Best Day, Worst Day
On November 27, 2014, my mom got up at whatever ungodly time moms start cooking for Thanksgiving. I had stayed over at my parents’ that night and woke up to the sounds of her making dressing and sweet potato casserole. I heard her phone ring, and a couple minutes later she was walking up the stairs. I rolled over and did that thing where I acted like I was still asleep without really knowing why.
She approached my bedside and gently shook my shoulder. I gave my best startled impression and rolled over to face her. It was this surreal sort of moment–like I was ten again, looking into the face that was about to tell me the baby bird my sister and I had rescued had died in the night. She was wearing that same expression, so calm it made me anxious. She told me to get up and go to my cousins’ house right away. I left without getting ready.
I felt it the second I stepped through their front door: the heaviness in the air. No one was talking. My grandmother was unconscious when I stepped into her room–the one she had lived in the last six months. Her head was lifted at an odd angle, and her breaths came in gasps. My grandfather sat next to her, silent. By the time our other aunt arrived with my cousins Preston, John, and Neely, there were covered dishes on every inch of the countertops that would never get eaten. Nana died just a little while later, her entire family around her. None of us knew what to do with ourselves.
That was the worst day.
Nearly all my greatest childhood memories are tied to my grandparents’ home, and I feel the need to explain why it was better than your grandparents’ home.
They had a ton of land and a vegetable garden bigger than any I’ve ever seen in someone’s yard. The same could be said about the pool, an L-shaped beauty that we were perpetually cannon balling into, screaming COWABUNGA after chugging a can of Diet Dr. Pepper.
There was a giant lake teeming with algae, with which my grandfather did battle for many years. On its banks, I learned to brim fish along with my sister, five cousins, and many of our friends. We drove four-wheelers through their grass at far below the legal age. We weren’t allowed to go faster than ten miles-per-hour; we went forty when no one was looking. The only rule we followed was that friends were never allowed to drive, only ride. It wasn’t because we were interested in their safety; we just weren’t about sharing.
But those things mattered little compared to what I considered for many years to be my favorite part of their house, perfect in its deep-south-esque simplicity: Mud Mountain. It came but once a year, when my grandfather needed the dirt. He always ordered double though, one pile for the garden, the other for the children to reign over.
We called my grandparents Nana and Granddaddy. They always told our friends to call them that, too, which I secretly didn’t like. It was acceptable for some friends, like Anna or our next door neighbors Beth and Mallary, who are as tangled in these memories as any blood relatives. But for other friends, they would never be Nana and Grandaddy no matter how much they said it.
They had a coke machine– a rusty, vintage thing that hummed pleasantly on the bricks of the back porch. There was a bench swing on the porch, too. We used to pile on and swing so high that it would hit the wall behind us, then rank the power of the bumps–mama bumps, daddy bumps, baby bumps. Granddaddy bumps were the ultimate goal, achieved by only the most aged among us. We were easily entertained children who knocked that swing down on a number of occasions, only for my grandfather to hang it back up. Against all odds, it’s still intact today.
The geese were the worst part of their house. They were always leaving their fecal matter at the base of the fig tree, ripe for the stepping in. But they also did something interesting. They would lay their eggs out in the open on the lakeshore. I found this troubling, and several times I asked my grandparents if we should take them inside and incubate them.
“Don’t touch those eggs,” my grandmother said without further explanation. She was the most loving person I’ve ever known, but on this point she was stern.
So, in my kindness, I waited until she wasn’t looking to pick one up and take it inside. She walked in the kitchen and found me wrapping it in a rag, and it is one of the only times I remember her looking angry. She told me not to do it. But then she laughed, and we spent the rest of the afternoon thinking of ways to keep it warm. I think she knew there were things about me that wouldn’t change from getting lectured about that egg; things I would have to come to understand about myself on my own.
As far as personalities go, I’ll admit I’ve had a life-long battle with tendencies that skew toward the manipulative and self-centered, but it was especially evident in my childhood behavior. An entire post could be written on my antics that took place at this house, but here are four I remember vividly:
- Taunted my older cousin Preston until he agreed to swing out on a rope over a steep hill. He slipped off, rolled to the bottom, and broke his leg. It was Christmas Eve.
- Conspired with John to place malt balls in my younger cousin Drew’s pants, then convinced him he had pooped in his sleep. Drew cried and cried until I told him it was only a hilarious prank, at which point he cried harder. He was probably around five-years-old at the time. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t catch the humor.
