Minister Ryan Lindsay’s late grandmother, Patsy Lee, left & right; the two together, center.
Photo by Minister Ryan Lindsay Arrendell
I put my grief in a suitcase
A certain melancholy overtakes me each fall since 2017, and tends to stay throughout the winter, though it is not seasonal affective disorder. It is both tender and taxing, subtle and searing. It is grief. Grief would make my birthday feel devoid of its usual pomp and circumstance, a day that I no longer felt like there was much of a cause for celebration. It is November 2, 2018, and I am awaiting a call from a voice that I have not heard in nearly a year—my grandmother’s.
A series of happy birthday texts and calls piled up in my phone, but none seemed quite good enough. None were the voice of my best friend, Patsy Lee.
My grandmother died in a way that felt wildly unfair—suddenly, suffering, and literally without a voice. She’d been withering away in the months leading up to November 2017, her plush arms becoming thin, her full face, not quite gaunt, but hauntingly close. I was not used to this version of my grandma—ornery, withdrawn, much too quiet. I’d come home to D.C. from California for Thanksgiving, aware that my grandma was in the hospital but unaware of all that would happen next. I sat in her hospital room, wondering if I should ask her how she made her mac and cheese, since I am the one most likely to carry the recipe forward for generations to come. I think about how I called her one day, during my senior year of college, with a hankering for meatloaf. Over the phone, she’d tell me about the necessary ingredients and the steps to make sure it didn’t come out dry. “Don’t nobody like no dry meatloaf!” she’d say. This time, as I watched her chest rise and fall as she slept in her hospital bed, I thought it was not a good or appropriate time for me to ask her about how to make mac and cheese the way only she could make it. I wish I had.
We spent that Thanksgiving doing something we never did nor wanted to do—eating Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant. The mac and cheese on the plate before me surely was not my grandma’s mac and cheese, nor was it the familiar warmth of her home and its dinner table with burgeoning plates of homecooked goodness. The prayer was not said by Auntie, her older sister, who always prayed so fervently but much too long, though we always chuckled about this, trying not to laugh as we peeked at each other across the table, heads bowed but smiles wide. This was a loud, crowded restaurant with a cheer that felt disingenuous. I do not remember who prayed that year. We sat at a booth, me, my mother, brother, sister-in-law, and two-year-old nephew. This was not what we were used to nor was it something we wanted to get used to. I thought of my grandma alone in her hospital bed.
I do not remember when exactly she went into the ICU, when the doctors decided she’d have to have a tube down her throat, when she nearly died after that tube was removed but not before shouting through her now raspy, strained voice, hands raised, “Thank You God! Thank You!,” then ordering my older cousin to go home. Grandma’s hospital room became a place where time did not really exist. We all were just there, taking turns being with her, trusting God that she’d come out on the other side of this. One day, I walked in wearing some of her clothes. I hadn’t packed enough clothes to be home for more than a week, as I’d planned to go back to California to finish up classes before winter break. Though the tube prevented her from speaking, her raised eyebrows spoke for her as if to say, “What you been doing in my closet? Don’t think I don’t notice!” I smiled and laughed, “Looks good on me, don’t it Grandma?” She rolled her eyes and sighed, shaking her head.
It is December 13, 2017, and we are gathered around Grandma’s bed, praying. She is leaving us. “Transitioning.” “Going to be with the Lord.” Grandma is dying. Grandma is dead. It is December 22, 2017, and we are at Grandma’s funeral, weeping. Grandma did not cry at my grandpa’s funeral, four years before hers, or my uncle’s funeral, eight years before hers. I do not know what lament looked like in my grandma’s life, though I woke up many mornings hearing her listen to Dr. Charles Stanley’s voice through the radio and clapped alongside her so many Sundays in church. Just like Thanksgiving hadn’t really been Thanksgiving without Grandma, Christmas and New Year’s were empty without her. Grandma was missing. She was a void no one, no gift, no party, no celebration could fill.
