By the time Grandma Verlie turned 90, she was skin over softened bone. Thick raised veins routed through her hands like cables. The moles on her face, marking time with their slow, steady growth, were both reddish and brown. Her back held a seahorsish spine that has spent years curling, calcifying to carry 10 children’s burdens. By 90 she had heard too much, seen things that made younger people shudder, lost all manner of loves. She was girding herself to leave; living gets tiresome. At 20, I’d matured enough to pay some attention.
We would have her for five more years. Like Madiba, she would die at 95 and we would not quite know what to do with ourselves.
At cookouts, at Christmas, at other people’s funerals, my massive family would warn itself that she wouldn’t be with us forever. Hadn’t her husband, my great-grandfather, preceded her in death by a decade? And hadn’t the loss of him left a hungry, pulling hole where the heart of our family had been? He’d only lived to be 87. He was large and lumbering and we’d been losing him incrementally for years: four fingers to a machine in the Goodyear Tire factory that once employed him; countless hours in commutes to and from Jackson and Adrian as an itinerant minister; artery after artery as he ate meats and breads brushed with lard; hints here and there of a mild dementia.
This was not so with his wife. We had no danger of losing Grandma Verlie residually. She was unquestionably present, especially after Grandpa’s passing, leaning in to better catch the details of a whispered conflict between mother and daughter, listening to our secrets so intently, so silently, we wondered if she heard them at all, and until she turned 90, cooking three full meals a day with such vigor and care you could taste the pains she’d taken to evenly coat the chicken, to fold the biscuit dough. You could taste every year of her life, years she had offered at who knew what cost, years we had all eaten up.
She died in the only home where I’d ever seen her live, the hospital bed set up in her room flanked on every side with family. I was not there, but I knew before we got the call.
Something shifts in the world when the very old depart it. It doesn’t seem to matter much who they were; it is their peculiar property of hardiness, their survival of the same histories that claimed their spouses, their siblings, friends, rivals and, in the most tragic cases, their children, that makes their passage into eternity remarkable.
I have to believe that a soul expands the longer it remains in the body. It does not change shape but gains density: trauma upon trauma, joy upon joy, sorrow upon sorrow. We souls begin weightless inside our infant shells — and then we live. The eldest souls among us live till they’re nearly leaden, so that when they unanchor from Earth, those nearest them can feel it.
We did not need to be close to Madiba to feel gravity recalibrate when he died, did not have to be his grandchildren or even his countrymen to feel disoriented in his absence. His was a soul that afforded us sure footing. Such was its steadiness. Upon exit, it extracted so much diplomacy, so broad a capacity to forgive, such willingness to be flawed and revered and opposed, that in the days following Madiba’s death we feel inklings of doubt with each step. Will the ground still bear us up? Is it still as safe a place to stand?
Grandma has been gone for nine years. Our secrets are in less secure hands now. We turn in toward our immediate families, each one its own enclave. We struggle to remember at which addresses our most distant relations can be reached. There is too little land left: no longer can we call a single house “the family home.” Too many of our children have never met.
This is the aftershock.
Our generation has not been raised to succeed this caliber of elder, whose scars traced back to eras long before the freedoms we’ve come not only to know but to abuse. We have not needed their mettle; our souls have not endured what made theirs so heavy. In the absence of their anchoring, we feel tremors.
Only great hubris would make anyone rush toward the hole Madiba has left in his homeland. Dare come too close to where his spirit uprooted itself and took wing; there will be nothing to do but fall. Best stand aloft and take the adjacent earth in your hand. Roll it between finger and thumb. You may find, as my own family often has, the tiny, viable seeds shaken free and left scattered behind.