When I was about two or three years old, my grandmother had a swan sculpture that sat neatly on the tabletop above a round, white, lace doily. The bird stood as a quotidian shrine of sorts; one to an animal my grandmother believed was the epitome of beauty, elegance, grace. This swan was not the first shrine, nor would it be the last. Her home, my home, was peppered with their image. Apparently one day, in a fit of childlike mischief, I decided I wanted to break it. As the story goes, I looked my grandmother in the eyes and pushed it off the table while she was warning me not to. No matter how old I got, my grandmother liked to give me a hard time about my roots as a defiant toddler. Those roots persisted into my adulthood, as did her disdain for their existence. In many ways, my defiance was bodily: I was a big “tomboy” of a baby who wreaked havoc too often to be dainty, elegant, graceful.
My grandmother loved to tell us grandkids tales of her femininity, of her youth. My abuelita, Abad, was a glamorous, beautiful, brown, Latina into her old age. She was confident and self-assured. I marveled at her ability to command a room. I loved that about her. She grew up poor in Ponce, Puerto Rico. She moved here and struggled but managed to raise four fantastic women with her husband in Brooklyn, New York. She’d seen a lot of trauma in her years but she always remained mischievous, exuberant, vivacious. She loved herself in a way that I’m still trying to learn. And she did it in a racist, sexist, society that thrives on teaching women, especially women of color, that they are worthless. That was and always will be incredible to me.
Her confidence showed in her appearance. Whether she was going to a doctor’s appointment or a family outing, it was important to her that she was put together. She always wore red lipstick, was meticulous about her short hair, her outfits, her jewelry. She always wore gold. One piece in particular: a long chain that had four different pendants. Three crosses and a small golden swan. Even as she was hit with mounting health problems from rheumatoid arthritis to diabetes to heart attacks, she always made an effort. She may have needed us to help her apply her makeup or put on her shoes but she made sure things were to her liking. She was dainty, elegant, graceful.
In our family, her long, wavy, jet black hair was legendary. It was the measuring stick against which our hair was measured even when it was replaced with a cropped cut that was more gray than black. She may have complimented your hair on a good day, but she’d be quick to remind you how beautiful hers was. We’d roll our eyes, slightly annoyed but thoroughly amused. You always knew it was coming.
My hair was the first place that I went wrong. My eldest cousin had long, sleek, straight hair. The other had long, thick waves. My hair was frizzy, tightly curled and unruly all the way through. The second place I went wrong was my size. Where my cousins’ waists tapered, mine widened. They were petite and I was six feet tall. I never felt beautiful by those standards. I always felt ugly, out of place. Too tall. Too fat. Too puffy. Too much in every way possible. My body never said moderation. It said excess. It said unacceptable. I was constantly met with microaggressions that made that apparent. My grandmother would tell me to try the latest Telemundo diet or a new way to condition my hair that would “calm” it down. How many times can your grandma jokingly tell you that somebody on Caso Cerrado eats cat food to stay thin and laugh that you should try it before you say fuck it? How many times can people be more impressed with your weight loss than your GPA before you stop giving a shit? Somewhere along the way, I learned to make my own standards. I’d never measure up in the ways that they wanted and I knew that. I was a fat, queer, Latinx who never wanted to be “normal.” So why use their measuring sticks? Why not make my own?
If I was going to be fat and frizzy and queer, I’d wear what I wanted anyway. I went from trying to hide myself, my body, to openly daring people to stare. I bought big combat boots with chains that made sure you knew I was coming as I stomped down the street. I never felt more beautiful than with a freshly shaved undercut. I glared at the random people on the subway who gawked at my large, lumpy, six foot tall frame with half its hair missing. I dyed the hair that remained green and blue. I wore lipsticks in shades that my family found unnatural: gray, eggplant, black. My nails were colored a swamp olive glitter more times than not, in a shade that I loved for its name as much as its shade: Zombie Zest. I got my septum pierced, even though my mother begged me not to. I was told by her, by my grandmother and by my aunt that I would look like a bull. This didn’t deter me. One day, in the midst of all these changes, a cousin looked at me with the same disdain my grandma often eyed me with and said, “It’s like you’re just trying to be ugly.” Our ideas of beauty were so opposed that I was illegible to her. But I had already learned not to care. My fucked up femme battle armor protected me now.
