Granny arrived just after my eighth birthday. She stood at the arrivals bay at JFK airport wearing a pink t-shirt and khaki capri pants. Hello babies, she squealed in between kisses on Zamira and my cheeks and forehead. Her voice was familiar – I had heard it on the phone many times – but raspier in person. Granny embraced Mummy with a noiseless fervor before we loaded her two large suitcases into the car. She had her best purse with her. It was a deep violet color with a matching strap that crossed her body and hung off her hip. The front was covered in silver sequins that glimmered under the light from the street lamps streaming into the passenger seat that early morning. Handmade in Paris, she said boastfully, with a nostalgic expression She said she had bought it the first time she visited the City of Lights and despite thirty years of Guyanese wear and tear, the stitching had held tight. “They don’ make tings like this anymore,” she said to our tiny heads tucked together in the back seat.
Granny settled in quickly. On her third day, she walked in from the backyard of our rented brownstone with an orange bundle of fur under her arm. It was Tandy, Granny’s cat. We had heard scratching at the backdoor before, but we’d always ignored it. Granny couldn’t. My mother screamed when she came home from work that day.
“What is that thing?”
“Dis me partna, Tandy.” Granny smiled.
Mummy grimaced at the small feline for the first week or so, but eventually gave in.
There was no debating Granny.
Tandy’s small head and fat midsection were buttressed by plump legs that always seem
tired. She had matted hair and green eyes that pierced through the darkness in the middle of the
night. When she perched on the couch, she took up half its surface area, and didn’t mind who cared.
Tandy and Granny were there every day after school to greet us at the door. Zamira and I would drag empty Dora and Mulan lunchboxes and our too heavy backpacks off the bus to see Granny smiling, holding the door open, and Tandy chasing her tail in a circle– our very own welcome home.
Granny always packed lunch for us because “dem people don’ know no ting about no good food. Read dem ingredients nah man. Dey don’ care, dey just don’ care.” After school was our “snack,” usually a small portion of cookup rice with chicken and greens, sometimes bake and saltfish, or pholourie when Granny felt like going to the Guyanese grocery store. Zamira and I liked to taunt Tandy, dangling the tiny dough balls in front of her, making sure she got just close enough before pulling them away and descending into cacophonous laughter.
“Leave my girl alone,” Granny would say from the living room. “Come Tandy, dey taunting yuh nuh?” Tandy would curl into Granny’s arms like a small child. “Yes, its ok, dey is just children, children taunt sometimes.”
The taunting stopped when Zamira reached eighth grade and I, seventh grade. Zamira figured she was too old for such shenanigans and it wasn’t fun to provoke Tandy without her. Towards the end of the year, Zamira caught the flu. My homeroom teacher blamed Mummy for not taking us to get the flu shot, but Granny called that “a crock of shit” and insisted that “dat nasty thing dey call lunch is what’s making y’all sick.”
“How dare you?” she uttered sternly into the phone, “Their mummy is working and goin to school to provide for them. Is what the hell you doin but criticizing?” She hung up in vexation and promised herself that the teacher would meet her at the next parent-teacher conference.
Zamira was out of school for two and a half weeks, leaving me to lug my weighty school bag back and forth on the public bus by myself. I knew what to do without Zamira, but it felt odd not to have her taller and more capable frame near mine on the ride home, especially that day. Two hours before the end-of-school bell rang, a strange pain had planted itself in my stomach. The school nurse was only part-time. In the interim, a note home stated that any student who feels ill should either ask to call home or hold on until the end of the day. The thought of Granny having to drag Zamira’s frail and sickly body out of the house and down to the school was enough to make me choose the latter. And so, I sat with the aches until the final bell rang. By the time I made it to my bus , the pain had expanded to my whole abdomen. I sat with my ankles wrapped around each other and a grimace on my face for the whole ride.
“Are you okay?” a well-intentioned older woman asked me, louder than I liked. My body molded itself around my bookbag, hugging it tighter. The woman’s ebony pupils looked down on me as I tucked my chin farther into my neck.
