"Don’t take any wooden nickels, young lady,” my grandfather reminds me as I hug him goodbye. I remember the smell of Waffle Crisp cereal in the kitchen and spending nights with my sister in a room that’s now used as an office. They store my grandfather’s oxygen tanks where I used to stand and spy on the grownups through a shuttered door after bedtime. There was a bed next to the window overlooking the lake and a doll collection that reminded me of Chucky and scared me to death.
My grandmother paints. I’ve always admired her artistic talent, (I can’t draw or paint to save my life) and once I asked her why she chooses to use watercolor over oil. She told me that watercolor changes. It starts off looking one way and it transforms into something else. You never know how it will turn out, the colors, the shapes, and that it’s a lovely surprise.
This trip feels important, special, like a good part of the story you don't want left out. We're here because my grandparents were married sixty years ago, today, and because their life together was a starting point for all of us. She was a schoolteacher; he was a high school band director. They raised four children, and later, they became Nana and Baboo.
I’ve always felt a special bond with my extended family. Though we don’t see one another very often and our lives have taken us in a million different directions, I’ve always liked them and I enjoy picking up where we left off. When we were kids, us cousins played together and ate yellow popsicles that melted faster than anyone could eat them. We pointed and laughed when our dads almost blew themselves up trying to light a cluster of fireworks in the front yard of our rental in Hot Springs. One year, we had a babysitter that wrote skits and commercials for us to perform in front of our parents. I adored my younger cousins and I thought my big cousins were the coolest people in the world. I remember vividly the time I read my much older cousin’s copy of The Death of Superman. I was traumatized, and I remember thinking, “If SUPERMAN can die, the rest of us don’t have a chance….”
When my illness was at its worst, one of the last trips we took as a family was to my grandparent’s house in Arkansas for Thanksgiving. Everyone was there, even my beautiful great-grandmother Ruth. Things were on a downward spiral and I was mostly bedridden, by then, but I was glad to be there. At the time, I wasn’t sure what the future held and being close to loved ones felt important. When I was sick, I always wanted everyone to sing to me, in the hospital, at home, in the car, everywhere. It comforted me and served as a gentle reminder that I was still here.
I wasn’t able to join my family in the dining room for Thanksgiving dinner, that year, but they all piled into my room afterwards and we sang and talked and told stories. Looking back, I think that though the experience of losing control over my body was terrible, it was also the greatest blessing of my life. It shined a light on what really matters so that I’ll never forget, forever etched into my mind like names on tree bark.
Standing in the kitchen with my aunts and my sister and cousins, eating watermelon and shooting the breeze, I feel lucky; lucky to be here; lucky to be a part of things and to have memories, both good and bad, that remind me to be grateful; lucky to have people who sang to me.
Today, I believe that God and love and energy are all around us. I believe we are angels to each other. I believe that we are made up of stardust and cells and atoms and science and magic and we will always be a part of everything. I believe in brains and chemicals and flesh and shadows. I believe in souls. I believe our role in the universe is ever changing, that what we are today is different from what we were yesterday and what we will be tomorrow. I believe that to live is to love and to wonder and to go away forever but never really leave. I believe that we are a fierce and delicate balance. I believe this is our time and we are lucky to have a turn.