My grandmother died four days after I got back from Namibia.
“She must have been waiting for you,” distant relatives said softly at the visitation, cupping my hand in theirs with furrowed brows and sympathetically tilted heads.
“I think so, too,” my head tilted back.
But I didn’t actually think so. In reality, she was already gone by the time my plane touched the ground.
She was gone when I was driving around the Namib Desert, sandboarding down the dunes of Swakopmund, shopping for colorful dolls sewn by Herero women, connecting to a Himba tribe, and exploring the desolate “cry-ground” of the Skeleton Coast. And two weeks before that, she began to fade when I was shivering in Iceland, watching the Northern Lights and eating breakfast by candlelight, trying not to slip on frozen sidewalks.
All the while, she slipped away.
My grandmother, Zula, took a turn for the worse on Christmas. She was admitted to the hospital where she was then discharged and cleared to live at my parents’ house — where I was also living at the time — to wait for relocation to assisted living. She didn’t make it to assisted living, though. Two months later, in my brother’s old bedroom facing Etna Mountain and a Jason Heyward jersey, she passed away.
“I wasn’t in there with her,” my mom choked after waking me. “I checked on her at 6:30 and fell back asleep in the living room. Then I checked on her at 7 and she was gone. I wasn’t with her. Why didn’t I just stay in there? I should have been with her.”
Me too, Mom. Me too.
A few months after my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, I gallivanted around the United States on the Amtrak. When she started to lose interest in things, I was exploring Thailand and Singapore. When she could hardly walk, I was living out a Mitsubishi Express in Australia, driving down the coast for two months. When they decided to stop doing chemo, I was in New Zealand. And in her final month, I traveled to Iceland and Namibia.
“You’re a traveling girl,” she smiled before I left for Reykjavik.
“You wanna come?” I squeezed her hand.
“No,” she laughed and pointed at her walker. “I better not.”
“I love you, Grandma.”
“I love you too, baby.”
When I got back a week later, she could hardly speak.
Muffled groans translated to words only someone teetering on the spiritual realm would understand — the secrets to the universe, the smell of Heaven, the meaning of life. At least that’s what I would tell myself. In reality, every inch of her body was shutting down.
“I’m going to Namibia tomorrow,” I told her, kneeling beside her bed. I took her hand. “Wanna come?”
“I love you, Grandma.”
She groaned again.
By the time I got back from Namibia, she was already gone. Four days later, she passed away.
I wasn't there. I wasn't there when she watched her last Braves game or when she stopped eating butter mixed with jam. I wasn't there when she quit worrying about her hair, when walking became a chore, or when she lost interest in the muted television. I wasn't there, and it made me feel a toxic concoction of guilt, regret, and the sense that everyone was whispering, "Where is she? Why isn't she here?"
I was whispering it, too.
Death isn't forgiving. It doesn't care if you're across the globe on a 14-hour train ride in Thailand or bungee jumping in New Zealand. It comes and goes as it pleases, and the only place to be that seems right when it hits is home — wherever and whatever that may be to you. You don't have to be there to find peace in home. And you don't have to be there to show those you love support and comfort. Home doesn't disappear because you're not there — you just have to go back, whether that means canceling everything and jumping on the next flight or finding a cafe in a foreign neighborhood that smells like your grandmother's tiny kitchen.
A wooden plaque my grandmother gave my mom in 1982, who then gave it to me when I returned from a trip, reads, "Wherever you wander, wherever you roam, may you be happy and healthy and glad to come home."
Before I left for Australia in August, I went by her apartment.
“Will you be careful?” she asked.
I told her I would.
“Good." She glanced at a baby picture of me in a cracked frame on her refrigerator. “As long as you always come home, I’ll always be happy.”
And she always was.