I grew up in a small town in Southeast Georgia. It was Southern enough for me to have a little twang in my speech, but being right on the coast allowed for a great mix between the country and the beach. Even though my town was somewhat small, my family encouraged limitless dreams; that I could do anything I put my mind to.
My priorities were pretty typical: God, family, school, sports. My faith provided love, support, something to believe in; being an only child, we are a tight knit family, and I am somewhere between spoiled rotten and feeling like I have been an adult since I could speak.
School was an education, a way to fulfill my wildest academic dreams; sports were my dad and I’s favorite thing to do and talk about while my mom was the biggest cheerleader you can imagine. Sometimes I look back and just cannot believe how incredibly blessed I was with such a loving, encouraging family, who truly made me believe I could do and/or be anything I wanted.
I distinctly remember sitting in Starbucks with a teacher discussing college essay topics. We talked about the formalities, how to make your essay stand out, and something in my life that had really impacted me. I thought about my faith, my family, and of course how sports had impacted my life. She also asked if I had ever had anything sad or tragic happen that really changed my life.
I had not. The only thing I could even think of being sad in my life up to that point was my childhood dog, Cornflake, passing away the year before. Cornflake was a gift for my fourth birthday. My mom and dad took me to the Humane Society and I was allowed to choose a puppy. Although her death was sad and Cornflake was absolutely meaningful in my life, the twelve years I had with her were good and only fond memories came to my mind when I thought of my sweet, brown puppy. I had a wonderful life absent of major tragedy or sadness.
In less than three months after that conversation, my grandmother that lived less than a mile down the road, who brought me lunch to school every Friday when I was in middle school, who showed up in her tie dye tank top to every single one of my softball games, who taught me how to fish, how to work hard, and who put herself through college in the early 50’s, had passed away suddenly and in the blink of an eye my world was forever changed.
On a beautiful fall Saturday morning, I had gotten up a little earlier than usual for a Saturday, I called Granny Josey asking if she wanted a sausage biscuit (a tradition of ours), and headed to her house where she had hot chocolate waiting on me. After the biscuit and the hot chocolate, we sat on the couch watching TV together, probably Matlock, and we both dosed off for a few hours after chatting about school and the softball season. After I woke up, I kissed her on the cheek, and left her house to get ready for a small town Saturday night.
The next morning I went to church with my boyfriend at the time and we were sitting on his grandmother’s porch swing when my mom called and told me that my grandmother, my feisty Granny Josey, was on her way to the hospital. I did not believe it. For one, we had just spent the whole day before together and she seemed totally normal, and although she was 78 years old she still raked the yard, drove her Ford Taurus, and cooked every night. No way was she going to the hospital.
It was my senior year of high school, life should have been wonderful, but I do not remember anything from October to January. It is almost as if I did not even live during that time. Like I was looking in at my life not understanding what was happening. Eventually, life seemed to keep going, after seemingly being stalled for an unknown period of time. There were still moments though where I simply could not believe, almost forgot, that she had passed away.
I found myself picking the phone up trying to call her and catching myself before dialing the final digit. What had happened? How could this have happened? One minute everything was fine, and the next it was a life I did not recognize.
I actually applied to five different colleges, even my dad’s beloved University of Kentucky, but the University of Georgia was my first choice. Somehow I got all of the applications in on time, even though I am still not exactly sure what I submitted. In February the acceptance letters began to arrive. Then one afternoon I came home after a soccer game with a rather large letter from the University of Georgia that said “Official Acceptance” across the front. My mama was crying, my daddy was proud and I was overjoyed.
Georgia, the college I wanted to attend, wanted me! It was relief, joy, pride, excitement, all rolled into one. After calling my family and friends to share the news, I remember laying in bed after all of the excitement of the day thinking about Athens, how some of my dreams were coming true. I also thought about the distance between Athens and home. I had just been reminded of how important family is, how short life is. Going to a school like UGA was a dream of mine, it was a dream of my grandmother’s for me, but things had changed. I was conflicted. We were all still mourning, still in shock, and now I was supposed to just leave in a few months? How could I do that? How could I leave my loved ones so soon after we were all reminded of the sanctity life?
