Thursday, February 25, 2010
Cancer quiets laughter but not legacy
By JARVIS DeBERRY
Written on February 21, 2010, 5:55 a.m.
The scene is the square in Kilmichael, Miss., a little slip of a town cut through by Highway 82. I am a tiny child -- precocious and talkative -- looking through a plate-glass window at a collection of toys. Kilmichael is surrounded on all sides by farm land, and the toys in the store reflect that. As a stranger approaches, I am studying the plastic figurine of a cow.
She asks me, “What’s that?” and, with confidence, I answer, “It’s a cow.”
She says, “That’s not a cow.”
I know what cows look like. I’ve watched my grandmother tend to the ones on her farm up the road. So, my confidence still brimming, I insist, “It is a cow!”
I do not know that some adults find it amusing to contradict children, that it’s a game of theirs to confuse and frustrate them. I assume the woman’s sincere when she responds, “That’s not a cow!” as I definitely am when I fire back, “It is a cow!” But she keeps telling me I’m wrong, and I pause to consider the possibility. It is after those moments of contemplation that I make this a story my family will never stop repeating. I shout back, “It are a cow!”
My mom’s sister told that story as my family sat inside the Huddle House in Oxford, before dawn Feb. 4. She shook her head, smiled wanly and remembered thinking, “This poor child has been corrected too much.”
What other child -- still too young to read -- would have stuck to his guns on the facts and decided it was the number of the verb that needed changing?
It’s not surprising that the story was one of the first shared by my family after my mother, Pennie Mae Winfrey DeBerry, died at age 58. She was an uncompromising teacher of the English language. She never had me in her classroom, but I was a more captive student than any child she ever did. I speak as carefully as I do because everything I say goes through the grammatical filter she implanted in my head. Everything I write is a testament to her instruction.
My wife, Kelly, and I rushed to Mississippi Feb. 1 after getting news that she had pneumonia, that she couldn’t stay awake long enough to eat and that during those fleeting moments when she wasn’t sleeping she was babbling nonsensically. Mama? Unable to think or speak with precision? I couldn’t imagine symptoms that would embarrass her more.
When we arrived, however, not only was she smiling, she was also clear-headed. How did we know? My Uncle Roy told her he’d been intrigued by her oncologist’s name and, with research, had discovered he’d been born in Serbia. My dad chuckled at his brother’s report. “Roy is just like Jarvis,” he said.
“No,” she said, to the room’s amusement. “Jarvis is just like Roy.”
She died less than 60 hours after our arrival. In the meantime, we celebrated the seeming victory over pneumonia and the restoration of her senses. Our hopes were lifted when the urologist said the stents he’d inserted in her kidney would alleviate her pain and dashed that same day when Dr. Aleksander Jankov said her heart was damaged beyond repair -- likely by chemotherapy he’d prescribed to fight her breast cancer. On that Wednesday we decided we’d take her home for hospice care, but before the sun rose Thursday, she departed this world for the next.
I’ll miss her laughter as much as anything. At her retirement party in 2007, her favorite student admitted to constantly conspiring with classmates to make Mrs. D. laugh. It wouldn’t have taken much. Grammarians are often portrayed as severe and joyless -- dyspeptic, even -- but her constant smile and predisposition to laugh challenged that stereotype.
She once caught me sermonizing to my sister on the evils of the word “ain’t,” how it ain’t a word. The lesson she taught that day was one of her more important. The great teacher laughed at her son’s dogmatism and granted my sister permission to ignore me.
Reprinted from The Times-Picayune with permission.
Jarvis DeBerry is now an editorial writer for the New Orleans Times Picayune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at http://connect.nola.com/user/jdeberry/index.html and at twitter.com/jarvisdeberrytp. He worked three summers at The South Reporter as a summer intern.
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