My grandmother’s frustration flared up with each of these changes. My grandmother wasn’t afraid to tell me when she thought something looked ugly. When I dyed my hair blue and cut it short, she asked my partner why he allowed me to do that. He confusedly said that I could do whatever I want with my body. She replied, “That’s not nice.” She was disturbed. Even he couldn’t restrain me.
These moments hurt. They contributed to a self hatred that I’ve only been saved from through my defiance, my need to be contrary, to give you the middle finger. I was just as strong willed as she was, and thus, I was a challenge to her ideals, her way of seeing things. She was a challenge to mine. She hated that I didn’t agree with her and wasn’t afraid to tell her. But now, I see that our similarities often got us into more trouble than our differences did. Neither of us knew when to back down. We had strong beliefs that we had trouble compromising on. But in the end, she loved as fiercely as she fought and so did I. My grandmother didn’t always love the decisions I made. But she always accepted me in the end. Perhaps out of frustration or a realization that this was just the way that things were, would be. I loved that. I loved her. Her strength, her stubbornness, her confidence and her humor have constantly inspired me, even as I went in directions that she may not have liked. They guide me, albeit down paths very different than her own. The battle against hating myself (one that I’m still fighting as a person with anxiety disorder, a non-binary femme, a QPOC) has always been aided through the lessons she has taught me, just by being herself, even as her own adherence to patriarchal standards often manifested in well meaning remarks that were ultimately violence against me.
On July 5th, I lost my grandmother. A few weeks before, I’d been asked to participate in a Doctoral Institute in Los Angeles as a rising third year PhD student. Right before I was scheduled to fly out to California, she was admitted to the hospital. Something was wrong with her foot. She was in a massive amount of pain. We didn’t know what was wrong but my mother, aunt and brother thought it was best to take her to get checked out. I went to visit her and tell her that I loved her before I left. She was hurting, huffing in pain, so I made a joke about my septum and how it smelled bad. I told her that there was a name for it: septum stink. She laughed heartily and shook her head in fake disgust. She may have been the most dainty, elegant, feminine person I’d ever known but even she couldn’t resist a good gross joke. They were her favorite. They were our common ground.
I left feeling a tremendous amount of guilt. I wanted to be by her side. But she urged me to go. My mom let me FaceTime with her the night before I was leaving. She told me she loved me and to have a safe flight. I told my mother and brother to keep me posted. They reassured me that they would. I was terrified. For her. For me. This was my first flight on my own. My first trip across the country to California and to take it meant to leave her. But I knew I had to do it. I knew that she wanted me to. That she’d be proud of me.
I made it to the campus, covered in anxiety induced tears and sweat from the Los Angeles heat. Still, I made it. As the days went on, I tried to savor the talks, the conversations, the hangouts. I did, for the most part. But she was still lingering in the back of my mind.
Early on in the trip, we learned that the pain in her foot was gangrene. It was a complication of her diabetes. They needed to amputate her foot. They decided that it would be safest to do it right under the knee. She was terrified. She refused the surgery at first. The choice wasn’t an easy one. Either she could get the surgery and risk death or she could refuse it and face certain death. The gangrene would kill her. She eventually said yes. We were all petrified that her heart, weak from several heart attacks, wouldn’t make it through the surgery. She did. For a day or two, she was doing fantastic. She was laughing and joking with everybody. I was so relieved to hear it. I was able to present my work feeling reassured, happy. I got great feedback on my ideas. People seemed really interested in my project. I felt fantastic. I felt triumphant. Like I could handle anything. I couldn’t wait to get back home and see her.
But by the time that I was heading home, the complications of the surgery were apparent. She had a kidney infection. She wasn’t doing well. They were going to have to start dialysis. Once I was back, I met my mother at the hospital. Things were worse than I could have imagined. She could barely open her eyes. She did for a minute and saw me. I held her hand as she struggled to breathe. I told her it was okay. That we were there with her. She was in pain. She was swollen. “Her hands don’t look like her hands,” my mother said.
My mother and I stood there in shock as a swarm of doctors came in and out, asking us questions that scaled in scariness, ending with whether they should revive her or not in the worst case scenario. They decided that she needed to be in Intensive Care. They pushed us out of her room to ready her for the move. We paced the hallway. When she was finally ready, we followed her towards the elevators. We didn’t want to leave her side but we couldn’t fit in the elevator car. My mother told her we would be right there. She looked straight at us, nodded and waved. That was the last time I would see her conscious.
