“Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die” – Part One

The response from friends, family, and strangers on the internet has been overwhelming. The impromptu eulogy I wrote to my dad the day after his passing is so far, the most views this site has had so far. I’m glad I had enough clarity to put it out there and share that little bit of the odd relationship I had with my father with people and let them get to know a little bit of him in the same was that I’ve always known him. I’m sitting here looking at the calendar and wondering how it’s already been two months since it all happened and I’m just now realizing it.

As a little follow up to that previous story, I figured in the interest of first and foremost, helping me to personally find closure, as well as to continue to honor my dad in a way that only a Ward can, I’d share a few of the highlights of the last couple months and what we’ve done since then.

Days after Dad’s passing, my brother and I made our way to Georgia, where our Dad had resided and where his brothers and his mother still live. It had been the first time I’d been back to Georgia since I dropped out of school at the Atlanta Art Institute after my “stupid-kid-end-of-the-world” scenario that came after Nycki dumped me in 2002. This was the state where I’d been born and had intended on visiting again, sooner than later, but somehow never made my way back down there under happier circumstances.

Alex and I arrived in Atlanta via plane where we met our Mom, who’d driven down from Tennessee and made our way overnight to Statesboro. The trip was meant to be a very quick one, with Alex having to be back at work in two days. The three of us made our way to our old hometown of Macon, Georgia.

The family decided the best place to hold the service was in the field outside the barn-made-house that he, his brothers, and my grandmother and grandfather had raised them. The family had moved out of there long before and it was my first time back on the property since I was a little man in short pants. Luckily, when we asked the barn’s current residents if it would be okay for us to come and hold the ceremony out there in the field next to the pond across the back yard. Mom, Alex, and I had shown up first, getting a little time to explore the old farm before the rest of the family began to roll in. I remember sitting down in the grass looking out at the lake, and having fragments of old memories come back into my head. As I’ve said before, I have a difficult time remembering the first several years or so of my life before the second surgery and my second chance, but seeing the lake again reminded me of two things. My dad trying in vain to teach Alex and I how to fish, how bored I got with it, and how my brother or I (I can’t recall which) ended up getting a big bite on our line and just as Dad was coming to help reel it in, threw the entire rod and reel into the lake.

The service was pleasant. No religion, no frills or anything like that. Just the family and a few close friends gathered up in the field where my dad grew up, listening to the music he loved, sharing the stories that we all loved about him, and just trying to bring something positive out of the unexpected bad circumstances. Lots of small touches that Dad would have probably appreciated, like my Aunt Linda, with whom Dad was constantly bickering and mutually getting on one another’s nerves as only family can, holding the urn of his ashes as the service went on. A little detail that probably would’ve irritated him to no end. The service began with a boombox being brought out, playing Willie Nelson’s “Always On My Mind”, a song that’s done a number on me emotionally well before the ASPCA started using it in their manipulative little TV ads. Courtney, an old girlfriend of mine, used it as one of her standards every time we went out to karaoke and it always brought the house down. Needless to say, using it in the context of a funeral for a father that I’ve had a rocky relationship with for many years was only going to lead to uncontrollable blubbering at a point where I just wasn’t ready for it. Fortunately, my Aunt Diane saw where the song was taking the amassed group and hit the next track on the CD. Something that got a laugh out of all of us and couldn’t be referred to as anything other than extremely appropriate for the kind of man my Dad was.

Dad, in his days as a truck driver, spent a lot of time on his XM Satillite radio to get him through long trips. His favorite channels were the comedy stations and Outlaw Country. He called my brother and I immediately after hearing the song and told us to look it up. We got a good laugh out of it and it became part of my regular iPod rotation for a little while, and then when it came on at Dad’s service, I couldn’t think of anything other than how well it just fit.

