As I mentioned two weeks ago, 1996 was a sad year in my family. And the week between the 31st of January and the 6th of February was especially difficult. Around a week and a half after their 45th wedding anniversary, my Granddaddy died from complications related to Congestive Heart Failure. His heart had been bad for at least 10 years, and the last year of his life was the hardest that I think he ever went through—including his time in World War II, the loss of several of his siblings, the loss of both of his parents, and most any other hardship that he ever went through. He was in and out of the hospital so much that year. It seemed like every week was spent with him in a regular room in the hospital near his home in Guntersville or with him in a cardiac bed in Huntsville. I think he was in the cath lab a dozen times that year. And even though I was pretty smart and could typically grasp the bigger picture, I just didn’t expect him to die.
When he died, he was one of two family members that I had in a hospital for heart disease. The other was my paternal grandfather. Explaining to a man who is suffering from dementia, heart disease, emphysema, diabetes, etc. why you’re going to be leaving town for a few days to go to the funeral of a man that you know he (at some point) respected and why you won’t be around to see him for days is extremely difficult. Knowing that he probably wouldn’t remember was helpful, except if you thought of the possible fear that might overwhelm him during the (freakish) snow & ice storm that happened the first night of February that year.
It started snowing/icing over a bit while most of my mom’s dad’s side of the family (and much of my mom’s mom’s side) were at the funeral home. Even though he had only been dead one day, his death seemed to attract every person who had ever been a part of his life. I guess that was because he was such a good person. (I know that he had to have flaws, but I don’t know of many people who could remember them.) People braved extremely bad weather to make it across a river, a lake, and (for some) mountains to get to his visitation.
My cousin Tammy had her then-infant son, Cody, at the funeral home. He had to be less than a year old at that point. I was sitting on the floor when he came crawling up to me, which freaked me out immensely. (I had pretty much no experience with babies and was a bit scared of them.) I tried to stay calm, because I figured that that was the best way to survive. I even started to have fun playing with him. Eventually, though, one of his little baby hands reached up and grabbed a handful of my (very) long red hair. I had no clue that babies possessed so much strength, but I would’ve sworn that that child had the strength of someone who could destroy a whole town by just touching 1 structure with a little finger. I learned a very valuable lesson that night—when you’re around babies, they don’t get to touch the hair.
After a few hours of being surrounded by so many flowers, strangers, and people that I was related to but rarely saw, my parents, my aunt, my uncle, my cousin, Nana, and I all headed back to my grandparents’ 3 bedroom house. We were going to all sleep there to be with my grandmother and to be closer to the funeral home. Of course, when we woke up the next morning, it didn’t matter where we were. We were snowed in, without much in the way of “real food” (except the platter after platter of deli-style stuff and salads that people had sent over to ensure that we had something to get us through the grieving period), medicine, clothing, and without any “feminine products”, which could’ve all contributed to our undoing, except we somehow managed to make it through. Some of my grandmother’s neighbors, who didn’t live as close as most folks would think of their neighbors being, braved the conditions to bring us things like milk from any stores that were open. They also made sure that we were all okay.
We expected the frozen conditions to keep us inside for a day or two at most. When almost a week had gone by and we were still stuck inside, it almost seemed like we were in some kind of ridiculous story being told by some crack novelist. It took us 6 or 7 days to finally have the funeral, which would’ve been okay except that on the 6th of February that year, my grandfather would’ve turned 77. So, we were going to be burying him on a day that might have been hard to deal with after such a loss, but that wouldn’t have been that hard without the weather.
All I really remember from that day is that we were at the funeral home when my mom remembered that my grandmother had nearly fainted the year before at her father’s funeral, so we were sent on a hellish (quick) mission to get some smelling salts from a pharmacy a few doors away from the funeral home. My dad, cousin, and I packed into his 2-door Honda and went on the frightening journey. We managed to get some, I think, but my grandmother was much more prepared to handle this death than her father’s, which might have been from the year she’d been preparing for this moment compared to the quickness of her father’s death. The person who couldn’t handle the funeral very well, though, was someone who, other than the occasional inappropriate giggling fits, had never had a problem at a funeral before in her life; the person who had trouble was me. I nearly fainted a few times from hyperventilating. Eventually, I got my breathing under control and made it through the funeral. I remember heading back to the cemetery afterward and the only thing that I remember after that is being told by my mom’s cousin Stephanie that she was Stephanie and we were related. That stuck with me because her death occurred later in the week.
We were able to go home after the funeral, to our own home, and to the three cats that we had at the time who were so pissed at us for being gone so long. Luckily, we had left enough food and water for them to be okay, and the heat hadn’t faltered on them. I’m sure that their little neurotic personalities were a little frayed, though. And they were not happy when we had to leave the next day for my great-uncle’s funeral near Montgomery.
I had so much trouble dealing with the deaths that happened that year. I felt guilty for them for so long, for forgetting my routine prayers. I also felt so much sadness over the loss of my beloved grandfather and my grandfather who taught me what so many other people are fortunate to never learn; he taught me that sometimes the most painful/dangerous/saddening thing in the world is to love someone who you know will hurt you in some way and be unable to get away from them or from their love. But no matter how much sorrow I felt that year, it was nothing compared to my grandmother. She went from being bright and bubbly to being able to tell you almost anything that ever happened with her and Granddaddy on a given day. And the week between his death date and his birth date became one of the saddest times of the year in the family. We all learned that we had to take care of one another, especially those members of the family who lost so much—like my grandmother losing her one true love. We get reminded every year that it’s her dark period, and we always hope that she’ll get to be happier, but we always know just how unlikely it is that she will ever let go of that sorrow.