How to Write Your Grandmother’s Obituary

“The grandmothers were right
about everything.

People who outlived bullwhips & Bull
Conner, historically afraid of water and routinely
fed to crocodiles, left in the sun on the sticky tar-
heat of roofs to roast like pigs, surrounded by
forty feet of churning water, in the summer
of 2005, while the richest country in the world
played the old observation game, studied
the situation: wondered by committee what to do;
counted, in private, by long historical division;
speculated whether or not some people are surely
born ready, accustomed to flood, famine, fear.”

(Nikky Finney, “Left”)

 

I had never written an obituary nor had ever I considered its composition. The first I referenced were two my grandmother mailed to me: one in remembrance of my cousin, the other of my maternal grandfather, her husband whom she had been separated from longer than I had been alive. These modeled the structure and sentiment I would employ. They also verified the names of those I would list as her survivors. More than anything, they gave me her words, her cadence, her train of thought, the language I desired so that she could author her story even in death.

She had been a secretary for twenty-eight years and a writer her entire life. It was her character and profession to labor over words. After her funeral, I would rifle through boxes of journals and notes of scriptures and letters and datebooks and novels and poems and dictionaries and other miscellany she had accumulated, all evidence of her life as a writer. I would later move these boxes and items to a home she had recently purchased with her daughter, my aunt. They were proud of the purchase and looking forward to settling somewhere after having lived in Houston and Port Allen, apartments and shotguns around New Orleans, and place after another every couple of years after the storm. She died twelve days before she would move in.

 

August 19, 2014

The trouble was the grief. It was sudden and overwhelming. I received the news as I was hurrying through Central Park to watch The Royal Tenenbaums when my cousin called me four times within a few minutes. I had missed each call in the rush to find my place among the crowd, and when I sent her a text, she called back screaming, barely intelligible. When I heard her say “she passed,” I knew then that she meant my grandmother.

The phone calls ensued thereafter and I contemplated leaving, finding a quieter place in the park to mourn. But I was conflicted, shaken between shock, hunger and expectation. I had planned to eat dinner while watching one of my favorite films, one that I own and have committed to memory. I hadn’t planned on my grandmother dying.

I called to tell my mother first.  The conversation was short and empty. She said she would have to deal with it somehow. Then my brother called and I offered something about the cycle of life, something that I hoped sounded strong as the crowd laughed in the background.

The Royal Tenenbaums is a film about death and family and legacy, and I wondered would she like it. We had gone to the dollar movies often when I was a child, and I began to think of all those we had seen together and the many others she would recommend. She was a critical spectator and would deconstruct a film’s plot, acting, language, direction, really any aspect of its composition. How happy she would get in anticipation of going to the “pictures” as she called them. In that space of mediation, where the exchange of images acts upon your gaze and enables you transport to both known and unfamiliar worlds, I began to sense her presence, her genetic transfer, and for a moment I experienced an extrasensory understanding, something that had alluded me before: my place in the world was a direct result of who she was and how she lived.

I wept and ate a cold meal.

The last call was from my father. He wanted to see how I was feeling because he knew we were close. He also thought it important to tell me that my mother should have called her siblings, her family. She had been crying, sure, but he feared that she needed more. Barefoot, I walked away from the film then, across a narrow rock path and hopped the fence of a field of low hanging trees. There, away from the crowd, I asked to speak to her, and we shared stories of her life and sobbed with the full weight of our sorrow for as long as our emotions allowed.

My grandmother began writing me letters when I moved away for college. In them, she would tell me that she was proud, that she missed me. Sometimes she sent money and cards and recipes and books and news clippings. Sometimes she sent obituaries.

Often, when asked of my first publication, the story I tell of the time I won a citywide essay contest in the third grade reaches its climax with the image of her helping me write it, as I sat next to her on her bed, dictating my thoughts. Sometimes I tell the story of when I wrote a letter to a kindergarten classmate and needed her help to spell my crush’s name. She was ready with an answer of course. I regret that I never asked her to retell these stories.