He’d begun attending AA meetings again. He’d spent the week leading up to his surgery attempting to earnestly quit smoking once and for all, which was something he’d never really attempted in over forty years. A couple nights before the procedure, he called me up and we talked about the operation he was about to go through. He had an honest to God sense of worry in his tone as he talked to me and in one of the most frank and honest conversations the man and I ever had, told me he was scared of the surgery. He told me that despite his fear of going under the knife, the thing that kept him going, kept him from running away from the problem as he sometimes liked to do, was me. My “for shit” memory usually forbids me from having any recollection of his words, but what he’d basically told me was that after watching me go through serious surgeries as a child at such young ages, what did he really have to be scared of. It was one of those rare moments with Dad that didn’t involve joking around, being nasty, or tap dancing around “feelings” like typical closed off cavemen. It’s a conversation that I’m now very grateful to have had with him in retrospect, although it does give me pause in thinking about how much dad may or may not have known about the riskiness of his operation. If there’s one thing Ward men are good at, it’s keeping secrets.

The night before my birthday, the night before his surgery, I saw a missed call and a message from dad on my phone soon after we had a brief last exchange of words. I didn’t return it because I was headed out for a date that night and I figured the surgery would go fine. We had talked an hour or so before and I made a point of telling him I loved him, but in retrospect, I’m honestly gonna feel bad about that one for a while to come. It’s just one of those little regrets you can’t change and need to learn to live with.

More soon, folks. Til then, I am my father’s son…

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Lessons Learned In Young Love

Nyckole Hannoonah would have turned 30 today.

A little journey back into my past love life which fans of my first book, Love Buzz might find somewhat familiar. In a time just after high school, when I had moved off to Atlanta, Georgia in the interest of furthering my education, I met Nycki and fell hard for her. We were young, broke college kids, just naive enough to think that the love we felt in that short period of time we’d known each other was some sort of sign that we were meant to spend the rest of our lives together.

Like most relationships of this nature are want to do when we’re young and “just figuring it out”, the life plans I’d made with Nycki never got around to taking off. I touched upon my relationship with Nycki in a short portion of Love Buzz, in which our protagonist, (and not so subtle “me” analog) Norm Raymer, in between one of his break up/make up cycles with Maggie Gunther, found himself in a romantic interlude with a young girl named Gwen Watson (Way lame Spider-Man reference!) that lasted for about two of the book’s sixteen chapters. Like the rest of the story of Norm and Maggie, the story of Norm and Gwen is equal parts fact and fiction. Where those differences lie though, is for you to wonder, dear reader. Whenever anyone asks me questions about the fact and the fiction behind Love Buzz, I prefer to lean to the age old writerly cop-out of “letting the work speak for itself”.

Suffice to say, to those who’ve read the book and seen how Norm’s relationship with Gwen ended, the relationship between Nycki and myself ended in very much the same manner. The story of Love Buzz being the story of Norm and Maggie though, meant that the story between Norm and Gwen, and by extension, myself and Nycki got sold short in the interest of concise storytelling. The story of Nycki and I didn’t actually end with our parting of ways. It actually became an opening to one of the darker chapters in my young adulthood. All of this was something I had been saving with intentions over the years since her passing to turn into a book of it’s own. As of now, I’ve kind of lost the motivation and the stomach to finish the project, but it sits on my hard drive in a series of files in a folder marked “The Grieving Process”. Perhaps one day, I’ll get the nerve back to tackle it but as time has passed and different projects have come up, I’ve not had the stomach to begin dredging up all of those old feelings.

I spent six months after crashing and burning my educational career in Atlanta and incurring student loan debt on an unfulfilled degree biting back on anger and resentment at Nycki that sat in the pit of my guts like a cancer.  Six months of cursing and brooding and listening to the most godawful depressing music I could find. The same period of time that our relationship lasted. Then I got an email that made things all worse. One night in 2003, a cousin of Nycki’s who I had briefly met in the time I spent with her had written to dump all of the following information on me in under three hundred words. 1) Nycki had gotten married to another guy. 2) she had since been in and out of the hospital due to the an amplified intensity in same headaches that she would frequently get when we were together, and 3) two months previous, according to the cousin, one of Nycki’s frequent headaches had somehow caused her brain to swell to the point that it pushed into her brain stem and killed her.

