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.