Yesterday, my grandmother passed away. She had Parkinson's Disease for several years before that, and we basically watched her fade away over the past couple of years. She was my only remaining living grandparent. She was 82 years old. She had three children, one of whom is my beloved Schmom B. She had three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. She was sweet and beautiful. Here she is. I called her Mema.
Isn't she pretty? This photo was taken while my family, friends and I stood outside Taylor Grocery in Taylor, Mississippi waiting for a table for my college graduation dinner in May 2008. At this point, she was shaking because of the Parkinson's, but she could still walk around and do stuff pretty much on her own. It's really my last significant memory of her being self-sufficient and out in the world. When she passed yesterday, she was confined to a wheelchair and not really able to eat or do anything for herself anymore. We begin life as babies, and if we are among the lucky ones, we end it as them as well.
The last time I saw her was on Christmas Day, just a few weeks ago. She said a couple things to me that were so poignant and painfully beautiful that I debated for a long time whether I wanted to write an essay based entirely on these few words. I still haven't decided, but I feel comfortable sharing them here now. I feel like I need to share them, because I feel like they represent the person she was.
When I walked into the house she and my Papa shared for at least the past 23 years - they were married for more than 50 before he passed away in 2003 - she was sitting in her wheelchair in the kitchen. She was shaking pretty badly but she still reached her hand to me as I went to hug her gently. As I hugged her, I said, "Hey Mema, how are you doin'? You look good. You feelin' OK?" I never really know how to talk to old or sick people, which is something I have always disliked about myself. My face hovered close to hers and she looked directly in my eyes and said, "This isn't contagious, you know." Then her voice tinkled with laughter, weak but real.
My heart broke a little bit. On the one hand, I admired her for still being able to tell a joke, despite her condition. On the other hand, I realized that she wasn't really joking at all. She was always more concerned about the comfort of everyone else than she ever was about herself. And I could hear the loneliness in her voice. It was that palpable loneliness that is not linguistically replicable, but beats under every vocal chord. I cannot tell you what it sounds like or feels like or looks like. Writing is failing me here.
After we ate our Christmas meal and opened our presents, my parents and I were getting ready to head back home. I reached down to hug her, this time more tightly, because I had a feeling I might not see her alive again. She grasped my hand in hers, and it stopped shaking. Just for a few moments, the shaking stopped. I told her I loved her very much. She looked at me and said, "I love you, too. Maybe next year we'll all be healthy."
My heart broke the rest of the way. Even after several years of illness, and being so aware of her sickness and how it affected everyone else around her, she still had this hope in her heart, this seemingly unwavering belief, that we would all be together again for Christmas the next year. After 83 years of life, she seemed to have no concept of giving up, or of not being around to enjoy Christmas dinner. I knew that what she said was very unlikely, if not nearly impossible, but at the same time I felt inspired by her resilience. If she could live so long and endure so much pain and still think that way, then I can certainly find my way through to the other side of my own problems and survive. More than that - I can live, and love others, and love myself, and breathe hope into my heart forever.
Lots of people might balk that I am writing about such personal moments in such a public sphere, but that's just what my life is. For whatever reason, I feel compelled to create work - essays, blog posts, plays, poems - out of my personal experiences, with the implicit hope that other people will read it. I want to connect with other people and effect them. I can't say how exactly, but I do. I just want to effect the world.
And I want other people to know what happy memories I have of Mema. I want people to know that I remember this one Christmas when I was real little, my mom packed pillows around my body and put me in a homemade Santa suit, and I was so fat that I couldn't walk and I just fell down on my face in my grandparents' house and everyone just laughed and laughed and laughed. This other time, when I was in high school, my mom, Mema and I were watching Elf one Christmas and whenever that scene happened when Will Farrell belches really loudly at the dinner table, Mema just laughed and laughed and laughed. And anyone who knows me understands now where I get my warped sense of humor, and my strong penchant slash skill for burping.
I remember playing Uno with her on the couch, and Sequence with her at the kitchen table. We like card and board games in my family. I remember her laugh and how she always used to call me "hun." I remember how she always used to greet me at Christmas by coming outside her house and standing in her driveway with her arms open, expecting a big hug. I remember how she smelled. I remember how she always used to say "shoot" through her smile after she had a laughing fit. She was very Southern.
I am going home today to be with my family and attend Mema's funeral. I really hate funerals. Like a lot of things about Western culture, I just don't get it. They seem to never have anything to do with the actual life of the person being mourned. It seems like every funeral I've ever been to has been basically the same experience, which is wrong, because no two people are alike. Perhaps that is why I write; I want to create something unique so that I can pass on memories and important experiences to other people. Isn't that what a funeral should really be like, in theory?
So here you go Mema. This is my funeral for you. I'll be there Sunday, crying and laughing with everyone else, but just know that I've already committed my heart to my own memorial for you. This is it. I hope you liked it. I love you.
In the deepest hour of the night, confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write.
And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself: must I write?