“Yes,” I replied, turning my body away from hers.
On the walk from the bus stop to home, the aching descended like a boulder down a hill. I stopped to hold onto a fence as I pushed myself to put one foot in front of the other. I could think only about getting home to Granny.
As I marched towards our front gate, the door was already open. I stepped inside to the familiar smell of rice on the stove and the radio playing old calypso classics I didn’t understand all the words to.
“Sammy, you reach quick.” Granny proclaimed. “Close de door, Tandy been itching to get out all day.”
I closed the door behind me and sat down at the kitchen table, dizzy and disoriented. Tandy watched me from inside the cabinet with the wonky handle and the missing door–another of the many places she had claimed as her own in the house. She jumped down to circle my feet; her fur comforting my ankles. She purred as if to say, “There there my sweet one. There there.”
Granny watched as I plopped onto the chair and remarked, “Is wah wrong wit you?” “I don’t feel good Granny,” I replied feebly.
I put my head on the plastic placemat and felt the tears roll over the bridge of my nose
and onto my fingers. Weeping whimpers followed as Granny came over to me.
“Come come darling, come.” She took me into her lap and wrapped her arms around me. The polyester of her day gown soaked up my tears. She smelled like vegetable oil and aloe vera,
a familiar mix to my snot-filled nostrils. I tried to speak through the barrage of sobs, but it wasn’t possible.
“Come now darling, it’s ok,” she kept saying. “Come now, it’s ok.”
The blubbering subsided and I began to tell Granny the events of my day. Before I could finish, she chuckled, “You gettin yuh period?”
I looked up in confusion. I had heard the word from eavesdropping on Zamira’s conversations, but I didn’t quite know what it meant.
“Go in the bathroom and look at yuh panties. Tell me what you see.”
I followed her instructions and discovered a brown stain on them. My face twisted in disgust at the sight. “It’s brown!” I yelled.
Granny appeared at the door as I pulled my pants back up.
“Yuh just gettin to be a woman. Every one of us goes through it.” She gave a knowing nod. “Get a new pair of underwear.”
Granny spent the next thirty minutes explaining the process of putting on a pad.
Of the menstrual cycle, she said, “It’s nature’s way of preparing yuh fuh babies.”
She advised me to always carry extra pads and to bring wipes for when it got messy. A
lady carries it all in a pouch so as to not draw attention to herself, she told me. She reached into the deep violet purse and pulled out a small sack with the Guyana seal on it. “Use this,” she said.
As she laid me down on the couch, I could hear the kettle boiling.
“De tea will help.”
In between bouts of napping, a cup of Chamomile tea appeared on the coffee table in
front of me. I felt a light pat on the side of my head. Granny’s hand are warm and rough, like stretched fiber over wood.
“Drink de tea, darling, drink de tea.” she says.
Tonight, Tandy looks on with intense concern as I ruffle through the closet by the front door to find Granny’s shoes. She wants the brown leather ones. I try to tell her that they won’t be as comfortable as the tennis shoes that Mummy bought her for Christmas, but she refuses.
“Wear these old tings for what? Is wuh yuh tink it is atall? Get de shoes.”
I dig. Zamira is a senior in high school now and I, a junior, so she is allowed to wear heels and I am not. She bought her first pair two months ago –an awful lime green that she swears is cute. She is wrong. In addition to being ugly, the skinny heel pokes my palm as I reach further down.
“Ow!” I exclaim.
“Hurry up nuh man.” Granny calls from the living room. She makes a pained noise. “Are they worse?”
“They’re the same. You. Worry about the shoes.”
I keep digging. Beneath the lime green monsters and my mother’s off-white church shoes, I see the old, rugged brown leather shoe stick its heel out. I walk to the living room and see Tandy sitting on Granny’s lap, purring and blinking.
“You found them.” Granny says.
I neatly tuck the shoes over her toes. They are wrinkly, yet polished. Granny insists that we do her nails every two weeks, with the same Sally Hansen burgundy polish that she’s worn since Mummy was a child. The back end of the shoe slides over Granny’s heels, disappearing under her long cloak of a dress.
