6/23/17

Gone

When I opened my eyes, Alex was asleep with his arm thrown over his face shielding his eyes from the light that was starting to come in the window. Behind me, on the nightstand, one of our phones was buzzing, probably getting ready to fall off the edge onto the floor.

For what felt like an eternity, I laid there staring at Alex. I already knew it was my phone. I already knew who was calling. And I already knew I had to answer.

So, quickly before it went to voicemail, I rolled over and hit the green phone button.

"Hey dad," I laid back on the pillow.

Alex started stirring.

"Hey," My dad paused just a millisecond and then, "He's gone."

Nodding at the ceiling, I forgot for a moment that dad couldn't see me. "Okay," Was all I said.

Dad was silent for a moment. "Me, Dwight, and Momma were all with him when he went."

"Okay."

"I need you to wake your sister and tell her," I might've been 20-years-old but I was suppose to be at my mom's house, not at Alex's. "And I need you to go to McDonald's and get about 10 breakfast biscuits. Nobody here has eaten."

"Okay."

As I let my phone fall to the bed, I was still staring at the ceiling but I could see Alex looking at me from the corner of my eye.

"Want me to call out of work today?"

I shook my head.

He pulled me into his arms, "You sure?"

I nodded.

There were no tears, but I was wondering how people do this. How do we lose people without losing part of ourselves? Or is it just par for the course?

We'd known this was coming for the past few weeks. He'd gotten progressively weaker and couldn't eat anymore. And then about a week ago, he'd lost consciousness. But it wasn't like a coma, because he'd come back but he wasn't really there but in some other world, or in the past, and he continued to call out for dad to help him. My dad. Not his dad. And there was nothing dad could do but be there and say, "I'm here, daddy."

Hospice was taking care of him, so he was at home instead of a hospital.

And so, I'd been prepared for this, but at the same time not. The day before had been Father's Day. And it was a bitter sweet day of gratitude for my own dad, all the while he was losing his.

When the men from the funeral home came to take my grandfather's body away, it felt cold and sterile. Professional and all about business. As they loaded him up and took him away, Nannie tried to keep a strong face but it was hard on her.

I'd tried to swallow a biscuit but it ended up being more trouble than it was worth.

When dad pulled me aside later that day, he seemed to be doing okay, but I knew that it was just a facade. "I need you to stay with your Nannie tonight. She says she's doing fine, but I need someone with her just in case."

I nodded my head.

And that night, with tears in her eyes, Nannie asked if I'd be okay sleeping in her and my grandfather's bed while she slept in the guest room.

"Sure, Nannie."

"Okay good," She half smiled at me. "I'm just not ready to sleep in there again just yet. PawPaw hasn't slept in our bed in months, you know he's been in that chair or the hospice bed, he just couldn't get comfortable. But it's still not the same without him, ya know?"

I nodded and tried not to cry.

When Kim and I had been little and had spent the night with our grandparents, if we ever got scared and wanted to get in bed with them, we could never sleep in the middle, between them, because they held hands while they slept.

And that night, I broke two molars in my sleep.

6/9/17

We Shall Never Surrender

My grandfather didn't die that day. After many blood transfusions, he made a miraculous recovery. I'm not sure if it wasn't his time, or if Howell Jones West had just made up his mind that he wasn't ready to go quite yet.

There was someone who hadn't had the chance to say goodbye yet, and I wonder now looking back if he was waiting on him.

Whatever it was, I was so thankful to have more time with him, no matter how limited that time. Even though he was suffering and in a great deal of pain, I wasn't ready to let him go.

And so after him nearly bleeding to death, I didn't miss a day seeing my grandfather. After leaving school everyday, it was the first place I went. Not knowing when it would be the last day, I never skipped a day again.

He was a little weaker than before this last hemorrhage.

Today, like everyday, he was sitting in the livingroom with the shades pulled up so he could see the pastures outside. Trapping a lifelong farmer indoors will kill him faster than any disease in existence. The news was on the TV but it was far too low for him to hear, but the subtitles were on.

He was always cocking his head to the left like it hurt him to move. He smiled when he saw me, raising his hand in a weak wave. I sat down in the chair that was always sitting on his right, his good side with the ear he could still partially hear out of.

"Hey PawPaw. How're you?" I spoke very loud. And he always turned his ear towards you when you were speaking.

"Ah... I'm a'right. I'm worried bout my cows though." He pointed out the window towards the pasture where the cows were grazing.

"They look alright to me, PawPaw."

"Your daddy been feedin em?" He cocked his head to look at me.

