Chapter One: How to Measure Grief
The first person to hold Ruby was the last person to let her go.
That was her mother, Kitty. I watched her kiss Ruby gently on the forehead while she was still connected to that big, noisy machine, though I already felt that Ruby wasn’t really there. She’d been asleep so long that day. They said it was a coma. I was on the other side of the window but could tell the moment her heart stopped. I saw a doctor turn off the machines I knew had kept her body breathing. I knew; Ruby was gone.
I watched through the glass as Kitty fixed on the monitor, a frightened look in her eyes, as if she hadn’t been aware her only daughter was dying. Her face contorted with pain, and she crumpled over Ruby’s body. Her shuddering seemed to shake the walls around me.
I wrenched away from the white-collared preacher and his wife and ran and ran toward that gleaming silver room. People called to me.
“Lucy. Stop. You can’t go in there. Children aren’t allowed.”
Big hands tried to grab me. But no one could stop me. Ruby was gone, her breath taken away when the respirator had been removed, and Kitty was alive and alone. She needed me.
I burst through the heavy door and threw myself toward Kitty’s slumped body. She turned to me in time to spread her arms wide. I fell into them, and she caught me and held me so tightly I thought I might stop breathing. I kind of hoped I would; I could have died at that moment, snug in Kitty’s arms. But after a little while she loosened her embrace, and I reflexively inhaled, an involuntary instinct of survival my eight-year-old body performed against my will. My lungs, now filled to near bursting, could no longer contain the sob that had been crawling from the well in my chest since earlier that day when I’d found Ruby lying on the back porch.
Ruby had been watering our flowers–a wild mix of cosmos, daisies, and tall wild varieties of blooms that attracted butterflies and hummingbirds to taste their sweetness. That afternoon she’d called for me to look at a hummingbird drinking from the hanging feeder beside the back door.
“Lucy! Come see! The hummingbirds are like little bees!”
She always told me when they came so we could watch and count them. The weekend before we’d seen ten at the feeder. “And mija? Please grab my inhaler too.” She said the part about the inhaler casually, almost like an afterthought.
“Coming, Ruby! I’m pouring the lemonade!”
I’d always called my mother and grandmother by their given names. I don’t know why Ruby or Kitty allowed it, but they did. I knew other children who had mothers and grandmothers with boring names, but not mine. Even my own name was picked by Ruby because she thought it was special: Maria Lucero
“Oh, my Lucy,” she explained. “Lucero means light.” And where a ruby is loud, red, and hard, she said, Lucero meant all that was bright and the very air I was to her. “You are my breath, my very life,” she would whisper in my ear, kissing the top of my head. I never imagined Ruby as hard and loud–the things she said her name meant–but instead as smooth and vibrant. Though I didn’t know how to tell her at the time, she was my light, and I wanted to be just like her.
Ruby. Kitty. The names rolled off my tongue like crayons on paper; I liked that. The day before, my red crayon had rolled off the table as I drew a picture of Ruby, my hand in hers, each of us with a blue flower tucked behind our ear. We dove to catch the crayon as it dropped to the floor and giggled at how it seemed late for some appointment under the couch where we couldn’t reach it.
“We will need help getting out that one, Lucy.” Ruby smiled and I knew someone would be over to help, a friend whose name I could never remember…
“Lucy!” Ruby called again from outside. “The hummingbirds are going away!” I heard a cough. “Do I need to come help you, mija?”
“No, Mommy! I’ll hurry!”
During special times, like before bed, I’d call her Mommy. Sometimes I called her Mommy Ruby, even if it sounded silly, because it was our secret name. She was Mommy and Ruby to me, and I could call her both.
I’d carried the glass pitcher toward the fridge, sloshing lemonade all over the floor, when I heard Ruby call me a third time. “Lucy, hurry!” she coughed, hard. “There are two now!” Ruby coughed again, more violently.
Hurry, I told myself. I grabbed our glasses and scrambled to the coffee table in search of Ruby’s inhaler. She usually left it there, but not this day. I thrust the glasses on the coffee table and rushed to look in the bathroom. Kitty was always nagging Ruby to keep her inhaler in the same place all the time, but Ruby was too busy.
Running from room to room, I searched until I finally found the inhaler on the nightstand beside Ruby’s bed. My breath came out in deep, short gasps as I rushed back to the coffee table for the lemonade glasses, this time careful not to spill the drinks.
When I reached the door, the hummingbirds were gone and the heavy glasses of lemonade crashed to the deck, covering the porch with sticky glass shards. Slivers of glass surrounded Ruby, glistening like jewels as she lay on the porch where she’d fallen.
My hands flew to my mouth to stop my scream. I needed to help Mommy Ruby. I knelt to wipe away the glass, but it cut both of us, spotting my hands and her arms with little dots of blood. I shook Ruby and she moaned.
I remembered the inhaler and frantically pawed to the edge of the porch where it had been flung, cutting my hands more on the glass shards.
“Breathe, Mommy Ruby! Breathe!”