“Galong and put your stuff on.”
I gallop up the stairs to retrieve my purse. I wish Zamira was here. She and Mummy went to visit a college in Connecticut. Granny had smiled as we waved them off yesterday morning. The pains began that evening. She held on for a few hours before shaking me awake. “We got to go to the hospital.” she says with a grave and urgent tone I have never heard before.
In the mirror, I can see those six spots on my chin from the breakout last week are still there. I turn my attention to the eight spots on my left cheek and the nine spots on my right cheek. I want to look at my forehead but I resist; there are too many spots to count. They’ve been there so long that I think they’re going to be a permanent feature. I touch them, even though Mummy tells me not to everyday.
“Just drink some bitters,” she says. “Keep drinking them and stay away from that candy. Candy here is full of sugar. Full, full, full.”
I don’t listen. I move my hand to my eyebrows and smooth them out. “Come nah man. De cab man waiting.”
I take one last look before I grab my backpack and close the door behind me. Tandy paces in front of Granny as she uses the edge of the table to hoist herself up. “No,” I say. “You have to go slow.”
“De man is waiting.”
“Okay, let’s go.”
The cab pulls up to the emergency room entrance.The hospital smell of of blood, and
fear, and the bitter taste of the medicine overwhelms me. The triage waiting room is the worst of it. Everyone is in close proximity and simply waiting–to be moved, to see another doctor, for family to arrive. A floor full of sick people just waiting. Granny is on a stretcher formed into a chair(!). To our right is a family that looks Italian. The father thinks he has gallstones, I overhear. His wife found him buckled over the toilet and called an ambulance. She is petite with small hands and delicate features. The scowl on her face tells me she’s tired or impatient, or both.
“They shouldn’t have taken you here,” she whispers to him, “Look around, they’re understaffed. It’s gonna take them years to see you at this rate.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine. Getting to another hospital would just be another hassle.”
“You wanna wait ten hours just to see a doctor for twenty minutes? That’s ridiculous, I’m calling Sarah, she’ll pick us up and take us to Mercy West.”
She disappears around the corner, cell phone in hand.
The daughter is wearing shorts, the kind that Mummy calls “hot pants.” I can hear You Dont’ Know My Name by Alicia Keys blaring from her headphones. I didn’t know white girls listen to Alicia Keys. She holds her walkman in the her hands as she stands against the wall
opposite her family. She is more focused on whatever’s underneath her fingernails than her father. I examine her face. Besides her dispassionate expression, I can see she wears eyeliner and blush and concealer, I think. I think of the makeup pouch tucked in the corner of my bag. It’s usually hidden in the maxi pad box in my drawers, but I’ve become accustomed to taking it out with me, just in case Mummy comes home early and decides to tidy up my drawers–her lackluster euphemism for snooping. This girl must have the high end brands, the ones that don’t come off when you accidentally rub your eye or sweat too much on the train platform. I start to wonder how much I would have to work to afford it, but I stop myself. There’s no point.
Across the aisle is a man named Mr. Wright, who’s been admitted for alcohol poisoning. He hasn’t said anything in the past ten minutes and the nurses are starting to think he’s dead.
“He’s still breathing. His BA is .95.”
“Mr. Wright,” one nurse yells.
“You see, he drunk out he mind. This is what I keep tellin you bout,” Granny whispers. “I ever catch you doing something like dat, I bust yuh tail, you best believe it.”
Mr. Wright finally opens his eyes and gurgles, “Yes.” “Mr. Wright, can you hear me?”
“Yes,” he spits out again.
“Mr. Wright, how much have you had to drink.”
He pauses as his eyes open and close and his pupils roll around in his skull.
She asks again, “Mr. Wright, how much have you had to drink?”
His mouth moves a bit before he says, “What are you talking about? I haven’t been
The nurses exchange knowing glances and wheel Mr. Wright away.
