Defined by Loss
I might forget the names but I’ll never forget their faces. We say “In loving memory…” because we understand that sometimes our memories are the only things we get to keep, but sadly those are poor compensation. Sitting down to think about the losses, I can’t always remember how old I was, how old they were, or even full names and little details but what stays, what I’d like to share are the reasons that these losses matter to me and have stayed with me year after year.
I have lost count of the number of people I’ve known who have died. My list is 30 people long of just the significant ones. Over time they have solidified into groups- more digestible bites.
I was 6 when my grandfather, my father’s father, died. I barely remember him. Some memories, I know have been instilled through stories passed down over and over until they have become real in my mind. Umpap, a minister at a church, would take us with him on Sundays. In the summer, he sat with my brother and I on the porch in front of their house where he’d peel oranges and share them between us. He and my Grandma lived just down the street. I remember him in brown, light brown and he smelled like mint. I can’t remember how he died. I remember my mom taking us to the hospital and we saw him in the hospital bed. He smiled when he saw us.
Despite the fact that I was only 6 and my brother TJ, 4, we were included in every part of the homegoing. My family believes that when you’ve lived a good life devoted to the lord and to other people that when you die you get to be reunited with all those you’ve lost in everlasting paradise with no pain and no more toil. There is so much comfort in that idea and there was no question that he was a good man. From the very beginning, I was taught to embrace the duality- life and death. Losing people hurt and you were allowed to be sad and to cry but you were also expected to be happy for them. Dying and going to heaven was a reward after a life that might be difficult and full of tribulations.
Even so, it’s hard not to question the evenhandedness of a God who takes children from this world. When I was ten there was a boy a couple years older than me at my church named Christopher Reeves. I hated him. Well, I didn’t really hate him. Every Sunday he would beg to sit in our pew so that he could play with “the baby”. I was a big sister again, Tre was born and he was adorable. He was also mine so I was irritated by he fact that Christopher would always want to come and play with him.
“Let him be,” My mother told me, “you get to play with Tre all the time and he only gets to see him on Sunday.” I decided that if Christopher was going to be sitting with us then he at least need to know how to handle my brother. He was patient with me. He was a very kind kid and he loved church.
He started begging the pastor to baptize him. He was maybe 12 and he was old enough but in our church if you weren’t baptized as a baby then you had to wait until you “knew what it meant”. Pastor Taylor keep putting it off and putting it off but finally one Sunday he called Christopher forward and invited him to give his life to Christ and be baptized. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone smile so wide. Christopher got baptized and somehow he and I became good friends.
That summer he went on vacation for a week to visit family out of state. His cousins decided to play a trick on him. While he slept on a bunkbed they snuck in and wrapped a sheet around his neck and then scared him and woke him up; he strangled to death. I cried for weeks. My mother tried to comfort me; she cooed that sometimes God needs young angels too and it was all according to his plan and his timing. I wanted to believe that but ever since Christopher’s death I’ve had trouble embracing the religion I was raised into. I don’t consider myself Methodist and haven’t in many years now. I’m very spiritual but because of how old I was and how things happened my faith was damaged.
A year or so later my Grandpa Frank died- Frank was married to my grandmother and he was a really sweet old man with coke bottle glasses a billion wrinkles. I remember him as grey. I remember that he was buried in a suit that looked too big for him.
Some deaths break everything. They create a line in your life- a before and an after. Growing up, I lived on a street where every house was owned by someone in my family. My grandparents, 2 aunts, and a few cousins all lived within walking distance which meant there was always a cookout, a babysitter or a shoulder to lean on in close proximity. Auntie Ann lived in the house right next door to my grandparents- 5 houses from us. Sometimes, after someone dies we tend to worship them. We make them into symbols or larger than life characters but Auntie was the person you spoke fondly of while she was alive too. She was a nurse for many years and she could hunt, shoot, skin a squirrel, a rabbit or a deer. She loved hockey and passed that passion to me and my brothers.
My brothers idealized her. She and I had less in common. I don’t hunt or fish and don’t really want to shove my hand into a dead animal’s belly. Even so she tried to connect with me. Once she asked me to come over and help her do her hair. I smile when I think of it. She didn’t care about hair but she wanted to have something for us to do together.
Auntie died in 2009 when I was 22, though I always feel like I was younger, she was 77. Symmetry. She died in her home of natural causes and, a fact that still hurts, Tre found her. He was 12 and it was my brother TJ’s birthday. Tre went over to check on her and to visit with her after school like he did most days. She was lying next to her bed on the floor. He ran across the street to a neighbor who called my parents and the police.
I loved her and it hurt a lot when she passed but my brothers were devastated. Tre was never the same. I have tried to support them but every year in February they struggle. The last few years have been better but it seems like it will always be a difficult time for them.
Auntie’s death damaged our family. Her daughter from Philadelphia came breezing in and took anything of value, called us the moneygrubbing relatives and left never to make contact with this side of the family again. When I asked my mother about this she said “Well, everyone deals with grief differently.”