We spent the next few days taking shifts to sit by her bedside. The dialysis wasn’t working. There wasn’t anything else that the doctors could do. We listened to her heavy breathing. We were terrified that it could, that it would stop at any moment. Terrified but desperate. She was unconscious, except for when they moved her. The pain of that was the only thing that could wake her and only for a few seconds before the medicine kicked back in. She looked familiar but distorted. She was my grandmother but she wasn’t. Her hands still didn’t look like her hands. With every passing moment, her form shifted, she looked more and more like a stranger.
At some point, I was spent. I ran into the bathroom, crying hysterically as my mother and brother sat outside. I tried to keep the tears from getting in my hair, knowing that it would make the fresh turquoise dye from the night before bleed onto my face. I carefully pulled it back into a ponytail and blew my nose. I tried to be extra gentle since I had just put a new faux gold septum ring in and it was still sore from the ordeal involved in getting the original jewelry off. I coped with my grief through adornment. I tried to find the femme rituals that felt right to hold on to. While I sat in the bathroom, trying to compose myself, I heard the nurse talking to my grandmother. She had woken up in a fit of pain. She looked around. The nurse told her she was a lucky woman, that her whole family had been there every night. She apparently shook her head in the affirmative. The nurse said she knew we were there. I cried harder.
On July 4th, I spent the entire day with her. I held her hand. I cried. I tried to sleep. My cousin came to be with her too. We tried to talk about the good times. I hugged her when she cried and tried to be strong while I wanted to crumble. We watched over my Granny Smith Apple, my Abuelita, my Tata. My grandfather came to see her later. He cried hard and we hugged him too. Her breathing was getting more and more shallow. We felt that it was going to happen. Any second. We’d lose her. Me. My cousins. My grandfather. My mother. My brother. My father. My aunts. Her friends. The countless people who knew and loved her. But time dragged on. She kept fighting.
There are no words to describe the horror of watching somebody you love deteriorate. The cacophony of feelings, thoughts and wishes, swirling, screaming in your head. The desperation. That night, my aunt picked my mother and I up from the hospital when our shift ended. I stifled back a panic attack the entire ride home. When I got home, I exploded. I was hysterical. I was exhausted from the night shifts, the day shifts, the waiting, the worrying, the grief. My partner held me while I sobbed.
I barely slept that night. I woke up to a text around five in the morning the next day. She had passed. My tears were hot. They stung. I cried until my skin was raw, until I was red and tired and numb. I felt relief somewhere in between the sobs. Our nightmare was over. Still, months later, I feel like none of this was real. Like I’ll wake up and find her there, sitting in her chair, watching her shows and offering me some of her leftovers. Weeks ago, I asked my mother to cut my hair. She cut it into a choppy bob, designed to hide the too high side shave I’m growing out. I loved it. My first thought was, “I should go show Ta.” My second thought was, “Oh.”
For some, grandmothers are linked with special occasions. You see them on holidays or when your parents feel like taking you to visit. For me, my grandmother was home. She was routine, ritual, in the most beautiful way. I’ve lived with my parents, my brother and my grandparents since I was born. Twenty-five years. We had gone from her helping to take care of me to me helping to take care of her. There is nothing that can really explain the sick sort of hollowness that I feel, knowing that part of what made my home, my home, is gone.
Never again will I hold her as I help her outside onto her swing in our backyard on a hot summer day. I’d bring her cherries and swat away the bees as she laughed at my terror. Never again will I see her serious face as she threw down serious dance moves to whatever song was playing on the radio, usually a merengue. She’d shimmy her shoulders and shuffle her arthritis ridden feet. Never again will I listen to her voice as she dramatically belts out the lyrics to “Besame Mucho,” with such confidence in her performance. She may not be able to hit all the notes but, WOW, did she have stage presence. Never again will I hear her hearty laugh, after she made a mischievous remark or an inappropriate joke. These, and so many other things, are what I remember and what I will miss.
But in the midst of my sorrow, I am reminded of how lucky I was to have her for so long and in the way that I did. This is my first major loss as a twenty-five year old. It is a devastating one but the fact that I’ve lived without loss for so long is absolutely a luxury that is not lost on me. I mourn alongside many others who have lost family to natural causes such as illness as well as unnatural causes normalized by structures of racism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism and ableism. For her, and for them, I fight.
I am reminded that she was an incredible woman who had a huge hand in my being the person who I am. I see just how much of her fiery, feisty spirit I do have. And I’ll continue to try and use that spirit for good.
