We all sat around the table in my grandmother’s kitchen, talking. So many of my family’s roads lead to my grandparents’ kitchen. The children were in the living room playing loudly, my father watching over them with a protective eye. Over plastic plates filled with chicken, beans, slaw, and more, we swapped stories – sometimes laughing, sometimes smiling. It was a familiar moment there at table, shared by us countless times over the years. But this time was different. This time, we were sharing stories about my cousin Emily. She had just turned 31 a few weeks earlier and that afternoon we had buried her.
My mom had called to tell me Emily had been taken to the hospital on Saturday night, the 14th. That Sunday, the 15th, was her 31st birthday. I learned that her liver had failed and she had been put in a medically induced coma. Her brain began to swell and she eventually developed an infection in her lungs. Any one of those conditions alone would have been daunting, but taken together – well, the outlook wasn’t good.
Emily loved to prove people wrong though, and for two weeks, that’s just what she did. She fought hard while the doctors did everything they could to treat her. I spent my days waiting for the ring of my cell phone and an update from my mom, or checking Facebook for a new post from my cousin Jenny – Emily’s sister. Friends, co-workers, and even complete strangers lifted Emily up in prayer each day. But in the end, it wasn’t meant to be. We are each allotted a certain measure of steps to take here on the earth and Emily was at the end of her path. On the morning of January 30th, her family made the difficult decision to take her off life support. She passed away at 8:22 AM.
When I got the call that she was gone, I felt numb. It didn’t seem possible. I wasn’t able to be there as she fought for her life, so I hadn’t really come to terms with the reality of it all. As I sat there, alone in a hotel room, I tried to wrap my head around what I had heard. I paced around, unsure of what to do. The silence in the room was too big, so I grabbed my iPhone and played some music to fill the space. Four songs in, “If I Die Young” by The Band Perry came up in the shuffle.
Lord make me a rainbow, I’ll shine down on my mother
She’ll know I’m safe with you when she stands under my colors, oh well
Life ain’t always what you think it ought to be, no
Ain’t even grey, but she buries her baby
The sharp knife of a short life, well
I’ve had just enough time
As I sat on the edge of the bed and listened, the words of the song washed over me. This was real. Emily was gone. It was then that the first of my tears slid slowly down my cheek.
Ten years separated Emily and myself, just as ten years separate her sister and my brother. We all grew up together – Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, birthdays, vacations, etc. We also shared the quieter times – afternoon meals at the kitchen table at Mema and Papa’s house, summer days outside in the backyard – we were always together as an extended family. As my brother remarked earlier this week – “family runs deep in our circle.” We shared a common experience and a common lens through which we learned what it meant to be family.
As we grew older, we all had our own lives to lead and our own paths to find. Still, no matter what roads we took, they always eventually led back to Mema and Papa’s kitchen. Not everyone could be there at every gathering, but whenever we got together – it was still family. No matter where we went, no matter what we did, no matter who we became – we could always come back to the safety and love there in that kitchen.
The last time we all got together was over Christmas at Mema’s house. (Even though we lost my grandfather last summer, it still seems strange to call it simply Mema’s house.) That evening, Emily brought materials up to make jewelry with the kids. They had a blast. When they were finished, at some point Emily quietly slipped out and went back home. In all of the chaos that is Christmas, we didn’t see her leave, nor did we get to tell her goodbye. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the last time I would see her.
I regret not seeing her leave that night. I regret not getting to tell her Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. I regret not getting to say goodbye. Still, the last memory I have of her is one of her playing with my daughter – and making her smile. It was a small moment, but it was a moment of joy that Emily left in the world. I know she left many, many more of those moments along the way.
When I think about Emily now, I remember many things. I remember a little girl who pestered my brother and I endlessly like the little sister we never had. I remember how she always wanted Papa to make her a grilled cheese sandwich when she would come up to the house. I remember her coming over to see me go to my first prom and how thrilled she was by the real life dress-up clothes. I remember having a spirited political debate one Thanksgiving – neither of us willing to give an inch. I remember her smile. I remember her love of music.
Even as a child, she always wanted to be a performer. She had a beautiful voice – in fact she sang at my wedding. I came across a quote the other day – “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” Below is one of Emily’s original songs – “Thinking of You”. If you enjoy it, please give it away; please share it with your friends. Emily always wanted to share her talent. She always wanted to be heard.
Emily had an artist’s soul and, in some ways, met with an artist’s end – gone far too soon with promise left unfulfilled. Whatever songs she kept hidden in her heart will remain unsung. She never got to be a famous musician. She never got to perform in front of millions of people. She never got to live life as a rock star. Instead, she did something much more important. She lived life as a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister, a cousin, and a friend. She may not have written songs heard by millions, but she touched the lives of those around her and left her mark on those that knew her. She loved, and was loved – and that’s worth far more than riches or fame.
The funeral service was held on a clear Saturday afternoon. So many came to remember Emily and celebrate her life, the chapel was overflowing. The preacher had lost his daughter to cancer three weeks prior to the service, but he persevered through his emotions and gave a comfort to Emily’s parents only found in shared sorrow and loss.
The day seemed to fly by and after making our way to the cemetery to pay our last respects, we eventually found ourselves back at Mema’s house – back to the kitchen table. The children were still playing, the food was still warm – and as we sat there talking, one of the songs from the service kept running through my mind.
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
“It is well, with my soul.” Easy to sing, hard to live – but it will come in time. We were all wounded by the sharp knife of a life cut too short. The wounds are still fresh and will take time to heal. Still, I took comfort in those words, and I took comfort in my family around me. I also took comfort in the things I know. I know my family is strong, and we will all get through this. I also know it won’t be easy. I know all our lives are better for having shared our time with Emily. I know there is a purpose in all things – the good and bad, the priceless and the painful. I know every day is precious and tomorrow should never be taken for granted.
Most importantly, I know when Emily got to Heaven, Papa was there to welcome her home. I’ll bet he had a kitchen table ready so they could sit and visit – and I’ll bet he had a grilled cheese sandwich waiting for her.
© 2012, The Word Zombie. All rights reserved.