I started writing stories when I was still wearing Velcro sneakers and pigtails and catching lightning bugs in jelly jars in the summer. In junior high, I often retreated to my tree house for hours with only a spiral notebook and a ballpoint pen. And though I’ve almost always written fiction, I’ve rarely succeeded in keeping real life out of my stories. People who’ve touched me have a way of sewing themselves right into the fabric of my life, such that if I were to try to remove them, the whole thing would come unraveled.
There’s my Granddaddy Parks, a Duke-educated World War II vet who wore Brooks Brothers to the table every morning. He liked two eggs sunny side up and his bacon cooked to a crisp. He spread real butter on his Pepperidge Farm toast and drank Dr. Brown’s black cherry sodas. Granddaddy Parks always smelled like medicine. He sat at his card table in the den with a glass of club soda to take his pills. In the afternoon, if he wasn’t playing golf, we read Winnie-the-Pooh books or watched Tom and Jerry cartoons on his laser disc player and ate green grapes or Edy’s cookies ‘n cream ice cream. When I was 8, he and my grandmother took me to New York City. We stayed in the Hilton, where the housekeeper tucked my stuffed dog from FAO Schwartz under the covers of my rollaway cot so that it’d be resting, waiting for me, when we returned. We ate at places like La Cote Basque, where a lady behind me ordered escargot and made me lose my appetite, and Mme. Romaine de Lyon, where the red and white-checkered tablecloths were made of fine linen, not plastic. While we waited for our food, Granddaddy taught me how to play games like blackjack and poker, games he got to play at the high rollers’ tables whenever he went to Las Vegas. During family beach vacations, he’d take all of us to Tony’s, a little Italian restaurant tucked away from the commotion of the Grand Strand. My dad never got to eat pizza or pasta at home growing up, because Granddaddy didn’t like the way it smelled. But Granddaddy knew I hated the Marker 350′s lobster and loved Tony’s cheese ravioli. So every summer, we went to Tony’s, and Granddaddy had the veal.
My Granddaddy Parks finally succumbed to a weak heart the winter I was 14. I was at a soccer tournament in Georgia and never had the chance to tell him goodbye.
There’s my Grandma Kathryn, who dropped out of school at 16 to have my mom and, for most of my life and long before I was born, ran her own business, Kut & Kurl by Kathryn, in the same building as my Papa Jerry’s grill and a pool hall that generated a good chunk of Papa’s customers. Grandma Kathryn wore Kmart jeans to cut hair and bought her church clothes at Hudson Belk. She liked crushed ice, not cubes, and stuck her coffee in the microwave right after she brewed it, because she liked it piping hot. She helped me find sand dollars on the Oak Island shore and write poetry while driving on I-40 in eastern North Carolina; together, we found beauty in a scrubby patch of wildflowers perched on a hill and a jet gliding across a backdrop of flat, gray sky. She rubbed my temples during my migraine attacks and, during my undergrad years, drove to Chapel Hill to take me to Mama Dip’s for Brunswick stew and strawberry shortcake when I’d had a bad day.
My Grandma Kathryn has a horrible brain disease that is like dementia, depression, and Parkinson’s disease all rolled into one. Every time I see her, it feels like the continuation of one long goodbye that may never have a proper conclusion.
There’s my sister, Taylor, who came into my life at a time when I thought she would just get in the way but found her way into my heart before she ever uttered her first words. Taylor padded around the house dragging my stuffed UNC mascot by one fuzzy black hoof and held my pinky finger when she slept in my arms. From the confines of a stroller, she helped me take over the below-ground level of a mall in San Francisco while our parents went to a company dinner. She gave concerts to imaginary thousands – she the lead singer, her big sister the keyboard player, my parents’ hearth our stage. She danced circles around my desk chair, a welcome distraction while I did my math homework, and chanted “Rar-Rar!” at the top of her lungs from the sidelines during my soccer games. She helped me build sandcastles by the sea and weave stories of the princes and princesses living inside. She taught me that even girly girls aren’t above jumping into a pile of leaves and convinced me to give the color pink a second chance. She helped me understand that growing up healthy is a privilege that cannot always be earned.
My sister, too, has a tragic brain disease. It already stole her vision. Now it is stealing her speech and her ability to walk. Before it is done with her, it will steal her life. She is 14.
I want to hold onto all that’s ever happened to me, everything I’ve done, and everyone I’ve ever known. I want to see every face, hear every voice, and feel every moment we’ve shared. It’d be easier to let it all wash away, gone forever, like sandcastles at the changing of the tide. But if that ever happened, a large part of me would be gone forever, too.