Fireflies winked in and out of existence as the warm air enveloped me. It would have been a welcome hug if it wasn’t for the humidity that clung to my skin.
Back and forth, with one leg I propelled the patio swing, hoping that the motion would rock my worries away, shushing them like they were a distressed baby.
Laura, my best friend, sat next to me, typing away on her laptop, a furrowed brow ruining her normally calm expression. She blew disobedient strands out of her face, her bun so weathered by how long she had been working that her hair was full of pending escapees from her hair tie prison.
She had been working on her dissertation almost nonstop all day--having run in the house briefly to cram a ham and cheese sandwich in her face before running right back out to our patio swing.
It was our inspiration swing. The work swing. The crying swing. The swing had witnessed so many aspects of our lives and it kept all of our secrets and memories.
Grape vines were curled around its metal bars like lovers, intertwining themselves so intimately with it one could almost mistake them for brass detailing. The grapes hiding within the thick leaves attached to the small, surrounding fence were still small pearls of green and wouldn’t be ready for pick until the first snow touched the ground.
“Have you thought about what you’re going to say?”
The question came out of nowhere, and rather than look at her, I looked down at my weathered hands.
“What can I say?” the words that had been cycling in my head so much that it made me dizzy finally voiced themselves aloud.
“You did your defense and passed, Dr. Wilson, now look at every single one of them while you’re on that stage and say look at me. It’s 2021. Look at me,” she said, her brown eyes boring into mine.
We had talked about it before. The weight that I felt on my shoulders since I was the first Black woman to ever graduate from my program at the university.
As a first generation student with no family left, I remember as a first year how I combed through the alumni pages of each of the labs, looking for a face that looked like mine so that I could reach out and maybe finally have the mentor I craved. And I turned up empty handed. When I asked my advisor about it, she brought the question to the department, and they too searched only to come back and reveal to me that I was the first Black woman in my program.
The first ever.
The realization had weighed heavily on my shoulders because with that knowledge it was suddenly no longer about just me. Even though I was still reeling from my grandmother’s death, tortured by her absence and considering dropping out of my first year, I refused to quit when I learned that.
How could I? When I had so much to prove to them. Not just about myself but other Black women as well. It felt like I had been trapped in a role model position that I couldn’t remember having signed up for.
My grandmother had always told me that I needed to work twice as hard to get just even half the recognition that White people did. And so I abandoned everything in order to make sure that the woman that walked across the stage at graduation was one of the best students the university had ever seen, and I wanted them to see that she was a Black woman, one who was decorated in so many stoles, ropes, and pins that she looked like academic royalty sweeping across the stage. I wanted to make a statement. To and for everyone.
It was only because Laura happened to need a roommate in second year that I even made time for a friend. It’s hard to not be friendly when your roommate was one of the kindest people you’ve ever met and her cookies tasted like heaven’s clouds. But she was the only exception.
And sitting here with her as she labored her own journey on her laptop, my thoughts were heavy with the weight of what I was expected to do in a few weeks.
In a predominantly white crowd with no family and my one friend, they wanted me to give a speech at graduation.
I couldn’t help but feel skeptical, worried that I was being uplifted as a token of progress.
Look, I imagined my university saying with a too wide pearly smile, how far we have come. We are the picture of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
When it was the opposite. While accolades were being laid at my feet, I wanted to question why it took so long to get to me. Why wasn’t there someone like me before me?
This speech that they wanted me to give, of hope for the future, was not the speech that I wanted to give. The speech that I, and my history, was crying out at me to give was one of pain and anger.
My ancestors’ speech cried out, how dare you take this long, while the university wanted me to say thank you for this opportunity. And, somehow, I wanted to say both but didn’t know if that was right or, if it was, what I would even say.
Atlas was doomed to carry the world on his back, but now I knew that Atlas carried history on his back. Because no weight has ever been as heavy as one’s history.
“I wish my grandmother was here,” I confessed, the tears already welling up and spilling over. “I miss her so so much, and I don’t want to do this alone.”
My academic victory felt hollow because my Grammy passed away five years ago. The illness that took her was swift and sudden, draining all the life from her until there was nothing else left.
