It’s not easy coming to terms with your own mortality. As you age, you begin to realize the truly ephemeral nature of living, especially as you lose friends and family members who mean so much to you and forged indelibly in your formative memories.
My uncle Billy passed a little over a month ago. He was the husband of my dad’s sister, Aunt Shirley. Currently, out of 15 aunts and uncles on both sides of the family, I now have three remaining, and my Aunt Shirley is one of them. For as long as I can recall, they have lived on a sprawling farm in rural Alcorn County, and my memories of going to visit them revolve around the holidays.
Often, my dad’s family gathered at Aunt Shirley and Uncle Billy’s for a meal before Christmas. Not only was the meal akin to a feast at a southern Protestant church, the warmth of that house was comforting, with its hardwood floors and gaily decorated Christmas tree in the front room. One of my fondest memories of one of our times there, probably on a crisp December Sunday afternoon after lunch, was when Uncle Billy hooked up the mules to the wagon, and a number of my extended family, including both children and adults, piled in on the wood platform to take a ride across the farm with him at the reigns.
As a youngster, I forever romanticized the Currier and Ives notion of Christmas so deeply embedded in our collective imaginings, with its one-horse open sleigh gliding across fresh snow, but as a denizen of the Deep South, I cannot recall ever having a single snow at Christmas, certainly not gliding across it in a sleigh. Thus, my Uncle Billy’s adventure across the farm in the wagon is perhaps the closest I may ever get to those romanticized notions of holiday spirit. Forget that the grass may still have been green and was certainly dry that day. I will never forget, and it comforts me to remember.
Although I was saddened, it was no surprise to me to hear about the passing of Uncle Billy, who was 89 and had been in declining health for a while. However, this past week, I received sad news about the mother of one of my best childhood friends. Jo, the mother of my elementary school friend, Mindi, has battled cancer for the past seven years. Mindi refers to her mother as a “tough old bird,” as Jo has successfully fought it off each time – until now. The news is that it has returned, has spread, and nothing can be done.
It’s hard to think of losing someone who was a central part of your childhood, almost like another parent to you. It’s complicated also by the fact that she seemed so strong, almost invincible, until now. However, we are all human, all mortal, and there comes a time when we learn that none of us are invincible. I suppose that this is Jo’s time. According to her doctors, she has been given two weeks. Of course, my thought is that, knowing her fortitude, she will exceed that time frame somehow.
I decided to send her a card this week, and in it, I enclosed a letter. I could sum it up, but it might lose some of its resonance in summary. I opened by addressing her as “Mama Jo,” because, as I told her, I think of her as a mother. Here is what I wrote:
“I didn’t know it when we were kids, but I know now where Mindi gets all of her spunk and sass. That’s one of the reasons why I loved her and was drawn to her as a good friend when we were growing up. Ultimately, she is so much like you! And you are definitely one special lady.
“I’m sure you remember all of those times that Mindi came to spend the night with me, or I came to your house to spend the night. One of my favorite memories is one night I spent at your house in Guys, and you brought home fish from Captain D’s for supper. After you brought the boxes in, I grabbed one and started digging in. I was used to my mom getting me individual meals from there. What I didn’t realize was that you had gotten a family pack, and it was intended to be divided between everyone! I’m sure that, as a young teenager, I was embarrassed at the time, but it was funny to me later and is even funnier now, looking back.
I also remember the night I spent with you all when you lived in Corinth, and there were some escaped prison inmates in the area. You made me, Mindi, and Jesse (Mindi’s brother) duck into the hallway sometime late that night. I don’t recall anything about us ever going to bed, but I certainly remember the four of us in the hallway with pillows and blankets – and all of the laughter. You always had such a wonderful sense of humor.
“I loved seeing the recent picture of you with Mindi beside you in the hospital. Not the hospital part – but the two of you together in that moment. Often, a person feels like the mother of someone who has been her best friend at some point in life is like a second mother, and that’s how I feel about you. I just wanted to tell you how much you’ve meant to me over the years. My life has been richer with you in it, and I am so glad I have known you. I wish you comfort in the days to come, and just know that, always, I will think of you so very fondly.”
And I always will.