I was 17 when my grandfather died. He was my best friend. My greatest champion. The most imperfect person I have ever met - though, he was perfect in my eyes because his love for me was completely unconditional and though he never said it, I knew it beyond a shadow of a doubt.
He knew is imperfections. He experienced them every day of his life - every time he looked into the mirror. I saw the sorrow in his eyes and wondered from where and what did it come. I saw his brokenness in those beautiful, piercing blue eyes that cut right to the core of who I was. He would grab me and say, 'The best things come in small packages.' I believed him. He always smelled like grease and oil - and for most of my young life alcohol - though I could not tell you what his whiskey of choice was because we never talked about it. I remember vividly one time he passed out in their very small kitchen - he could not stand or talk and right before my eyes he dropped to the floor. At the time, I had no idea he was drunk, such was my sheltered life. My grandmother was livid, and fussing at me - though she seemed to be quite worried about him.. Many years later I discovered he had been drinking. I was so disappointed in him. Oh, how that hurt my heart. I am not sure if the disappointment was the realization of his imperfections or that he was a drunk and I didn't know why. Ultimately, it never mattered because he taught me so much about unconditional love. After the night he passed out in the kitchen, I don't have any other memories of him drinking, but I know he did for a little while longer because I remember the hush hush conversations when everyone thought I wasn't listening or paying attention..
My grandfathers smile painted the world for me. He loved through his smile because he did it so seldom. When he gave that great big smile his eyes would shine. In the summers after he retired he continued to work on cars and grow food. I remember the way the corn smelled on a bright sunny day and his dirty fingers pulling the corn from the stalks while he talked to me of sunshine and worms. He was like a God to me. So imperfect and yet his love ran so deep.. He never took a tool out of my hand. He showed me how to use them. He let me build and drive his giant tractor over the grassy field. We drank sweet tea and watched the clouds in the summer under the great pecan tree. And in the winter, we stood just outside of them to gaze the sparkling stars. I can still smell him when I sit in his chair and read..
Watching him decline was the hardest thing I have ever done - next to watching my grandmother declinee. I remember when he had his first heart attack. The fear that if he didn't give up smoking he was going to die. I knew he was going to die either way. I hated the smell of his cigarettes so I was happy when he had to give them up. That's when he became old.
I moved into high school and everything changed - not with him - his love never wavered. Sundays were always the same. I walked in to their house in my Sunday finest with my bad attitude. His smiling eyes welcomed me reminding me so eloquently that imperfection was okay and that it was love that mattered. I cannot tell you how he told me this but I knew. The simple joy of his love for my grandmother as she flitted around on Sundays cooking a grand dinner with biscuits made of lard and white lily flour. I can remember him looking her over, loving her, and her loving him though they never ever expressed it in anything other than a glance that I can remember.. He loved me like that - through his eyes - not the same way, but I knew why she loved him - why she tolerated his ways. He and my dad would talk about fishing and watch the race. In his wholeness he loved.. and he taught us to all love.
As high school drove on as it does I began the journey of the growing up and breaking away. I found reasons to be mad at how imperfect my life was and I did what we all have to do: I began finding my own way..
He picked me up from school often in my high school years because I didn't want to ride the bus. Even in my anger when I had to push his dog over to get in the car his smile pierced my soul and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't be mad any anymore. And. we would talk the whole the way home about who knows what.. Honestly, it didn't even matter. Blackie would breathe heavily on me often slobbering on me. I never cared. I knew where we heading - the pecan tree with frisbee in hand. The rest of the day in the sunshine where the world made sense. I felt complete. Life was perfect..
And then, he died.
His eyes weren't there.
His unending love..
And all of his imperfections.
How would I survive?
How would she survive, my grandmother?
How would either of us ever be strong enough to get through the rest of our lives?
I could not even image.
She was one of the strongest women I have ever known.
She was unyeildingly pious.. And, Prissy.. As fiesty as there ever was.. And, she was the sweetest most caring person you could ever meet. Ask anyone who knew her.
Now, she was alone. We were both alone. Our worlds rocked.
She kept all the pieces together. She was such a bad ass. She was prepared because holding it together and being strong was what she did.
She wore magnificent furs, but not very often. They were saved for special occasions.. I remember the Christmas Grandpa got her the fur coat. I thought it was so tacky and weird to want to wear a fur. She felt like she was the queen of the world when she put it on.. The way she turned her shoulders. She knew she was beautiful in that coat. He watched her and loved her in his less than whole way and she was content. And, the Christmas he got her the vacuum that looked like an alien, and the Christmas she got a microwave - the very first one she ever owned.. He even thought to get her shelf for it. I remember like it was yesterday helping to put it together and the way my dad and my grandfather smelled while my mother and my grandmother oversaw it all in excitement. We made scrambled eggs in it first. He was a good gift giver.
