Love in the Time of Corona: A Letter to my Niece on Her Late Mother’s Birthday

A letter to my niece on her late mother’s birthday. My brother’s name is Chad. My niece, then age 5, was in the car with her mother when she was killed in a traffic accident. Anna Kate, now 21, is brilliant, beautiful, and also (newly) a nurse, for less than a year. She caught COVID-19 from a patient, has recovered, and is back to work.

Dear Anna Kate,

Separate from the fact that she married my brother, I had one of the most amazing friendships of my life with your mother. 

Chad and I were both at Bama when they started dating. We first met at this bar called “Trackside” (which was actually named that because it was beside railroad tracks) on a night when I’d had about five “derailers” (their version of a hurricane). We were besties from the start. She loved to laugh and I love to make people laugh.  She was also there the night my friend burned down our apartment, there to watch me in University plays. She was there to help me sort through every heartbreak and every victory. She was there on the field at halftime on Saturdays and I swear I was damn-near as proud of her as I was of my brother for being out there for the four quarters that surrounded her performance. 

She and my mother were like twins. It was stoopid!! I remember one Christmas they both bought each other the exact same gift. Not such a big deal if it was some ordinary gift but these were the most horrible, atrocious, and unusual things! They had neither seen them together nor mentioned them to each other but they both LOVED their ugly Christmas reindeer socks with fur bands and jingle bells. When they’d both opened them up we all just fell over laughing and I remember looking at Stacey’s mouth and thinking, “as long as that smile is on this earth I will have my mother with me” because they were so much alike. I, as we all did, assumed we’d grow old together after mom had gone. Now I can say, as long as your smile shines on earth, I still have them both. 

One time, while your mother and Chad were dating, the first thing she said when she saw me that day was “Thanks for last night.” I said, “What do you mean?!” She just laughed and said, “Chocolate covered strawberries? Your brother? I don’t think so. That has Jeff Key written all over it!” And she was right. Chad had actually come to me and asked for ideas on a romantic evening. I told him, “Not store bought. Go to the trouble of dipping strawberries in the chocolate you melted and put them in the refrigerator. Buy some champagne. Go down to the dock on the river. Listen to her.” While Chad was falling in love with his future wife, I was falling in love with my future sister. That’s what we became, like sisters.

Tater and I are in Los Angeles this week so I’m writing this from just a few blocks away from where I was living when I got the horrible news. Mother called on the phone and she just said, “Stacey was in an accident” and I said, “Well she’s going to be okay, isn’t she?!” and just those two seconds of silence on her end let me know. That was a pain like a lightening bolt that will thunder through my heart until I die. I called my sweet friend Scotch (you remember he was the one who flew from California to sing at Nana’s funeral) and he came down to my apartment and we lay on the floor holding hands and breathing and looking at the ceiling until I could get on the plane the next morning. When I got to Hamilton, Chad was literally standing in the driveway waiting for me. Our family was so emotionally ill-equipped for such a thing. For days I slept in the bed with him, spoon fed him, walked him to the bathroom. After days of grief-induced mutism, the thing he considered important enough to utter was, “don’t tell them up here. they won’t understand.” He was asking me not to tell the people around Hamilton that I was gay. That one will stick with me too, let me tell you. Sort of silly since I was already kind of famously gay already, haha. Still, it did hurt. He was thinking of you. So I forgive it. 

THOUSANDS of people came to express their condolences or to try to help in some way. I remember looking out the front window of their house and the little boy from across the street was out there cutting their grass. I just dissolved into tears thinking about how deeply good people really are and about how much your mother was loved far and wide. He just wanted to do what it could and cutting the grass was what he could bring. I pray God’s blessings the man who was once that sweet boy. 

They held a wake at the church building and the line went down the block. There were close to 3000 people there. We had been there for hours and although each person who stopped tried to give Chad comfort in some way, it seemed like just another little chip fell off with each handshake. Finally, I stood up and said, “I’m going to have to be the bad guy here and say thank you all for coming. Chad is exhausted and I’m taking my brother home.” Everyone understood. I just want you to know there were thousands. I want you to know that’s how loved your mother was. 

A teammate of your dad’s, John Causey, and I took Chad in the Jeep out on this dirt road, just so he could be away from people. He just fell to his knees in the dirt ripping his shirt and wailing. I have never stood witness to such Old Testament grief and John and I just stood there holding hands, shaking and praying as hard as we could. I would have given anything to be able to take even just a little of my brother’s pain away. 

I never thought Chad would marry again. I was afraid he wouldn’t. I honestly think he would have died if he didn’t have you and Gracie to look after. All the other teachers pooled together their leave time to finish mom out to her retirement so she and dad could move to Hamilton and help parent the two of you while Chad tried to get his footing. I am so VERY grateful that God (and perhaps Stacey) sent us Krystle to be a mother and a friend to you and Gracie and to gift us with your beautiful brothers. 

Stacey gave me many gifts throughout the years. She got my sense of humor like few others do and we would just laugh until we cried. In her passing, she gave me another gift, a harder one to receive to be sure, but of great value nonetheless. She has made me stronger. 

Writing about those times before her death has made me long for the closeness of family we had back then. With the exception of a couple of cousins, I’ve become persona non grata with the family since my public activism and criticisms of the Trump presidency. It stings, I won’t lie, but I love them nonetheless. I just want you to know that I am always here for you. Tater and I have beautiful homes in Los Angels and New Orleans and y’all are welcome anytime. I’d like you to know him too. 

I’ve seen a lot of this ole world including war and a couple of plagues. Some say it’s made me crazy, some say it’s made me wise. My guess is it’s a little of both. I’ll pray for more wisdom but any wisdom that life might have afforded me up to this point is here at your disposal, in the way of a shoulder or an ear or anything you need. Anytime. It’s what Stacey would have wanted. 

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