Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Last Time I Saw Her

By Johi Kokjohn-Wagner

The last time I saw her she was wrapped in a robe, sitting in her dusty blue chair in the large family room where her five children gathered on holidays and birthdays with their families. Beside her on the small table was a stack of gauze, which she used to dab at the corners of her mouth where the cancer had created an unhealed wound. She was tiny, pale and clearly dying. I was relieved to be with her, even knowing it was probably the last time I would see her alive.

I had just spent two days in the car to be with her. My complexion had failed me again; my face was full of angry red pimples. My lavender cotton tank dress was no match for the swampy Iowa summer heat. I had sweat through my deodorant and was feeling insecure about my sour smell and less than perfect appearance. She grabbed me for a hug anyway and inhaled deeply on my shoulder. I couldn't fully embrace her in my stench, this was a woman who somehow always smelled of flowers and goodness. Soon after that I excused myself to the green wallpapered bathroom down the familiar hall, where I found my makeup in my purse and rooted in the medicine cabinet, hunting for anti-perspirant.

When I rejoined her in the living room, which was adorned with pictures of her loved ones, we chatted about life. She asked about my boyfriend… my job… my dreams. As we talked, my friend’s words haunted me. Give her permission to go. Permission to die. The thought that my grandmother needed my permission to do anything was making me uncomfortable, so I offered to paint her toenails instead.

I followed her instructions and found the nail polish I had sent her. A buff pink for her hands and “I’m Not Really a Waitress” red for her feet. My grandma was sassy and had style. I knew that she would like the colors. As I painted over her hardened yellow nails, the reality of her poor health kicked me in the heart. Yet we smiled and chatted like a couple of girlfriends on a spa day as I hid the sickly yellow under two layers of sparkly red lacquer. Later, when her sister renewed the pedicure that I gave, she revealed the state of my grandmother’s feet to my mother. I was irritated by the fact that she discussed those yellowed, unhealthy toenails. I felt like she broke a code of some kind. Of course they looked awful. My grandmother was dying.

Finally, after spending two hours with her, I seized an awkward moment and told her, “If you’re tired from fighting this, it’s okay if you go.”

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat as I waited for her response.

She looked me in the eye and fired back, “I’m not ready to go. There’s so much more that I want from this life. There are places I haven’t been. There is so much more that I want to see people do. I want to be here when those things happen.”

Then she spoke specifically about my aunt and one of my uncles. I nodded my head. Relief washed over me.

“We want you to be here too,” I said. “More than anything.”

I gave her and hug and helped her out of her chair. I found her pillow. She needed to rest, so I said goodbye and walked down the hardwood floor, took a right past the grand piano, trailed my fingers down the painted brick wall and stepped through the familiar back door into the Iowa heat.

That was 12 years ago and not a week goes by that I don’t miss her. The family gatherings are still wonderful, but they lack something. It’s her magic. Her presence was everything. She was the glue.

Her jewelry hangs on my wall, and often on me. Her recipes that I called her for from so many different kitchens throughout my twenties are hand written in a book. I saved a card with her almost illegible handwriting that she sent to me in college. I have some of her scarves and I wear them with great frequency. Sometimes I get a whiff of her sweet scent in my closet. One glorious night I smelled her in a dream.

She is always with me. 
She is profoundly missed.

This story about my grandmother was inspired by a writing prompt from the wonderful book Writing From the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice by Nancy Slonim Aronie. Her book is an excellent resource for writers, specifically if you are feeling a bit of the ole writer's block


  1. Beautiful Johi! I feel the same about my gramma. I'm really glad I haven't done my eye makeup yet this morning.

    1. Thanks Liz! This is the result of insomnia! At least I'm being productive... right?