The triage waiting room ebbs and flows with patients. In the time that we are there, we hear screams and moans and laughs and giggles and beeping and tossing and yelling and stomping. The rhythmic sounds of the waiting room feel composed by a conductor that none of us can see. It’s a controlled chaos, where only the doctors and nurses know how it works, while the rest of us are left to wonder if there is a method to the madness.
I look at my watch. It has been two hours since we arrived. The family beside us is gone, replaced by an older woman with a long black braid running down her back. She coughs– loudly and often. I move Granny’s stretcher a few inches away from her to avoid catching whatever it is she has. Granny winces at the sudden shift.
“Shucks girl, you got to warn me.”
“Granny, where does it hurt?”
“My arm,” she says with one eye pinched close, pointing to the left half of her body, “and
my back starting to hurt too.”
“It’s been so long. I’m going to get a nurse again.”
I walk around the corner to the desk.
“Yes,” says a nurse.
“My grandmother has been here for hours and she’s in pain. We’ve talked to several
nurses and they all said a doctor would be here soon. When can she see someone?” “What’s her name?”
The nurse scans the chart in his hands. “There are two people in front of her, it should be about 30 minutes, but things are moving slowly. Sorry about that,” he says without raising his eyes.
Thirty minutes pass. I stare at the clock nervously. I try to make eye contact with every nurse that passes by. Granny’s eyes are closed, almost like she’s meditating. Her eyebrows are furrowed and have been that way for a while now.
I ask another nurse, “Excuse me. My grandmother has been here for hours and she’s in pain. The last nurse told us it’d be thirty minutes. When can she see someone?”
“Um, I’m not sure. What are her symptoms?”
“Arm and back pain.”
She looks behind me to Granny. “How old is she?”
“I’ll let a doctor know, but it won’t be sooner than thirty minutes. Sorry about that.”
I can see the nurse hurry away as I close my eyes to calm myself. I tap my foot against
the blue tiled floors and make a beeline back to Granny’s side.
“How are you feeling, Granny?” I ask.
She mumbles and I can’t make out what she says, “What did you say?”
“Not too good,” I can tell the effort strains her body.
I look around. There’s a nurse collecting clipboards at a desk down the hall. I walk over
to her. She has long brown braids and clear skin. The name tag on her navy blue scrubs says V alerie.
“Excuse me. My grandmother has been here for hours and she’s in a lot of pain. We’ve talked to several nurses and they all said a doctor would be here soon, but it’s been two and a half hours. Is there any way she can see someone now?”
The nurse looks me up and down, “What’s her name?” “Patricia Williams.”
“And who are you in relation to her?”
“I’m her granddaughter.”
“Okay, I’ll see if I can get someone to take a look right now.”
“Thank you,” I almost scream.
Valerie leads Granny and me to a cubicle-sized area with a bed and a machine that looks
at least a decade old.
“Take off your clothes and put this on.” she says, handing Granny a light green gown.
I stand by the curtain to ensure that it stays closed as she sheds a layer of clothing. I can
see her gray hairs clearly under the fluorescent lighting; she has a less than normal amount for her age, I realize. They’re only towards the front of her head, the rest is a dark auburn color tied into a low bun that grazes her nape. Her wrinkles look more set in, too. The harsh light makes each line visible. She winces as she disrobes. For a moment, she is still.
“Granny, let me help.”
I hesitate before touching her body. Her legs are shaking so I hold out my hand to help her balance. She removes her dress to reveal a silk slip with lace lining the tops of her breasts. She glides the gown on top of this and waits patiently on the examination bed.
A woman with short black hair walks in and introduces herself. Her name is Dr. Perti. “Hello, Ms…Williams?” she says pumping hand sanitizer into her palm.
“I heard you’re experiencing a little bit of pain. Can you tell me where?”
“Me arm and my back.”
“Ok, tell me how your pain is on a scale of 1-10.”
I investigate Granny’s face. She’s holding her lips in between her teeth.
“Ok,” she scribbles a note down, “We’re going to do a short exam on you, ok?”
“And you must be granddaughter?”
“Yes,” I reply, “Samantha.”