When I was young she had a dog named Honey Bear. She was a Shepard mix with a caramel coat. She was a great dog. We laid in the floor and picked the fleas off her while she told me stories of her youth or she listened to the exciting tales of my days out in the big world of school. We would go shopping at Belk's on Saturday morning where she would try to get me to buy dressy dresses and beautiful shoes. She wanted me to be the princess, but loved the dirty tom boy just as much..
I stayed with my grandmother for days at a time after he left us. She seemed happy to have me there. Honestly, I'm not sure who was saving who. We never really talked about it.
As time wore on, as it does, life began to return to a new normal and we both knew we would move on. The loss would get easier. What else do strong women do?
She learned independence again. She kept herself busy. We would joke about her staying in the road, but she was happy and alive. A strong widow with beautiful skin and a giant heart.
I learned independence and went to college, married my high school sweet heart and began my life.
She gave us land to live on keeping me close. I was happy to oblige. She would be able to stay independent for a very long time with us so close. So, we moved onto the family land and made this piece of earth our home.
As the years rolled on our children came into this world. She welcomed them the same way she welcomed me. Always happy to have them there. Eager to hear all about their adventures or to hold them in a hug. Whenever we wanted a soda we knew where to go. Her door was forever open to us and to everyone she loved. I am so thankful my children knew her love.
As she grew older I did too. She was hard on me. A lot. Often hurting my feelings creating some distance between us. I know it is because I am strong like her. She saw a lot of herself in me - she told me so. She wanted me to do things differently. And, because I was raised to be strong willed I knew I had to carve my own way.
Years wore on and she began to become old. I knew we better grab it up while we could. I threw her (with the help of my folks) an 85th surprise birthday party! Our family came in from their places in the world and we celebrated her life. I know she felt loved that day.
When she and I would talk we would joke about her sassy ways and how she liked things the way she liked them. She would feel bad for being sassy. I would tell her she had earned it. At 89 no one can tell you what to or how to be. She would tell me, 'You learn to enjoy the good days and prepare for the not so good days'.
There were many times in the last few years she has needed help. I've been glad to be close to be able to help her. She would apologize for inconveniencing me, but I never minded. She would ring Kalib - she called him 'the gopher' - and he'd go do whatever she needed. He almost always came home with a few dollars and a soda. I really did love her ways.
The last few months have been difficult for her. Day by day losing more and more control of her bodily functions and because she never lost her mind (except a few times) she was aware of what was happening to her. The final straw was that she fell and broke her pelvis and had to move to a rehab center. It was then I knew we were coming to the end.
In rehab her sassyness showed its colors day in and day out. She wanted to be home more than anything and having to keep her there and imagining moving her into a nursing home was awful. I just wanted to keep her comfortable. That was what I promised her late one night when we snuggled on her couch after my grandpa died. I promised to fight to keep her home for as long as I could and I would always advocate for her comfort. What a promise to make at 17. I stood by my word.
On Wednesday she had a particularly hard day. She had contracted Shingles - I think it is likely she had them for a while before they became visible - it wasn't oversight on anyones part or a lack of care. At 92 it is hard to know what is age and what is sickness. She was shivering and so uncomfortable. The pain she was experiencing was all over her whole body. It was heart breaking to watch. My grandmother was strong. I knew when she decided she couldn't do it anymore she wouldn't. When I covered her for the night I knew I was saying goodbye for good.
And, I was right.
I imagine her wresting with it all night long and finally just letting go. She died peacefully early Thursday morning, January 5, 2017. She just stopped breathing. A perfect ending to her life. She died on my grandfathers birthday. I imagine them together again.
For all of my imperfections that woman loved me. For all of her imperfections I loved her. She made an impression on everyone's life into which she came. She wore bold colors, spoke her opinion, and lived her life her way. She was particular, enjoyed the quiet, and loved when the Christmas Cactus would bloom. As much as he was my friend, she was everything a grandmother is supposed to be. Everything has suddenly changed and so I will take the strength both she and my grandmother Rabun gave me and I will be the woman I am. I will let her life and her love continue to inspire mine.
Today, January 8, 2017, on her 93rd birthday we release her. We are celebrating her birthday and her life. It is a difficult and yet beautiful goodbye to a very full life. I am sad for my loss, but I am relieved that she no longer has to fight with her body. She is a rock star.
Thank you to everyone who helped our family take care of her. Thank you to all of you who knew her and loved her. She lived a good life because she received back what she gave. We are all lucky to have had her in our life.