21 June 2012

An (inappropriate) eulogy for my grandmother (aka Mal Mal)

Virginia Ann Taylor, 19 years old

On Thursday, June 14th, I was watching a minor league baseball game with Michelle and Manny, two close friends, when I received a phone call from my mother. It had been a few days since we had an opportunity to talk, so despite the action of the ballgame, I answered the phone call.

As many of you may know, my grandmother has been in the hospital since late February. After being admitted to the hospital, it was quickly discovered that she had a very large tumor in her throat due to stage four throat cancer, which then resulted in an emergency tracheotomy and subsequently a major surgery that removed the tumor, her vocal cords, lymph nodes, a jugular vein, and all of her teeth. Although my grandmother was 90-years old, the doctors were quite hopeful that she could undergo radiation to completely remove the cancer and learn to speak again with a fake voice box. That was about four months ago. For the last four months, my grandmother was shuttled between hospitals, intensive care units, nursing homes, rehab floors. To my knowledge, my grandmother only saw the outside once when on a particularly good day, my mother was able to take her outside so she could see the flowers and the sunlight. Around the third month, she started experiencing confusion about what day it was, whether it was day or night, not necessarily because of dementia, but mostly because she was confined to a single room, day in and day out.

"Yeah I don't give a damn what those doctors say, I don't wanna spend another lonesome day, I don't wanna die in the hospital, you gotta take me back outside. They don't let you smoke and you can't get drunk. All there is to watch are these soap operas. I don't wanna die in the hospital, you gotta take me back outside." - Conor Oberst

Back to the ballgame. The three of us sat there. When my mother started speaking, it felt like I was frozen in time, while the world around me continued to move, speeding up in time. There were batters at the plate, runners stealing bases, foul balls, the crowd cheering, vendors yelling out "Cold Beer! Peanuts!" And all I could register was my mother's voice. She was telling me that my grandmother had been moved to hospice and was refusing any care with the exception of oxygen. As soon as she said the words, I knew. My grandmother was making a choice about extending her own life any longer. While I sat there paralyzed with the world moving at an increasingly fast speed around me, tears began to stream down my face. I promised my mother I would come to town within the next week so I could be with her and my grandmother.  It must have been the sixth or seventh inning. Michelle, having experienced her own loss of a grandparent that she was particularly close with, suggested that we leave the game and grab drinks and talk/cry/laugh/remember....just whatever it took to help me feel better. So, we packed it in and headed to one of my favorite bars-- the Cowboy Kewl, where I literally enacted a country song by crying into my whiskey.

I was pretty emotional for the rest of the night, as I drank myself to sleep. The next morning, I woke up to discover that around 1:35am, my mother had phoned me several times and left me a text message at 2:35am that read, "Please call me immediately." With a pounding head and shaky hands, I sat on the edge of the bed staring at the text message trying to dial my mother's number. I couldn't. I already knew what she was going to tell me. It was the same feeling I always have right before I receive that phone call. And you think if you prolong dialing the number for a few more moments, you can still pretend. You can pretend that you aren't going to hear that your grandmother has died. In those few moments, you can live in a space between, wishfully thinking of a world where loss doesn't exist.

In the days that followed, we were forced to discuss the cremation, the memorial service, her belongings, and ultimately, just how empty we felt. Her service was scheduled for Tuesday evening on June 19th. So, I began to make plans for how to get to Charlotte, particularly given that Manny, my out-of-town guest, was scheduled to depart from Nashville on Wednesday morning. In what seemed like a haze, we rented a car on Monday morning, drove to Charlotte to be with my family and friends, attended the service on Tuesday night, drove back to Nashville that night arriving back at 3:30am, and then dropped Manny off at the airport at 6am this morning.

