt. From the other room, a scream escaped from the throat of my mother's cousin and jolted me awake. The next sound was a music box that my great-grandmother had given to my mother a few days prior. Just one verse repetitively played, "…sleeping in heavenly peace…" My seven-year-old mind assumed that music boxes were like vinyl records and could skip just the same. No other sounds broke through the chilly night air; so again, I closed my eyes only to be disturbed from my attempt to slumber once more. The old black rotary phone rang loudly. I listened as my mother answered, "Yes, this is her. Oh no! Oh my God! Yes...yes...I understand...yes, we will be there." She hung the phone up, and exhausted, I closed my eyes once more.
The next morning after I awoke, my mother called to me. When I approached her, she sobbed with tear-filled eyes and told me of what she had learned just the night before. "Your great-grandmother has died. We will be going to her wake so we can say good-bye to her."
I was in shock, stunned by what she had said. Images of sitting in my grandmother's lap as she told me stories of her life haunted me. I had just seen her and could not believe that what Mother had told me could be true. The tears filled my eyes as I felt the sense of loss in my saddened soul. My great-grandmother would be surely missed. With the matriarch of the family gone, a new era would begin. I would never see her again. Never again would I gaze into her beautiful black eyes as she told me stories of her hard, sad life. Never again would I hug her frail, tiny body and kiss her good-bye. Never again would my hand brush her soft, thin, dark skin. Never again would I tell her how much she meant to me, and I felt truly alone. There had been a special bond between the two of us every since my birth. As a babe, she had saved my life. Though I was far too young to remember the story myself, I knew it by heart.
My grandma was taking Great-Grandmother to visit her older daughter in Kermit on the way to New Mexico. Though she protested and put up a good fight, the plans had been made and the trip was inevitable. Grandmother told Grandma, "I cannot go. My new black haired baby girl needs me. She is not well."
Grandma had just returned from the doctor's office with my mother and me. The doctor had told them that I was just allergic to the milk, and he wasn't worried despite the two-pound weight loss since my birth.
Grandmother disagreed and protested. When no one listened and insisted the doctor's opinion was valid, Grandmother started quacking like a duck letting them know how she felt about the white man's medicines and doctors. "I never saw one of them in my life, and I am ninety-two years young. You don't see the white man living this long." Grandma just waved her off in response.
When Grandmother refused to pack, Grandma packed for her. However, Grandmother's stubbornness was infamous. She unpacked as Grandma packed. Grandma finally walked away and waited until Grandmother napped to pack the bags and load them into the trunk of her white Ford Fairlane. When Grandmother woke, Grandma appeased her by taking her first to see her tiny black haired "Great."
Grandmother held my tiny body in her arms and cried her tears on my face. If the spirits knew how much I was loved, they would hesitate to take me. My small gown was turned backwards, so the spirits, who did not care, couldn't see me. As Grandmother handed me back to my teenaged mother, she spoke, "Your baby is very ill, and her body is withering away. Do not listen to the doctor you see because he does not listen, and he does not have the healing touch. Take your girl to one with our blood. Take her to one you can trust."
Unwillingly, Grandmother entered the Fairlane and was whisked away to the older daughter's. Minutes before arriving to her destination, Grandmother woke in a start. "Pull over, daughter! Find me a payphone. If Granddaughter does not take my great now, the spirits will take her away."
Grandma knew enough to trust Grandmother's premonitions, which never should be taken lightly. She found a gas station with a payphone and dialed Mother's number for Grandmother. Though Mother was skeptical, Grandmother gave her a start. The hairs stood up on her arm as chills rushed through her body. She could feel that Grandmother was right. Mother tried to rouse me from my sleep, but my body limply flailed, as I could not muster the strength to rhythmically jerk my arms to my sides. My cry was but a squeak no louder than a mouse, and no tears rolled from my tiny black eyes. My skin puckered and wrinkled with each touch, and had paled to an ashen grey from the pale red brown since birth. I was fading fast.
