For Douglas Williams, December 26, 1939 — March 14, 2011
Though this particular Monday was the end of a Spring Break done alright. The year 2011 was when I learned that Miami is absolutely overrated for an introvert of my ilk. I, like much of my family, can do without the hoopla that comes with large, booze-infused crowds. Earlier that morning, my line sisters and I returned from the fourteen-hour road trip from South Beach. I decided to take half the day to recoup, missing two morning classes. Through the first few hours of my self-prescribed slumber, I was completely comatose. It felt so good to be back in the XL-twin bed of my on-campus suite. I slept soundly through my Advanced Swimming elective and halfway through Women’s Studies before I woke up to the sound of my Blackberry incessantly buzzing on my night table. I managed to grunt out a couple of cuss words as I flipped over to silence my phone. But I saw it was my mother. I retracted those cusses out of respect.
“Hey, Ma. I should’ve texted you sooner, but we made it back safe.”
She sounded calm, but doleful. In a whisper to hide her worry, she said my name. She didn’t want to set off any alarms just yet.
Pop-Pop had a heart attack. Her father. My Pop-Pop. He collapsed right there in the short stairwell leading up into my uncle’s remodeled kitchen. My uncle, Pop-Pop’s junior, and his wife of more than fifty years witnessed his heart fail him. There was nothing either of them could do but call the paramedics.
I didn’t want to believe it. Mostly because Pop-Pop really did seem like the crème de la crème of old guys. Poppy was in exceptional shape for a man his age. I mean, seventy-two years, he was no spring chicken. But always going for walks, eats well, doesn’t smoke or drink (at least not for decades), the smartest person I’ve known. How naïve of me to think that death wouldn’t hit so close to home. That’s almost like eating three donuts and thinking the calories won’t stick. He’ll be okay, I thought to myself. That’s just how these things work out. Everything works out for us. Not Pop-Pop. Not today. He’s too strong for this. He’s good.
I stayed in bed but I couldn’t fall back asleep. I tried and tried. But thoughts of grief and guilt kept me from the rest I so desperately needed. I just stayed swaddled in my cold bed. My eyes were fixated on the corner of my bedroom, where birthday balloons from ten days before slowly fell from the ceiling to the cluttered carpet. I tossed and turned. Prayerful, even at a time when my faith was already under self-investigation. Please let him be alright. Who was praying to? I knew I should have gone up to see him. Why did I go to NC instead? I’ll go up right now if I know he’s okay. Please let him be alright. I’ll reach out to people more. Please. Who was I trying to bargain with? Some spiritual shyster, perhaps. I don’t think thirty minutes went by before my mom called me back. This time she sounded more solemn, and a bit shaken.
When someone dies, it’s really difficult to process, let alone respond. It knocks the wind out of us. You’re suddenly lightheaded and a wave of overwhelm hits you over the head and life looks like the Mr. Krabbs meme. I quietly recalled all the conditional memories. The haunting “what ifs” and last recollections of a loved one can break you into pieces. All the shoulda, coulda, woulda, all the retrospect. I should have went to Jersey for my birthday. I knew nothing would be down there for me but a future old fling. I could’ve spent that time watching Jeopardy reruns with him, eating a plain slice from the Trattoria. But no. I had to subject myself to awkwardness around drunk, white Duke students. I should have been in Jersey. That would have been it. I could have driven to Jersey instead of North Carolina to see some guy I’d stop talking to after three months. I should have…
I was shattered. For the first few days, the deepest and sincerest condolences came in sympathy cards, tweets, Facebook comments, texts, and even physical consolation from my friends, professors, and some sympathetic acquaintances. But I was completely disconnected. Void as fuck. My line sister planned a birthday kickback for one of her volleyball teammates. She begged me to come down, not only because a cameo from my basketball crush was likely, but she had never seen me in such a dark space, and I shouldn’t be alone. But that was all I wanted. She told me, in her strong Texan tone, just because he’s gone doesn’t mean he left me alone. Don’t mourn what could have been, “celebrate what you had with him.”
I drove up to NJ two days before the funeral. Six and a half hours with nothing but the songs on my iPod and raging sadness in the pit of my heart. Boyz II Men and Mariah Carey’s “One Sweet Day” came on shuffle and I straight-up broke down on the side of Highway 13. Something about Carey’s soprano crying out to heaven struck by grieving soul like a big rig’s grill to an unsuspecting woodland critter. To this day, I can’t listen to that song without having to cry at least once.
By the time I arrived in Maplewood, to Nana and Pop-Pop’s house, I felt empty. So did that house. The house that was my home for at least two years of my childhood. And I couldn’t bear to spend even one night.
