Two weeks ago we lost my precious grandmother, Mama Jean - my mom's mom. To say my heart is broken would be an understatement.
Mama Jean was a true jewel. Very rare. And my family had such a special relationship with her. Anyone who knew her adored her. She wasn't just a grandmother that we heard stories about or visited on special occasions. Mama Jean was a part of our every day lives. Almost everything we did. My parents have always fostered such a meaningful relationship for us with both sets of my grandparents and I'm beyond thankful for that.
My mom and Mama Jean had just come for a visit the Monday before she passed. It was President's Day and my mom had the day off. Due to bed rest I had not seen Mama Jean since Christmas. I was excited to see her and show her my growing belly. I was also thrilled because Morgan Kate had the day off and I knew she would enjoy some time with Mama Jean. We spent a few hours catching up and having lunch. Mama Jean told me she was feeling pretty good. (She had just had her pacemaker battery replaced a few weeks before.) We talked about our beach trip this summer and she told me how she was hoping to get a perm really soon because she needed one and it had been a while. Mama Jean got to feel the baby kick and because my home health nurse comes on Mondays, she even got to hear the baby's heartbeat. I can still see the smile on her face when she heard that sound. She and MK played Go Fish, Old Maid, and MK even convinced Mama Jean to play a few rounds of Hide and Go Seek. Yes, at 84 years old, she still enjoyed a game of Hide and Go Seek. I had a doctor's appointment that day, so Mama Jean and my mom stayed with MK. After the appointment I was able to come home and tell them first hand how things had gone. It was such a good day.
I can still see her sitting on the edge of my couch. I still remember what she was wearing. I still remember holding her soft hand while we said the blessing. I loved her soft hands. I can still remember hugging her goodbye. I had no idea it would be my last day with her.
The very next night my brother called to let me know that Mama Jean had fallen and hit her head. She was unconscious and critical and was being taken by helicopter to Richland. No one wanted to call me because no one wanted to upset me, but they knew I'd be even more upset if no one told me at all. My heart sank. My hands began to tremble. Tears filled my eyes. I spent the next few hours talking with my brothers and my mom through text. I couldn't sit still. I couldn't stop thinking. And I definitely couldn't sleep.
Around 1:30 in the morning, after a lot of begging and crying, Owens came to pick me up so that I could go to the hospital. At this point we knew things didn't look good at all and I needed to be there. I had to be there. No worries, I sat most of the night and even allowed my brothers to push me around in a wheelchair. We spent the night at the hospital sitting at Mama Jean's bedside. For a while it was just the five of us with her - my mom, my dad, Owens, Kyle and myself. It's a time I will treasure forever. Most of the time we sat in silence. I'm sure each of us were recalling our own favorite times with her and our most recent times with her. We cried. We asked "Why?". We watched the monitors. We took turns holding her hand.
My aunt and cousins arrived a few hours later and they also got to spend some time with her. Shortly before the sun began to rise, we all gathered together around her bed to say our goodbyes.
I was only nine years old when my grandfather (my mom's dad) passed away. Even at that young age, I still remember how painful it was. I still remember watching my mom's heart break and knowing there was nothing I could do. I had that same helpless feeling that morning as I watched my mom say goodbye to her mom. I wanted so badly to be able to comfort her in some way.
We all left the hospital Wednesday morning feeling numb. Heart broken. Empty.
As hard as all of this was for me, it was even harder explaining to my six year old. My sweet girl who adored her Mama Jean. My sweet girl who had just seen Mama Jean and played games with her. Travis and I talked to her together. We are always very open with MK, but also very sensitive. At first she seemed to be okay, but definitely still processing things. About thirty minutes or so after our talk, she burst into tears and just sobbed for what seemed like forever. All I could do was hold her and say, "I know. I know." She wanted to know who would play with her? What would we do without Mama Jean at the beach? Who would call us and leave us songs and messages? When would we see her again? Was Mama Jean with Cash? Was Mama Jean with Papa? Was Kaka okay? My heart was already in pieces, and now those tiny little pieces were crumbling even more.
I'm so grateful that my sweet girl knew Mama Jean and could recall specific memories, and at the same time I'm overcome with sadness that this baby growing inside of my belly will never meet her face to face. But, I know that Mama Jean knew this baby. And she loved this baby. Prayed for this baby. Every. Single. Day. She heard it's heart beat and felt it's kicks and rolls. She knew.
Mama Jean's funeral was the Saturday after she passed. Despite the overwhelming sadness, it was a beautiful service and such a celebration of her life. I knew that I wanted to share something about her. I wanted to tell others just how much she meant to me and my family. I knew I wouldn't be able to speak. I'm way too emotional. But, I could write. And so I did. These are the words I wrote and asked the preacher to share. He did a wonderful job sharing my thoughts and feelings.
Everyone knew her as Mama Jean. You may have called her Mrs. Jean or Mrs. Sowell the first time you met her, but after that – it was always Mama Jean. And I never minded sharing “my Mama Jean”, because she had an abundance of love to give. And she shared that love with everyone she encountered.
Next to my parents, Mama Jean was one of my biggest teachers and in my thirty-four years she taught me so much.
