Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Construction and Reconstruction

This paper was originally written for my Spiritual Autobiography class. I got an A.

Construction and Reconstruction

The keys rattled rhythmically as we hit each bump on the highway. There always seems to be construction in Nashville. Getting caught in rush hour traffic only adds to the delay. The bumper-to-bumper traffic gives you time to contemplate, reflect. I got the news at 6:30 the morning before. My grandmother had finally lost her battle to Leukemia after nearly two years. It still hadn’t fully hit me yet. You don’t really realize someone is gone until you look at the empty bed they spent their dying days in. Driving ten hours gives you time to contemplate, reflect.

This wasn’t my first dealing with the death of a grandparent. It was, however, the first that I have been especially close to. She was a woman who always had the attention of the room. She talked, you listened. She had your ears, she had your heart. I used to listen to her tell stories for hours on end as a child. Stories about travel, stories about growing up. I ate them up, as I did her chocolate chip cookies. Driving back to Maysville, Kentucky stirred up many emotions for me. Loss was an unfamiliar one.

We stopped for dinner in Bowling Green. Little conversation occurred at the dinner table. Dad was still coming to terms with everything as well. He had just been there the entire previous week. Sitting, waiting, hoping. The inevitable was coming, and he had known that. But how should you feel when the inevitable finally hits? Of course sadness hits first, but that doesn’t fully sink in immediately. Shock hit me. I was sad, but I hadn’t cried. I hadn’t cried in years actually. That made me feel cold, calloused. I noticed dad hadn’t either, which is something I had never seen him do. We sat there eating, consoled only by the presence of our immediate family at the table. Family has a calming effect on a person. It’s amazing that someone can make such an impact without even saying a word. Family is a powerful medicine.

We finally arrived in Maysville well after 10:00 pm. My aunt and uncle had arrived at my grandfather’s house a few hours earlier. The large Victorian house stood tall in front of me. It would be on the market soon. That house is much too large for a single 85 year old man to maintain. He was very active, but age creeps up on you eventually. I was hesitant to walk in the house. The door stared me down, tempting me to make a detour through past memories. My uncle greeted us on the porch and helped us carry in our bags. I’m not particularly close to him, but I was genuinely happy to see him. Being around those who cared as much as you did about the people we have lost draws you closer. That is what families are for. Being so spread about the country, my family doesn’t always seem close, but I could tell this trip would be different.

I made my way upstairs. To my left was my grandmother’s room. The door was closed. I opened it, took a deep breath, and stepped through the doorway. I felt like I had been absorbed a blow to the stomach as the air flew from my lungs. I saw her bed. The bed she spent those remaining days in. Her chair, the chair she sat in for the majority of the last trip up there. She sat there as my father and I sat on the carpet, just listening to what she had to say. This was the first moment I truly realized she was gone. But I still didn’t cry. Was something wrong with me?

The visitation was the following night. We spent the whole day making arrangements and running errands for my grandpa. He’s a very stoic man. He has emotions, but he’s not going to show them. Not going to unveil them. People came to the house all day. They brought food for the family. We had quite the spread of deli meat and bread by the end of the day. I found it interesting to meet so many people who were close to my grandmother and went out of their way to personally stop by and bring food. Meeting these people helped to prepare me for the visitation. As the day dragged on, more and more family started to arrive as well. Her brothers and sisters arrived with their families. The sisters had obviously been hit hard by the news. The three of them were an incredibly tight-knit group. Their reunion stirred emotion in us all. I hadn’t seen either of them in a few years. Seeing family warmed me; made me feel secure.

I had known the visitation was going to be difficult for me. This was going to be the first time to actually see her body. Before the visitation, a ceremony was performed by her sorority sisters. They were a group who got together to volunteer at events and help the community. She had been the treasurer, and well respected by her peers. We got a chance to meet with them after the ceremony. I could see how sincerely they cared for her. To them, she was truly family. It was time for me to walk into the room with the casket. I was nervous. How would I react? Would this be the time that I finally cried? I held my mother’s hand and walked in. She really did look good. Peaceful. We stood there, the entire family, looking at one of the pillars of our family. She was an anchor. I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was my aunt from Cincinnati. Tears were gathering in her eyes. I knew she was here for me as I held mine back.

Guests started to pour in to the funeral parlor, as we took our places in line. I was fourth; behind my grandfather and his two sons. I stood there next to my parents as the guests flowed through. Some had never met me, and yet some had memories of me as an infant. I couldn’t believe how many people came through the room, each sharing their sympathy and memories with me. I had no idea how many lives she touched in Maysville. Her service to the community affected the lives of several people, and they all showed up that night to show their gratitude and pay their respect.

