Living, Losing

The day before he passed, my younger sister wrote our uncle's name in the sand in Gulfport, MS.

A week ago today, I watched a man I’d known my entire life take his last breath.

My two sisters and I drove over 1,000 miles to see our Uncle Donald, who was in ICU at a hospital in Biloxi, Mississippi. I hadn’t been home in six years.

For the past week, I’ve been through an array of emotions. Disbelief.  Sadness. Anger. Fear. Loneliness. Disappointment. I lost my grandmother (his mother) two years ago, but this feels different. Unlike Weya, who had been ill with dementia for years, Uncle Donald was up walking around, driving–he had taken the long trip from Maryland to Mississippi in his beloved “Jeepo”–and doing things the average person does. He had even recently begun texting. I knew he was battling a few illnesses, but I didn’t know he had been sick for as long as he had.

While I’m still having trouble accepting the fact that my dear uncle is gone, I have so much to be thankful for. He survived Hurricane Katrina. He always had a smile on his face. He always wanted to make us laugh, even if his jokes were corny. He would come bearing gifts–T-shirts, car adapters, oversize headboards–anything to make us happy. I can say, without a doubt, that he squeezed every ounce out of this life that he could. As much as it hurt to see him in that bed, I had the privilege of being there until, literally, the very end. We went down there to see him, and we didn’t leave him behind: It was as if he had waited for us. The truly profound experience of watching his final moments means more to me than I can express.

I’m coping with this loss. I sleep, cry, and stare into space a lot. I’ve been looking at old photos and calling his answering machine. I can laugh sometimes, but I can’t smile yet. With each day, however, I’m doing a little better. That’s all I can expect from myself at this point. I’m preparing myself to write something beautiful about him for his memorial. Though losing Uncle Donald hurts, the peace I know I will feel when I fully accept what has happened and embrace my wonderful memories of him is worth the wait.

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Parents: Life’s Sneaky Dreamkillers

Don't be fooled: Her mother may someday tell her she'll never be the first woman to sing "Run the World (Girls)" on a space shuttle.

As he accepted a BET Honors award for his storied filmmaking career, Spike Lee spoke one of the truest, saddest, most poignant statements ever.

“It has been my observation,” he said, “that parents kill more dreams than anybody.”

I shook my head and clapped in furious agreement. Yes, Mr. Lee. You don’t have to wait for your 11th-grade chemistry teacher to tell you “you’re smart, but you don’t have the logic to the complete the labs.” Sure, she can shatter your dreams of attending Johns Hopkins Medical School–rendering all your hours of studying the MCAT guide and college biology textbooks over summer vacation futile–but your hopes can crumble much earlier. The blow needn’t come from strangers tossing your resume or disgruntled online commenters with their drawers in a wad about their own deferred aspirations.

Undoubtedly, the jab that smacks your dreams to the mat can come from your parents, the people who gave you your chromosomes, the people you’d expect would offer you the most encouragement and support. Shameful.

Now, I must admit I’m coming from a slightly different angle here. Except for the stint in sixth-grade erotica, My parents always encouraged me to pursue the career that would fulfill me. At 11, it was medicine. I promised my mother I would become a doctor, and though that pubescent hope is still possible–Me, Ph.D sounds pretty good–I will most likely never be a physician. Now, thankfully, that is okay with me. It wasn’t when Ms. Chemistry Dreamkiller so smilingly offered me her .02 about my scientific aptitude, but today, I’m comfortable with being a patient. At least I can win trivia games with my knowledge of the periodic table.

[Which is the only other element besides mercury that is a liquid at room temperature? Bromine!!]

Some parents, though, really do kill their kids’ dreams, either by telling them, flat-out, that they’ll never get into college, Hollywood, or anywhere else, or indirectly leading their starry-eyed offspring to another vocation. You’ve probably seen the completely sane dance moms on TLC.

I understand how big dreams can sound to practical folks. I still get the courtesy nods–“Oh, ok, that’s good,” with the patronizing smile–when I tell some people my dream is to write for a magazine in NYC. I can’t be upset though, because that’s the same nod that I, admittedly, give to 35-year-old aspiring rappers. Some dreams just seem to farfetched for others to grasp, including parents. Parents are people, and people are judgmental.

But what good would come of us if no one dreamed of anything even remotely spectacular? We wouldn’t have half the amenities–shoot, even pants with zippers–if someone hadn’t dreamed sideways. And if the encouragement to dream big begins anywhere, it should begin at home and then in school, the two places children spend most of their time.

The world is going to give children enough heat. That’s why parents should instill genuine confidence in their children, confidence that compels youngsters to think boldly yet prudently. Kids should always get a healthy dose of realism and flexibility: Telling a child she’s a lazy bum is no better than telling her she’s the smartest kid in the world, as both statements leave no room for variation. But for the most part, parents or guardians should be the child’s first cheerleaders, even if the aspiration really is off the charts.

Without wild dreams–and someone to believe in them–Spike Lee, Steve Jobs, Oprah, and many, many more people would just be (or have been) regular old folks taking up seats on the Metro.