The Observer tries as we can to be a sponge of memory, doing the hardest thing to do in this speedy old world: to slow down and actually see things, for a change. That is especially so when it comes to The Observer’s family. Yours Truly is a romantic, but also a realist. We know that someday we must be parted, one way or another, so we try to make sure to truly and fully experience the moments we have together.
Spouse’s Great Aunt Lola died Aug. 1 at the age of 95. She never married, and had been a second-grade teacher in the Pulaski County Special School District for over 35 years before her retirement long, long ago. To give you an idea of how long 95 years is: If Junior manages to live to 95, they will lay him in the clay in 2094, a year so distant that his Old Man’s analog, three-channel mind can’t even comprehend it. He told us the other day that he’s going to try his damnedest to live in three centuries. If anybody can do it, we’d bet on him.
Spouse’s mother, who lost her husband a few years back, has spent the last year or so living with Lola in her neat little house over in Mabelvale, helping her do her shopping and keep up with the newspaper when her eyesight got too bad to take in the splendor of the shittiness that is Donald Trump, a man she disliked with a passion usually reserved for dog thieves, even though she, with her perfect handwriting and perfectly modeled manners, would never lower herself to hate even him. The Observer, who has hate enough for that fool for the both of us, liked that about Lola quite a bit. She also never missed an issue of the mighty Arkansas Times, either, God bless her, though we’re sure our ads for Cupid’s Lingerie of recent years made her skip the entertainment section entirely.
By the last weeks of July, it was clear that the end was near. Back before she went from bad to worse, went into hospice and then came back out because she wanted to leave from home, Lola had predicted she would die in July. Spouse and Her Man would later speculate there was, as with most things in Lola’s life, a perfectly rational reason for this. If a teacher died in July, we reasoned, the kids would never have to be told of it. They would start in the fall to find that a teacher had simply up and moved on to another school, maybe a school with the best and brightest and most well-behaved children, all with polished apples shined just for her on the corners of their desks every morning. That, Spouse and I decided, was maybe the source of her hope to leave this world in the summer: that some part of Lola was still, at the end, thinking of the only children she would ever have.
Junior was home from college, and the last evening before Lola died, he and Spouse volunteered to go over and spend the night at Lola’s house with Lola and the grandmother whose name is Debra but who Junior still calls “Coco,” even though he towers over her like Hagrid menacing an elf. One of these days, his old man is convinced, he’ll begin carrying his ruddy-cheeked Irish grandmother around in his pocket for safekeeping.
The night passed as uneventfully as a deathwatch can, Lola pretty much out for those last few days, fading and ebbing, never really regaining consciousness. The next day, when The Observer saw Coco again, she told us a story about the previous night. She’d heard Lola talking in her sleep, and had gotten up to go check on her in the dark house. When she went into the bedroom where Lola lay sleeping, she found Junior already there, sitting silently by the bedside in a straight-back chair, holding the old woman’s hand in the dark, reaching across the great gulf of time and experience and life and all the rest that separated them to find the thing common to both as she worried through the last of her bad dreams.
Shortly after Coco told us that story, The Observer had to go find a place to be alone, so people wouldn’t see me thumbing back tears about all of it: Lola’s last night, life and death. Mostly, though, it was joy about the son that boy’s mother and the dope blessed to share her life had raised: the kind of man who would rise in the dark in a silent house and go to the bedside of a dying woman, to hold her hand to ease her way through.
Lola passed the next day, in a sunny room of her little house in Mabelvale. We buried her on a Saturday on a hillside out Chicot Road, next to her mother and father and the brother Lola had cared for after he came home broken from World War II, never wholly himself in body or spirit again. Junior was a pallbearer, wearing a pink carnation that matched the pale roses on her coffin. At the service, former students rose to give testimonials to her kindness, her belief in every child, her love for them. One man, wearing a suit that probably cost more than The Observer’s entire wardrobe combined, choked back tears as he told the assembled that once, when he was a poor and illiterate boy from nowhere and nobody, Lola had saved his life. And the people said, Amen.