A few days before our flight from NYC to Portland I had it on my calendar to pay a visit to the cemetery.
My family bought a plot of land in an empty cemetery decades ago. The first person to be buried there from our family was my grandpa, a man I only know by name, but whose death is felt across generations. At 27 years old, I’ve found myself staring at open-ended questions like, “What is death?” and “Why do we do this one thing after someone dies?” and answering them with statements like, “I don’t know, I’m just starting to define it for myself.”
There were traditions I inherited from my grandma and the generations that came before her that didn’t fit me like they had fit their conservative, Catholic upbringing. I’d outgrown them or never actually grown into them, depending on who you asked. The cemetery though was one that I’d taken up as my own.
Floating above my grandpa’s coffin is my mom’s and above hers is my grandma’s. Three different deaths that for me underscore how grief is meant to be defined in unique and subjective ways. With my grandpa, I feel borrowed grief because my memories with him are loaners. Tidbits of a man whose life and legacy trickle through pictures on credenzas in the last place he called home and vivid descriptions of his sewing machine from those he got to call grandchildren.
With my mom, my grief is defined by yearning. All that I got to live gave me a taste of how much we could have, should have, would have done if given the chance. Death as a thief is what her loss brings up for me.
With my grandma, grief is the space between wishing you could get what you want and knowing getting what you want in some situations isn’t the best thing for anyone, least of all you. My early twenties are defined by shuffling my grandma between her hospital bed at home and the one she borrowed in the ICU. Every time I called 911 to ask them to take her away, I bartered pieces of myself in exchange for the relief of having someone else bear the responsibility of keeping her alive. There was so little left of me by the time I was 21 that more years of the same would have led to my complete erasure.
In between rows of tombstones, I eerily am reminded less about who they were and more about who I was at those inflection points of my own life. Who I was when I was 10 years old was memorialized in dirt that later grew some grass, but maybe never truly stopped being the roots of a scared 10-year-old. All I no longer wanted to be at 21 years old, rested above the surface of my grandma’s coffin as it was lowered to the ground. I felt a different kind of empty than the one caregiving had ever caused. Being raised to be a caregiver and more specifically to be my grandma’s caregiver meant that my identity went with her and I walked away not knowing who I was supposed to be next.
For years, I’ve been digging myself out of the PTSD that’s come from her loss, being her caregiver, and the identity my family pushes onto me. My family was used to my role as the caregiver, the taker-carer of all and any problem that presented itself at their door. Their insistence that I fall in line hadn’t been explicitly stated, but it was present in the ways I was always pulled towards the middle of it all.
My desire to live on the fringe of their lives and in the middle of my own manifested this move. In a lot of ways, it felt like the only way.
It encouraged me to keep pushing out the visit to the cemetery until it was too late to even go.
“I keep putting off going because I don’t want to have to say goodbye to them again, it feels so reminiscent of all the times I had to leave them there,” I muttered between tears to my boyfriend as he kneeled next to me on our blue couch.
The pain there was real. The re-triggering of grief when you’re forced to say goodbye again and again and again is real.
It also wasn’t all I was navigating. Three weeks into living in Portland, I woke up in the middle of the night and my eyes drifted to the piece of gradient sky our window framed at 4am.
Going to the cemetery every Sunday was my reminder of some of the sweetest memories with my family. Before the field of grass across the street had been turned into an apartment complex, it was our Kite Flying Field.
In a packed box there were pictures of me as a toddler with my brother and cousins in height order. To my right, a tombstone with my grandpa’s name etched on it. My family’s most long standing tradition around death was captured in that picture and every single one we took at the cemetery after it.
The dead were to be such a part of our lives that never acknowledging their death and therefore how it impacted us should be our norm. Never growing from their loss was to be our given. We weren’t meant to add miles between us and them, we were meant to carry on as if they were still here. We were meant to live in their honor, never for ourselves.
I’d never grown into that tradition. I held a special place in my heart for the cemetery not because my mom and grandma were there, but because I was. I’d made it a habit to revisit myself often. To live in honor of the 10-year-old and 21-year-old I had been.
After a breakup, I went there to cry. When I graduated from college, I laid flowers across the bottom of a tombstone. I schlepped my boyfriend to the heart of the Bronx so he could be in the presence of my mom and grandma, but also so I could tell him stories of who I was when I was stood right there, on that patch of grass where his Vans were.
You aren’t always able to walk someone into a memory, but in the cemetery I could.
Last October when I walked into my first Al-Anon meeting, I started learning to choose a future that wasn’t dictated by the memories I could walk back into, but instead the future that I had a say in crafting.
Paying a visit to the cemetery before our cross-country move would have cost me too much.
I write about mental health, grief, and how to cope with life’s every day challenges on vivnunez.com.
Follow along on my instagram.com/vivnunez for mini-essays on the same topics.
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