01 March, 2011

February Is the Cruelest Month

Forget what T.S. Eliot said in The Waste Land--February is over and thank goodness. It is always such a struggle of a month for me. This one was no exception. My family and I were stuck a week in our house from a snow and ice storm, I got the flu, and the month presented its grand finale with the death of my Great Uncle Jimmy. I am very sad about his passing. I don't handle the loss of great people well.

February has an interesting coincidence for the Bradley side of the family. My mother was a Bradley, and after the death of her grandmother and my Great-Grandmother Lela Bradley, she mentioned how much Great Grandma B hated the month of February. My seven-year-old brain could not comprehend why anyone would dislike a month. The she explained the following:

Her husband (my great-grandfather) died in February.

Baby Bradley (my great uncle), who only survived a few days after birth, died in February.

Her son Joe Bradley (my great uncle) died in February.

My Great-Grandmother Lela Mae Bradley died in February, too.

Twelve years later my Pa Pa Tyrus Bradley (my Great-Grandmother's son) died in February.

When my Great Uncle Jimmy went to the nursing home in August 2010 and was given only 6 months to live, my mother soon realized this was in February. James Bradley died February 26. 2011, three days shy of March.

February is not much of a good month for my family.

My Great Uncle Jimmy was the last living member of my Pa Pa Bradley's family. He reminded me so much of my Pa Pa that I miss nearly every day. My Pa Pa passed away when I was a college freshman in 2000. Both my Pa Pa and my Great Uncle Jimmy were the epitome of kindness, compassion and quiet resolve. They worked hard, loved deeply and were always positive about any circumstance. Both men suffered long illnesses before their deaths. In a way, when a person is under so much physical duress, death can be a release. Your sadness lies in missing their presence, not their actual death.

As a very shaky nineteen-year-old, I gave my Pa Pa's eulogy at his funeral. At the time, I was in an American Poetry class in college. We had just completed T.S. Eliot's epic, The Waste Land and moved on to Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself." At the time, poem 6 spoke to me of how I perceived the loss of life, so much in fact I read it at my Pa Pa's funeral.

From Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" (1855)

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them.
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their mothers' laps,
And here you are the mothers' laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers.
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

We all process grief in different ways. Some blame the people around them while others retreat from the world. I usually go to music and poetry to say what I cannot. I get speechless when I experience loss. This poem from Walt Whitman, spoken at my Pa Pa's funeral, provides a beautiful window into my feelings about the passing of uncle. I am sad I didn't get to see my uncle in the last year, but perhaps it is best to remember him as a healthy man in his overalls, reading his Louis L'Amour novels and speaking with a slow East Texas drawl. I am even more sad I cannot be at his funeral today. There is simply no way to describe how nice it was see his smiling eyes every time my family went to the Bradley camp house outside Groveton

I know next time I am in the beautiful pines and sugar gum trees of East Texas, I will remember the onward and outward of the Bradley side of my family. And I will feel quite lucky.