But she couldn’t. I saw the panic in her widening eyes and tried to spray the inhalant in her mouth and nose. Her flailing began to stop as I tried to breathe into her with my mouth like I’d seen on TV, my own breath a weak whisper.
“Ruby…” I cried as loud as my cracking voice would allow.
“Help! Please, help!”
Nobody came. So I screamed, loud and piercing. Neighbors appeared. Someone pulled me off Ruby and handed me to someone else with a hard chest–someone who held me while my small fist bounced off him. I tried frantically to force myself down. Neighbors had circled round Ruby, and I was pulled away to the scream of an arriving ambulance.
In the emergency room, the flat red line on the machine blared in my ears and Kitty pressed her wet face against me as her tears mixed with mine. The nurses wheeled Ruby out, leaving Kitty and me standing in the hallway, very still. It was that quiet moment of death, when things move in slow motion, when strangers turn sadly away as they pass your family in the halls and the medical staff stares with hopeless expression at the floor.
I felt poised, panicky, and completely frozen in time all at once. I searched the hall. Cold floors, shiny metal, too-bright light hurting my eyes. Then it rose like an earthquake and rumbled out of me: a quiet broken noise followed by a clear, piercing cry.
“Ruby! Mommy Ruby!”
I tore down the hall. The nurses who were rolling away her bed froze on the spot, staring as if I’d turned into a monster. One nurse tried to keep me from tearing the sheet from Ruby’s face until a doctor stopped and silenced her with a look.
“Let her say good-bye to her mommy,” he said quietly.
The other nurse turned to me with tears and helped me fold back the sheet. I put my hands on each side of her face. “Mommy Ruby, I love you.” I leaned over to kiss her lifeless lips and gave her a gentle hug, like I would have done when she was napping or when I was the first to wake up in the morning. Then I smoothed her hair and put my hands on her face like I’d done a million times when I tried to sweet-talk her.
“I’m sorry for not coming sooner with your medicine,” I whispered.
The nurse gently helped me cover Ruby’s face, and she was gone. I turned back slowly to find every person in the hallway sobbing and not one grownup to hold me. The abandonment terrified me. Where would I go without Ruby? Who would take care of me?
Would I be sent to an orphanage like in that movie Annie?
“Lucy!” Kitty moved from the back of the small crowd where she’d been standing, stunned by her own grief. “Lucy! Come here, baby. Come to Grandma Kitty.” I ran. Grandma Kitty wanted me, and I knew in her arms I would be safe.
No one questioned Kitty as she carried me out of the hospital, put me in her car, and drove me home–to Ruby’s house. How strange it was to come home without Ruby. Only the buzz of the fridge greeted us; immediately I had the urge to find Mommy Ruby even though I’d just felt her cooling skin on my lips back at the hospital. I ran around the house, calling her name, looking under the kitchen table where she used to take cover during games of hide-and-seek. Kitty hadn’t stopped me in my mission to find Ruby alive until I stood in the center of the living room crying, reaching out to touch the roses in the middle of the coffee table, as if they were Ruby herself, not loud and vibrant but soft and delicate.
Wordlessly Kitty reached for me, hugged me to her, and took me for a bath. I screamed when she doused my shampooed head with water. Ruby had always warned me before rinsing so I could hold my nose. Kitty didn’t even tell me the water was coming. I coughed and sputtered, lashing at her for being so mean, half expecting to be given choice words of punishment.
Instead Kitty pulled me out of the tub and wrapped my goosebumped limbs in a fluffy pink princess towel. I slipped into the Barbie gown she held up, and she tucked me into bed, saying it wasn’t my fault Ruby died. In my heart I didn’t really believe her.
Kitty had a way of looking at things that most people found strange. Ruby had always said so. Now Kitty said that since she was my Ruby’s mommy, I could be her daughter too. “A granddaughter is a kind of daughter.” She leaned down and kissed my nose, just as Ruby would have done, and turned out the light.
I felt only a short moment of panic that Kitty wanted to replace my Ruby, but I was too tired to argue about it. Kitty said good night; it was so much like Ruby that I knew Ruby had learned it from her–except for the prayer. I wanted our prayer that night, but Kitty didn’t know how to say it. With her eyes cast to the side of my pillow, she quietly offered to learn if I’d teach it to her, but I said no. It was my prayer and Mommy Ruby’s prayer anyway, I’d decided. I would never say it with anyone ever again. Not even Kitty.
The morning before Ruby’s funeral, Kitty found me in a big, old white chair on the back deck staring at the sunrise. There were no hummingbirds, just bright, empty sky. I pretended Ruby sat with me in the chair the way we’d sit together in the mornings before school. I imagined that my hands resting on the arms of the chair were interlaced with hers; if I closed my eyes long enough, I could feel her breath on my neck and her kisses–unending kisses–behind my ear, through my hair, at the nape of my neck as she whispered how much she loved me.
I had dressed in the yellow and orange floral print sundress Ruby had bought for my first day of school. I hadn’t worn it yet and wished Ruby was there to iron out the wrinkles still creasing it from the store racks. I knew grownups wore black to funerals, but I didn’t have anything black. Besides, Ruby had always said I looked pretty in bright colors. I smoothed the soft cotton dress over my knees and waited for Kitty to chide me.