“Now, Ms. Williams, would you like your granddaughter to stay here or should I ask her
The examination seems routine. A stethoscope comes out. Take a deep breath. Hold out your arm. Bend over. She examines Granny’s ears and eyes. She touches Granny’s neck and back. Dr. Perti’s hands look programmed. She knows exactly where to go and what to touch. It is formulaic, the way her hands press on Granny’s stomach and how her fingers traces Granny’s spine.
“Okay, I’m going to go discuss with a supervisor and I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Dr. Perti vanishes behind the curtain leaving Granny and I alone.
“Does it still hurt as much?”
She reads my face like a book, “Yes, but don’t worry about me darling, I’ll be ok.”
I listen to the words but I can’t help but search for signs of a lie. The last time Granny was in a hospital, she checked herself out after a day. “Anything these doctors do, I can do at home with my vegetables and fruits,” she said after thanking them for their help. “Thank you but no thank you.”
“Come help me put dis back on,” her voice cracks. “And go in my bag and get a mint for meh, nuh. I hungry.”
I shuffle through her bag and find a ground up mint in a plastic covering. Granny sucks on the pieces.
Dr. Perti returns, with a slip of paper and two tablets.
“Ms. Williams, I spoke to my supervisor and she recommended aspirin for now. There doesn’t seem to be anything specifically causing your pain. Given your age, we think it’s just some strong back pain caused by old age. Aspirin will help with the pain. Please come back if the pain spreads to your chest or continues despite the aspirin. You are also free to wait in the waiting room to see if the aspirin helps the symptoms. If not, we can bring you back in for another, more detailed examination.”
Granny’s face is blank. I take the slips of paper from Dr. Perti. She gives a contrived smile with tired eyes and joins the rush of people outside of the curtain.
“Yuh see? All that waitin’ and they didn’t do nothing. Let’s go.” Granny sucks her teeth.
There were many people at Granny’s funeral, a week later. Zamira and I wore our best clothes, the way she would’ve wanted. All through the day, I think about that night. We returned to our house to find Tandy sitting in the dark in her usual place on the couch. She laid down
with Granny as the television played softly in the background. I washed my face and prepared to go to bed. I looked in the mirror and the spots were still there. I wondered if I should do a mask. Senior portraits were to be taken soon and I wanted my skin to be as clear as possible. On the ride home, Granny seemed better. Her face was vibrant, even. The aspirin seemed to help. She spoke of the Italian family and the daughter’s hot pants–how she would never let me leave the house like that. She spoke of the woman with the braid–how she reminded her of a dougla girl from back home who lived across the street and drowned in the creek in grade school.
“People does reincarnate sometimes, you must know dat. ‘Specially when they die too soon, de spirit resists and don’ want to leave.”
She spoke of the kind nurse. “Dat is how you should be, too many black people nowadays don’ want to help we own people. Sad. I was in pain and she saw it.”
She vowed to never go back to that hospital. “Bills for nothing.” she said. “Just people runnin around so dey can say they helped someone, but no real help. It’s stupidness.”
I looked out of the window as the cars ran past us. I thought of Dr. Perti and her exhausted shoulders. I thought of the overwhelming stench as we made our way to the exit– septicity covered in a layer of sterility. I understood Granny, I wouldn’t have wanted to go back either. Three hours for some aspirin. Bullshit. I laid my head on Granny’s shoulder as her voice floated. Her voice caressed my ears and lifted me into a light nap until we arrived home.
Tandy’s hissing brought me down the stairs. Granny’s eyes were closed and her mouth was open. I shook her expecting to hear a startled grunt, and was met with silence. The ambulance came but it was too late. By the time we got to the hospital she had stopped breathing.
When we got back home, Tandy was gone. A neighbor said she thought she saw her on the roof, but Mummy didn’t believe it. Tandy was Granny’s cat; she goes where Granny goes.
That afternoon. when I found Zamira sitting on granny’s bed, holding her deep violet purse we both began to cry..
“She’s in a better place,” Zamira kept saying, over and over. “She’s in a better place.”