Auntie’s death began what my mother calls “The Year of Death” in which we lost many people in close succession. I’m going to be honest- I don’t remember everyone who died that year. I think I was probably a little in shock and I defaulted to business mode. In business mode you help with the funeral arrangements and pick the flowers and clean the house out and close their accounts. You don’t have time to be sad yet because there is so much to keep you busy and if you stay busy then the reality doesn’t have time to sink in. And just when we would finish with one death another arrived on its heels. My mother didn’t want to talk about this when I asked her because it’s still difficult for her. She actually took her grief seriously and started therapy the following year to deal with the emotional impact and though she is much better now it’s the kind of sore you don’t pick at. When it was happening, she was so in control and strong that I just assumed that was how you were supposed to handle death. I learned from her example that death was a part of life and we had to be strong and work hard to give the people we love the best send off. I didn’t know how hard that was for her until many years later.
In November 2009 my paternal grandmother passed away at 90 years old. A month later a really close friend of the family named Mr. Jenkins followed her ending the year of death.
Though my grandmother dying was still quite sad it was the first time I’ve been grateful for someone I loved to die. In the final years of her life my grandmother became mean. She would often forget who we were though she remembered my dad and my uncle until the very end. She became paranoid, convinced that everyone was trying to steal from her- despite there being someone who actually was taking advantage of her- a neighbor how asked her for money constantly only to wait for her to forget so they could ask for more.
I remember my grandmother as she was. She was the textbook grandma. She baked and cooked better than any person I’ve ever known. She was a talented seamstress and could both knit and crochet. It’s because of her that I wanted to learn to sew She’d get us off the bus after school when I was in elementary school and feed us fresh baked cookies and milk before sending us home with little bags of penny candy. She smelled like apple pie, which she’d bake by the pan to take to church events. She loved us.
Until she didn’t. Until she couldn’t remember me at all and she would ask where the baby was despite that fact that by the time she died Tre was 12. In the end Alzheimer’s and dementia took my grandma away from us. This experience taught me that sometimes death is a blessing. It’s necessary both for the individual and for the loved ones they leave behind. We loved her and we supported her even though she acted like she hated us. We reminded each other of the “good old days” with her and disregarded every mean comments and rude name she called us because somewhere inside the shell was the women who flew across the country to visit us and made stuffed animals for us by hand and hung up every single 8X10 school photo we’d ever taken on the living room wall of her house.
I remember going to her bed side in the hospital just before she passed and she looked at me and then looked and my dad and asked “Who is this?” and my dad said, “This is Thomasa your granddaughter.” My grandmother looked at me, smiled with a mouth still full of all her own teeth and said “My granddaughter huh…ain’t she beautiful? Can’t be yours,” We all laughed. Then she said “Hi Thomasa.” That was the last time I ever heard her say my name. She died shortly after.
I cherish that memory and it has helped me be more accepting of people, wherever they happen to be in their journey. Sometimes, through no fault of their own, they aren’t the people they were or who they would like to be. We all suffer.
In 2011, I was 24 when my maternal grandmother died. This woman was a firecracker beginning to end. She lived a full life with lots of love (several husbands) and children (6). She was a caregiver and a rebel and I miss her. From her death I learned the importance of pre-death planning. This woman, she had everything in order. When she died she already had all of her plans made with the funeral home. She even picked the time of day for the viewings and funeral services. She picked her flowers, her dress and had everything already paid for. Most of my family on that said are non-planners, with the exception of my mom. They weren’t particularly good at death planning but Grandma Lattimore had everything done so all we had to do was show up. She didn’t want to leave a burden and she knew what she wanted.
At her funeral, my dad offered to speak. Everyone was somber and serious and he got up, all 6 foot 5 of him and said “She would not want her family crying today, today we celebrate the old bat!” and then he preceded to tell some of the funniest stories about her until everyone was laughing and smiling. He was honest about who she was and who she wasn’t. I was finally old enough to really experience and remember the moments. There were people in that room that I’d only see again at another funeral. My mother called her sisters and some other family together and handed each person a memento as my grandmother had instructed and we went out to eat at eat n park as she wanted. This was the first funeral where I learned that it was ok to feel happy while also being sad. I was happy to see my cousins and all me family together in one place. We are all over the country now and for once we were all in the same room.
In 2016 I traveled to a funeral for the first time. All the deaths before my Aunt Shelia passed has been fairly local- within driving distance. For her funeral my mother and brothers and I went to North Carolina.
Aunt Sheila had always been the “Aunt on the Island”. She distanced herself from the rest of the family long before I was born. She lived most of her life somewhere in Washington state. She barely called though she would occasionally send a Christmas card. She was diagnosed in 2014 with cancer and after her treatment she came off the island. She even came to Johnstown to visit with her husband Ronnie. She knew very little about me except that I had a studio where I made jewelry so she sent me a box full of supplies, beads and wire and fasteners. She ended up getting into the hobby herself and started making beautiful jewelry to sell. She moved in North Carolina just a year or so before she died.