The other trouble was the urgency. I was asked to write her obituary the day after she passed and was terrified. How could I compose her life in a few days with grief engulfing me? I wanted to survey her files to make sure that I noted the important dates, to be inspired by her journals, to locate her favorite scriptures, to get it right, but New Orleans is no easy trek from New York. I would have to arrange for a substitute, print copies of my syllabus, file the necessary documents for bereavement leave, send emails to my students—all excuses I would use to delay flying home, to delay writing. The semester began the day of her funeral.

 

The process made her human. I had worshipped her, revered her as my prime mover, but reconstructing her life taught me how much I didn’t know. To fill the voids, I asked my family questions that were difficult to pose. How exactly do you inquire about the child no one spoke of, the one who died as infant, the circumstances of her separation? How do you speak of domestic abuse? That car accident, the one that caused her to never drive again, what actually happened? The answers I received surprised me. My family’s willingness and candor made me realize that we all were reliving her, each of us configuring the images and events of her life into a mosaic that we wanted to render eternal.

These exchanges completed my outline and became notes of her lineage, education, marriage, employers, and aphorisms. My mother even emailed her version of what she thought significant. With this information, I composed a few drafts before submitting the final copy. I wanted more time to reflect, but the funeral arrangements had to commence. Many would remark that it captured her well, yet I felt uneasy about its brevity. I wanted to say more, to tell the larger narrative, but the obituary is an improper form to honor the breadth of life. It’s so reductive in that sense. Credit my pain for not allowing me to accept that a few hundred words are all we often get.

 

August 27, 2014

The woman who read it at the funeral aggravated my insecurities. She had mispronounced our names and disregarded the natural pauses and rhythm of my words. The educator in me wanted to interrupt, to assume the task, but I could do nothing as she labored through the words. When the service ended, and my family was asked to offer final reflections, I seized the opportunity and rose to the pulpit. I wanted to atone for the poor reading, to tell everyone how much she meant to me, to share how honored I was to write her obituary, but I failed to deliver these sentiments the way I had hoped.

 

August 29, 2015

Timing, the unexplainable concurrence of events, often provides an irony that seems to underscore the meaning life. My grandmother died ten days before the ninth anniversary of the drowning of New Orleans. The day Katrina made landfall also happened to be her son’s birthday, who just so happened to survive the storm with her.  On this day in 2005, I began another school year, which is a special day, unique in that it offers so much promise like the opening verse of a creation myth that tells of all the strife and hardship and beauty that comprise a life. In this way, on this day each year, I remember all that was destroyed and lost in the great floods, the rush and surrender of the land, the snap and shatter of oak trees and stained glass, but I also remember how to swim and float and prolong certain death, just long enough to glean some understanding of it all so that I can share it with others and teach and write. This is the meaning of my story, of memory. It’s how I calculate the force of present moments in the valuation of the past. It explains why Galileo was born the same year of Michelangelo’s death, why Shakespeare, born the same year, reportedly died on the same day of his birth, why Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence died on July 4th, why Malcolm X was assassinated on Nina Simone’s birthday, the two friends and agitators in the war on black lives forever linked in commemoration. It’s why my cousin was killed on the birthday of his older brother, and why on this day, I found myself in a second line, a funeral procession, marching to the tune of “Do Whatcha Wanna,”  “It Ain’t My Fault,” “St. James Infirmary,” and “When the Saints Go Marching In,” not to mourn and celebrate the death and rebirth of New Orleans on the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. I marched through the streets of Brooklyn en route to the memorial service for a champion of the arts, a friend and fellow writer who supported my work, and more than once, in the rapture of song and community, I found myself overwhelmed by the agreement of my sorrow, for my friend, for New Orleans, for my grandmother. I found myself remembering a letter she gave me, the one that detailed her rescue from her attic when the levees broke, the one that spoke of men and women whose lives she saw expire as she sought shelter on overpasses with the others stranded, waiting for the army trucks to carry them to the Superdome as they recited prayer after another. “I want you to do something with this,” she instructed. As I marched, I found myself remembering.

 

 

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