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Sofiya Ballin Headshot

Fleeting Breath

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In high school I had a teacher say that most of us would start losing our grandparents in college, that statement resounds constantly now. I read this at my grandmother's memorial:

Recently my favorite part of my day is the first five seconds. When I've just woken up, my mind is still foggy and it hasn't set in that I lost one of the most important women in my life. The next five seconds are the worst. When I realize it wasn't a dream and that things will never be the same.

Writing this is hard, I don't know where to begin. I don't know what to say. How do you sum up what someone means to you in a few pages? How do you write about someone who's done so much? Who's meant so much?

So I'll begin where I left off. One of the last things I did with my Grandma was fill out an application for a study abroad program in London. Not everyone gets into the program and I was struggling with my essay. We sat together and though she was weak. She told me what I needed to fix and what I should include. She told me where she went, when she traveled to London. "You will like it there," she said. It never once occurred to her that I wouldn't get accepted.

She was always the kind of person that nurtured. She nurtured her garden. Countless times I remember her yelling at my father. In her thick Jamaican accent," LAWD! Dennis put him big peffard (foot) inna mi plant dem!"

It was important for her to help life grow. I think that's why she loved teaching. She nurtured and loved her six children Ray, Mark, Colin, Peter, Julie, and Steve fiercely. She nurtured dreams. She's the reason I started writing. She never once told me I couldn't do something. She never once told me that I should stop writing or acting and do something more practical. Something in medicine or law like other people had.

My sisters, my cousins, and I would spend every Sunday and summer at her house and it was crazy because she would cuss us out in the meanest patois if we ran in the house and I can't tell you one thing she hadn't thrown at us. She would always miss though. Letting us know that if she wanted to, she'd get us, because she never misses.

But I knew she loved it when we came over, even when the coconuts and oranges were flying over our heads I knew it was love. You could see it in her eyes. Feel it in her tight hugs and taste it in the big pots of porridge we hated as kids but grew to crave.

During the calmer times of day we would sit down and read. Just read. She would tell us to write stories, poems, plays, songs all the while a pen in her own hand. She'd always say "Sofy, let us write ah story nuh?" And she would go off on a story idea. Imagination had no age limit for my grandma.

She hated staying in the house. She wanted to dance, she wanted to sing and to laugh with her friends. She didn't understand why some old people were so boring. She always had visitors... always. Former students checking in, people coming over for advice or sometimes she just had band practice. Yes, she was in a band.

Her eyes would light up every time she would tell me about their performances. When her visitors came she'd put on a pot of tea, mint tea preferably, she'd shuffle in the kitchen fixing something for them to eat. She would sit, something she refused to do regularly, cross her legs and talk to them as long as they needed her or she them. It used to make me angry.
Like I could never have my grandma to myself. But as I got older, I realized that each person that entered through the door was a life she impacted.

I always knew she was smart. But it didn't dawn on me how absolutely brilliant and phenomenal my grandmother was until someone would happen to tell me about her accomplishments she kept hidden from me.

For example, my Uncle Peter told me she had not one but two master's degrees. When he told me this I looked to her to confirm, she looked down shyly and nodded. My grandmother Cynthia Louise Stafford born in Glengoffe, the country of the country in Jamaica where her mother walked several miles and hours to sell produce, chickens and cows to get my grandma through high school and teacher's college came to a new country and in her 50s with her sixth child on her hip earned her Master's degree in both Special Education and Early Intervention. She told me this like it was nothing and just sipped her tea and went on to tell me what she did her master's thesis on.

That was the kind of woman she was. She always stressed education, and that knowledge was the greatest tool anyone could have. I began to realize I had no excuse. No excuse to not do or be the best. She knew everything and would ask questions when she didn't. She never stopped studying, and approached life as both teacher and student. She always wanted to learn something new and her room is filled with notes that vary from Caribbean History to the African presence in Great Britain. She was always taking notes, always. She catered, so she wrote recipes. She was teaching herself Spanish and French, she played the saxophone, she was an award-winning playwright in Jamaica, a health nut, writer, gardener, advisor, teacher of 60 years, producer, director and co-founder of Jamaican Civic and Cultural Association of Rockland (JAMCCAR).

And most importantly a mother, a daughter, a sister and a wife. She loved her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren and made sure we stayed connected whether we live around the corner or around the world. I remember her spending hours reading letters from my cousin in California and my cousin in Jamaica. She created the link between us and now it's up to us to keep it strong. She is what links us all together here, now.

I'm convinced my grandma had more than six children in fact I think she has hundreds. Every student she taught, every life she touched and for every dream she nurtured is a child. Many of which call her "Mommy" or "Mother Staff." It wasn't hard for her to be anyone's mother.

To say I'm going to miss her doesn't seem to fully explain the emptiness I feel inside my chest. An emptiness that reveals something I never realized I had with my grandmother. A friendship. She was my friend. My sister Shauna and I would spend hours with her talking, laughing and arguing. We were so alike in many ways...except she was more of a tegg-ah-reg (a rowdy person). She understood me when no one else seemed to, and I understood her. Flaws and all we loved each other. We'd listen to her talk about growing up in Glengoffe with her sister and brothers. She'd tell us how much she missed her mother. She'd tell us how my grandpa chased her and won her heart. He seemed to be the only topic that made her blush, giggle, and smile like a teenage girl.

When I was younger she would lay my head in her lap and stroke my hair. She'd kiss me all over my face and squeeze me tight whispering in my ear "SofyBee" as she rocked me to sleep.

It's the strangest thing when the roles are flipped and I'm cupping her face in my hands, kissing her on the forehead and telling her everything is going to be okay. "She's a fighter," is what the nurses would say. It was true and they didn't even know the half of it. She had a strength about her that was in no way silent. I felt it when I entered the room and when she gripped my hand.

That fighter mentality was always a part of her. She was opinionated, stubborn and beautifully naïve. She saw the good in every person, even when they revealed the bad. I'm going to miss the way she brought life into a room, that weird face she made when she grated coconut, how she'd do anything to make my sisters and I laugh, the way she rolled her eyes when my Uncle Peter told her what to do, her amazing and limitless sense of humor, the high-cackling sound she called a laugh, her insults, her compliments, her advice, that special smile she reserved when you made her proud, her wisdom, her Bogle dance moves, the way she called us "Ballin suckers" and her uncompromising, unconditional and stubborn love.

My mom has been very strong about through all of this. So strong that I was worried. My grandma passed on my mom's birthday, holding on to her hand. "It's like she gave me something, like she left me a gift," she said. And that now wherever she goes she takes her mother with her. That my grandma is forever a part of her giving her strength.

One of the last things she told my sister and I was that, "Time is a fleeting breath." I knew why she told us that. Life is too precious and fragile to not spend it doing what you love and taking advantage of every single moment. I believe, one of the reasons she was so full of life was because her life was full. I understand now that I don't have time to waste and that everything I do is not only for myself but for her.

I was accepted into that London program, and despite previous fears, inhibitions, and doubts I will be going. Saying all this isn't so I'll move on, forget, or get some sort of closure. It is so that no matter where I go, who I meet, what I learn and what I see. I'm taking her with me.