Last Thursday night, I was the recipient of the 2015 Georgia Occupational Award of Leadership. This was a huge honor, and I worked very hard for the award, as did my amazing competitors from the other schools in the Technical College System of Georgia. Any one of us could have been named this year's winner, but it just so happens that it was me.
Rango and Tricky were at the awards banquet, as was my mom who'd driven in from Alabama. Max was with DH's mom at his mandatory band concert at school. My dad was in Alabama, helping to care for my dying grandmother.
I called him after I made it back to my hotel room that night. He was leaving her house after helping to care for her all day.
"She's asleep right now," he said, "but your uncles promised they'd tell her that you won when she wakes up."
The next night, he called to tell me that she had taken a turn for the worse.
My grandmother was 14 when she met my grandfather as he did his Vaudeville-style magic show on the steps of an Alabama courthouse. They eloped to Mississippi when she was 15 and he was 22. They built the house they lived in, literally with their own bare hands. They moved into it when it had only subfloors. She stained all of the cabinets and paneling. He wired the house, and they hung the sheetrock together.
More importantly, they raised a family in that house. Four children and seven granddaughters and two great-grandsons. My teenaged parents lived with me in that house for the first months of my life. We later lived next door to my grandparents, as did two of my cousins. My aunt, who is six years older than I am, used to race each other down the hall and slide across the slick, poured floor in our socks and slam into the heavy, wooden front door as we laughed breathlessly. My memories of childhood are filled with Saturday nights in that house, sprawled across the makeshift bed of piled blankets and pillows, laying on my stomach and watching "Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island" with my aunt while my grandmother brought us bowls of hot, buttery popcorn that she'd cooked in an iron skillet on the stove.
My grandfather always got the first bowl.
When I was sleepy and it was time to go home with my parents, she would sit me on her lap and put my shoes on my feet for me.
"She can do it herself," I remember my dad saying to her once. I was probably about eight and totally capable.
"I know," she shushed him, rocking me and hugging me close.
More importantly, more poignantly, I can remember her singing. She would sit me in her lap and draw pictures for me, anything I asked to see, and sing. My first memory is of her changing me on her bed and singing to me. As she would work around the house, especially when she was cooking and washing dishes, she would sing, usually the country classics by Jim Reeves or Hank Williams or Patsy Cline.
And my grandfather would sing back.
He would be in one room while she was in another, and they would sing bits of love songs to each other. They would randomly, without request or prompt, walk up and kiss each other. He would pat her affectionately on the back of the head, like he did all of us.
"I love you, doll," he would say.
"I love you, too, hun."
Red and Dean Quinn taught me, taught us all, what true love could be. They would argue ("We're not arguin'—we're just discussin'.") and they would make up. They cared for each other in the good and the bad, and they loved each other.
Four children, seven granddaughters, two great-grandsons.
I drove to Alabama last Saturday, having waited only long enough for the sun to come up behind the morning rains. Having camped all over the southeast with my grandparents as a child, I love a good road trip. Without Rango or the boys, I delved into my music and the podcasts I hadn't been able to get to over the last few weeks.
I came the way I always do, which takes me along the road where my grandfather died in 2006, where his car veered gently off the road and came to rest against a grassy embankment. As I made the turn and realized where I was, my iPod tried to kill me.
I fall to pieces each time I see you again....
I bawled my eyes out as Patsy Cline sang on. I thought of how every time my grandmother would sing Patsy Cline, she would make sure to tell me it was Patsy Cline and then cluck her tongue and shake her head and lament the immense talent lost to tragedy.
And I thought about how it would've killed my grandfather to see her in pain, to see her in the least bit of sorrow or agony. How she wailed when he died, how it surprised no one maybe more than her that her broken heart didn't kill her.
When I got to the house, it was quiet. My aunts and uncles and my dad were there, plus my grandmother's last remaining sister. She was being kept very comfortable.
As I sat in the kitchen in the early afternoon, anxious and helpless to do anything but watch and wait, I started to think about what was coming. I had a moment where I saw the house empty. In my mind's eye, even with the furniture moved away and none of us there, their energy made that house glow. They are ingrained in every fiber of that home.
A few hours later, as the end approached, we gathered around her. We held her hand and told her how much we loved her. We cried.
I leaned down to her and very quietly, so that only she and I could hear, I sang to her. A song I know she loved. And with my father and my uncles and my aunt, I stayed with her through the end.
I could've left the room at any time. No one would've blamed me for being overwhelmed by my own emotion or theirs, for feeling the weight of the moment as more than I could bear.
But it felt important, necessary, to bear witness to her passing, to hold her hand and tell her how much I loved her, to offer her any comfort I could in her last shining moments on this earth. She was 37 when I was born—almost six years older than I am now—and for more than half of her life, she'd been Maw-maw, in addition to Mother and Mom and Daughter and Sister and Aunt and Friend and Wife and Dean.
I last saw her two weeks before, when I'd stopped working on the end of my semester work and GOAL prep so I could make sure I saw her. She was uncomfortable, though not in a lot of pain, but she knew what was coming.
She was lucid but quiet. Tired. She would talk for a bit then stare at the soundless television that she let my aunt leave on the Food Network, just because the pictures distracted her from her thoughts. She would talk a bit more then look to an old black-and-white framed picture of the first Quinn family portrait—my grandparents with my dad, all blond and in a bow-tie.
"I'm just glad there's no babies to take care of right now," she told me.
We talked about my school and my boys, about how they'd grown. We talked about how she kept me company and sane when Max was an infant and I was a frightened new mom, totally unsure of how to take care of the baby I'd fought so hard to bring into the world. We talked about the cakes and the soups I would make for her and my grandfather, both as an excuse to try a new recipe and to have a reason to visit them.
"I'm sorry, Steph," she said.
"Just because...." She was so tired.
"No," I told her. "I'm sorry you have to go through this. I'm sorry we can't do anything to make you feel better."
I spent a few hours at her house but had to leave to get back to the boys and my schoolwork.
I hugged her now-thin frame and kissed her cheek. "I love you, Maw-maw."
"I love you, too, hun."
Those were the last words I got from my grandmother.
Today, while I stood crying at the casket, my dad told me how proud she was of me, how proud she was that I'd won GOAL.
Even when I was a pill of a child, or a pain in the ass of a teenager, I never didn't know that my grandparents loved me and were proud of me. It has been an honor and a blessing for more than 42 years to be able to call Dean Quinn my maw-maw.
We are a strong, close-knit family. We gripe and grumble sometimes—we're not arguin', just discussin'. But because of the example Red and Dean Quinn set for us, we are loving, functional, responsible people who care for each other every chance we get. When we make mistakes, we do our best to make up. But we are family, no matter what.
At the service today, the minister said, "Grief is the price we pay for having loved so well."
In that case, I don't think any two people have ever been so loved.