I am not sure how I made the decision, whether it was my family’s encouragement or my eagerness to fulfill my dream, but I did decided to attend the University of Georgia. I could not have imagined how this decision, the school, its community, and the Classic City would shape my life. To this day, going to UGA is still one of the best decisions I have ever made.
I honestly cannot imagine my life had I gone to another school. At UGA I found friends and people who really got me. I found a great deal of this life-shaping encouragement in a student-run organization where we all have a story, where we all have someone to fight for. I fell so much in love with this organization that I applied for its executive board and was selected to serve on that board in April of my sophomore year. I was ecstatic. I already loved the people, loved the cause, and could not wait to start as student recruitment chair. I left Athens in the summer that year, already excited for my return that fall.
My grandfather had been complaining of stomachaches for a while. When he went to the doctor, they thought it might be an ulcer, a virus; all kinds of things that it was not. This went on for around six months, when finally they decided to run a different test, just in case. This test showed that my grandfather’s complaints were warranted.
He had pancreatic cancer.
We could not believe it; he just complained of stomachaches, no way he had pancreatic cancer. The news of his cancer diagnosis came in early June, so that Father’s Day my mom and dad went on the first of what we thought were many visits to come. I had just started my summer job, and because this was the first of many trips, they wanted me to stay home for this trip and then go back with them again in July.
That summer I worked on the beach so after my twelve hour shift on Independence Day, we headed back to my grandfather’s house in Kentucky. We arrived in the wee morning hours on Sunday. The Reds were playing in Cincinnati that day, so being the enormous sports fans that we are, we went to the Great American Ball Park to watch them play.
My grandfather was not doing well, so he did not come with us but assured us he wanted us to go so he could see us on TV, after all we would be there for the entire week. The next morning my dad was supposed to take Pawpaw for his third chemo treatment and get the results of his first scan of the tumor after starting treatment. If the tumor was smaller it would mean the chemo was working. We prayed for good news. They had to get up so early in the morning I told my dad not to wake me up when they left, but to wake me up when they got back so I could check on Pawpaw, see how it went. It was dark and my mom was waking me up. I remember thinking “I told y’all not to wake me up before you left.”
Mama walked me into the living room where I found my dad crying. I knew but I did not want to believe it. This was supposed to be the first of many visits we were to make. His prognosis was 4-6 months if the chemo did not work, which was not great, but it had only been a month! Again, it was complete disbelief, shock. That summer ended with me not wanting to leave my family and go back to UGA. It gave me the same feeling I had when leaving the first time. How could I leave again?
After the first couple of weeks of junior year I was getting back into the hang of things. I was still calling home often to check on my family, especially my father who was still struggling with my grandfather’s death. The third weekend back in Athens, the board of the organization I had joined went on a retreat.
At this retreat we all shared our stories, why we were a part of the organization, who we were fighting for. Although I had reasons for supporting the organization before, my story had changed and it was still fresh. I told my new story about my grandfather, how I now had a whole new reason to be a part of this entity bigger than me. Then it hit me, I had no idea of how my life would change, but God knew and I realized I was in the exact place I was supposed to be. How do I know that?
Well, it was that feeling of contentment, the same feeling I have when I am back on the coast with my family and friends. I felt at home. I felt encouraged, strengthened, and loved. In the beginning of this story I spoke of my faith, my family and God. He knew I would need to feel at home; He prepared for me a place of love and comfort to ease my heartbreak and struggles.
May 8, 2015, was a beautiful spring day, Graduation day at UGA; I made it! My dream had come true! Really, we made it, our dreams had come true. I was so excited and thankful. As I searched the crowded stands for my family and friends, the crystal blue sky caught my eye. Although Granny Josey and Pawpaw were not physically there, they were with me in Sanford Stadium and thanks to Him they had the best seats in the house!