- With the help of my neighbor Mallary, forced two of my younger cousins to play boot camp, which involved their having to run behind the four-wheeler we were driving until we told them they could stop. If they caught the four-wheeler, they were allowed to join us. In a moment of compassion, we slowed down enough for Drew to climb on, leaving Rachel tear-streaked and furious to chase behind. Our bullying was contagious, and Drew immediately joined in, proclaiming that Rachel was, “slower than a leaf falling from a tree”.
- Rachel and Drew were my lackeys, forced to do my bidding at all times. If at any point they refused to fetch me a drink or a bag of chips while I sat happy on the swing or the couch or the steps of the pool, I would tell them they couldn’t be my cousins anymore, something they wholeheartedly believed and (surprisingly) found horrifying. They would then race to be first to do as told. My hold over them lasted approximately the first twelve years of Rachel’s life and fourteen of Drew’s. I am five years older than Drew, so I’ll let you decide what that says about me.
After nearly all of these incidents, I got in trouble–by either my aunt or my mom. Sometimes Granddaddy would even get upset. Never Nana. That wasn’t her style. I think it was an intentional decision on her part, and it might make her sound weak or too lenient to some, but that wasn’t it. Her patience, with all of us, was infallible.
When I was fifteen, Nana and Granddaddy sold the house. We were devastated by the move, my cousins and I. Betrayed, even. The place they had lived for my entire life– with its pool, garden, screened porch, lake–was more my home than the one that held my bed. It’s a setting of my life that was a character in itself, and I still drive by it any time I’m close.
But the pool was too hard to keep up, and my grandfather had conceded the war with the lake. They were too old and needed somewhere simpler to live. So they moved to a home in driving-distance Mississippi with more land to take care of, where they immediately put in a new garden, equal in both size and difficulty to the old. Within three months, Granddaddy had begun installing another lake out back with the neighbor down the road, a wild Pentecostal preacher who went by Brother Fowler. Granddaddy, it turned out, needed a lake with which to fight.
When I was twenty-three, my grandfather walked into the sun room, newspaper in hand. He found Nana slumped in a chair and called an ambulance. I have such a distinct image of what this might have looked like that it almost feels like a memory, and it kills me. He thought his wife of fifty-nine years was dead.
This was not the first time we all thought Nana had died, only for her to come back around and say surprise. So, true to form she came to in the ambulance, where she spent the rest of the drive telling the confused paramedic about the Lord.
Shortly after this ordeal, she went to live with my aunt, uncle, and two cousins. She still acted like her old self but lacked the energy to go through the motions of the day, and my grandfather couldn’t take care of her. So they got her a hospital bed, which they placed in my aunt’s guest room. My grandfather drove to visit her every morning, and this became her home for the final six months of her life. They were some of the best of mine.
I spent a huge portion of my time with her–really any time I wasn’t at work. Rachel, Drew, and I would sit in her room, watching movies or listening to her stories. We laughed a lot. She used Rachel’s Mississippi State cowbell anytime she needed something. She spent a lot of time on social media, honing skills she had already been working on for years. Here’s a post from 2011:
Once, Nana’s cousins came to visit. Granddaddy was there too, and they listened as a husband of one of the cousins told them about the time he spent in France. When the cousins got up to leave, Nana threw out her arms and said, “Come here and give me a French kiss.” Afterward, she explained that she thought a French kiss was kissing on both cheeks.
We kept laughing when she began to lose her mind. It was slow until it was sudden. I’ve never known anyone to spend more time with books than Nana, and she had always had a habit of writing notes in the margins. But she began to find meaning in words like, “the” and “and”, and her scrawl became jumbled. Her books began to look like journals that belonged to someone writing in a made up language. Her mind was filled with words and phrases that she said she needed to get out of her head.
Next, her vocabulary became limited to certain phrases. Everything was “within a timeframe”. Grandaddy began to get frustrated with her when he came to visit. I would often enter her room and find her sitting up in bed with a blanket over her head, like a child pretending to be a ghost. Her hands would be raised in prayer, mumbling about timeframes. It’s an image that, at the time, I somehow found funny. I think I found it sad then, too, but the sadness is the only thing I see in it now. That’s how everything feels looking back at those days–funny instances with punches of too-harsh reality.
Once, when she was doing her thing, just chatting about timeframes, she said, “If eating bacon is within your timeframe within God’s timeframe within my timeframe within the bed frame.” We laughed at that.
Once, when my mom told Nana she was repeating a story we had already heard, she spit in my mom’s face, and my mom cried.
