Reflections/Jonathan Gramling

Jonathan Gramling

Homegoing Part 4

It had been 27 years since I had seen my former wife’s family. When Joy died in June 2023, a Celebration of Life was planned for her to be held in Jackson, MS where Joy grew up. I was invited to the celebration and I didn’t know what to expect. That first night when we went for seafood at a restaurant on the banks of the Ross Barnett Reservoir, my (step) daughter Jennifer and I hugged when we saw each other in the parking lot and I knew everything was going to be alright.

Andrew wanted John, his stepdad, to attend and offered to pay for John’s and his meals. It was a wonderful meal as Jennifer, her three children, her grandson, my sister Katy, Andrew, John and I enjoyed each other’s company along with the mountain of seafood that we were served. There was a lot reminiscing and laughter as we caught up on old and new. We just about closed the place out.

In the end, I said that I would pay for everyone’s meal. I didn’t want to ruin the moment by making John feel like an add-on as Andrew paid for them separately. Andrew seemed to be in the same space and quietly relented.

The next day was the celebration of Joy’s life. Most of her Jackson family was there. Her sister Darlene and brother-in-law Dwayne were in a nursing home because they had each suffered debilitating strokes. Her sister Carrie was there. This was my first time meeting Carrie as she had lived most of her adult life in San Diego, California. Carrie had moved back to Jackson to be close to family as she battled cancer. Joy’s nephew Shawn and his family had come from Atlanta. But her niece Julia was absent. Julia lived in Phoenix and was supposed to fly in. But then we heard that she was stuck in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport and then reportedly flew in to Memphis and was staying with an uncle.

Tragedy had visited Joy’s family. Joy was the third of eight children to die long before they should. And her niece April had passed away. Joy came from a very strong, resilient family.

And some of Joy’s childhood friends came to the celebration. John, Joy’s widower and Joan her oldest sister had set a welcoming tone. It was a happy time celebrating Joy’s life and everyone was included in her family.

John emceed the celebration and showed a video of Joy as she received her master’s in library science from UW-Madison. Joy’s obituary was read and they were kind and gracious enough to include me as one of the people Joy had left behind. Joy’s children, including her son Myles, her son with John, each took turns to speak about their mother and then her family and childhood friends spoke.

None of us knows another human being fully, even if they have lived as husband and wife for many years. Everyone has a piece of a mosaic that they add to the story of a person’s life and once people are done talking, you have a much greater understanding of who that person was and is.

I got up to talk about Joy’s early years when we first met while I was working on the Congressional campaign of an independent Black candidate in 1978. Joy was a proud woman who fought discrimination. She wasn’t going to let people treat her that way. When people talked about her being a librarian at UC-Davis and her love of books, I remembered how she would take “Joy Time” reading novels in our bedroom.

As I listened to people talk, I thought about Joy’s and my marriage and our divorce back in 1990. Coming out of a divorce, it is so easy to fall into the trap of being self-righteous and demonizing the person you are divorcing. But as I sat on the train coming to Jackson and sat in Joy’s celebration, I remembered the good times we had as well. Joy had a wonderful sense of humor and a laugh that I could see in Jennifer’s laugh during the ceremony.

I realized that we both had a part in our divorce. I was pretty pig-headed and that was matched by Joy. What it basically came down to was I was a social activist and had been a social activist for 10 years before I met Joy and was a social activist when I met Joy. Being a social activist wasn’t a phase I was going through before “I grew up.” It was an avocation that I would practice for my entire adult life.

Joy, on the other hand, wanted the good, middle-class life that she didn’t have when she was growing up in Jackson. And there was nothing wrong with that. As it turned out, I wasn’t the one who could provide that to her.

By the end of the celebration, I felt that Joy had brought her entire life together and had made it one. It was like a new community of fellowship had been created as people were giving each other hugs and well wishes.

After the celebration, Jennifer hosted us in her home in a suburb of Jackson on the north side. All of us spent time again recalling the good times that we had shared. It was a healing time for Jennifer, Andrew and I. I got a sense from Andrew that he had healed. It was like he had lived two lives, the life with me and then the life with Joy and her family. These two parts of his life came together and in a certain way, it all melded together into a seamless whole.

The next day, we came over to Joan’s house to do some more talking. Mother was there. She was 101-years-old and was sitting in a wheel chair. While her sight had been giving way, her hearing was good. I was so glad that she remembered me. She clutched my hand as we spoke. In spite of all of the adversity she faced in life including raising her eight children pretty much by herself, she still sat strong. She did more than the best that she could.

Carrie was also sitting in the bedroom. Her body had been ravaged by the cancer and she was frail. It was my first time meeting her and we talked for a little bit before she laid down in another room. Before we left, I went into the room and said good-bye. My last words to her were “I love you Carrie.” And she responded, ‘I love you too.’

The trip pointed out the disparities in health in a very personal way. Joy and I each came from Catholic families with eight children. My immediate family has been blessed in that all of us are alive with my brother jim being the oldest at 78-years-old. On the other hand, Joy was the third sibling to die, all of them before their time.

And within a few weeks in April, three more members of the family had died. Carrie had succumbed to her cancer and Dwayne died in the nursing home; I think from a stroke or heart attack.

And then in the first week of May, we found out that Julia, Jennifer and Andrew’s first cousin, had died. Julia’s body had been at a funeral home for 2-3 weeks before her immediate family found out. And they still don’t know what the circumstances were. It reminded me of State Representative Shelia Stubbs initiative on murdered and missing African American women. While there has been speculation, we don’t know for sure and are trying to get the medical examiner’s report and the report of the EMTs who brought her to a Phoenix hospital. And it turns out that Julia had never been in Memphis because her uncle doesn’t live there. It is so sad.

All of this has given me pause as I thought about it on the train ride back north and in the ensuing days. Health disparities take on a new urgency when it hits so close to home in such a stark way.

Jennifer and I keep in touch via texting on our cell phones and sometimes having conversations. Although there was so much tragedy, a lot of healing went on as well. I have been blessed.