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The Daily Tar Heel

Remembering Our Family Heroes

Remembering Our Family Heroes

If your grandparents are still alive, talk to them and tell them you love them. You never know when your last chance will pass.

Gaga was an extraordinary woman. Her husband died in the polio epidemic in 1951, hardly home from a four-year tour of duty in the war. With love, faith and an incomparable work ethic, Gaga then carried her family, her pride and joy, from the deepest poverty and ostracism (nobody knew how polio spread) to the middle class we enjoy today. Meanwhile she labored to aid the few who could be less fortunate in east Tennessee, including foster-parenting a young black orphan. Social services denied her adoption request because it was a single-parent home.

I love her more than words can say.

One of the hardest things I've ever done was to speak to the hundreds who attended her funeral. Here's what I said:

"I stand here to speak with mixed emotions. I know in my heart that Gaga is better off now, but we who are left here without that wonderful lady are so much worse off -- I can barely stand it. And I know that I'm not up to this task. Were I the best writer and speaker the world has ever known, I couldn't do justice to her life. I'm not, and I can't, but despite my grief, I'll do the best I can.

Gaga and I had a special bond that started the day I was born. I loved her dearly, and she loved me. She told me frequently that the very first time we saw each other, my eyes locked on to hers and wouldn't let go. She thought then that I knew her already. Maybe I did, but more likely I could just feel her love. She sure had a lot of love, especially for those in need. When she saw me, a tiny baby crying through a broken mouth, the room just glowed with her love. I was needy, I was Family, and she was ready.

Through surgery after surgery, she was there for me. When I needed consoling, she'd hold me tight. When I'd get lazy or cranky and not want to do what the doctors told me, she'd tempt me with various rewards until I gave in and did her bidding. When I tired of my liquid diet, she'd figure out a way to make some macaroni and cheese that I could eat. When the purple horses of my nightmares scared away my sleep, she'd hold and protect me, counting sheep with me until I drifted off into a peaceful sleep.

And though she would never admit that any of her wonderful grandbabies could ever do anything wrong, she did at times catch me at some caper or another. Her disappointed look was more punishment than I could stand.

But most importantly, she never, ever, let me feel sorry for myself, or get down on myself, or let my troubles overwhelm me. She was such a strong woman. Though she would never admit it, whatever my cleft lip caused me was trivial next to what she endured.

Early on, a great depression was followed by a world war that stole away her sweetheart during her children's early years. An epidemic later robbed her of years of bliss with her soulmate, and left her alone to care for three young children. More recently, a terrible fall left her facing a truly painful rehabilitation. She not only survived such trials, she thrived. Who else could have countered these pains with such style and grace? Look around you -- what a family she reared, and all by herself! Who else could have quit smoking at a moment's notice without a complaint? Who else could have endured the grueling rehabilitation she suffered to escape Shannondale back to her beloved home? Over and over the world tried to paint her black, yet she emerged golden and glowing.

For all her strength, it isn't her troubles that define her, it is her infinite love. Troubles are to be overcome and forgotten, while love is eternal. For Gaga, living was about simple pleasures: a pretty dress, a pleasant conversation, a bird singing in the spring, a friend's smile, or a grandchild's hug. I like to remember sitting on her porch, chatting about nothing and watching the birds she loved to feed. We were all her little birds: her redbirds, her children and grandchildren, the hundreds of people she befriended and aided over the years. Fly little birds, fly off to heights you couldn't have dreamed.

But now she's flown off and left us here. She might have worried about walking to heaven on a broken leg, but I bet the angels fought over who got to fly up there with her. I can just imagine the heavenly scene over the last week as the party was prepared. Here she comes, y'all, the one you've been waiting for. The one who met every challenge, who passed every test, who loved and loved and loved -- she's finally going home.

Love, dignity, style and grace -- that's my Gaga. Heaven must have seemed empty while we borrowed her here on earth. Thank you, God, for letting us have her for so long. Thank you, Gaga, for everything. You're back now, and I'm happy for you, but I sure do miss you."

Russ Helms is a doctoral candidate in biostatistics from Chapel Hill. His wife and soulmate, Wendy, is now pregnant with their baby boy. Russ and Wendy hope a proud Gaga helped select the soul. E-mail Russ at

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