Death Can Never Do Us Part: On Loss, Love, and Legacy

By: Taylor Douglas

One night in the middle of last July I got a phone call from my mom. This happens from time to time, because I may or may not forget to call with the desired frequency for a mother checking in on her baby. I answered, asked her what was up, and immediately knew something was wrong. If you’ve ever had bad news delivered to you over the phone, you know what I’m talking about. Even without her in the room I could feel her fidget on the other end of the line. Her words were strong, but each was broken up with a little pause like she was trying to find the right ones to muffle the blow and keep me from worrying. Still, she revealed why she was calling pretty quickly.

“Your dad and Aunt Melissa are on the way to the hospital with Nana right now…”

I responded without hesitation. “I’m on my way.”

I don’t know what possessed me to know that I had to go. It was out of place for me to be like that. At the end of June, Nana had gone through surgery. I hadn’t gone to the hospital then because I was going to California that week. Then I hadn’t been home after the trip because I was “busy” with school and work and didn’t have “time” to come home yet. I “knew” that I was going to go home in a couple weeks after I finished up with my summer classes and work obligations and everything was going to be “fine”.

My Nana died that night a little after my cousin and I got to the hospital. Liz Douglas was my grandmother on my dad’s side. She held me in her living room rocker when I was a baby, took me to church like her Sunday Candy when I was a kid, poked her sick little grandson with needles for 2 years because I was allergic to dust and didn’t want anyone else to give me my allergy shots, trucked around all over the southeast and midwest to baseball games with my granddad; parents; and I, kept slipping me money every time I saw her even after I got my first real job, just because “she could”, and was a walk across the driveway away any time I needed her from the time I could walk.

And then, she wasn’t…

A few years before, my other grandmother, my Grandma Pualani, had passed away. It was a little different circumstances. I love my Grandma Pualani to death. She was the sweetest (to me at least), rowdiest old woman this planet has ever seen. I think that her and Nana were in a perpetual competition to see who could be the proudest grandmother as I was going through high school. I was lucky to have them both. And as I said, when my Grandma Pualani’s time came, it was different. We knew she was in bad health for a while. It was in the middle of baseball season, and I had an outlet. I hit a grand slam the day after she died and we had the baseball in her casket at her funeral. Losing her sucked, but it was like everything around that moment had built up to her passing away elegantly, with us knowing that she was in a better place and no longer dealing with all the health pains she had to suffer through in her last years of life.

So, in July, I wasn’t prepared to lose somebody before I’d even had time to blink.

I thought the hardest part was going to be the time through the funeral. If you’ve ever lost someone close, then you probably know those days are a blur of getting everything in order and your tears and hugs from people who care about you until at some point it’s over and you look up and you’re back home at a point where you should finally be numb to the pain, but you still can’t help but feel like everything is fresh. Then, you have to go back to life, whether it’s work or school, and that helps a little, because it cuts down the amount of  time you can actually think. The hurt starts to fade a little with time to where you think you are going to start being okay again. Then comes the guilt. The scars that are beginning to form rip apart, and you’re picked up and dropped back into the nightmare you wish you never had to live again. For me, this kept (keeps) coming until I didn’t think it could possibly come anymore (case in point, my wet keyboard as I type this). The guilt, the tug of memories had, lost, and never to be all threaten to show up when you least expect them.

I don’t like the phrase, “It’s going to get better.” Mainly, this is because I think what people really mean is that one day you’re going to feel the same again. The hurt’s going to feel like it was never there. You’re going to accept that the person you love has moved on. You’ll heal and scar and life is going to move on.

Technically, “It’s going to get better,” is true to some extent. The wounds heal a little bit at a time, even as the scar grows bigger when you look at it again. It’s easier to look back at the special moments you shared and realize how incredible it is to even be able to conceive the fact that you were lucky enough to share a point in time on this earth with someone you love. But the same? Na. No matter how far you reach it’s impossible to grasp the person you were before. I thought this was the worst part, realizing and eventually having to accept that everything could never be the same, no matter how bad I wanted it to be. And then something happened at Christmas.

I think the holidays are the worst times after you lose someone. They’re supposed to be a special time to get together. They’re full with love and laughter and each other. Then, when you lose someone, there’s a hole. Even as you try to patch around it, it’s there, unavoidable and unmistakable. It’s easy to see as if there’s a beacon shining a light on what was once there, calling you so that you can’t look away. I saw the hole a lot this year. It called me back every time I tried to look away. And it made it easy to miss the truth of the legacy that was still there.

For the first twenty-three years of my life, my family would go over to Nana’s on Christmas morning. She’d cook breakfast with the help of my Great-Grandmother, my aunt, my cousin, and anyone else who was there to help. There’d be bacon and eggs and biscuits and gravy and way too much for all of us to possibly eat. We do other family stuff on Christmas Eve, but this was our special time with Nana — her morning, and I didn’t know how this Christmas was going to be.

In some ways, it was like I expected. The hole was there, unavoidable and unmistakable as I had come to know. Without her, it was hard to feel like the family was whole. We still had breakfast, with everything as usual. The food was still good. We sat around the table and got to spend time with each other. All the things that I knew were going to be hard were. But, there was something small that made me start thinking. As we grew up, my cousin Storm and I would often make biscuits or cornbread with Nana when we were at her house. I think Nana learned the recipe from my Great Grandmother, and I know Storm often makes them with her (as she did this Christmas). Yet, on Christmas, I had always equated the biscuits with Nana’s. In my mind they were this integral part of the meal that were special that day, and for some reason I couldn’t help wondering about the biscuits before Christmas this year. On that morning, Storm and Grandma brought them in and to my pleasure, it was almost like we were eating the same biscuits again.

So what can biscuits possibly have to do with “getting over” losing someone you love. Like I said, it was something small and “getting over” may be a strong term. But, I started thinking. The biscuits made me think about what was still there. They took my eyes off the hole and onto the people around me.

I mentioned earlier a few moments my Nana and I shared — Sundays, baseball games, dinners — but the truth is, they’re just that — moments. They’re memories I have of her. They’re easy to go back to as feelings in time that make me remember how special she was to me. They’re good and important, but don’t do justice to the full extent of what she actually meant. It’s harder to represent how she cared for me, helped me learn, encouraged me to do great things, and believed in me and everyone in our family. That’s what the biscuits made me think about. They were a small glimpse into the ever enduring legacy that the people we care about instill in us. It is a simple fact. We are the culmination of the people we love.

That truth is the greatest truth of love and loss. As people, we are both blessed and cursed with a finite amount of time that overlaps with the people important to us in a way that is both too much to fill and impossible to feel like we’ve done justice once it’s passed. Our minds aren’t capable of remembering much more than the highlights and regrets of our relationships, and because of that, it is easy to lose sight of the true legacy that our loves one provide. It’s hard to shield ourselves from thinking of memories that can’t be made and the things that should have been done. While painful, those memories and regrets are nothing in comparison to how the people we love shape us in our time together. Even when we think that death has built a wall between us that can’t be broken down until we make that journey ourselves, it isn’t true. Our loved ones shape the things we care about, the choices we make, and mold us in ways that are hard to comprehend.

That is the beauty of our time together. It is a simple fact. Death can never do us part. The people we love live on inside of us forever, in everything we do. They are there as work toward our dreams. They are there when we think about how much we miss them. They are there in every interaction we have with our parents, children, wives, husbands, friends, and families, because their legacy is not summed up in a handful of moments that we can hold in our minds. Their legacy is something much greater. Their legacy is that they have taught us how to love. Their legacy is that they have made us who we are, and who we are going to be.