I laughed at him. "Yes, PawPaw."

He squinted his eyes a little at me, "Ah... I don't believe ya. They're lookin skinny."

I laughed again.

"You tell your daddy I said to feed em cows."

"Alright I will, PawPaw." I shook my head with a smile.

Temporarily appeased, he stared off at the TV. The news was covering the story of the hijacking of the cargo ship, Maerska Alabama, by Somalian pirates. It had been all over the news in the past week.

After a minute PawPaw pointed towards the TV. "Did ya hear what happened to the pirates?"

I hadn't, "No."

"The Navy pulled up on the pirates and the sailors all had their rifles aimed at the boat," PawPaw closed his good eye, like he was looking thru the lens of a rifle and looked at me with both hands up like he was aiming a gun. And then he jerked his arms a couple times like he was firing bullets. "They got em."

I laughed and raised my eyebrows. "Is that how it went?"

Pawpaw just smiled and went back to watching the TV.

We were silent for a few minutes, just watching the news on subtitles. And I remembered something I hadn't thought about in years. When Kim and I were kids PawPaw used to ask us, "Girls, ya know what Winston Churchill used to say?"

As young as four and two, I remember us rolling our eyes and saying "Yes, PawPaw!" All exasperated like because he asked us at least once every time we saw him.

He'd demand, "Well what'd he say?"

In unison we'd answer, "We shall never surrender," Rolling our eyes.

PawPaw would exaggerate his frown so that his eyebrows were touching. "Ah nah!" He'd say disgusted, "That's not what he said!" Shaking his head from side to side, he'd say, "He said, 'We shall nev'a... Surrend'a!'" With a fake British accent and with such conviction.

Because 'We shall never surrender' wasn't worth the breath if you weren't going to say it with a British accent and with some conviction.

We'd just laugh and appease him by saying, "We shall nev'a... Surrend'a!"

He'd smile and nod his head in approval.

And that's how it went, for so many years, Kim and I would always say it wrong just to see him get flustered and teach us just one more time how to say it the way Churchill did.

And so, I asked him loudly, breaking the silence, "PawPaw, what'd Winston Churchill used to say?"

He was silent and still for so long, I was sure he didn't hear me. But then he cocked his head to look at me with a faint smile, "We shall nev'a... Surrend'a!" He'd said it with that damn British accent and conviction that he always used to.

Like it was me who'd been administering the test this time, I just smiled and nodded.

"I'm gonna go find Nannie." I said and quickly headed for the kitchen.

It wasn't that I suddenly needed to find my grandmother, I just didn't want him to see me cry.

6/2/17

Not Ready Yet

There was blood everywhere.

We'd passed the ambulance, going the opposite way down the road as we neared my grandparents driveway. The gust of wind it blew at us as it passed, going three times the limit just like us, rocked our car and I gripped the door handle.

As the ambulance disappeared, I was afraid that that might be it. That I might never see my PawPaw alive again.

Now, standing in a puddle of his blood in the living room with towels laying discarded in a random piles soaked through with the vital fluid, I was sure this was the end.

No one could lose this much blood and still be breathing.

The shaking turned into full body tremors as I walked down the hall, stepping through more blood. I couldn't pull my eyes away from the crimson pools.

Dad called me out of my trance as he ran into the house, hollering, "Get out here." He jerked his thumb over his shoulder and was running back through the house to the door. Weaving through the house full of neighbors already starting to clean up the mess, I followed him out the door.

As I stepped into the garage, dad tossed a set of keys into my hands, "You're driving your Nannie's van to the hospital." And he turned to open the passenger door of his car.

Shaking so bad and hardly breathing enough to operate a vehicle, I said, "Dad, I can't."

As if he were trying to infuse me with the mental toughness I'd never had, he turned and pinned me with the kind of look he'd never given me before, "You can. And you will." And with that he and my step-mom peeled out of the driveway.

Looking down at the keys in my hand and back up at my grandmother's cousin standing there looking at me, with tears in her eyes and blood on her hands, I knew I couldn't just stand here all day just because I was afraid to drive.

So, I got in the van and am still not sure to the this day how I made that 30 minute drive, hyperventilating.

When I got to the hospital, my grandfather was alive. My dad rushed me and my little sister Kim, who'd come running from the other side of the parking lot, through the ER and into a private room. There were nurses everywhere. And tubes everywhere else. My grandfather's vitals were beeping on a monitor, and I didn't need someone with a medical degree to translate them for me.

It was bad.

My grandfather was on the flat stretcher, completely colorless and still.