“I should have known I’d find you here.” Kitty stepped onto the deck. “Ruby told me about your little morning teatimes together.”
I said nothing. It was true, but I didn’t want to share it with Kitty right then. I only wanted Ruby. Kitty extended a red floral teacup. I stared hard at the steaming cup for a few moments, trying to imagine Ruby’s hand giving it to me. But I couldn’t summon the vision. I took the cup without a word and sipped deeply. The tea tasted good, just how I liked it– not very hot, not very strong, with cream and sugar.
“You look beautiful, Lucy, just like Ruby.”
I looked up at Kitty and admired her long black muumuu dress with the rich red rose print. The roses blossomed over her heavy chest, down her trunk to the hem, enfolding in the seams and opening back up, the fabric flowing with her steps as she walked toward me. I couldn’t articulate the idea at eight years old but grasped clearly that this was Grandma Kitty’s way of rebelling against dreary mourning garb at her daughter’s funeral.
“Look at me, Lucy.”
I stared at the roses on the muumuu, unable to look in her eyes because then I’d see Ruby and the big hole in my chest would deepen and hurt even more. Kitty cupped my chin with her hands and turned my face to hers. I saw her red-rimmed eyes, teary pools in the center.
What happened to my strong, bossy Kitty? I wondered. This face was so forlorn and weak.
I was happy when Kitty barked again for me to look at her. The sternness in her voice made me feel more secure, like she was in control, taking care of me. She took me firmly by the shoulders. “It’s terrible, a terrible thing, you losing Ruby. I-I don’t know why.” She fumbled with words between sobs. “I don’t know why God did this to you–to us. I don’t.” She took a breath and fell silent, her carefully applied makeup now tear-streaked.
Tears streamed down my face too. Once, Ruby had said God was a friend to children. I wasn’t sure when she’d said it–so many memories had already begun to fade the day after her death–but if it were true, then why did he take her from me?
“Your mom,” Kitty was saying, “would defend God and say he always has a purpose.” She shook her head and stared at her hands, then away at the sky, as if she wasn’t really talking to me. “I don’t know what God was thinking.” Her eyes followed the sunrise as we sat quietly. “How could you do this?” she asked the sky. Something brought her attention back to me. “Oh, Lucy, you’re shaking.”
“I’m sorry, Kitty.”
“You haven’t done anything to be sorry for, dear.” She reached to me with a lace-edged embroidered handkerchief. I worried about soiling the pretty fabric with my tears, but Kitty dabbed at my face like she didn’t care. “You’re just a little girl and can’t understand such things. All this talk about God and his not being here for us must be confusing.”
But I understood more than Kitty knew. I’d already begun tucking away most of the memories of my mother; I felt my faith being hidden away too. Later I’d wonder if I was tucking away my faith to protect it or to get rid of it.
But then all I knew was that Kitty didn’t think God was there for us, and I felt the heaviness of that drop over me, a blanket of fear and confusion. Even as I followed Kitty’s emotional leading, I thought of Ruby, and at that very moment I felt like a bad girl doing something I was sure my mom told me to never do…because secretly I still believed in heaven. Ruby was there. And if there was heaven, wasn’t there God? Ruby had told me so, hadn’t she?
I reached from my confusion toward Kitty, wanting to make her feel better and hoping she could make me feel okay too. She was so sad for Ruby; I was so sorrowful for Kitty. We both loved Ruby and we’d both lost her. And then Kitty told me a granddaughter is a kind of daughter, and I was hers.
I looked over at Kitty, who was staring up at the hummingbird feeder. A jeweled green bird had appeared, flitting around us like a bumblebee. I wondered if it noticed that Ruby was gone, if it had watched the whole thing, witnessing how slow I had been that day.
I balanced my teacup on my knees and watched the hummingbird dart around us. It paused near my shoulder, its wings buzzing, as if studying the splashes of color on my dress. Was he accusing me? I glanced at Kitty again, but she said nothing, as if it was an expected thing to have a hummingbird fly right up to me on the day of my Ruby’s funeral. Her eyes followed the hummingbird as it darted away, staring long after it had disappeared.
My cup rattled, causing Kitty to finally turn her head slowly toward me, and the hollowness of her eyes, so lost and sad, engulfed me. I knew that I somehow should have found Ruby’s inhaler faster, but I didn’t know Ruby could die. Now I had not only hurt my Ruby, but I’d hurt my Kitty too. The doubt seeded in my mind started to grow, its roots already reaching deep. What if God was mad at me for not getting help to Ruby in time? What if he had already forgotten about us?
What if Kitty didn’t have anyone but me? Kitty leaned toward me then and took one of my small hands in hers, careful not to upset the teacup in my lap, her red wooden bracelets softly clunking with the movement. We didn’t talk anymore before the funeral, just sat holding hands and looking out over Ruby’s garden. I knew one thing only then. Kitty wasn’t Ruby, but she would take care of me.
A grandmother was a kind of mother too.