‘She drove my little brother to hockey practice, taste-tested when my older brother tried recipes from the towering bookcase of international cookbooks she’d bought him. She continued working her shitty job, played Solitaire on the computer, whipped out her little red wallet to cover extortionate dinner checks before any of us could see her reach for it. We knew metastasis was a possibility, but it felt like a nebulous one, clouded with words like “maybe someday” and “not for a while.”’
Malia Mendez’s well-polished creative nonfiction piece is all about nostalgia and grief following the death of her Grandmother from cancer.
The skill of Malia’s writing lies in her attention to detail and specifics. The piece contains many references to food and mementos. This makes me think about the importance we often attach to objects in grief. Significantly, memories often centre around specifics rather than overviews. For this reason, Malia’s attention to particular things accurately renders the process of grieving and reliving the past through memory. The combination of happy childhood memories with thoughts about death (in the extract above) is a convincing portrayal of the mind in the process of mourning. Death is a marker of time and therefore forces us to confront and reflect on time passed and lived. When moments from disparate times come together in memory, we are confronted with our own past naivety, our own self-delusion that time will not run out, that, as Malia writes, death will come ‘someday’ but ‘not for a while’.
Furthermore, the piece subtly introduces us to some darker aspects within the family dynamic including her Grandfather’s alcoholism and her Grandmother’s disapproval of her father’s relationship with her mother. The fact that these issues remain unexplained and lack depth illustrates the way families often skirt around negative truths, referring to them without explanation or concealing them altogether. This makes Malia’s work recognisably human and more relatable for readers.
Another interesting dimension to this piece is the ambivalent tone that it adopts towards the deceased individual. Rather than glorifying them, the piece immediately begins with a critique of the Grandmother’s love of the colour red. Malia even writes that there was some relief when she died. This speaks to the idea that death is a suspension of all of the anticipation and fear that precedes this moment, and it is therefore in this sense a relief. She also does not avoid mentioning that the Grandmother rejected her proposal to read her some poetry on her deathbed. Malia writes ‘To me, this was when she died. She took her last breath in June, a few months later.’ This idea of a figurative rather than literal death is poignant because it alerts readers to the ways in which there are many things that can kill a person in our lives, other than death itself. For instance, a person might die in our minds, if they are exposed as someone who we did not think they were, or if they become unrecognisable as a result of physical or mental illness. The underlying pain that is evident from Malia’s rendering of this scene highlights the strain that the dying and grieving process puts on a person. It is the before and after that are the most painful rather than the actual moment of death.
Overall, Red is an extremely human exploration of grief complete with ambiguity, irresolution and suffering. You can check out more of Malia’s work on her website if you click here.
Amber Kennedy, Editor-in-Chief
Photo by Irina Anastasiu from Pexels