My sister and I stood there in the doorway staring, neither one of us moving. My dad gave us a push into the room, "If you want to talk to him, you have to do it now."

I swallowed back my fear and my tears and walked holding my sister's hand, to stand at the head of his bed, doing our best to stay out of the nurses and doctor's way.

Our grandmother was holding his hand and crying.

"He can hear you." Dad said from behind us.

"PawPaw?" I was tentative, unsure of how he could be conscious.

His green eyes opened and and he looked me right in the eye.

In moments like this, there's so much you want to say. Like thanks for pulling me out of that fire ant bed when I was five and too scared to move. Thanks for all those tractor rides. Thanks for all the peppermints during Sunday morning sermons. Thanks for all the laughs that got you smacked by Nannie. Thanks for being that annoying grandparent who made me act right, and bow my head. Thanks for teaching me the importance of doing things slow and with some intention. Thanks for raising my dad. Thanks for giving me a solid foundation to hang onto. Thanks for the 20 years of your life that you shared with me.

But that's not what came out of my mouth. All I could say was, "I love you."

And his nod was barely perceivable before he closed his eyes again.

As we were hurried from the room, the floor was a kaleidoscope through my tears.

5/25/17

Going Under

Watching it spin above my head, the massive woven fan filled the entire ceiling and was spinning my worry-ridden mind into a trance. My panic attacks had increased in frequency and I was beginning to avoid life again.

Except being around my dad was a sort of buffer, being the only one I knew who knew what it was like to feel paralyzing terror all of the sudden for no apparent reason. Instead of reacting to my panic, he had a way of calming my inconsolable mind.

So it was here sitting in this booth seat, in a steakhouse the next town over from my hometown, that the end of March in 2009 found me. It was my dad and step-mom's anniversary and since I was the only kid at home they'd asked if I wanted to crash their anniversary dinner, which I'd gladly agreed to.

They were laughing, dad was telling a joke. Having ordered a beer with his steak, it was the first time I'd seen him smile, a real smile, in a long while. His forehead had remained, in recent days, in a constant state of tensed. He was worried about his dad. But right then, in that moment, he was letting go for just a bit.

I smiled. Dad's a lighthearted person by nature, and it'd been too long since I'd heard him telling a joke.

I was still staring up at the fan and smiling when I heard my dad's cell phone ring.

"It's Momma," He said as he flipped it open.

I snapped my head back down to look at him so fast, it hurt. There was a long moment of silence, and my dad's face took on the same look he'd been wearing for so many months now. And it slowly morphed into what looked like anger.

"Momma, is someone holding pressure?"

My heart sank to my knees. I hadn't stopped by my grandparents house today, like I'd been doing everyday, because I'd come to dinner with my parents after school instead.

Silence. I looked at Marcia. She looked like she was in pain.

"Okay, the ambulance is on the way from Redmond?"

The waitress stopped by the table to check on us. Marcia asked for the check and asked her to hurry very fast, please. And quickly dug a credit card out of her purse.

"We're on our way, Momma. Keep holding constant pressure, don't let up, not even for a second," and with that dad snapped his phone shut.

Marcia looked at my dad waiting for him to say something. He took a long gulp of water and after he swallowed said, "He's hemorrhaging again. Can't get it to stop. Marcia, you're gonna have to drive. You drive as fast as you can. I don't care about the speed limit." The way he said it would have had someone from the outside looking in thinking he was calm.

But it sounded like he was going to break some teeth on the ice he was chewing and his leg was jumping up and down, shaking the entire table as we waited what felt like forever for the waitress to come back with the check. In all reality, it was probably two minutes. Still the longest two minutes of my life.

My heart was pounding hard and my chest was constricting, the beginning of a panic attack. As dad signed the check without ever looking at it, I started shaking. Then, he was out his seat and hauling ass for the door. To catch up to him, Marcia and I nearly had to run.

Marcia is a pedal-to-the-metal kind of driver on any regular day, so she was driving way over the speed limit by the time we hit the highway.

Gripping the door handle like it was a lifeline, Dad wasn't satisfied, "Go faster, Marcia."

"Dave, I'm already doing 20 over the limit!"

"Speed up." He wasn't asking.

Had my dad not had any beer in his system, I wondered just how fast this car would be going. But he didn't look like a man fit to drive, and the beer had nothing to do with it. Here I was in the back seat trying my hardest not to lose the very delicate hold I had on my panic attack and my barely contained hyperventilation, while my dad was in the front seat struggling with his own.

