Several weeks ago, I got a call from my mother. Normally, I get lots of calls from my mother, most of them focused around the infrequency with which I answer my phone, but I could tell from the tone of her voice that this was more serious. She informed me that my grandmother had rather unexpectedly gotten very sick very fast and that there was little that could be done. After a few moments of stunned silence, my mom then informed me that my grandmother had a request. She wanted me to write something for her to be read at an upcoming family gathering.
“Did she specify what she wants me to write?” I asked my mom, hoping what she really wanted was some sort of 3 or 4 line rhyming poem, a pre-pubescent Kevin Alexander specialty.
But I wasn’t going to get off that easy. “Whatever you want to do is fine, dear,” my mom said. “Grandma said you’d know just what to write.”
After I hung up with my mom, I sat and thought about what I was going to do. I felt both honored and extremely nervous. I was upset, of course, as I love my grandmother and she’s played a large part in raising me and sickness and loss are never easy to deal with, but I also knew she was older now and she’d lived a great life and so I couldn’t pretend that a small part of my mind wasn’t expecting something like this. And seeing how I’m the only one in my family who writes anything longer than a grocery list, my grandparents had long ago asked me to write and read their eulogies when they passed.
As a writer in a family of non-writers, you come to expect to handle these types of tasks, and, personally, I think they’re the most rewarding. Don’t get me wrong, I love and crave the vanity and personal pleasures of seeing my name in print and spend upwards of twenty minutes a day Googling myself in new and creative ways, but there is something so intimate and honorable about being given the chance to celebrate the life of someone you loved, something so emotionally powerful and important that you can’t help but be taken in by it. Writing is one of those rare skills that afford you the chance to take thought, emotion and coherency and put it towards the memory of another. But writing something honoring someone’s life after they’re gone is one thing. Doing it while they’re still alive is a completely different story.
I spent the next week or so in a daze, my work falling off, my head clouded by the task at hand. No matter what I’m writing, I tend to go through three stages during the writing process. The first is elation, because I’m so excited about getting a new assignment. This usually consists mostly of me bragging to my friends about the cool and unique opportunity I’ve been afforded and why my life is so much more artistically profound than theirs. Other people tend not to like my elation phase. Standing in direct contradiction is the second phase, which could be most aptly summed up as the despondency phase. It’s during this phase that I realize the weight and breadth of said task, and begin to, in the words of my roommate, “lose my shit”. The one positive aspect of this phase is that my apartment gets very, very clean. The final phase is, of course, the “you’ve left yourself with no time to do anything else so you better sit your ass down and finish this before you get fired” phase, which is pretty much self-explanatory.
Because of the uniqueness of this assignment and the limited time frame I was working in, I seemed to be experiencing all three phases simultaneously. I was obviously excited, but that excitement was crippled by a horrible fear of failure, and a voice in the back of my head that kept reminding me of the importance of the task at hand. Talking to Ramsey didn’t help much either.
“Dude, you have to make this perfect, like some Gettysburg Address/Good Will Hunting type shit,” he said, when I told him about what I was expected to do. “Wow. That’s a lot of pressure. If I was you, I’d probably have completely freaked out and—as you know—I pretty much dominate pressure situations.”
My main problem was that I didn’t know what sort of thing to write. Should it be some sort of eulogy-esque remembrance or a nostalgia-inducing poem or something funny to rise spirits? Should I get other family members involved? What about word count?
After another week of sleepless stress, I finally decided to ask my grandfather. I’d been putting off talking to him about it, mostly because I feared that any more talk of my grandmother’s sickness would be too stressful for him. And, if I’m being honest with myself, I also kept quiet because I secretly fear bringing up sad or distressing topics, often taking painful lengths to avoid talking about them while internally freaking out. Not exactly healthy, I know.
So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that my grandfather was more than happy to talk about it. And when I asked about what specifically I should do, he laughed.
“Kevin, Kevin, Kevin,” he said. “You think your grandmother will be concerned about the form of whatever you present? She’d be thrilled if you read from a science book, as long as it was you doing it. Just do something that will let her know how much we care about her. Maybe you make us laugh a little, maybe you make us cry, whatever, just so she knows we’re there and we’re thinking about her.”
My grandfather paused for a little. “Oh, and one other thing.”
“Just make sure it’s not another one of those damn rhyming poems.”
Freed from the shackles of my own mind, I wrote the entire thing one afternoon at my mother’s house, looking through some old pictures and albums. I’m presenting it to the family in three days. Hopefully, there are things in there to make our family laugh, cry and remember just what my grandmother means to us.
And perhaps most importantly, none of it rhymes.