When you come around, I get a tightness in my chest. And it’s not entirely because I’m a teacher about to start school.
August 2006 was the last month of her life. Barbara McCray Bartell.
Her oncologist had put her on oxygen that January when the cancer spread from her colon to her liver to her lungs. She had an oxygen pack that went with her into the Dollar General and the Piggly Wiggly, and there was an oxygen machine bubbling like an aquarium at night at her bedside.
August 16, 2006 she quit chemo. A little over two weeks later she died on August 31.
A combination of grief and dread settles in my bones in August. My body always remembers, even when my mind isn’t actively thinking about it. It always comes in August.
This August writers Toni Morrison and Paule Marshall died. August 9 would have been 45 years of marriage for my parents. The second week of August teachers went back to school, and the first day of school was the following week.
Stress, grief, sadness, anxiety, excitement.
On August 11 Aunt Christine dies. I go to the funeral and feel as if I am standing on behalf of my father, representing for him. My cousins are doing the same for their parents who have already joined their siblings in that Great Peace up yonder. We hug each other. It’s been months and for some years since we’ve been in each other’s presence. I hug many people I do not know. I introduce myself as L.J.’s daughter and they say, “Oh, I know!”
At the funeral, Aunt Christine’s grandsons played the piano and sang Shirley Cesar’s “I Remember Mama.” I cried like I did last month when I was playing the song one Sunday morning. I cried too because Aunt Christine was a quiet, humble woman who was full of love. Although she couldn’t talk, walk, or eat by herself when she died, what I remember most about her is her smile and quiet strength, the way her eyes lit up when I would refer to myself as her favorite niece.
When my mother died and I survived, I thought I could endure any death and be fine.
Then my father died five years after. L.J. Bartell.
And that grief too was a survival, and I thought that any death after this one would be easier to endure.
But each time someone I love dies, the grief becomes new again. The impact of it is compounded and expanded. It’s as if I’m grieving all of their deaths at once.
And that’s how I felt, August: constantly tired, angry at times, crying others, and mostly in need of a nap.
But among that I welcomed a new school year with new teachers and students. My best friend celebrated another birthday. Today I am going to my cousin’s Renewal of Vows. I’m excited for him. He has a beautiful family filled to the brim with love. I’m looking forward to seeing more of my family.
Yesterday, I went to my school’s first football game of the season. I sat with one of my co-workers and her family. She told me how she doesn’t really know the game. I told her about my brothers, how they played in high school and I learned the game by sitting in the bleachers with my mom, how she explained the game to me in those moments sitting on the cold benches in the crisp night.
In that moment, she’s not that far away from me. She’s gone and she’s here.