The funniest thing happened yesterday when I read my granddad’s obituary in the Washington Post. Anytime, without fail, I mentioned Chinese food, he’d make the joke, “you better be careful when you order Chinese food that has meat in it.” And every time, I’d ask “why?” He’d reply, “I aint never seen a Chinese man in the obituary. What are they doing with the body?” Well yesterday, right next to George E. Walker, Jr. was James Tsung-Wu Han. So Joke’s on George E. Walker, Jr.
My grandfather was a storyteller. His stories are what drew us to him, made us laugh, brought back memories, filled in gaps, and kept so many alive. His stories are what kept generations going. It was because of these stories that I know at least half the people in attendance today probably still owes him money. He told me to tell you that you can give it to me.
I’ve learned in my own life that great lives happen to those who are able to tell the stories, and if that is true, George Walker lived a great life.
I was going to ask him why he wanted me to speak to you all about his life, because if we’re being honest, until a few months ago, I didn’t feel like I knew much about him. Growing up, he was this giant figure in my life who came with just a few dollars to give me because he was cheap and would let me sit in the room and listen to him entertain grown folks with the same 15 stories I’d have to determine were made up or not. Before I could ask him why he wanted me to speak, he said, “you know we’re the only ones in the family with some sense.” “Yeah, I know,” I told him.
There was this moment near the end when we just sat for hours and compared our stories of the world, how things were then and how they are now, and mid laugh he said in a surprising voice, “Damn boy, you’re just like me.” This was the moment we both realized someone made the mistake of creating another George Walker and laughed at the universe for messing up in such a major way.
Two things happened in this moment for me:
1. As funny as it sounds, it was the first time I realized that I’m actually going to die one day, and me watching my granddad take this journey was surreal, much like watching myself. He did all the things I think I’d do in the situation: eat all the foods I’ve loved in my life and even some I hated just to make sure I still hate them. And get on everyone’s nerves just so they’d have stories to tell when I was no longer around to do so.
2. I pieced together every story I’ve sat in on and every story he’s told me directly and every story I’ve heard from others and realized I knew my grandfather as well as I know myself.
He knew I was a storyteller, and perhaps he needed me to share things as only a storyteller could. It’s the story teller who tells you about the two lives you will live. The first is the life that comes with your birth. The second is the life that comes after you’ve stared death in the face the first time or when you’ve fallen madly in love. And now it’s the storyteller who will tell you that there are two deaths to be endured: the first is the one that can’t be avoided. It’s the one that brought us here. The other is the death that happens when there are no more stories to be told about us. I imagine we will never see a day when there are no more stories to be told about George E. Walker, Jr.
It’s the storyteller who validates a life, isn’t it? Someone has to tell it all. They will be the ones to determine if the story is worth telling. They will be the ones who will show up to your funeral and say just three words. When you’ve done good in the world, and when you’ve walked your own path and left it all on the field, and when all that good has been collected in memories, and all the warmth you’ve given off can still be felt, we will simply say, “he did it.” Or, when you didn’t live at all. And the story is not worth mentioning, in a low tone, it’s the storyteller who will say only, “thanks for coming” and guide you out.
He did it, didn’t he? He lived life. He suited up early and he fought in the streets, he made a million mistakes and eventually laughed through them all, he loved hard, and he stood tall like a tree. When it was time to go, he fought on and was no longer the tree, but a stump, showing us he gave it all he had. He did it. And it was proper. One of the last things he said to me was “You’re not supposed to see me like this.” But wasn’t I? Aren’t I the proof that he railed against his dying day? That he fought? And in the end, he’s proof, for me at least, that even superman dies.
Perhaps I’m here because it’s important that I tell you death only ends the life, not the memories, not the laughs or the smiles, and not the relationship. In the stories I tell me friends, he will still be my grandfather, just as he will be your husband, your father, your brother, your uncle. And when you tell these stories, you tell them with the same tone he used, laughing in the same places he would have laughed, and you tell them like you’re telling them to him.
“A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories. They live on after him, and in that way he becomes immortal.” – Big Fish
You become the story and you live forever. They talk about like about all the greats you’ve ever loved by all the people who have ever loved you, and in this, you live on.
When storytellers die, it’s almost like a good book has been banned or a library has been burned.
Our storyteller is gone and it feels like a library has burned to the ground. We must now stitch together the pages we find laying around and rebuild. You show up with 4 stories and I’ll show up with 3.
So today and until further notice, we must tell stories of George Edward Walker, Jr.