Last Words With LaVonne

My last words to LaVonne Rose Gregg, as she lived and breathed, were likely, “It was so nice to see you.” I’m sure I could pinpoint the likely moment, but that would bring with it the realization of how poorly our last words fit our relationship.

I’m sure LaVonne responded with the promise of sweet corn or beef, and I would have sincerely begun the work of mapping a path for retrieval. But it wouldn’t happen, not until she no longer lived nor breathed.

News that she was sick came suddenly. Although she had been living with cancer the past year, she had been as LaVonne always was: bright and sassy. Then Holli’s mom, Carol, sent a group text message on September 24th at 6:11 PM.

> They have taken grandma to the hospital
> She stopped breathing.

Those messages started a process of grief for dozens of people. Holli and I made plans for her to head to Hawarden that night. She’d return to teach the next day, but would otherwise be near the family should LaVonne breath her last.

LaVonne didn’t. She lived unassisted for two more days in the Hawarden Hospital before passing peacefully in her sleep.

As we sat in the Hawar­den Methodist Church, and Holli’s cousin, Erika, recounted some light-hearted vignettes of LaVonne’s life, I searched my mem­ory for good sto­ries. Noth­ing came. I real­ized that my life expe­ri­ences with LaVonne con­sisted mostly of ban­ter and wit, not dis­crete anecdotes.

Dur­ing the vis­i­ta­tion, the funeral home encour­aged us to spend time with LaVonne, to look over the pho­tos on cork boards and in slideshows. The chil­dren took full advan­tage of distracted adults, using the church as an obstacle course. Then Ian ran up to me.

“I want to tell grandma some­thing,” he said. I picked him up, and Ian whis­pered in my ear, “Tell her that I’m sad that she died.” I did.

“Tell her that I love her.” I did.

“Tell her what heaven’s like.”

“Well, kiddo, we can’t really ask ques­tions. We can only tell her things we want her to hear.”

Then he was off, chas­ing his cousin, and I was alone at the cas­ket. I looked over LaVonne’s body, not­ing how she appeared at once her­self and a strange shadow of her­self. Then I left in silence.

Ains­ley is more than a lit­tle like LaVonne in her stubbornness, her sweetness, and her hellfire. The night before the funeral, Ains­ley refused to fall asleep, which made Ian rest­less, so we even­tu­ally gave up try­ing. As the kids rus­tled in the next room, I returned to a thought: what could I share about LaVonne that was unique? Noth­ing would come to me before the funeral, but I think I’ve hit upon some­thing now.

One of my favorite pic­tures of LaVonne also includes Ian. They are stand­ing in LaVonne’s house, near the slid­ing glass door. Ian is look­ing up at her, and LaVonne is look­ing down, bent slightly in their conversation.

“We were just talk­ing about flow­ers,” LaVonne told us, after her conversation with the three and a half year old. For her, every­one was equal (under God, of course). She would have had that same con­ver­sa­tion with a U.S. Senator.

That’s not to say she sugar-coated anything. She was equal parts heavenly nice and brtually hon­est. Whatever your station, if you weren’t doing your best, she’d let you know. And then she’d invite you for sweet corn.

At the ceme­tery, Holli and I paired off with the kids. Ains­ley had wanderlust, so we walked around. I took a photo of the view, over­look­ing the fields of Iowa, which had fac­tored heav­ily into Glenn and LaVonne’s choice of plot.

As the fam­ily shuf­fled away, I approached the cas­ket. White roses had been given to the mourn­ers. I held mine in one hand and the other I placed on the coffin’s smooth sur­face.

“We miss you, LaVonne,” I said.

“We could all do much worse than to be as honest and egalitarian as you were,” I said.

“I’ll try to do better.”

I rested my hand for a moment more, but we were silent. We both knew those were our last words.