When you have to, How Do You Let Go?


I am not very good at letting go. I cling onto memories of things “I lost in the fire“-lost friends, relations and places left behind. I sob, every time I move away from a place,  even after a mere sojourner. I hate to let go. Yes, I even have separation anxiety, close to the beginning of a new school year. I cry at the thought of sending my child back to school. That’s crazy, right?

Biko and Grandpa (RIP)

Biko and Grandpa (RIP)

More confessions…I have been known to cry over relationships..not too many. I know of only two…Oh! Maybe, three.
One was a guy I was engaged to [Yes, once upon a time, I convinced myself that, “I am the marriage type!”]. Our relationship was transcontinental, but we would visit each other a couple of times a year. When I would go to his country, I preferred to stay in a hotel or temporary rental, instead of moving into his family home. He would come stay with me, while I was in-country. Once, I asked him to move back to his place, because I did not want to continue with the relationship. I ended up crying the entire night over my decision, that he caught a cab and came back to me that night.

The second is the man I fell in love with, aka “the only man I ever loved”. Our goodbyes were filled with buckets of tears. I remember crying, holding each other so tight, at the gates of “Cambridge H-Square,” on the morning of our ‘separation,’ as he was leaving town and I was heading for my final exam. Amidst the goodbye and good luck hugs, we cried so hard that we did not wanna let go..

I thought I had no more tears left to cry for guys. But there came a third. The type you cannot easily or willingly extricate from your life, no matter how hard you wish. I remember crying because of what felt like the end of a chapter, ”…leaving me out to the dogs…” A dream jettisoned…! Letting go has never been an easy test for me.

I will spare you recalling the buckets of tears, I have cried, each time I am separating from family and friends, in Uganda, or scattered around the world. The separation kills me, it is not so easy to let go….

But recent events dwarf all those trying moments. I found myself asking, When it is the only option you have, how do you really Let GO? Especially when your life depends on it, how do you let go? How does a family make the hard decision of, letting go of a loved one?

I am talking here about the loss of my son’s Grandpa, this past Sunday, after a long and shabby illness. It ate him up. He suffered through it. It was painful, especially the last five months of his life. A little bit of relief here and there, but most of it was nasty pain!

I was the perpetual optimist, that he would pull through. Perhaps because, I watched him through all the pain and suffering. The times he would literally drag himself to walk, to make a bowl of soup in the kitchen or drive to pick up grandma from The City bus, or drive across the country on family trips. Throughout it all, he kept his humility, and drive to keep going, with bouts of relief, recovery and laughter.

Grandpa delivered on his commitments, whether to family, friends or within social circles.
This one gesture particularly stands out to me, involving a family of a single mom and two girls from the grandparents’ muslim community. The mom left for work early morning before the school bus arrival time, yet the family lived away from the bus line. So, grandpa offered to drive the two girls to the bus stop on school days. Every morning, he left home shortly before seven o’clock, drove twenty minutes to pick them up from their home, to bus stop, and back home another twenty minutes. Again in the afternoon, he drove out twenty minutes, picked the girls from the bus stop and took them home, and drove back home. Even in the brutal, gruesome winter, grandpa woke up, and drove through the snow, up the windy mountain roads where they lived.

On my part, I was always in awe of his humility, sometimes to my discomfort. Particularly this year, he was not in great shape, but still committed to help the single mother and her two girls. Nor was I a stranger to his humility, even though I turned it down sometimes. I noticed that somebody was emptying the trash basket in the bathroom, every week on “Trash Pick-Up Day”. Once I found grandpa emptying my basket, and I asked him to please not worry about it. I knew it came from a good place, but the African in me does not believe in making the elderly ‘wait on’ me. Instead, I, the child should work for them.

And there is more to grandpa’s helping hand that I partook of. When child and I returned to the US after a couple of years abroad, we decided to move in with the grandparents, closer to my job market in NYC [and the North East corridor]. Grandpa drove 850 miles down to Georgia to pick us up, and another 850 miles back to Pennsylvania. Saving us what would have cost an arm and leg, to transport the two of us and all our property on a plane ride.

He did it again, earlier this year, when I ran the Boston Marathon. Grandpa offered to drive me to Boston, though I decided to leave home with child of mine two days in advance, to allow me ample time to pick up my runner’s package and rest before marathon day. Still, he and grandma drove over five hours to Boston to cheer for me on marathon day. They arrived on Sunday night, bless their souls, but grandpa could not join grandma along the marathon route on that cold rainy Marathon day. Instead, he stayed in the hotel room, kept his eyes glued on the TV marathon screening, and waited to catch a glimpse of me. That is the true human spirit.

I think of grandpa, and I think of humility, commitment, dedication and dependability. I think back to all the times I asked him, “How are you doing grandpa?” And he would say, “Same.” Sometimes, I did not want to ask him, because there was nothing new to ask about. Or because I felt useless, asking how he felt when I was not gonna change a thing. At times I self-doubted whether to help or not. Was I undermining his ability and drive to do things on his own? Would I ably fill-in for his close family? He probably shared similar concerns.

Grandpa also had trouble letting go of — carrying large suitcases onto the car roof when preparing for a family road trip, or his daughter’s large laundry bags from the house into her car. He had trouble letting go of driving long distances. Even on our last road trip with him to Maryland, he insisted on driving the entire trip, when I offered to help drive. I was amazed at his mental stamina, driving without much to eat or drink, so he did not have to get up to use the bathroom. By then, his health had deteriorated, with excruciating pain from every part of his body. That would be his last road trip, followed by indefinite hospitalization.

Yet, he soldiered on for the love of his family. He loved his wife and children, so dearly! He even raised more than his biological children. The stories he shared with me, and the stories I heard about him in life and death attest to his true love for people. While quite reserved, he was a “Man-of-the-People”. He loved to engage with and reach out to people. Whether as a part of the “militant community patrol,” that cleaned drugs and pimps off his Brooklyn neighborhood, back when the NYPD would not venture into some neighborhoods. Or Summer Camp organizer (with grandma) for young muslim kids when they lived in NYC.

While I do not want to romanticize grandpa’s life, as I knew it, I hope to underscore that, we each live multiple lives in our lifetime. Given a chance, we would do ourselves a favor to right the wrongs, that are always part of our human experience. For most of what I knew about grandpa, he turned a new leaf, or leaves in his life. He credited his conversion to Islam for rescuing him from street life. As one of his friends said at the funeral, he was in praise of Islam for transforming his life.

I am grateful grandpa saw the good in me. I told him, “I am grateful that you always say good about me.” Whenever I met his social circles, I did not have to introduce myself because he had already done the introduction of me as a runner, highly educated, excellent mom and healthy eater. In a way, he was my cheerleader. He cheered on child of mine, or as he called him, Biko-man!

But time came, when grandpa could not hang onto his strength, when life was draining out of him, and the family had to take the toughest decision to “Let Go…”
I felt like a denialist. I thought he would pull through. He suffered too much not to live to celebrate beating the illness. I watched the surge and slumps in his health. When he could not sit and eat, and when a smile returned to his face. He tried scientific and religious medicines. He tried homeopathy, and chiropractic treatment. He tried staying positive, looking forward to returning home, and eating my health food. He asked me to cook for him. I obliged a couple of times; Not anymore…

So, the lesson for me, from this experience is, even when we have to Let Go, we do not entirely lose out. We keep fond memories, always close to our hearts. Because those memories never fade. So, may we always see the good in people, and hang on to the beauty they possess. Because even when we have to LET GO, we can still keep them close to us, in our memory.

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