Granddaddy began staying for less and less time, which I don’t consider selfish–I think he couldn’t bear it. The last night I can remember of Nana’s craziness was when Rachel and I decided watch Where the Red Fern Grows with her, something she had been wanting to do before she lost her mind. She spoke of timeframes the entire time. “If it’s within your time frame within the boy’s time frame within the dog’s time frame within God’s timeframe . . .” I became fed up and told her I was going to pause it every time she spoke. She locked her lips, threw away the key, and used improvised sign language to get the words out of her head instead–something that was possibly more distracting.
Rachel and I left the room after that, cracking up about how ridiculous the whole thing was. Then we were both crying, hugging each other. I’m more embarrassed writing that now than I was in the moment, for Rachel to see me that way.
In hindsight, my biggest regret is telling her to be quiet. Telling her she had already told this story, or I already knew something was within my timeframe. All she wanted was to get those words out of her head, and what did it matter if it was crazy or I had heard them before? This was the person who once helped me in an impossible goose egg incubation attempt, even after she’d told me not to touch it. After everything, the least I could have done was listen to her words. I’d give anything to hear them now.
She woke up one day, about two weeks after the craziness started, and was completely lucid. She had no memory of the head filled with words, no opinions on time or bed frames. She was herself. We talked and laughed with her like we had before. She told a story about when she worked for a motel in her twenties, and her boss asked her to start dressing like a mermaid and swim with guests in the newly installed pool (she quit). She told us about the time when she was little, and she and her neighbors went in the crawl space under the house next door, built a fire, and roasted hotdogs. While watching the news one day, Bill Clinton came on, and she told Rachel, “I never agreed with his politics, but he sure is sexy.”
For a few weeks, she had become someone we didn’t recognize, but then she came back to us.
Then came the best day of my life: November 26th, 2014. We were all in her room, the TV turned on but muted. We were eating candy, the wrappers piling up on the floor because we were too lazy to throw them away. The lamps were on, the overhead lights off. It was too warm, but Nana still had two blankets on her legs. Her iPad was in her lap, forever working on her Facebook skills.
Rachel sat on the bed with Nana, teaching her how to take selfies. I sat in her wheelchair, Drew on the ottoman by the window. Nana had this really terrible looking opening in the center of her back from a surgery she’d had months before. It wasn’t infected–it just wouldn’t close up and heal. Watching my aunt turn her to clean it, I declared it looked like a blowhole. “Austin!” Rachel said in horror, but Nana laughed so hard, I was worried she would wet herself (it didn’t take much).
There was just something about that night–a feeling in the room that everything was exactly right. We didn’t have to worry about Nana, because she was acting totally normal. If the next day hadn’t brought what it did, I might not feel the way I do about it. But as it is, this was by ten miles the best night of my life.
Thanksgiving felt fake, like we were all walking through this nightmare in which we were forced to smell food that made us nauseous. I was supposed to stay at my sister’s house that night to watch her dog, because she and her husband had to go to Jackson overnight to see his family (Lauren cried the whole way). Rachel decided to come with me, and I was glad because I didn’t feel like staying there alone. We barely spoke.
The next morning, I woke up mid-thought about Nana–thinking about their house, the lake, the pool, mud mountain, the malt balls, the boot camp, the goose egg. Everything she had given us. I thought about the emphasis I had placed on their house, as if it were the reason for the memories. But a house is nothing without the people who live in it, and I realized I’d never given credit where it was due. It was Nana and Granddaddy who gave us the memories. Nana, who I had her for twenty-four years, and Granddaddy, who I still have today. I was angry when they moved, but I was wrong for it. I never got to thank Nana for the things she gave us.
I’ve often thought about knocking on the door of that old house and asking the owners if I can walk around, despite how crazy I would seem. But I would inevitably see the marks of other people’s lives, and that’s not what I’m looking for. I want to remember the lives we lived there, the ones Nana and Granddaddy gave us.
It’s an inherent truth that worst days wouldn’t exist without best days. So in some backwards way, I’m glad Thanksgiving 2014 was my worst day, because of what it speaks to.
When I finally forced myself out of bed, I walked into the living room. Rachel was already awake, sitting on the couch, face swollen and wet. Neither of us spoke. I walked across the room to my sister’s record player; Florence and the Machine was already on the spindle. I turned it on, skipped to “Dog Days,” which I knew to be one of Rachel’s favorites, and cranked the volume all the way up. I pulled her off the couch and forced her to dance. It’s nearly impossible to get me to dance in any situation, but I could tell she needed it, and I think I did, too.
Then we turned the music off, put the dog out, and drove home.