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Writing by Adeline Nieto // Photograph by Jana Martish

Writing by Adeline Nieto // Photograph by Jana Martish

“Mommy!” I shouted. My heart raced forward, ahead of our rental car.

“Turn around! I forgot my retainers!”

My memory had served me well. We hadn’t even driven a full block from my grandmother’s driveway, and the distance between us was still visible in the rearview mirror. My mother hit the brakes hard and did a K-turn on the quiet Georgia road.

My heartbeat fastened tighter than my newly adjusted seatbelt. The muscles in my heart began to hurt, palpitating palpable pain. My breaths shortened and blood flushed my face. I reminded myself to swallow, to quench my thirst for easier times. In less than a block, the rivers on my face that had started to dry quickly became flooded. Salty rivers led to my mouth and their taste was one step away from vomiting.

My mother, sister, and brother waited in the car as I dashed back to my grandmother’s front door. I didn’t need to knock because she was still standing there, watching us leave and now return. Without pausing, I explained that I left my retainers by the sink wrapped in white paper towel. I sprinted left into the kitchen, scooped them up, and held them in my hands. Time seemed to slow down and my entire body became engulfed by fire.

In eternity and in no time at all, I was back at the front door. I couldn’t look at her face, and so I focused on her shadows, on the outline of her floor-length, long-sleeved, pastel, patterned nightgown. My eyes couldn’t rest on anything. The more they darted about, the more I could divert my attention, and the more I could swish back the salt water. I didn’t like how my eyes dragged down to her throat. I didn’t like how I couldn’t understand what she was saying to me. When she croaked like a fading animal, I didn’t like how my mind compared her to something less than human. But most of all, I didn’t like that my gut was chanting what I knew in my heart to be true:

This is the last time you’ll see her.

This is the last time you’ll see her.

Look at her.

Look      at her.

I looked at her. I started with the shadows and worked my way in. Her skin hung lower on a frame much smaller than the confident, poised one I learned to recognize. Her thick, black, curly hair remained defiant, but as I inched my way inward, I saw that her face made her look like she was at an age appropriate to die. Her wrinkles and cracked lips and hoarse words painted the illusion that, yes, she had lived enough years to see enough of the earth and connect with enough of her people.

If she thought this too, I will never know. I never asked her if she felt this was the appropriate time to go. I’ll never know if she felt ready. All I’ll remember is my poor acting and how her slow and noiseless movements made her seem like a ghost and not an angel. And no matter how many times I replay this moment, I can never remember what her eyes were telling me. I’ll never know her last words. The space was too dark. My tears were entering too fast, and my vision faded.

I embraced her frail body, blubbering something about seeing her soon, and bolted out the door. I clutched the paper towel in my hand, squeezing it so tightly I started the feel the ridges poke through the layers of cotton.

– – – – –

When my sister called to tell me she had passed away, I wasn’t surprised. As she stated reality, reality faded out.

I thought back to my sister sitting in the car while I got a second goodbye with Mama Ada. Was she peering out, hoping to see our grandmother reemerge from turned-off lights? Was she staring straight ahead, re-imagining her own world? Did the three of them talk low in the car, or did silence settle like fog?

Looking back, I realize that my two goodbyes with my grandmother really translate into one. The two worked together to pull apart time. During each goodbye, I was half in my mind, and half in the moment. When I join the two, it is as if I was fully in the moment, one time. Both worked together to piece together a memory that would have blurred, slinking around other memories of her, and evaporating if too much light shone on one of them.

I carry our goodbye with me, and I hope she cherished our hello. If I could have grasped onto our hello, I wouldn’t be writing about our goodbye.

– – – – –

It’s been three months, and my paper towel holder still hangs empty. Its soft, raised texture reminds me of her so I use my collection of napkins from an assortment of places. I stand by my sink and watch the fog cool down

Adeline Nieto

Adeline is an aspiring teacher, author, and artist. She believes in leaning into ambiguity to find authenticity. Adeline has been published in Rethinking Schools Magazine and Rhythm and Resistance: Teaching Poetry for Social Justice. Her artwork can be found here and you can follow her on Instagram @ebbsnflowsphoto.

Jana Martish

Jana Martish is a photographer from Slovakia, in love with analog photography, sunlight, poetic stories, nature, colors, and travelling. And in love with being in love. Visit her website.

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