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  • Writer's pictureHilary Kelley

80 times a second

Reunion, 2020

Missing happens microscopically. I mean the missing that comes a good minute after grief, mostly. This missing hits like a middle-of-the-night nearly-stubbed toe--the kind where you graze the nail on the bedpost but you're just awake enough to dial back the full brunt of the blow. It's a ping in the pit of your stomach when you wonder if you should call, it's a small substitution in syntax: put was now where is was.

. . . . . .

My grandmother died in 2015, she waited until the day after her and my grandfather's 65th wedding anniversary. She was small in every sense of the word; 4'11" (on a confident day), with delicate feminine features, tiny feet and ankles and hands. But could she pack a hug. She would tease my brother and I by calling herself our "Squirrelly Grandma", because she was a little. Sagittarius, flames and arrows, my grandfather's brightest light. She killed copperheads with a shovel in the garden and shooed bears off the porch in the winter. She could make anything grow. She was present when we were around, but there was some part of her that might have been out in space, not lost but exploring.

I didn't get to know her properly as an adult, because when I was (a very un-self-aware) 22, they discovered the brain tumor that would lead to a 10-year decline through dementia until her passing. In the few real moments of connection I was able to have with her during that time, she could break through and surprise me with quiet observations touched by saudade. She had been a painter, once. Death is what makes life beautiful. In the final days at her bedside, I saw the depths of space in her eyes, out in the stars again, searching for places to land.

. . . . . .

My grandfather was such a big person, he existed outside of his body. His nickname was Bear. He knew everyone and everyone knew him, he touched every community. He was pragmatic but imaginative, could conceive and build the thing to solve your problem in the same day. He was resourceful, knew the value of a barter, Gemini, smooth talker ready with a joke or something sotto voce to make you grin or think. He was happy with friends and happy alone. He had the answers, all of them, in his head and hands. He had a biscuit recipe. He was a rascal.

How fast could you flap your arms? he asked me and my brother, 8 and 3, outside in the backyard. Try it. We laughed and stiffened up and buzzed our hands by our sides. If you want to fly like a hummingbird, you have to flap them 80 times a second.

Hummingbird feeders hung from the eaves of every house they lived in, including the last one, on top of the mountain. Red plastic casting colored light onto the dining table, onto the wood floor. We sat still at the windows looking-not-looking for them to fly by, because they were so easy to miss. We were called hummingbirds when we complained about being hungry again, she made Hummingbird Cake for family meals, there was something about this microscopic spirit that was everywhere all the time.

My grandfather wanted to make it into his 90th year. He saw my grandmother out the window, waving. Look too hard and you'll miss her, right there. He turned 89 on June 14th, and five days later he joined her.

. . . . . .

I wrote a letter not long after, something to them both, and took it outside to make a little ceremony. I stacked bricks in the driveway for a chimney and sealed the note carefully in a pretty envelope. I gathered sticks and leaves and straw, and struck match after match after match trying to get it all to light. I used the whole box and laughed, because he would have had a much better plan.

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