The one thing that weighed heaviest on my mind was the fact that my mother asked me if I would like to speak at the memorial service. Throughout the weekend and the up until the morning of the service, I thought about this over and over again. I was conflicted. See, I traffic in rituals. I knew the memorial service was necessary. I also knew the memorial service was taking place at a Baptist church. I knew that most of those in attendance would be my grandmother's friends from work and church. When I started thinking about the types of things I wanted to say about my grandmother or the way I would like to organize her service, I knew it would not be appropriate for that particular context. And so, I held my own rituals. 

On Saturday night, instead of attending a huge dance party in honor of Pride, Manny was kind enough to indulge me in my own memorial service for my grandmother. I told stories about her. We plugged in our headphones to my computer and together listened to her favorite songs-- the songs I would have played at her service. I read to him parts of a journal that we kept over the last several years together. I cried and laughed. He listened to every word and when things got too heavy, he would hold me.

On Sunday morning, the cremation was scheduled between 9 and 9:30am. That morning I woke up, I lit some candles. I said a prayer for her. I made a box that I filled with the petals from white roses, some rosemary, a picture of me, her, and my mother on Mother's Day, and a small note to her. During those 30 minutes, my mother and I  texted one another pictures of her. We talked about memories. And at 9:30am when we received the phone call that it had been finished, I blew out the candles feeling as if I had said goodbye to her, at least in the sense of her physical body.

On Monday night, once we had arrived to my mother's house in Charlotte, Manny and I sat out on the porch with my two brothers, John and Taylor. We discussed who would be the one to release the white dove that would be end of the service. We discussed if one of us should speak at the service about her. My brothers decided it should be me since I knew her the best out of all the grandchildren. And while I told them my rationale for why I felt that I would be an inappropriate choice, I came to realize we held our very own memorial service right there on the porch that night until 4am. We told stories about my grandmother. Countless stories. We laughed. We remembered. And that night was more of the type of eulogy I would have liked to have for my grandmother...and so I decided it was best not to speak at the service, but rather, to write my memories, uncensored, here on my blog in a way that feels sincere, honest, and just the way my grandmother would have liked it. See, if my personality is similar to anyone in my family, it was my grandmother. I'm blunt. I do things my way. I'm independent. I'm an open book. I do and say what I want. When I decided what to wear to the service, I chose a brightly colored orange and purple flowered dress with converse tennis shoes, because although my grandmother followed fashion rules (she always had to have her fingernails painted and her hair washed-- obviously, not something I inherited), she admired that I often lived my life outside of the rules, all types of rules.

And so, I'll proceed now to write some of what I would have likely said, had I felt that my eulogy would have been appropriate...

First and foremost, it should be known that I NEVER called her "grandmother" or "grandmama," but rather I called her "Mal Mal." Yup. I know that makes no sense, but for some reason as a young child I thought that the word "Maw Maw," which is what I heard all the other country kids call their grandparents was spelled "Mal Mal." Later, when I was older and realized this, I just kept on. I had always written her name this way, so I just never stopped.

After hearing people speak at her service, I realized that in her 90-years, Mal Mal was a character akin to Bob Dylan. She was so many different people at once. When I heard someone say at the service that she never complained, I thought to myself, "Wait, who are they talking about? I heard that bitch complain about all sorts of things!" (Note: It should also be recognized that my grandmother and I spoke to each other very candidly, using all sorts of language. That was our relationship. We were blunt with one another, while always laughing at the fact).

One of the things that I remember the most-- and also happens to be my biggest regret-- is how much my grandmother loved music. When I was young, I remember my mother recounting stories to me about my grandmother listening to music. Incidentally, I should mention, my grandmother was an alcoholic, for many years. Late in life, she gave up drinking. Her life was difficult and complicated and like many of us do, she self-medicated with alcohol. Sometimes just enough, sometimes too much and we all suffered the consequences. Sundays were particularly difficult days for her when my mother was younger. On Sundays, my grandmother would play one song on repeat over and over, while she heavily imbibed.

