Author Amanda Caldari is a NYC-based writer.
“If something ever happens to you, I want you to send me a sign. From heaven.” I said this out of nowhere one day, driving in the car with my mother. Neither of us is particularly religious, but we both believe in heaven and guardian angels and a God above who’s good. I was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church, received First Communion and made Confirmation. Beyond that, we rarely went to service, and my mother’s religious teachings could be summed up in one sentence: “Just be nice to each other.”
I wasn’t worried about my mother dying; she was perfectly healthy and still in her forties. But she was there, next to me, and I needed to know she always would be, in some form or another. So I said the first thing that popped into my head—an orange. If anything happened to her, she would send me an orange.
It would be years before I ever thought of it again.
In the last couple years of her life, my grandmother and I talked every week. I have saved voicemails that I’ll never delete… Ones I’ve recorded onto my computer so I can still hear the singsong way she would say my name, like no one else I’ve ever known.
“Hi Amanda, it’s Grandma. I thought you would be up and painting. I was curious to know how far you got. Did you paint yesterday? Did you paint today? What color did you do it? Uh, okay. Maybe you’re out running about. Just called to say hi and see what you were doing. Love you baby. Buh-bye.”
I didn’t paint that day, but I did after she died. A light mint green color, one the landlord had denied. My grandmother had insisted I use the color I wanted. “Tell her I gave you permission.” When I moved out, I got my security deposit back in full, and the landlord said nothing about the walls.
She was diagnosed in early December. Cirrhosis of the liver.
I stayed with her that Christmas, about a week before she died. It was then she taught me how to cook. Meatballs. Sauce. Chicken Parmesan. The staples of our Italian family. Something I’ll have with me forever. Inside, her body was failing, but you’d hardly know it. Her main concern was the people around her. That was just her way.
I left Florida for Boston believing I would see her again. Shortly after, she was in hospice, surrounded by family who flew in from New York. Over the phone, my cousin gave me the update. “She’s mostly sleeping. Every now and then she’ll wake up and eat an orange.”
Our grandmother was eating hardly anything, but for some reason she had an appetite for oranges, a fruit she said she hadn’t eaten in years.
Immediately I thought back to the conversation with my mother years ago. And of my grandma, lying in the hospital bed, eating an orange. The two felt inexplicably linked.
That same day, I called my mother, who was in the car driving. Did she remember our conversation from years ago? She stopped me mid-sentence, rushing off the phone to text me a picture of what was currently in her lap: a peeled orange on a paper towel.
Later that night, I went to the gym to use the sauna and clear my head. After showering, I sat down to dry my hair. The locker room was fairly empty, and the peace and quiet felt nice. In the mirror, I noticed a woman on the bench behind me. There she sat, slowly peeling an orange, eating it slice by slice. Taking her time, as if she had nowhere else to be.
By the third orange, everything was clear. My grandmother, who spent her life taking care of everyone else, would now be taken care of. Welcomed in with open arms. The realization was a gift. I wanted to laugh and cry all at once.
We spoke a couple more times, brief phone calls I cherished every second of. I reassured her I would be fine. We would all be fine. I told her about the oranges, how I knew she’d be with me.
I knew then that I would miss her, but I wouldn’t mourn her. This was far too beautiful to mourn. The words of Walt Whitman echoed in my head: “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” She hung on for two more days, until my aunt arrived from New York and told her she could go. She died a minute later.
That winter, I saw oranges everywhere. It was wonderfully humbling and absurd. Oranges on the sidewalk, orange peels in the snow. I didn’t have to look for them, they were just there…
And so is she.