She had been the last member of my family. My parents had died when I was very young, and she had taken me in, nurturing me with all the love, tenderness, and attentiveness of a gardener raising an orchid. Having no more than a ninth grade education herself, she always encouraged me to do well in school. Knowledge was the one thing that no one could ever take from us, she had taught me. Be it experience, textbook, aural, or otherwise, it was something she wanted me to arm myself with, and she was so proud every time I would come home excited about learning.
And the look on her face when I told her I wanted to be a neuroscientist, I’ll never forget. Her eyes welled with tears that I didn’t understand which shook her smile as she grasped my hands tightly in her aged ones, “Look at you. I’m so proud of you.”
She was my mother and my home all in one, and when she died, my heart had become homeless, a curled up child crying out--but the type of cry that’s so guttural and deep that no sound leaves your mouth.
I had no one. No faces to excitedly search out in the crowd as they screamed and embarrassed me but I secretly enjoyed their enthusiasm. No faces with the same history etched into their bloodstream as mine. I was alone to bear the weight of being the first.
“I’m here, you’re not alone,” Laura soothed as she closed her laptop and scooted closer, placing her arm around me and bringing my head to her shoulder. “I know I’m not your Grammy, and I know we’re not blood related, but I consider you my family. And I’ll be there. And, I’m sure in her own way, she’ll be there too. Whether it’s in the sunlight or a flower you see that day. Or a firefly the night before. She’ll be there.”
Her words soothed something in my soul though it only quieted the cries on the outside, on the inside I was still yearning and hurting for hugs that would never be had again.
“Au-Aubrey,” Laura suddenly whispered. Her eyes gave a nervous glance to the parking lot, clearly urging me to look.
Standing in the middle of the parking lot was a shadowy figure. The lightpost near it kept flickering on and off only giving us brief glimpses of an odd looking humanoid with distorted features just standing there.
The hairs on the back of my neck raised up as the figure--now obviously a man--began to walk towards us. In his hands was some sort of package wrapped in stained brown paper.
“Oh hell no, I bet you there’s body parts in there,” Laura said as she pulled out her phone and also, laptop underarm, started heading towards the back door, assuming I would be right behind her.
While Laura was addicted to true crime shows and always assumed the worst and wildest of everyone, even I was weirded out by the man.
It was 3AM, and it definitely was not someone we had seen before.
And, like a stupid girl in a horror movie, something told me to actually wait--to see what this man had to say even though common sense said to run in the house and lock the doors.
“Um, hi,” the short, balding man said, a sheepish hand on the back of his neck, as he panted, stopping in front of me. “Are you Aubrey Wilson?”
I could see already in the corner of my eye Laura had 911 dialed on her phone and was ready with lightning speed to hit the call button should anything get out of hand.
“My name is Herald. I was a friend of your grandmother’s-. I, I realize this is very weird but, I actually, uh, used to work at the post office years ago, and Shirley asked me one day if I could deliver a package to you if she wasn’t around anymore, bless her soul.”
“Um, I don’t see how this--” Laura started to interrupt him, seeing the quickly rising grief and confusion in my face.
“She wanted it to be delivered before your graduation. Now, uh, I don’t work at the post office anymore but I never forgot about that and I’ve had it the whole time since I worried they might not remember. And I, uh, well, I saw the article about you graduating.”
“What?” the word passed numbly through my lips as he then quietly pressed the aged package into my hands.
Both Laura and Herald watched as I carefully undid the paper. And inside, I found a large stack of pages that had my Grammy’s familiar looping handwriting penned carefully on it in bright blue ink.
Tears began pouring from my eyes as I began to devour the first new words that I had from my Grammy in five years.
“If you’re reading this, this old broad didn’t make it to see you finish. But I hope that this package, which hopefully hasn’t been sitting for too long in this fella’s house, will give you some solace. I wanted to make sure that no matter what, I didn’t miss your big day.
You are never alone, my sweet girl. I will never allow you to be alone. When you get up on that stage, know that me, your mother, my mother, and her mother, and her mother are all there standing with you. And we, especially me, are so so proud of you.
You are living your ancestor’s dreams. Never forget the power behind that statement. You belong there more than anyone, Dr. Wilson.”
And with that, tears choking my throat but my heart so full that it could burst out of my chest and take flight, the rest of the pages and pages of love and encouragement Grammy wrote became the ink for the speech I began to write hours later.