In her journal to me, she wrote: "My favorite songs: "When A Man Loves A Woman" and "If You Don't Know Me By Now." Used to have a few drinks of vodka and play these songs forever on the day I was off when my children were playing with friends." 

If there is any song that reminds me of my grandmother, it is this song. When she first became sick, I asked Manny if he might be willing to record a version of this song so I could play it for her in the hospital. During my second visit to her in May for Mother's Day, he sent me a link and I played the song for her in the hospital. Although she couldn't speak, she looked up at me with her eyes filled with tears and smiled. It is of some comfort to me that I am surrounded by the most wonderful friends who made things for me to share with her during my visits to the hospital, like Art's video telling her that he couldn't wait to meet her one day and Manny's recording of her favorite song. Since Manny's version of this song is one of the last pieces of music she ever heard and because it breaks my heart, I wanted to also share it here before proceeding to other memories.

I regret that I was never able to sit down with her and capture the memories she had to this song, but I know my memories of her will always be tied up in the tangled emotions of this song and her love for Teddy Pendergrass.

We will return to music again later, but there are other memories I'd like to share. I spent a lot of time with Mal Mal as a young child, given the fact my mother had me at a young age. She would often take care of me during the day while my mother was working. Last Christmas, she gave me a plastic picnic basket that was mine from when I was a child. On our days together, we would often pack a picnic in this little yellow and green basket and walk down to the barn behind her house and have a picnic. I also remember her reading to me countless Little Golden Books, but most specifically The Rescuers. I remember her having a wood stove in her old green house. I also remember my terror of the bathroom in that house and the time the whole family swore there was a tarantula on the wall, while I watched them spray it with hair spray and any other bathroom products to try to disable the huge spider (which I honestly doubt was literally a tarantula).

But mostly, I remember sitting in her kitchen with her while she cooked. I sat on a stool at the kitchen table, while she made all sorts of southern food. I'd run to the pantry to grab whatever supplies she needed. I will always remember watching her make biscuits. She loved making biscuits. She always made too many and even into her final years, any visit to her apartment would entail returning home with a bag full of biscuits. Here's the thing about her biscuits. I loved her biscuits. Not because there were particularly the best biscuits I've had...actually on the contrary, they were rather dense. But they were the best biscuits because they were her biscuits. After all that cooking, we'd sit down and have Sunday dinner with the family. I think this is why no matter what, I always feel like cooking on Sunday. I will always remember those afternoons sitting in the kitchen with her, while I'm sure she performed an original version of "My Drunk Kitchen."

She also told me interesting things over the years, particularly in her later years. She commended me for my life choices of pursuing education and my career. She commended me for not marrying and having children. She knew that both of us preferred to spend a majority of our time alone. We both liked living alone. And she told me I was a "very smart lady" for making those choices. She also once told me, "You know, I think I would have liked to be a lesbian. But you know, back in my day, you didn't have that as a choice." I remember being stunned by the incredible open-mindedness and insight of a woman in her late 80's speaking about issues of sexuality. I also remember her giving me advice about how to get rid of a cold (which I still heed to this day). She told me to buy a cheap small bottle of liquor, not enough to get drunk (her words), but just enough. Drink it before going to sleep and during the night, you'll sweat out the cold. Honestly, it works. I swear by it. She also always, always complimented me on my breasts. Yes, this might be strange, but she always told me she was jealous of them. She told me, "Girl, you are lucky. You've got those Marilyn Monroe breasts." Yes, we were an inappropriate family. Are you starting to see why I didn't think this would work with the Baptist crew?