By watching her example, she taught me how to love others. Mama Jean didn’t just love a little, she loved with her whole heart. Her whole being. Unconditionally. She didn’t just love us, she loved everyone. All of her friends. All of our friends. Everyone. One prime example was her love for my Papa. She loved him fierce. As a little girl I loved watching them laugh and smile and hold hands. I loved seeing them do things that they enjoyed together – taking trips in the RV, eating boiled peanuts, attending Clemson football games, enjoying their grandchildren. She missed him every single day for the past 25 years and she talked about him every chance she got. Seeing his picture, even 25 years later, brought tears to her eyes. And Wednesday morning while my heart was breaking, I rejoiced because I knew she had been reunited with my Papa and her heart was whole again.
Not only did she teach me how to love, but she taught me how to say it in a different language. She and I had our own secret word for I love you. And because she and I had one, my brother, Owens, thought that he needed one as well. Before we left each other or hung up the phone, we would always say “Nacapenda”- which is Swahili for I love you. After Travis and I were married, she would say “Nacapenda 1 and 2”. She adored Travis and treated him like her very own grandson. She even referred to him as “Good Lookin”. Although I’ve learned in the past two days that she called most of the guys in our family that. As my family grew, that word grew. During our most recent conversations she would say “Nacapenda 1, 2, 3, and ½. “ Oh, how I will miss hearing those words.
Mama Jean also taught me that it’s okay to love others even when they take the path less traveled. Most of you know that Mama Jean and Papa were die-hard Clemson fans. Clemson paws painted on their driveway. Orange church attire the Sunday after a game. IPTAY members for life. And while I grew up in a sea of orange, I chose the other path – the garnet and black one. My Mama Jean never gave it a second thought. She embraced it. And just a few weeks after starting my freshman year, she bought a garnet sweater and earrings to wear while she tailgated at a USC football game. That’s love.
Along with teaching me how to love, Mama Jean taught me the importance of family. Family was everything to her. Everything. Nothing made her happier than time with her family. Family time brought THE biggest smile to her face.
My cousin, Kelly, and I would spend weeks during the summer with Mama Jean. We loved being there, but I think Mama Jean loved having us even more. We would stay up late with Mama Jean playing Skip-Bo or Mario Brothers on the Nintendo. We would sleep in and awake to the smell of her cooking breakfast. Those were some of the best summers.
The past 25 years, with the exception of the year Morgan Kate was born, Mama Jean spent Christmas Eve night with my family. Before I was married, she slept in my room with me and we would whisper until the wee hours of the morning. She was there when Santa made his arrival. She was there Christmas morning for all the love and laugher and cheer. It’s something I will always treasure. And I know she did too because things like that were important to her. Things like that mattered.
For as long as I can remember Mama Jean went with us each summer to Folly Beach. Despite her age or her limitations, she still wanted to do all she could do while we were there. She wanted to sit on the beach and watch her children, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She wanted to take boat rides and on occasion, she would even drive the boats. She wanted to soak it all in. Two years ago, we were all enjoying a nice boat ride in the Folly River and a storm came up rather quickly. There was lots of rain and instead of driving in the opposite direction of the rain, my daddy drove through it. Not only were Mama Jean’s clothes soaked, but her hair was too. Her fresh perm was ruined. Now if you know Mama Jean, you know that’s kind of a big deal. You do not mess with Mama Jean’s hair. After the initial shock wore off, she was able to laugh about it with the rest of us. And to this day we still remind my daddy that he owed Mama Jean a new perm.
Mama Jean was a woman of incredible strength and faith and she taught me to always rely on my faith. She had trials and tribulations in her life, but she always remained so faithful and she always turned to God. I think about how painful it must have been to live for so many years without my Papa. And while I know there were days she was so, so sad, I also know that she got through those days because of her relationship with God. I, too, have faced difficult days and during those days I have tried to remember her and what she might have done. I see that same faith and strength in my own mom and I hope that one day mine will be like theirs.
Just this Monday my mom and Mama Jean came to visit me for the day. She and I talked about my pregnancy and how I was feeling. She got to hear the baby’s heartbeat and feel a few kicks. We talked about how she was feeling and she told me about her plans for the week. She and Morgan Kate played Go Fish and Hide and Go Seek. We shared lunch and lots of laughter. She even got to love on my precious, curly headed nephew, Loitton. I got to hug her tight and kiss her sweet cheeks. I got to hold her soft hands. To say I am thankful for that day would be an understatement. I had no idea it would be our last time together.
I will miss my Mama Jean more than words can express. I know we all will. I will miss hearing her voice and watching her laugh until she cried. I will miss her smile and the way she winked at me. I will miss her buttery eggs and homemade Mac and cheese. I will miss our trips to the farm and our vacations to Folly Beach. I will miss our summer lunch dates and our holidays spent together. I will miss hearing her voice and feeling her comforting hugs.
I love you so much, Mama Jean. I’m so thankful for our time together and all of the memories we shared. Thank you for all of the things you taught me. And thank you for loving us so well.
There is SO much more I could say about my Mama Jean. I could talk about all the stories she shared with me. I could talk about her relationship with my Mammie and my dad's entire side of the family. She loved my aunts and uncles and cousins on that side as if they were her very own. I could talk about our trips to the farm and summer lunches at her house. I could talk about how every year on my birthday she would call and sing to me.
The bottom line is, she was a treasure and my heart will never be the same. I will forever miss my sweet Mama Jean.