As the number of guests dwindled, they cleared the room for our family to spend our last moments with her before the casket was shut. My two aunts started to tear up. I looked to my grandfather as he took his last glances at his wife of fifty years. I wondered what must be going through his mind. His face gave no hint of it. Classic Joe—his face as fixed as stone. I watched as my father said his goodbyes to his mother. He gave his father a hug and they walked away. The family assembled and headed for my grandfather’s house. The night was a somber event. A few of our family members were crying, others focusing more on the happy memories. We all went to bed on the early side to prepare for the funeral in the morning. I laid in bed for several hours. My mind raced; I couldn’t fall asleep. I thought of my childhood memories with her. I thought of my recent memories. In her later years, she had become less and less mobile and active. My final visit, as the Leukemia had entered the final stage, is what stuck in my mind most. For that trip, you could tell she was struggling. She faced several bouts of coughing attacks, but regardless of her health, she remained in very high spirits. Her mood was contagious. We had gone on that trip knowing it would be the last time we’d see her. I thought about her will power she displayed in those last months. It finally helped me to fall asleep.

I woke up the following morning for the funeral. I was still groggy due to my lack of sleep. The family gathered at the house and headed to the funeral home. Everyone was silent for the most part, leaving each to their thoughts. I looked at the faces of my family members. Knowing that they were going through the same thing I was brought us closer. They related to my woes. These were not family members I saw often, but that was not the feeling I had at this time. We piled in cars and headed to the church for the ceremonies. It was a weird feeling walking down the aisle to our seats in the front row. I could feel their stares. They pierced me. They could see my thoughts, my pains. I took my seat after being bumped into the second row. I wasn’t next to my parents like I had wanted to be. I needed them for this. I sat next to my aunt, one of my grandmother’s sisters. She was tearing up as we even sat down. I didn’t know how long I would be able to hold back. I stood and waited for the ceremony to begin. My mother kept looking back, longing to be next to her son at a time like this. Father Hinds began, his deep voice reverberating through the halls of St. Patrick’s Church. It was soon time for the Eulogy. Her brother, Joe, approached the altar. He said one sentence before choking up. It started to hit me. And hit me hard. I held back the tears with all my might. I looked at my parents, my dad even crying at this point. I felt an arm on my shoulder from my aunt, Karen. That hand sent off a trigger, and the floodgates broke; the tears cascaded. I let go, it was ok to cry; it was expected. I looked up at my grandfather in disbelief. His face still set in stone, unflinching. Unwavering. He’s a strong man; always has been.

We returned to the house, blood-shot eyes—pockets stuffed with used tissues. Grandpa was the only one still not showing any emotion. We all sat in the den, still battling the tears. Someone spoke up. It was her brother, Joe. He began telling a story about my grandma, recalling the joyous times of her life. Faces began to light up; this is what the family needed. Someone needed to step up and push aside the sorrow. This was a time for us to celebrate the life of Joyce Williams, and not the pangs of loss. The television clicked on. The University of Kentucky basketball game was on. Everyone in the room was originally from Kentucky, so they took their basketball seriously, just as Joyce did. The family, as one cohesive unit, turned the mood around. The sun was out, penetrating the blinds in the dimly-lit den. We began to go around the room, sharing stories of the life of Joyce Williams. The highs, the lows, what made her unique. I thought to myself, this is what family is for. Our family is spread out across the country, so most of us do not see each other very often. When we are together though, the connection we feel is strong and everlasting. Kentucky was pulling away in the game, and the Williams family was pulling it together. I had conversations with family I hadn’t seen in over a decade, and it felt as if we had grown up together. We were in this together, struggling together, overcoming together. This is what family is for.

This day made me wish dearly that our family was more compact and set in a closer area. Most of my friends growing up would visit their grandparents occasionally on weekends. I only saw mine on holidays. I’m an only child, so I’ve been used to the small family for my entire life, but at that moment, I longed for something more.

We packed our bags at dawn the next morning to return to Memphis. When I woke up, I felt like a different person—a stronger person. In times of adversity, the only ones you can turn to are family. Family you may not know as well as you’d like. Our bonds are strong though. We said our goodbyes, my grandfather looking as strong and proud as ever. We pulled out of the driveway on to East Grove Street, and honked the horn twice—“That’s what we do when we leave here,” Grandpa always said. It is the small gestures like that which bring us together as family and help to form our identity. As the odometer rolled, so did the dials in my head. I remembered growing up with my grandmother, remembered her joyous mood in her dwindling conditions. I remembered her strength, how proud of me she was. I heard constantly up there about how much she talked about her grandchildren; how much she loved us. I was proud to make her proud. Her infectious mood and charisma will never be forgotten. She was the knot that tied this family together. With her passing, the knot has not come loose, but tightened. Our family is stronger than that. The car ride back was much more talkative than the ride there. We were content. Content in knowing that Joyce lived an exceptional life in which she touched the lives of everyone around her. We were proud to be the Williams family. And here we ended up, stuck in that Nashville construction work again. The delay gives us more time together as a family, more time to grow. My grandmother had finally lost her battle to Leukemia. It had hit me now, but it didn’t knock me down. With the help of family, it built me up. You don’t really realize someone is gone until you see the pains and joys of his or her loved ones. This is what family is for. The thought stuck with me on this trip home. Through the construction, through the rebuilding. Driving ten hours gives you time to contemplate, reflect.

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