Few moments in my life have etched a permanent spot in my memory like watching my parents lose their parents; wondering all the while, when the time came, could I survive the same? But my dad was the only thing helping me hold it together these days, and the thought terrified me.

Eying the speedometer, my dad was directing Marcia to pass cars and run red lights.

He was scared, but it was more than that. He looked like a man about to drown. But he wasn't flailing his arms and screaming for help. He knew he couldn't be saved. He was just gulping down a few last breaths before that inevitable tide sucked him under.

5/18/17

Crumbling

The lettuce I was pushing around my bowl on lunch break was becoming less and less appealing. Breathing became a task as the familiar feeling of a vise grip around my chest hit me. As I jumped out of my seat, I was suddenly thankful to be the only one who had brought their lunch and stayed in class to eat. With no idea where I was going, I flung open the door and ran down the empty hall. The walls were closing in and I just needed some open space, because I was suffocating in a room full of oxygen.

I knew it was a panic attack, having had enough of them in my life to recognize them by now. But that doesn't make it any less terrifying, nor does it do anything to calm me down. And this was my first attack in years.

My thoughts had been all over the place during my solitary lunch. Here I was sitting in school for cosmetology while my grandfather was wasting away, the hole in the side of head growing bigger and deeper, the smell of death ever-present.

And he'd started hemorrhaging. Blood would just start pouring from his head, with no warning, and there was no way to stop it. The doctor had already told my grandmother that that might be the way he goes.

How could I be sitting here studying the science and structure of hair, waiting for that phone call that he'd bled to death? I couldn't handle it. It was eating me alive. This anxiety. I'd started questioning my desire to do something so frivolous as cosmetology. My thoughts had become hell. And I'd never learned the art of reeling them back in.

As I stepped through the exit door into the cool Georgia air, I pulled my cell phone from my scrub pocket. With stars in my peripheral, struggling to breathe, I dialed dad's number. Maybe he could calm me down. Having suffered from them severely in his twenties and off and on all his life, he knew what it was like to have a panic attack.

I winced when it went straight to voice-mail, which meant he was somewhere on the farm that didn't have cell reception.

At a new wave of panic over not being able to get a hold of my dad, I reminded myself that Alex was just on the other side of campus and if I really needed him, he'd come.

But I didn't call him. I had to get this under control myself.

So I told myself I was okay, in this moment right here.

Even if the near future was already crumbling. I was okay.

For now.

Clinging to that thought, I walked back to class and tossed the rest of my lunch in the trash.

5/5/17

The Fifth

The wooden steps bowed and creaked as I ran up them and across the front porch, looking like a gothic nurse in all black scrubs.

Alex was following me, covered in petroleum. We were on a mission to get this Friday night started, but I needed to lose these clothes and he was in need of a shower.

It was February of 2009 and Alex and I had just gotten out of school, where we were both enrolled in technical college. Alex for diesel mechanics and me for Cosmetology. Since that past summer I'd been working in a hair salon, shampooing and bookkeeping, and I loved it.

So, we had stopped by my dad's house first for me to grab clothes. After running up to the front door, I swung it open and left it that way for Alex.

About to sprint down the small hallway to my bedroom, I was stopped by my dad, who turned around in his chair at the kitchen table to give me the kind of look you never want to get from your dad. "Hey, come in here. We need to talk."

As he walked through the door, Alex's eyebrows shot up as he heard my dad's choice of words.

I was mentally going through every possible thing I could've done in my entire 19 years that my dad didn't already somehow know about. I'd obviously done something.

My dad turned back around as he heard Alex come in. "You too, Alex."

Scratch that. We'd obviously done something.

Alex looked like a deer in headlights.

My step-mom Marcia, brother Marvin, and sister-in-law Shayna were all sitting at the kitchen table with my dad. What looked at first like a family meeting, turned out to be a game of Rook, as I got closer and saw my dad dealing out cards for a new hand.

As Alex and I came to stand beside my dad, Marcia eyeballed me closely with a hint of a smirk on her face, eyebrows slightly cocked.

Oh, boy.

Continuing to deal out cards without looking at us, my dad asks, "You got anythin you wanna tell me?"

When I looked at Alex for help, he was mirroring my panic. Next, I tried my brother who was giving me the you're-about-to-step-in-shit look.

"Uh, no... I don't think so?" Brilliant.

Dad looked at me from the corner of his eye without turning his head, eyebrow raised. "You don't think so?" Heavy emphasis on the think.

Shayna was covering her face trying to stifle a giggle. Glancing at Alex, I saw he was just as confused as I was.