After a brief exchange of emails, i got her cousin’s phone number and we had a long talk over the phone over everything that had gone down for the sake of my own sense of clarity. The cousin went out of her way to track down my contact information because, as she said just before we hung up, she “thought I would want to know, because you were really good to her.”

I let those last words ring in my ears as I hung up the phone and began to process all of what had happened. This girl I intended on marrying had, in a short time since we broke up, married someone else and then died shortly thereafter. Furthermore, all that rage I had held onto over our relationship’s end had been something which, in my mind, was something I was holding in strategically, for whenever she might decide to try and contact me again, so that when I eventually plucked up the nerve to pick up the phone and tell her every inch of how I felt, it would be in such a righteous manner that it would solve all my problems from there on out.

Now I knew that phone call was never going to come and I had left every bit of that anger sit in waiting for nothing. With Nycki gone, I now had no place to direct those feelings other than inward. These unresolved feelings just retreated to a deeper part of me where I held onto them and for a while, became a truly reckless person who did some regrettable things that I’m not proud of.

But while there may be mysterious quantities of bullshit to sift through, I will say that the essence of Gwen was Nycki all over, from her style of dressing to her dirty mouth. The one thing I’ve always liked most in a woman has been a similarly horrible sense of humor to my own. Nycki had that in spades. That girl could make me laugh on some of my worst days living in Georgia.

I learned of Nycki’s passing six months after the fact, just around the same time that Love Buzz was starting to gel inside my head. Because of this, I decided that despite my inclination to not dictate to my artists how each character should look, beyond a couple of broad strokes, the character of Gwen should resemble Nycki’s own personal look as closely as possible. As mixed up as my feelings for her were, I wanted at least for this small section of the book to pay some kind of tribute to her.  This meant that several different incarnations were drawn of her as the book changed artists a couple of times, but each one nailed her likeness.

Her old Angelfire site still exists as something of a somber digital graveyard rittled with pop-up ads and , which I’ll go searching for about once a year just to see if it’s inevitably disappeared into the electronic void from never being touched or maintained. I’m sure it will probably happen one of these days.

Nycki taught me a lot about romance and relationships in our brief time together. I held onto the regret of never getting to say goodbye to her, or never getting to truly speak my mind against how things ultimately went down with us. The thing she taught me most of all was the importance of closure for the sake of your own sanity. Years and miles have passed since this time period and I’ve been out the other end of that dark period for quite some time. I’ve had other relationships come and go. The good ones and the bad ones, none of them ever really completely leaves us, and the majority of the time, we come out better for it and the little piece of them that we carry around with us as we move forward and they all leave us with their fair share of baggage to carry on after they end, whether we choose to deal with it quickly or carry it around for long after it’s done. When relationships end, be they through the gradual deterioration of a couple growing distant after years and years together or the naivety of two stupid kids running on an equal mix of hormones and impulse before burning out quickly, I can look back at many of the people I’ve known in the past whose behaviors and motivations are clearly guided by the thick callous that can grow over our emotional selves in effort to as a form of self-defense over falling into the same traps again. It would be easy for me to write out every angry thing I ever wanted to say to Nycki but didn’t get the chance to here and now, but I honestly I forgave all of that crap a long time ago.

So, for her birthday, I’ve chosen to reflect on the good parts of our brief experiences passing through one another’s lives. Instead of remembering her as the first girl who really squashed me flat, I’m choosing to remember the girl who was impulsive enough that she proposed to me with a cheap little fashion ring that couldn’t have cost more than a twenty bucks, and me, the guy who accepted without a second thought and promised to get her a real one the second my broke ass could afford it. It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 whole years.

Happy birthday, Nycki.