She taught me that generosity was incredibly important. No matter how little she may have had at any point, she was always doing what she could to help others. Whether that be with money, food, time or energy, she gave everything that she had. This lesson is one that I cherish and that has guided me to the work that I do, one that has informed my friendships and the way that I live my life. My grandmother and mother have both instilled in me a generosity, a compassion that I am truly grateful for, as it often seems that they are the components most lacking in this world full of injustice that I’m dedicated to trying to help fix.
But she also taught me that having fun is a necessary component of life. In the midst of all of her illness, her pain, her trauma, she loved to laugh, she loved to sing, she loved to dance. She had attitude for days and everywhere she went, people were enamored by her. She was charming, magnetic. She walked around like a little queen and expected to be treated as such. That confidence, that joy for living and adventure is one that I aim to emulate. Even as I struggle against my own anxiety disorder, I vow to try and be as fearless, as adventurous and as shameless in my own fierce glory as she was. In a world so full of so many structures designed to harm people like me and those that I love, this is a survival mechanism that is necessary. May she guide me in my travels to seek joy in the face of fear.
I often called her my Granny Smith Apple. What started as a pun, turned out to be the perfect name to describe her. She was the perfect combination of sweet and sour. She may have hurt me with a rough remark or poked my chichos or asked questions that pissed me off but she always made sure that I knew she loved me deep down, with her actions. She may have voiced her displeasure but right after, she’d go back to asking me about school, my partner, my day, whether I’d eaten. She’d listen to me talk about my work even when she didn’t really understand it or particularly care about it. She cared about me and that was enough to warrant a little of her time. She might have made comments about my weight but she’d offer me all of her food in a heartbeat when she knew I was hungry. She always did.
She called me Piloto. Pilot. A masculine verb in Spanish, a language where binaries are foundational, fundamental. Binaries that Latinx people like myself fight against daily. Still, that masculine verb, that nickname, honored parts of me that I didn’t even know were there, that I was drawn to but always feared. I am a non-binary femme learning to dip their toes into the butch that they were warned to guard against for fear of ugly, for fear of queer. Perhaps my hair does frizz, my arms do jiggle. Perhaps my features, my movements, have never, will never be dainty, delicate. I am hard femme meets soft butch. I am made to survive. Built to last. I withstand weathering. Like she did. She is somewhere. Believing that helps. I am somewhere. I’m still figuring out where that somewhere is. Where do I live on this in between? Will I travel along it, shifting, shaking, sprinting, swinging, singing, swaying hips? With every fucked up DIY dye, every chop of the scissor or buzz of the razor, every workout that makes me feel ready to fight a racist, every day without a binge or without wanting self-harm, every crop top when a deep part screams out in fear, with every button down and bowtie made to perfectly offset my lipstick, I’m meeting myself. I’m doing it with a fierceness that I didn’t have before.
Last week, I spent time with a dear friend: Bee. Her brilliance, her warmth, her balance were healing as I’ve been struggling through this loss. She spoke about how our ancestors were rubbing oils into their skin, draping themselves in gold and objects of ornamentation. We had spent the day perusing such objects at the Museum of Natural History. Ear plugs. Necklaces. Bracelets. Septum rings. Gold. Silver. Ritual objects. Masks and other such forms of divine dress. My grandmother was one such ancestor: one of many that I honor. She shaped my queer non-binary femme identity without even knowing it. Sometimes through opposition, sometimes through acceptance. While I mourn the loss of my grandmother, I know that I still have many role models, many rocks to turn to. Mother. Brother. Aunts. Cousins. Friends. It is because of her that I have all this, and because of her mother and the many women before them both. I’m honored to have known her, to carry parts of her and all of my ancestors with me.
Today, I’m wearing her golden swan pendant around my neck as I type this. My mother found it in her jewelry box on a chain that also carried those three small gold crosses. When she mentioned it to me, my eyes welled up. Memories surged back. My mother saw my face and cried with me. She had lost her mother. She was still mine. One day I will mourn her like she mourned my grandmother. One day, somebody will mourn me the same way. This is the terrible, beautiful, cycle of things. We’re always in the in between. Until we’re in the beyond. I don’t know that I’ll ever meet her there. If there’s any there to meet her in at all. I know that, for now, I’m here. Muddling along. Missing her, barely making it but still, muddling along.
Abad. Abuelita. Granny Smith Apple. Tata. I carry you with me always. In this pendant. In my mind. In my blood. I carry you inside this strange, big, queer, body. Perhaps we’ll both make peace with it someday.