Sometimes I can still hear you singing. I’ll just be hanging out at home, or grabbing my stuff in the morning and rushing out to practice, and I’ll see the two pictures I have framed on my kitchen island — one of you around the time you first started to get sick, and one of you and me together when I was young — and I’ll just … hear it. Out of nowhere, pulled up from somewhere in the back of my heart, your voice will just come rushing into my head, and I swear I can hear you singing church songs to me like you did when I was a kid.
You did everything for me, Grandma. You sang to me. You sat with me on Saturday mornings and watched cartoons — Arthur, Clifford the Big Red Dog … whatever we could get, because you know we didn’t have cable. You’d cook me food. Watch me while I was outside riding my bike.
You even gave me my nickname, “Shocka,” because my parents were so young when they had me — Mom was 15 and Dad was 16 — that when I came along, you said that I had “shocked the whole family.”
You and me, we were just … attached, you know?
You were my best friend.
Even when I left Yulee, Florida, for Alabama, you called me all the time, telling me how much you missed me.
“When you comin’ home, Shocka?”
I’d be like, “Grandma, I miss you, too … but I can’t come home. I got football. I got school.”
“You doin’ your lessons?”
“You better be.”
You always made sure I understood the importance of education. “Football ain’t gonna last forever,” you’d say. So I always told you that no matter what else happened in my life, I would make sure that I got my college degree. I made that promise to you.
Well, Grandma … I want you to know that I did it.
Today, I’m going to walk across the stage and receive my degree from the University of Alabama.
Graduating is something that I’ve wanted to do for myself, but also, for you. I always wanted you to be proud of me, and I know that you are. I just admired you so much growing up. I mean, you and Granddaddy raised 14 kids. Now, I wasn’t around for all that, and I can’t even imagine how hard that must have been. But I can definitely see how you did it, because I know how hard you always worked. I remember you leaving early in the morning to go clean rooms at the Holiday Inn, and then coming home at night and cooking and cleaning, and yelling at me and all my cousins for being bad … you never turned it off. You were always working. Always looking after us, providing for us.
You taught me what’s important. You knew I loved sports and that I was gonna be good. But remember how mad I used to get? I hated losing so much. If I was out in the yard playing football with my cousins and I lost, I would get so frustrated that I would cry.
And there was that time when I was like nine years old playing basketball with Cousin Karris out in the driveway — we were playing 21, and he beat me. So we played again. And again. And again. We started at like three o’clock in the afternoon, and even after I finally beat him a couple of times, we kept on playing because I wasn’t gonna stop until I felt like I had beaten him enough. We played till like 10 at night. We could barely even see the ball anymore it was so dark out on that dirt road. But I just wanted to keep playing. I was so competitive. I wanted to win so bad.
Even when I played against the computer on the NCAA video game, I was competitive. I’d be in the back room of your house on the PS2 and I’d create Derrick Henry — the biggest, baddest player in college football — and play dynasty mode. And when a season ended and Derrick Henry didn’t win the Heisman, I’d play again. I’d just keep on playing until I won the Heisman.
I’d always hear you yell from the front of the house, “Booooy, you better get off that game and go do your lessons!”
You were always telling me to go do my lessons because I would always delay doing my homework so I could go out and play football or basketball or whatever, or just sit on that back porch on the PS2, trying to win the Heisman.
You were always there to remind me what was most important.
Later on down the road, when I eventually lived my dream and won the Heisman in real life, you were too sick to be there with me. The bad cough that first put you in the hospital turned into a respiratory infection that just continued to get worse. By that time, you had a breathing tube in your throat and you weren’t able to talk. So when I got back to Yulee, you couldn’t even tell me how proud you were, or remind me to do my lessons.
But you didn’t have to tell me all that.
I already knew.
Since you weren’t able to speak, we wrote a lot of notes to each other. I remember the last time I came and saw you at the hospital, right before I reported back to Tennessee for the 2016 season. We just sat there together, passing notes back and forth like two kids in the back of class, just saying how much we loved each other. You kept telling me how you wanted to get out of that hospital — just get in the car and go for a ride. And even though you stayed strong throughout everything, it killed me to see you like that — hooked up to all those tubes and machines. I wanted to get you out of that place, too … just bring you home and take care of you.
But I couldn’t. I went back to Tennessee and went back to work. And a few weeks later, when Aunt Latrease called me up and told me things didn’t look good, it killed me that I couldn’t be there with you.
Then, when I got the call on September 13, 2016 that you had passed, it was like my whole world crashed down.
You took a piece of me with you when you passed, Grandma. Life just hasn’t been the same since you left. I know you were tired and you were ready to “go home,” as we’d always say. I just wish we would have had more time. I wanted to take care of you. Do things for you. Show my appreciation for everything you did for me.
But life doesn’t always work that way, and you don’t always get those chances.
I’m just glad you’re not hurting or suffering anymore.
I guess I just want you to know that I love you and I miss you, and I’m doing all the right things. I’m keeping God first, like you always told me to. I’m working hard every day. I’m being respectful to my elders. I’m doing my lessons, Grandma — I promise I am. And when I walk across that stage in Tuscaloosa today and get my degree, I know I won’t be walking alone. You’ll be right there with me, the same way you are every day, inside my heart. I can feel your spirit. I can hear you singing.
You did a good job raising me, Grandma.
I love you.