The Queen of Soul has left this world. Aretha Franklin, the original Do Right Woman, has died from pancreatic cancer earlier this morning at 9:50 a.m.
Aretha Franklin, whose voice was sweeter than honey, was one of the most admired singers of all time. She died this morning at the age of 76 after battling advanced pancreatic cancer. She died loved and surrounded by family and friends in Detroit. The Queen of Soul, a woman’s voice who has been around for my entire life, is no longer on this earth and it’s hitting me in a way that I never expected.
Yes, I loved Aretha Franklin ‘s voice and I respected the fire in the belly of that fierce Feminist woman who commanded everyone’s attention and respect. She was a woman who fought for the betterment of other women. She believed in empowering her sisters. She was a big, beautiful force of nature in this world. She was goodness and light and it saddens me that she is gone.
But, I’m sitting here sobbing and I couldn’t figure out why a stranger’s death would have such a profound effect on me. Then I realized, my grandmother died from pancreatic cancer a few years ago on July 8, 2011. She was just a couple years older than Lady Aretha. I’m not crying for the reasons you might think.
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I’ve never written about this before because my relationship with my paternal grandmother has always been very private and personal for me. It was strained when it existed. It was the sum product of the relationship she had with my father and the way she treated most of the people that she was supposed to love. I had the misfortune of being old enough to witness and understand too much.
I found out that my grandmother had pancreatic and stomach cancer by an out of the blue phone call one night from my aunt as I was putting my babies to bed. Begging and then demanding that I get on the phone and tell my grandmother that I loved her, that I let her know things were fine between us, and I do it all in Spanish. It was a call for forgiveness after a lifetime of not caring about the consequences of her actions.
I did as I was told. I told the frail voice on the other end, “Te amo, Abuelita.” But I didn’t feel it and if all she wanted was the words to be said, I had done my part but if she had wanted more, she was left wanting. I cried when I hung up because I never wanted her to be in such physical pain, no matter our differences. I cried because I knew this would crush my dad.
This was the first time I had heard from her since my baby shower in 2005 that she had unexpectedly shown up at. She hadn’t been invited because we had no contact. Previous to that, I saw her at my bridal shower that she crashed in 1999. Before that, I think it was when she lived with us in the mid 80’s. I was not a priority to her. Or maybe she didn’t know how to come back from the painful way she had behaved when I was a child. I think maybe she wanted to have a relationship in her old age but had no idea how to reach out in any meaningful way. I had already long given up hope for one.
I was a new mom with little girls. I had long moved on from caring whether or not she cared about me. I only met her a handful of times before she moved in with us when she left my grandfather behind in Mexico to come to live in the United States with her children. My father adored her no matter what she did. In his eyes, even when he knew she did wrong, he chose to look passed it.
She fought with my dad over everything. She never liked my mom and was unkind to her. She got mad at my dad if he couldn’t give her all of his attention immediately. She gave no consideration that he was a husband and father of 6 children. To her, he was her son first and foremost and anything he did, she took as a purposeful and personal affront to her. There was no way to win. He lost because he chose his family over her every beck and call.
One day when my 4-year-old brother ran to his grandmother screaming, “Grandma, Grandma” she stopped him cold and pushed him away saying, “I am not your grandma.” My little brother, the sweetest kid I’ve ever known, walked away deflated and crying. I witnessed the deflation and, at that moment, I saw the petty, coldness reveal itself. I was 11-years-old.
I realize you can’t judge someone on one terrible moment in time but that was just one of many moments like this. I don’t want to speak ill of my dead grandmother out of respect for my father. He loved and still loves her very much. He has seen all of her faults and she has done unspeakable hurts to him as a child but he has forgiven her and so have I. I have no room in my heart for hatred. I am thankful that she brought my father into this world and, for that, I will always be grateful and love her.
But when she was dying, she wanted to make an amends with everyone she had wronged. She wanted forgiveness at the very moment I was learning what it was like to be a mother. You see, by the time she called me, I had figured out that my children were the most important thing in the world to me and there is nothing I wouldn’t do for them. Nothing. I definitely would not have taken my 9 children and pushed them to be at odds with one another to prove their love for me.
I can’t explain the whole story of her lifetime, it’s so long. But from the beginning, she had a hard life. She was orphaned, raped by someone she knew, thrown out and living on the streets and a mother by the age of 13. The world made her hard from the very beginning but even when she met my grandfather and they got married and he took on the responsibility of her child and they went on to have 8 more children together, she had been hungry for too long. She had become feral and she never softened. She stayed hungry and autonomous.
She pushed everyone who could ever love her away. Maybe she believed herself unlovable. If that is the case, I feel sorry for her. Her children loved her blindly and unconditionally and she never could reciprocate entirely. She was too guarded.
The thing is the weeks leading up to her death, everyone came from near and far to visit her, let her make amends, give their forgiveness and be there to support her in her final days. They congregated around her hospital bed in my aunt’s living room praying the rosary and crying, supporting one another; being there for one another like only family can. I’m sure the love was palpable but I wouldn’t go. I know that sounds cold and harsh.
I wasn’t trying to withhold anything but I couldn’t go there and pretend that I belonged. We never had a relationship. I told my father that if he needed me there for support, I would go for him. But, my going had nothing to do with her. I didn’t need to say goodbye because we had never really said hello. We never really got to know each other and that’s how she had wanted it my entire childhood. She had lived withholding love for so long that she had to think about it to remember to hug us so mostly she didn’t. My dad told me that he understood and it was fine if I didn’t go. So I didn’t.
She died. I never even cried. I remember the date she died because remember that little 4-year-old brother of mine who she told she was not his grandma? She died on his 32nd birthday. Neither of us cried. Neither of us went to say goodbye.
Over the years since, I have seen a few pictures of her smiling. She looked happy in her way. I only saw her smile once in my life, that was at my baby shower. I think she was excited, in her way, that her first granddaughter was going to have a daughter. I’ll always love her for loving the idea of my daughter and loving my father, even if she didn’t love me. Or maybe she did, in her way.
Today, when I read about Aretha Franklin dying of pancreatic cancer, the painful, terrible disease that killed my last living grandparent, I cried for my grandma. It took me 7 years but today, it hurt remembering that she was gone. It hurt remembering that she is no longer here on this earth for her children. It pains me knowing that my father hurts every day missing his mother. It hurt knowing that there are no more chances for redemption for her.
Today the true forgiveness washed over me and I let the pain go. I wrote about it. “Te Amo, Abuelita.” Today, these words have weight. She never did get to meet my girls. But then again, she never asked to and maybe that was her gift to me. No words to hurt, no deeds to be undone just the fond, edited memories recounted by my father with love to his granddaughters.