Stone-faced, my dad shook his head at her and her laughter dried up, "Nothin new with your sister?" He asked me.

One sister in particular, the one who barely measures five feet tall and in her senior year of high school, was the topic of which I was trying to avoid because I'd been sworn to secrecy or eternal damnation. So, I played dumb. "Which one?"

"Which one?" Both of my dad's eyebrows were now up high. "Which one, she asks?" He was talking to the audience at the table who hadn't even bothered to look at their hands now that dad was through dealing out the deck. The cards remained where they'd landed.

Marcia was trying not to giggle now, but my dad's death stare doesn't work on her and she can't stop.

I'm so confused. And so is Alex who is half-smiling, half-grimacing, unsure of what kind of situation he willingly walked into.

"The pregnant one." My dad turns and looks at me now.

"Oooohhh." Alex slips.

Laughing in mock disbelief, my dad looks at Alex. "Oooohhh?"

Desperate, I chance another look at my brother who just shrugs his shoulders and laughs.

Finally feeling some pity for Alex and me, my dad lets up. "Your sister came by a little earlier to spill the beans."

Well, that explains it. I let out a sigh of relief. "Oh."

My dad eyeballs me. "Said you and Alex knew long before anyone else."

"We were sworn to secrecy." I look at Alex who backs me up with a nod.

"Sworn to secrecy..." With a laugh my dad shakes his head.

After everyone had a nice laugh over Alex and me sweating bullets, I changed clothes and hightailed it back out the door to Alex's car.

"God, that was awful. She could've at least warned me!" I muttered as Alex slid into the driver seat, me into the passenger.

He was shaking his head as he jammed the key in the ignition, "I'm gonna kill Kim."

4/20/17

Strange Creatures

My PawPaw is the white haired boy on the far right, sitting on the railing next to the post.

Stumbling a little, he was trying to walk to the house, my dad and uncle Dwight on either side ready to catch him if needed.

Kim's voice broke as she put her arm around my waist, "We're really gonna lose him aren't we?" And she began to cry. Putting my arm around her shoulder, I led us off from the crowd.

My dad's brother, his only sibling, my cousins, my siblings, parents, and grandparents were all gathered at an old country home that had been owned at one time by my grandfather's family. Because it was on land originally belonging to the Cherokee before they were forced out during the Trail of Tears in 1838 and 1839, the house had been restored in the 50's and made a part of a historical site, called New Echota, for the Cherokee. There's a picture from 1928 with my grandfather's family all gathered around the front porch of that house.

And the reason we were back now, in the fall of 2008, was because my grandfather was going to die. Recreating that picture from 1928 with all of us before my grandfather was gone was important to my grandmother.

His lifetime was spent in the sun, breaking his back as a poor southern boy, a young WWII infantryman, and a farmer until the day he could no longer climb into a tractor. Though an intelligent man, he lacked the desire to wear the chains of a 9-5. And so, built a life with his blood, sweat, and tears.

Dad had barely been able to get the words out of his mouth, "Your PawPaw's got skin cancer. Its gone too deep this time to do anything about. Doctor said he's got six months to a year left," before I was attacking him.

"How could you not make him go to the doctor?" I cried.

My grandmother tried interjecting, "Baby, we tried."

With his face red and his nose flared my dad fired back, "You try makin your PawPaw do somethin he doesn't want to!"

"He was tired of being cut on." My grandmother said, as if that should explain why the man outside feeding the cows was going to die.

I'd been so angry. So angry that no one had dragged that stubborn man to the doctor, kicking and screaming. I didn't care what he'd wanted.

But my grandmother didn't want to lose her husband of 62 years. Neither did my dad want to lose the man that'd raised him. They'd done all that they could.

Strange creatures, us humans. Lashing out in pain and inflicting pain, like it solves anything.

My grandfather was already struggling, a slacked face on one side, a hole forming in front of his left ear where they'd done radiation. It had taken away his ability to taste and he'd cursed the whole damned process, and was growing weaker everyday.

And as I watched him being helped by my dad and uncle, stumbling from the golf cart that had driven him out here to the house; that's when I realized it was over. The stable, unchanging foundation I'd found in my grandparents was crumbling. Because people die. Even when we don't want them to. And no matter how hard we fight it, we can't avoid change forever. This is life, not some storybook where everything turns out okay by the last chapter. Sometimes in life, the ending sucks.

My family posed for that picture. And it and the original picture from 1928 were framed in huge frames and gifted to my grandfather, his last Christmas present.

You should've seen his lopsided smile.