Sheila was the oldest of the sisters so there was never a question that my mom was going to go to the funeral. She hates flying and traveling and I wanted to be there for her so I called off work and went too. It was another occasion where family I hadn’t seen in years was all together in the same place. I felt like I should be sad but I wasn’t. I’d barely really known her except for the little reconnection we had just before she passed.
I was hurt during the funeral because my mother was crying. The members of her church greeted us with open arms they supported us but they were the ones with the stories to tell, they had the memories. My mother cried because with this finality that would never change- she didn’t know her sister anymore because her sister hadn’t really wanted to know her. From the stories her church family told she was a great woman, loving and kind, creative and funny. I wish I’d known her. I wish she’d known me- we’d have had a lot in common. I learned from this experience not to regret the past. We tend to say wish for things to be different once it’s too late to change them. If you want to know someone- talk to them now. If you want to have them in your life, invent in those relationships while you still can.
I thought by this point in my life, after countless experiences with death, that I understood it. I thought I’d learned every lesson it had to teach me. Of course I was wrong, death never finishes teaching you until your own.
In 2017, my dad, Tommy Pridgen Sr. died in surgery due to complications after a car accident. It was May 19 and I was 30 years old; he was only 60. Symmetry.
There is nothing I can compare to losing a parent. Perhaps losing a child is worse, I haven’t had that experience and I pray I never do but my dad’s death marked a definite before and after in my life. It also marked a lot of milestones. His funeral was the first I ever spoke at. It was also the largest funeral I’ve ever attended with over 200 people coming to support and mourn with us. It was the first time I has to sit in a funeral director’s office and hash out details- unlike the rest of his family, he’d had no arrangements in place. It was also the first time I wasn’t on the outskirts of the mourning party- I was in the center stage.
The night he died I got a call from my mom that we needed to go to the hospital because there’d been an accident. My boyfriend at the time went with us. My uncle and his wife were there when we arrived. When we first got there it wasn’t a deathbed moment. We were trying to figure out who would take off work to take care of him when he got home, what he might need at the house. We didn’t think for a moment that he wouldn’t be going home.
We waited in the ER for almost 3 hours before the doctor finally came out to deliver the news. He was very apologetic but that’s all I remember about him. I remember everyone started crying and my boyfriend was holding me and telling me it would be ok.. He’d lost both his mom in 2016 and his step dad a few months before. I made myself stop crying. “I have to call the boys!” I kept saying- they were already told about the accident and they were waiting for us to call. TJ lived in Arizona at that point and Tre was in Maine playing hockey. I called them and I could barely say the words TJ said he would be on a plane in about an hour and Tre got his Hockey mom to drive him down the full 16 hours. While they made travel arrangements we had to wait another 2 hours before we could see my dad’s body and an additional hour to meet with the coroner.
I remember going over to my dad and of course by that point they had taken the tubes out and removed all the wires and probes and they had his eyes closed so he looked like he was sleeping. I held his hand and it was already cold. I said my good byes but I never got to look into his eyes again.
Unlike in the past there was a hold social network waiting for news so I also had to post to my Facebook about what happened. I was flooded with text messages, DM’s and phone calls. It got to the point where I just stopped answering my phone. I was getting messages from people I’ve never met who’d worked with my dad years about and wanted to extend their condolences. My job because not to mourn but to console the mourners. As the people in the center we were the ones taking on the grief and sorrow- the stories and secrets and goodbyes. It was like having to plan a party you didn’t want to have for people you didn’t really know to celebrate something you weren’t happy about when all you really wanted to do was be left alone in a corner to scream and cry. It overwhelmed me how many people showed up to support us and how even months later who showed up to check on us. Over time, the sympathy wore down and the calls finally stopped- which was a blessing because every one was just a reminded that sucked me back and told me I needed to still be sad. I never returned to Facebook after that- I couldn’t deal with being the spectacle and being so easily accessible.
In losing my dad we also lost our family home and my cat fritz, who had to be re-homed. When I moved back to Johnstown I got an apartment that wouldn’t allow cats. My dad took Fritz and especially he became my dad’s cat. When my dad wasn’t there anymore Fritz couldn’t be either and since I couldn’t take him he needed to be placed in a new home. It’s take 3 years to deal with the after math- my mother doing most of the work, closed all the accounts and cleaned out the house and sold it. Death isn’t finally until the last check is cashed.. That’s what our lawyer told us. It took almost 3 years for that final check to finally be cashed. But I still get mail in his name- despite the fact that he’s never lived with me in my apartment.
My dad’s death had the most profound and lasting effect on me. The me, after, is more private and more realistic. Its taken time but I accept that I will also die and my mother will die and my brothers will die and it’ll hurt. This experience taught me that loss will make you feel like you are dying without giving you the final relief. Each day will get a little easier and the memories will fade a bit more and the story you tell yourself about what happens becomes more important that what actually happened. Because at the end of the day, it’s the stories that live on.. It’s the stories we get to keep.