I do remember less favorable things too. I remember her falling down the steps of my dad's house (who lived right down the road where I would stay on the weekends) after having a few too many and us having to rush her to the hospital. I remember her being intoxicated and angry at my mother on a holiday and my mother had brought her an Easter lily and she threw it out the front door at us as we drove away. I remember her going to the beach with me, my mother, my stepsister, and my brothers. When we came back from the beach, she had made sandwiches for everyone, apparently while also imbibing. As we sat eating the sandwiches, we came across a twist tie from the sandwich bag in one of the sandwiches. I remember one holiday season, all the siblings trying to avoid any type of drunken incident, so they went to the kitchen and poured a majority of the liquor out into the sink and filled it back up with water. I remember many, many, many late night phone calls to our house while I was growing up. I remember her always trying to protect my mother. The time she threatened my paternal grandfather for trying to take the tires off my mom's car and coming out on the porch (with a weapon) and saying, "Charlie Brown, you better get the hell off of my property and leave my daughter's car alone." I remember her being angry with my stepfather and calling and leaving a message saying she was going to tar and feather him.

Over the last 10 to 15 years, she would always come to stay with us on Christmas Eve. Those were some of my fondest memories. Late at night after guests would come by, we'd sit around. She'd pull me aside and whisper for me to go into her bag and get the bottle of bourbon and pour half a glass and fill the rest of it up with water. This was often the only time she would allow herself to have a drink after she had quit drinking. Then, we would sit around the living room table (incidentally, some of those years was around the table I still have in my apartment) and we would play music. Me, my mom, and my grandmother would get up and dance. If there is one move that I learned from my grandmother, it was the Twist. My mother told me stories about watching my grandmother vacuum the floor at their childhood home, doing the twist all the way down to the floor and back up, while smoking a cigarette without ashing it once. I'd like to think I inherited her master twisting skills, as some of you have witnessed. Every Christmas, she would always request us to play one song. And she always got the name wrong, every single time. She would say, "Play that song for me, "Lighter Shade of Pink" or "Pinker Shade of Pale" or "A Lighter Shade of Pale." But this is what she wanted...and if I had organized the service, I would have liked for this to be the final song that played.

Some of my last memories of her are from Mother's Day two years ago, in the days after the flood here in Nashville. I had intended to visit; however, given the circumstances I was unable. I sent her a card, you know, one of those cards that played music. It was still on her coffee table when my mom went to her house to start sorting through her belongings. She gave it to me when I was home yesterday. My grandmother told me that the song would always remind her of me...because as she said (after some argument over the lyrics) that it was in fact a wonderful world.

The last time I heard my grandmother speak was on the days surrounded her 90th birthday. At first I didn't think I would be able to visit, so I sent a bouquet of flowers to her. They arrived three days before her birthday. She called to tell me how beautiful the flowers are. I still have this message saved. When I realized I would never hear her voice again-- after the surgery-- I listened to this message countless times. And then, a turn in circumstances, I decided to drive from Nashville to Charlotte to see my grandmother on her 90th birthday. For some reason, I knew I had to go. I knew it might be the last birthday I could celebrate with her. So, on the day before her birthday, by surprise, I showed up at her front door. We spent the afternoon talking, holding hands, looking at pictures, and laughing. I had an emotional break-down that afternoon. One of the reasons I felt the need to get out of town was due to a particularly difficult situation I was having in a "faux-relationship." I surmise my mother had perhaps mentioned to my grandmother my difficulties, as the first question she asked me was, "Are you seeing anyone? Do you have a boyfriend or a lover?" I immediately started crying. She just sat there and held me. She told me she had been praying for me to find someone who would be kind to me and love me, not because she thought I needed a man but because she thought I deserved to find someone worthy of me and my affections.She told me she prayed everyday for that, because she wanted me to be happy.

Our final three weeks that we spent together were after she had entered the hospital. I visited for a week in April, while she seemed to be recovering well. Then I spent two weeks with her in May, while things vacillated between good and bad. I don't really want to get into the details of the most trying moments, but rather prefer to share a couple of anecdotes from those days. She wrote countless notes to us, which I consider priceless now. Once, she requested a pair of sunglasses for when she gets out of the hospital. She really liked my new glasses and said she wanted some Jackie O. sunglasses, so I bought her a pair which made her look so super cool.

