“No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel
until he comes home and rests his head
on his old, familiar pillow.”
– Lin Yutang

A mockup of the Grand Rapids Skyline by my friend, Scott.

As many times as I have complained about various aspects of Grand Rapids in the past, there is something of a comforting solace in seeing that first illuminated sliver of the city skyline shining through the dark horizon of trees.  And while my drive brought me to the south end, the polar opposite side of the city from where that first sliver appeared, after an eight hour drive (and one like this in particular), it’s nice to have the words going through your head, “I’m home.”

The three of us long ago.

No time was wasted in reunion, as that night I went out to Main Street Pub with two of my closest friends, Jeff and Garber.  The night provided us with an opportunity we hadn’t had in a while to discuss the ups and downs of our personal current events.  It’s a chance we don’t get often, as I have been in and out of town continuously for the last 2 years, Garber is occupied with school and work, and Jeff school and medical issues (which have since resolved) that required him to leave Grand Rapids for treatment.

As tired and drained as the day had made me, this night was just what I needed at that time.

One of my favorite Chinese restaurants in GR, the other being Great Lakes Chinese.

The next day, my sister hearing that I was back in town called me around 10am and insisted on meeting for lunch, despite my initial desire to sleep.  After a lengthy debate of where to meet, as we reside on opposite sides of the city, we decided on what seems our common meeting place of Szechuan Garden in the Eastown district of Grand Rapids.

The Eastown sign at the corner of Lake and Wealthy St.

Eastown is an odd location to describe.  A few years ago, during high school and my first couple years of college, it was a lone refuge and stronghold of culture and the hippie-ish residents of an ultra-conservative Grand Rapids.  In the past decade, there has been so much renovation and new development throughout the downtown area that the hipsters have had their own diaspora.  Still, Eastown remains an interesting few blocks with some of the best concentrations of restaurants and shops in the area.

The Burden of Familiarity

There are a couple downsides to being home after being away.  First of all, it’s so easy to fall into old patterns.  Old hangouts, old behaviors, old spending habits.

The next part, and more difficult part, is that the real world kicks in again.  Home generally tends to be where the family is.  This time I returned home after ending things with Sheylyn over such a menial matter as distance, which ended up being a mistake that I couldn’t rectify despite my best efforts over two months. On top of that, I returned home to my father’s side of the family torn apart over my grandmother, who had taken a turn for the worse after 3 years of treatment for breast cancer.

My first visit to see my grandmother in the hospital was luckily alongside my sister, and later joined by my aunt and cousin.  The last time that I had seen her, over a month past, right before my last drive up to Marquette, she was much thinner and worn-looking than I was ever used to seeing her, but was still trying so hard to be active.

This time, she was completely unresponsive and supported by machines, it seemed.  Her rest was interspersed by vague seconds of what seemed conscious action, anything ranging from a movement of her hands to opening her eyes and scanning the room.  During these brief episodes, however, she wouldn’t respond to either my sister or I, making me doubt very much they were a lucid exertion.

On the one or two occasions in which she was conscious, my grandmother was unable to express much of what she was undoubtedly thinking.  Most of what little conversation occurred was regarding her choices in food or change of headscarf.  My aunt would sit at the edge of her bed, giving her the options, to which she would respond with either a small nod or a positive or negative murmur.

It became quite obvious over this time how deeply this was affecting my grandfather, who sat next to her at the head of the bed all the time he was there, a difficult task for him for long periods with the back issues he has developed over the last few years.  However, he has always been a very stoic person in regard to those heavily emotional areas of his life.  In high school, when I interviewed him about his experience in WWII, he was reluctant to go into much detail of his personal experiences, instead portraying a more general image of soldiers’ time in Europe.  And this was more than my father ever got in questioning him about his time in the war.  It was a change to see this side of him and how readily he accepted the help of my dad and aunt, given how keenly independent he and my grandmother have always been together.

Within a week of my return, the family had decided to turn my grandmother over to hospice care, something my father and aunt accepted as being the last possible step to care for her. It was right before this step and again during it that my sister and I came to visit.  I like to think that the few firm hand grasps and attempted hugs were completely lucid attempts by my grandmother to say goodbye.

Two days after being put into the care of the hospice, on March 13, 2011, my dad received word first thing in the morning from my aunt that Joan Williams, wife to Russell Williams, mother to Terri Clark and Russell Williams, and grandmother to Nicole and Kaci Clark and Sarah and Benjamin Williams, had passed away.

Joan Williams alongside her husband, Russell Williams.