Saturday, June 16, 2012

Writing His Final Chapter




Photo credit: Shutterhacks
When I lived in LA, I loved curling up on my sofa Sunday mornings with a cup of tea and the LA Times obituaries. It's my favorite section of the newspaper. I'm not the Morticia Adams type.  My fascination is not with how the deceased departed. I enjoyed reading about how they lived.  Authors, activists, scientists, socialites, volunteers, celebrities or everyday people loved by their family and community—they all have a story. I use many of their lives as inspiration to live mine fully.  As a writer, penning someone's obituary is an honor. I wrote a few obits at NPR and in journalism school (This one is my favorite).  Writing an obit is  a way of saluting another human being and telling the world why that person mattered while they were here. Earlier this year I had the honor of writing my granddaddy's obituary.

My granddaddy lost his battle to cancer the day before Valentine's Day. He gave the disease a heck of a fight until his final breaths. I had the honor of writing his obituary for the Oakland Tribune and designing his funeral program.  It was such a hectic and emotional time. While putting things together I thought about how he was so supportive of my pursuits for higher education. His support and encouragement was instrumental in me earning two degrees.  Much of the knowledge I took from writing and computer classes (that helped fund) were used to write his final chapter.  

My granddaddy was a big, tall, handsome man originally from Texas.  He worked as a longshoreman after moving to California and took pride in providing for his family.  My granddaddy was a wizard in the kitchen and on the grill. He made the absolute BEST barbecue and his turnip greens were delicious.  When I was a kid, his facial whiskers would scratch against my face as he gave me kisses on the cheek.  I hated the scratches but loved the affection.  I always came back to give him some "suga" the next day because I loved him. My granddady introduced me to Coltrane on our rides to school in the morning. I love jazz because of him. And as I got older, we had conversations in his den/man cave about life and work.  My manly-man granddaddy loved his truck. I don't ever recall my granddaddy's truck being dusty. He always kept his ride shiny.

Funeral programs are a big deal with black families. If the picture is unflattering, the design sucks or someone's name is missing in the obit/bio section—whew!  You will get talked about. LOL I know many people who save funeral programs and have stacks of them. The programs aren't just for those at the service. In my family, we send them to family and friends around the country.  Initially I didn't know why people make such a fuss over the programs. My grandmother (not my grandfather's widow) says it's because folks use it to trace family history. Makes sense.  Thanks to help from my aunts, we made sure my granddaddy's kids, grandkids, great-grandkids, siblings, siblings' spouses, parents and immediate relatives who preceded him were mentioned. Of course we referred to relatives and old funeral programs for inspiration and information.  I wanted my granddady's program to be classy, accurate with a punch of spice—just like he would've liked it. 

What I took from writing my grandfather's obituaries and helping with his care is to never give up. I have yet to witness anyone fight so hard for anything, like I saw him fight to live.  I remember holding his hand by his bedside. Even toward the end he had a lion's grip. His move to California from Texas reminded me to take  chances and go for your dreams.  And that there's nothing wrong with wanting better. Listing all of his relatives on that program made me value family even more.

I am sad that I'm giving out one less Father's Day card this year. My phone call list for the day is shorter  as well.  But I'm blessed and proud to have been a part of my granddaddy's story.  And I'll take the lessons I learned from him to ensure the chapters in my life are rich.



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