The seventeen-year-old mother of two wrapped my tiny body in the quilt that was once hers and took me to the next town over. The black haired dark skinned doctor in the Stamford Memorial emergency room immediately performed a cut down procedure on the inside of my left ankle for an IV before he rushed me to a surgeon in Abilene. Once an upper gastro-intestinal x-ray was performed, it was determined that I had pyloric stenosis, a birth defect passed from my father to me, and before me, a birth defect that only affects male infants. Once the surgery was successful, the surgeon told Mother the doctor in Stamford saved my life. He said that waiting just an hour longer would have certainly meant death. What he didn't know was that Mother could not hear my cries as I tried to wail, and had it not been for the phone call from Grandmother, she would have never woke up in time to rush me to the next town.
At the funeral, I grew angry toward my sister and brother due to their behavior. I felt I was the only child that grasped the gravity of the situation, and it weighed heavily on my tiny shoulders. My siblings laughed and played, as I sat there crying. Now as an adult, I understand that my brother was too young to realize what was going on, as was my sister. Though she was older than me, she was only eight. I was the child Grandmother called "an old soul," and I was the only child she rooted our Creek heritage deeply in. I was the one who cried on the trail that was only a distant memory to all but her. I was the one that felt the pain of her being severed from her own mother's arms and never returned. I was the one who knew how the fleeting memories and stripping of her Creek name left Grandmother wandering throughout her lifetime searching for her own identity. I was the one who carried the burden alone, and I was too young to hold the weight on my own.
Over the next several months, the loss of my great-grandmother weighed heavy on my heart. Life at home was hellacious; my body constantly riddled with bruises. My parents' arguments grew more and more frequent. My heart, too, was bruised and sank down deeper with every thought of my great-grandmother. I truly missed her and wanted to see her once again. Once again, I wanted to be in her arms as she rocked in her hand woven chair. I wanted to hear her sing the songs her mother once sang to her. I craved the sound of the forbidden Creek verses that I could not understand. I longed for the whispering of secrets in my ear. Sometimes, when I crawled up the branches of the old mulberry tree she planted so long ago, I swore I heard her whispering her secrets on the sweet breeze rustling through the leaves. Once again, I wanted to be with her.
My family and I went to Possum Kingdom Lake for a day in the summer sun. The heat beat down on the earth, but the water was cool and inviting. My mother warned us to stay close to shore, for there had been a drought and the lake was low. Since Possum Kingdom is overrun with underwater caverns, Mother told us, "If the water starts to get cold, turn around and come back. Cold water means deep water."
We played close to the shore, filling each other's bathing suits with mud. I am at a loss as to what triggered it, but I suddenly I began to think of my great-grandmother. My mother and sister continued to play, but I turned my back to my family and headed away from the beach. The water grew colder with each small step. I began to take one more step, and I felt there was no ground in front of me. I knew I had reached the drop off. I turned around and looked at my family one last time. They were still playing, all but my father. He lay on the beach drinking a Coors. The snow-white styrofoam cooler sat next to him in the sand. Daddy couldn't swim.
I turned back around and took that final step. My body sank like lead down to the bottom. I did not fight to get back to the top. I let out my breath and allowed my lungs to fill with water. The pain was immense. My chest tightened as I gulped the water in. As the sour water replaced air, bubbles floated to the surface of the lake. The bursting blood vessels pinpricked throughout my body and behind my eyes. I felt someone grab for me and try to pull me back up. It was my mother, who I tried to fight off. I battled, kicked, scratched, and bit until all turned black. Before me, I saw my great-grandmother. I reached out for her hand, and she grabbed hold as I told her, "I want to be with you. Let me stay here."
Grandmother replied, "I cannot let you come with me. You have to go back. It is not your time to go."
I awoke coughing the water from my lungs. I opened my eyes as the sun peered into them blinding me. The hot sand burned my back and cut tiny gouges in my skin. I knew I was alive with each painful retch of water from my lungs. I knew I was alive when I looked around and saw my family all around me. I knew I was alive because heaven could never hurt like this. Either I was alive, or I had gone to hell.
I don't know to this day whether I actually saw her or if my subconscious was telling me to fight. My last thought before blackout was of her. Could my subconscious have projected my need to fight in her form? No one may ever know. I like to think it was Grandmother, and she is my guardian angel. From that moment on, I have always felt that she is here with me.