There was also a day that was particularly difficult for my mother. When my grandmother would have bad days, it was incredibly painful and trying on my mother, since she spent a majority of every day with her for over four months. I remember one day, my mom asked me to meet her in the coffeehouse when I arrived at the hospital. She was crying. My grandmother had been particularly grumpy to her. When we got back upstairs to see her, my mom went to talk with the doctor and I had a few moments alone with my grandmother. I told her, "Listen, you know you can't be like that with mom. She is more sensitive and exhausted right now. You can talk all the shit you want to me though, because I'm like you. And I'll talk it right back to you. So, if you want to be bitchy, do it to me, but take it easy on mom." She nodded her head and wrote that my mom was wonderful and kind and she was sorry. It was just the sort of relationship me and my grandmother had. We are cut from the same cloth.

Another time, mom and I were helping her practice talking with her fake voice box. Mom would have to make a glove filled with paper towels that we could hold over her stoma and she could force air out and start to talk some. She practiced some of the sounds they ask them to do in therapy, like counting or for some reason the phrase Taco Bell (are they getting endorsements for this?) Earlier in my visit, I leaned in and told her, I bet if you could talk right now you'd like to tell all these people to fuck off, wouldn't you? She nodded. And so on that day, when we finished her speaking exercises, she motioned that she wanted to stay one more thing. My mom returned, placed the glove over the stoma and I heard the last words that I would ever hear my grandmother say out loud, "Shut the fuck up." Yep. Again, see, not church appropriate, methinks. But exactly what I would expect from her. During that last visit, I also got a tattoo for her. On my right hand, I had Queen Anne's lace tattooed  for her. It was one of the things I always remembered about going down to her old house. The road was lined with those flowers.

When I finally had to leave that Sunday afternoon in May, it was difficult to pull away. We kissed each other several times. I held her most beautiful hands. I told her I 'd be back as I soon as I could. I told her I would miss her. And as I started to walk out the door, while crying and I looked back at her, I knew. I knew it would be the last time I would see my Mal Mal.

So, yes, I would have the world's longest eulogy. Also perhaps the most inappropriate for a Baptist church and the people attending. I appreciate the service, but I also wanted to represent the grandmother that I knew. The grandmother who helped me become the sassy, tough, bold, and independent woman I am today. In other words, she taught me not to take any shit from anybody. And to always do what I love and to love who I want to love, with my whole heart.

One of the last things I remember her writing, after she started to fade some was, "Living to 90 is no game." I still wonder exactly what she meant by this, but I can only imagine that she was trying to convey that life is difficult, but also wonderful. Sadly beautiful, at times.

And because I know how difficult this has been for my mother, I wanted to post one last song...I came across this song a few months ago...but now, it seems all the more suitable.

In closing (finally), I want to thank all of you that have sent me messages of support (whether through text, facebook, or phone calls), it really means so much to me. There are far too many of you to name personally, but please know that even if I haven't responded, I appreciate your love more than you know.

Without the love and support of Manny, Art, Carly, Michelle, and Andrea (in person) this last week, I might not have been able to make it. Not to mention, Tim and JD at Cowboy Kewl, who knew that I needed a few free shots of whiskey to kill the pain.

And lastly, I can not give enough gratitude to Manny for spending his last week of vacation here in Nashville holding me when I couldn't stop crying and spending his last two days in a car driving back and forth from Charlotte to Nashville, as well as being there for me throughout the service; and to Jennie Ann, who is the bestest friend anyone could ever ask for, who took time off from work and drove from out of town to pay her respects to my grandmother and my family, but more particularly to be there for me, sitting next to me during the service and holding my hand when things got a little out of hand. Also, the discussion of gravy is probably the only thing that got me through that first hour.  

And the last picture of me and Mal Mal together...

All my love to you Mal Mal. You were one of a kind.