Three years ago today, I woke up to a phone call. One that I had been halfway expecting for some time. When someone you know is very sick, or in declining health, it is normal to go through some preemptive grief before they actually pass away. I found this to be true in the case of my grandfather, Gerald.
Papaw had been in a rough place, emotionally and physically, during the last couple of years of his life. He was a very big man – 6’3″ and he seemed to fill up the space around him with a larger than life presence that wasn’t only attributed to his physical stature.
He was loud at times, opinionated as hell. His temper was legendary in the oil field where he spent most of his career. But so was his humor, and he loved a good joke as much as anybody I know. As someone who also has strong opinions and loves to laugh, I enjoyed a special bond with the man.
Though his mental and physical decline were just about all that was visible as they were happening, what I remember most vividly now are his better days. His best days. His tight hugs and his mischievous, boyish smile. His beautiful brown eyes. His teasing. His humble prayers. The way he looked in a suit and tie, sitting behind the wheel of his Cadillac – all legs and shoulders and accelerating and slowing down until I understood how my mother developed a propensity for car sickness as a child.
The morning I received the phone call about his passing, my immediate thoughts were of my grandmother, and my mom, and how they were dealing with the loss.
Pawpaw had come home from the hospital just the afternoon before, and died during the early morning hours of the next day.
17 months prior, I lost my cousin. 8 months after Pawpaw, we lost my uncle. 9 months after my uncle, we lost my other grandfather. And in between all of the loss was a lot of sickness, and physical care for these men who had been such vibrant colors in the fabric of the lives they touched.
Both of my grandfather’s were highly respected men in their fields, and in their communities and churches. They were products of that “greatest generation” and both served their families and their country with pride and strength.
My Uncle was a bit of a black sheep. He was a just a little bit of a rebel rouser and I think he did most of it to provoke a reaction from Pawpaw. He seemed to enjoy nothing more than getting him all stirred up. Uncle Charles turned, early in his life, to a life of addiction. When I was still pretty young, he made a complete turnaround in his life and beat his addiction, and though he didn’t die wealthy in terms of physical comforts, he left this world a very rich man.
My cousin Eric’s death left most of us shell shocked, earth spinning out of control. When I got that phone call, I was on my way to school at Belhaven. I remember pulling off the side of the road and feeling the equivalent of repeated blows to my gut as I said “No, no, no, no, no.” I felt the traffic blow past me on the highway as I sat there, trying to process the information that my mind and heart couldn’t bear to accept. There’s still a part of me that doesn’t accept it.
Eric was a combination of the stories above in that he was respected and loved by many, fought his own inner demons, and left this world a rich man. He just left it much sooner than the others.
Death is the great equalizer in this journey we call “life”. We all must experience it, both in grieving those we lose, and in the acceptance of our own mortality.
All of us are human beings with the inner workings of a great Designer. But we are also stories. Narratives.
While I remember and miss the physical qualities of each of these men in my life, it is the Narratives that I remember. The stories are what make the memories. Those intangible inner qualities that cannot usually be captured with a photograph. Usually.
Here we have Charles and Pawpaw. Charles looks as though he has proudly made some type of inappropriate joke and Pawpaw looks as though he doesn’t know whether to laugh or slap the dog out of his son.
So SOMETIMES a photo can capture the narrative, but you still have to know the people to truly appreciate it.
I write every day. And so do you. We are all writing the stories of our lives with every choice we make, or don’t make. With every kind or harsh word. With every embrace or cold shoulder. The accumulation of those things is what people will remember about us when we’re gone.
I literally write, here and elsewhere, to leave a piece of myself behind. If life has taught me anything, it’s that we’re all terminal. If I leave this world before I finish this post, I will have left something here by which others can know me. The good and the bad is put on display, and people can take from it whatever they wish. The same is true of you whether you’re leaving an inked narrative or not. I’m just making mine easier to access.
Who I was when I started writing over 10 years ago is still the person writing this today – but oh what a journey I’ve taken. And hopefully, the narrative that people remember of my life will be honest, if nothing else.
This world feels as though it is in utter chaos most of the time these days. People have become so polarized against one another that they forget that THAT is part of their narrative, part of their story. Some are probably proud of it. But the key is to ensure that, while keeping their story honest, and true, it is equally, if not more important to keep it kind.
Maya Angelou said it best, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
How does your story, as it stands right now, make people feel? Inspired? Hopeful? Thoughtful and reflective? Angry or hurt? Joyful and thankful?
Inspiration comes from the strangest of places, and my opening quote is from Doctor Who, a nerdy sci-fi television series that my husband got me into several years ago. The Doctor travels time and space with different companions. They change the Narratives of other peoples’ lives just by showing up. When the Doctor has worn out one body, he regenerates into another human form. He often doesn’t want to go. The quote at the top of the page is from one of those regeneration episodes. I cried like a baby during his monologue because of the profoundness of his words. It’s just a TV show, but there was truth in the words of his character…..
“We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?”