Grief does not have much regard for time and time does not have much regard for grief. I’d been gone from California nearly six weeks and the start of my last semester in my graduate journalism program was just around the corner. That January, I put my grief in a suitcase and flew back to California. When I landed in Oakland, I recited the platitudes of good Christian grief like a script, “I know that God’s healing doesn’t always mean that the person gets to stay here on earth.” “I’m glad she’s no longer suffering.” Meanwhile, a devastating pattern arose in my mind—every time I received a diploma, someone close to me died. In high school, my uncle; college, my grandpa; and now in grad school, even before I could graduate, Grandma. She was supposed to be here. Before I moved out to California two years prior, she’d told me to make sure I always packed a jacket because the Bay Area temperatures turned quick at night, even in the summers, unlike back home in D.C. I tried to picture my grandma dressed to the nines in Oakland and San Francisco, making a statement wherever she’d go. I’d never get to see her here. Never get to pick her up from the airport, show her campus or where I lived. She was supposed to be here. I’d abandoned my thesis that featured her story as a smoker on track for emphysema, until she quit in her 50s, a few years after her uncle died from lung cancer, and decades before her brother, my uncle, would also die from lung cancer. It was all too much.
One day, I walked myself and my grief to the beach and plopped myself on a log. I was mad at God. Resentful, even. Fed up with losing those who I loved the most. Those who saw me. Those who heard me. Those who understood me. Those who loved me. Why tell God how I really felt if He already knew? You know it’s tearing me apart that she’s not here. You know I don’t know what to do without her. You could have saved her! What am I doing in this world without my grandma?
Finally, I broke down. Finally, I let much of what I had been holding in, out. In his book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament, Mark Vroegop writes, “The silent treatment must end. Frustration and discouragement might tempt you to stop talking to God. Lament opens a door and shows you a path towards trust.”[i] I did feel betrayed by God. I flew back and forth from California to D.C. more times than I could count that year, doing all I could to help Grandma, and help my mom take care of her. Truth is—there was nothing I could do. I did not want to accept that, “It had to be this way.” And yet that was indeed the way it was—Grandma was gone and I hated it, hated my new reality of life without her. When I finally told God that, tears streaming down my face as I sat on that log, a door only lament could open unlocked. Vroegop writes, “Let lament do its work in your life…don’t stop talking to God. Keep wrestling. Keep struggling. Keep praying…it is a prayer of faith for the journey between a hard life and God’s goodness. We need to learn to lament. Through the tears, the first step is to turn to God in prayer.”[ii]
If I’m being honest, I don’t remember much of my last semester at UC Berkeley. I remember looking into the faces of my mom, dad, brother, cousins, and friends as I stood behind a podium on graduation day, sharing with my classmates and their families some of the things my grandma told me before I moved out to California and a little bit about her, and this haunting pattern of diplomas and deaths. My grandma, Patsy Lee, was born in Washington D.C. in 1938 and did not go to college. Over the phone, she told me she worried about me not being able to get a good job if I wrote too many stories about Black people or stories that were too Black. This time, I told my classmates, death came before the degree. “Death can be disorienting and depressing,” my then 27-year-old self said. So can grief.
Yet lament suggests that neither death nor grief have the final say. There is something bewilderingly beautiful about being loved by a God who sincerely wants to hear all that we are thinking and feeling, even on the worst of days, the days when we cannot or choose not to find words to speak to the One who can and does empathize with us. Lament is a language of prayer that is rarely polished, poised, or even what we were taught is proper prayer. “To pray in pain, even with its messy struggle and tough questions,” Vroegop writes, “is an act of faith where we open up our hearts to God. Prayerful lament is better than silence.”[iii]
I turned 33 on November 2, still wishing to hear my grandmother’s voice, and I have cried my way through writing this piece. The familiar pangs of not gathering around her table for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the savory sorrow of not knowing what exactly she put in her mac and cheese will stay with me as 2024 approaches. I’ve lamented my way through my time at Yale Divinity School, crying out in both pain and gratitude because I am surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and because my grandparents were not there to see me receive my Master of Divinity. I am becoming more fluent in the language of lament, learning its hollow vowels, complex conjugations, and myriad metaphors. And I thank God that God’s still patiently listening for my voice, even when I don’t really want to talk.