I’ve always been quite laconic, but I really had nothing to say to anybody except the one who’s dead. I helped my mom and aunt edit the obituary. Silently editing with each Williams sister over my shoulder. My cousin wrote a poem in his memory. My mom wrote one too. On the spot in her childhood bedroom. She called him “king of the castle.” Brick by brick, from the basement to the sweltering attic, Pop-Pop’s energy reigned the household. But, for the life of me, I couldn’t capture the right words to explain my grief. I wouldn’t write or verbalize them. The castle was crumbling around me. I was ready to implode.
The funeral took place on a cloudless, frigid Saturday morning. It was a low key service — quiet and plain, just as he was. He had the next-level police escort in the processional, for his years of service as an identification officer. The first black one for the city of Newark. My aunt’s husband led the eulogy in his baritone voice. The rest of us were too broken to even try. With the exception of my cousin, who mustered the courage to recite her poem. My mom kept her verse to herself. She kept a lot to herself. I clutched my younger brother’s hand on and off throughout the service. It was hard to tell if he understood the impact of death. I worried about an autism outburst. But he was pretty aware for most of the service. A few fidgets. Occasional impatient humming. But he was my rock that morning.
After Pop-Pop’s body was moved to the crematorium, I just wanted to be alone. I left the repast to sit in my mother’s car. I didn’t want to eat. I didn’t want to hear anymore, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Trying to pleasantly smile in the faces of family and friends that I don’t ever recall meeting was exhausting. I don’t see how people can cope with it all. How can anything matter after this?
I have no idea what he left in his will. But more importantly, he passed on a rich impact on my life and the lives of those he loved. It’s because of Poppy that I’m so appreciative of “good” music. His generation’s and mine. Oh, what I’d give to hear his excitement if he’d overhear Grover Washington pouring from my earbuds. Or show him how marvelously jazz and rap came together over the years. He also instilled in me an appreciation for finishing crossword puzzles and mastering trivia games.
Pop-Pop was a renaissance man: an artist of many media — he played trombone, he dabbled in photography, painting, and sculpting. He painted a phenomenal portrait of my mother, his first born, which hangs on the wall beside the TV room. He carved and polished an entire wooden chess set, which I always loved looking at as a kid, even though I didn’t know how to play. I was almost afraid to touch the board, like it was a piece in a museum. A treasured and potentially magical set of art and game, that I thought would turn the house upside-down like Jumanji if played with improperly. It wasn’t until I got older that I learned the significance of the game and its goal of strategy. He was gone before I could really learn such lessons from him.
A while back in grad school, I had the most vivid dream: I drove to Maplewood to visit after a long stretch of classes (my campus was only about an hour from my the house) and there he was, waiting at the backdoor, clad in his khakis and a Hanes undershirt and Craig slippers, eyes and arms wide open. I heard his voice, clear as a bell. “He-heyyy, Amara!!” His hug warmed me in my sleep. The house smelled of Taylor Ham heating on a cast-iron skillet. The TV is off and jazz is on. I say how much I’ve missed him, that I think about him every day. He just smiled. I told him I want to someday go on Jeopardy, shout him out, and win enough money to pay off my student loans debt. His smile evolved into a chuckle. I smiled and glanced into the living room. My eyes fixated on the coffee table his hand carved chess set once sat, then on mantel where his urn rests. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. He was gone. And I woke up, shook, at five thirty on a Monday morning. Mondays suck.
One of my last memories with him had to be Thanksgiving 2010. Kanye’s MBDTF came out that month and my headphones and I were practically inseparable for that entire trip to, in, and from Jersey. One of the moments when I wasn’t trying to memorize Chris Rock’s dialogue in “Blame Game,” I answered a Final Jeopardy clue about literature almost immediately, and correctly. What is Heart of Darkness? The look of pride on Pop-Pop’s face makes my English degree worth it. He was ecstatic. “Well, hey! How’d you know that one?” I didn’t mention that I knew that book cover-to-cover because of my repeat semester of Intro to Literary Criticism. But that’s neither here nor there. His pride filled me up more than nothing else in this world.
Acceptance is the major step, the last phase of grief. The grief and all of the guilt from the words unspoken can be so paralyzing. We cry it out. We laugh it off. We think back until we’re blue in the face. We carry on as if those who we lost are still with us in the most sacred of spaces. A wise movie franchise once opened its sequel with the theme, “He Lives in You.” (And that is another song I can no longer listen to without a crashing wave of emotion hitting my body.) Pop-Pop lives in me. And that’s the most I can accept.