In Memoriam: For Lillian On Her Birthday (July 9, 1925 – December 31, 2016)

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Prayer card from Lillian’s memorial service

This year I had planned to be in Savannah, Georgia at Bonaventure Cemetery spending today with you and Grandpa, preferably with my parents or one of my siblings.

You convinced me to keep writing when I wanted to give up.

You told me I could succeed.

You would have been 95 today. We celebrated our birthdays together: yours today and mine tomorrow.

At the time I thought it was weird that I didn’t have normal birthday parties. Instead, we had a big family dinner together on July 9th and then we’d do something together on July 10th. Sometimes whatever we did involved whatever children my family could scrounge together.

It wasn’t until adulthood that I realized this was a birthday party, just not the kind of birthday party most American kids have.

What I hadn’t realized was that every year you celebrated me being your birthday gift.

I was your surprise baby. Your impossible baby.


Impossible Baby

The story goes Mama was sick
Mama didn’t know I wasn’t the flu
A five month flu
Impossible flu

Two kids to chase
Two kids to follow

Too Sick, Too Tired
Mama didn’t know I wasn’t the flu

Doctor came in the room
Test Results Read
“Impossible”
She said

Ultrasound
Boy’s Name
Father and Grandfather
Dreams Come True
Finally
The fourth with their name

Grandmother’s Birthday
Too Early
Don’t Be Born
Baby — But
Mama can’t stop me
Born Just After Midnight
July Tenth
Belated Birthday Gift

But
That’s Not A Boy

No One Agrees:
Laraleigh – Laura
No,
Lo


Being born premature in 1989, my mother did not want to take baby pictures of me in an incubator where she could not hold me. She did not want to have pictures reminding her of what I looked like hooked up to a heart monitor and a ventilator with various IV bags flowing into me. She did not want to remember the hours and hours where she wandered around a hospital screaming because the nurses lost track of where they put me and forgot to tell her anything about my condition.

Seriously, you kids born premature after 1990 had way higher survival rates. One of the reasons my mom didn’t take baby pictures was because she was advised not to in case I didn’t live. That’s the sort of stuff women were told would be psychologically better for them in the 1980s. I swear my mother is one of the strongest women on this planet.

Because of this, I didn’t see a baby picture of me until I was 30 years old – this past February/March while visiting my parents. In the picture, I am almost 6 months old and my grandparents are holding me after my christening service at St. Matthews Church.

Christening

I didn’t see the photograph
Until age 30
Grandmother and Grandfather hold me
[The red brick of St. Matthew’s Church]
Smiling-
Laughing so hard
Their faces blur

The only baby picture

Mama didn’t want to remember:
Wires, tubes, monitors, screens

I don’t remember them either.


In my early twenties, I asked my grandmother for a picture of her and my grandfather for my birthday. I’m terrible at asking for anything, especially if it is something the logical part of my brain has deemed superfluous. What I didn’t expect was this.

It’s a picture of my grandmother and grandfather at Armstrong College in Savannah, Georgia. At the time, my grandfather, having just returned from World War II, was finishing up a Bachelors of Science in Meteorology. My grandmother taught chemistry. They fell in love with teaching, scientific progress, and each other.

They were the types of people that had trouble sitting still.

My grandmother was academically fascinated by her heritage. She honored her connection to the Douglas clan, but I would not call her proud. Often, she focused more on the deep connection it provided her to faith. Her expressions of spirituality changed so much even over the 27 and half years I knew her that it’s hard to say what she believed. What I can say is that she believed in showing endless love, patience, and understanding. We selected her favorite prayers and passages to include on the prayer cards.

Prayer cards from the memorial service for Lillian

What I want every person reading this to know is that though I have only spoken of a few moments, 91.5 years is a long time on this planet. Lillian danced through those years with a love of music, chemistry, objectivity, compassion, education, and love.

The last two gifts she gave me were her engagement ring and her last words.

My grandmother wanted to experience everything there was to experience on this planet. She liked to say, “Heaven Is Here On Earth.” She did not live an easy life – in fact, quite the opposite. Her life was by far full of emotional hardship.


The Last Memory

Restless loblolly pines
We sit
Dry docked green aluminum jon boat
He laughs with goofy faces
Old spice arms envelope me
Binocular eyes

“That’s the Hale Bopp Comet”
His voice is shimmering moonlight on bay water
His presence is my father’s smile

He still wears that 1970s brown and tan puffer jacket
A flare orange dog whistle on a braided leather cord
I taste fried fish tails
Bay water drains off the hull

My fathers hold me together
The child meant to be the fourth with their names
For that moment I belong

Together they point to stardust
Teach me constellations
How to find my way home
If I am ever lost at sea


My grandfather died in 1997 in the doctor’s office while getting dressed after a physical. He wasn’t feeling well and in between classes he managed to get seen. He didn’t make it to his afternoon lecture. In October, he would have been 100 years old.

She never remarried, but she was not broken. She mourned the loss of her best friend and celebrated his memory every chance she got. My grandfather loved fill-in-the-blank style Hallmark cards and writing her love poems. What I didn’t realize until I was a teenager was that she kept all of them and read his words every time she missed him.

Now, I find myself doing the same thing, even with her final words. My birthday buddy can never be replaced. I will celebrate her 150th birthday in 2075 just as I celebrate her 95th.

Terminal Lucidity

They said she’d never play piano again
Hematoma
Right side
CAT scan looks bad

We came to visit at the wrong moment
Right moment
The nurses couldn’t find the cell phone number
They wouldn’t let us in the room

We’d spoken to her that morning
We said we’d see her soon

You were out on the boat
Knee high in male bonding
Falling in love the only way
Our family knows how

We finally got you on the phone
But you never hung up

At 91 and a half
You and I argued
You insisted she was clear

We moved her to hospice
We prayed she’d tell us that we were wrong

Later that night
I sat alone with my other mother
She squeezed my hand
“I’m not ready”

She never spoke again.


As I conclude this memorial, I thank you for taking the time to be here with me. I recognize that it is not easy to be with someone in mourning. I recognize that it is increasingly unusual in America for people to grow up in a multi-generational child rearing situations where they and their siblings form these close bonds. Because of this, real family, the family that sticks by you and unconditionally loves you, will be my first priority in life for as long as I live. That’s what we were taught by our grandparents and our parents. I hope that this is a legacy my siblings and I can carry on.

With that, I close this with love to all members of my family.

“A good name is to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold” – Family Motto / Proverbs 22:1

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