In the South, ‘bless your heart’ is a phrase commonly used as a precursor to an insult to soften the blow.
Southerners understand the meaning of using it also depends on the tone in which its spoken: a slight change in either inflection or volume can make all the difference in the world.
And no one had a better grasp on using ‘bless your heart’ than the talented and witty writer and speaker from Moreland, Georgia – Lewis Grizzard.
Lewis went through life with a congenital heart defect, for which he had to have four heart valve-replacement surgeries. The third, in 1993, he came perilously close to death. The fourth, in March of 1994, would be his last: a blood clot in his finger during the surgery caused other problems, ultimately causing his death.
But prior to the surgery, Lewis, sensed that the outcome might not be a good one, so he decided if that was going to be the case, he wanted to go out in style.
Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Mary Ann (Word) Cauthen, Lewis’ first cousin. I told her that Lewis was one of my inspirations for writing, and that I would love to hear anything she could tell me about his life. She recounted what transpired in the days leading up to his final surgery. Her narrative of the events was both vivid and fascinating. Judge for yourself.
Mary Ann’s father and Lewis’ mother were brother and sister. Mary Ann, Lewis, and Aunt’s Una and Jessie all lived within two blocks of the Moreland Baptist Church, where ‘every house was safe to get a band-aid for a skin’t knee.’ Lewis, as any Grizzard fan already knows, was an only child. His father walked out on his mother when Lewis was a young boy, the result of the physical and psychological damage the patriarch suffered serving in World War II.
More than once, Grizzard wrote that he was conceived on a train. Mary Ann says his mother was never happy about that, and said more than once ‘he wasn’t there, so he don’t know’ – perhaps an indication that Lewis’ wit may have been hereditary.
A few days before the surgery, Lewis’ chauffeur, friend, and right-hand man James brought Lewis’ faithful companion, Lewis’ black lab Catfish, to the hospital to spend some quality time with him. (Lewis was known to persuade the nurses to pull strings for him now and then.) Then, on the day before his fourth valve-replacement surgery, Lewis arranged a special night in his hospital room for his family and friends – his friends in this case being his cardiologist, Dr. Randy Martin, and the squadron of nurses on his watch.
The special night featured a meal that could in no way be confused with a heart-healthy diet, complements of Aunt’s Una and Jessie: fried chicken, creamed corn, homemade biscuits, and pecan pie – all favorites of Lewis. Mary Ann – who was there to ‘make everyone behave’ - and HB Atkinson (Lewis’ stepfather) were there as well. Throughout the evening, everyone was going in and out Lewis’ room at Emory Hospital to share some laughs – and for the family, memories.
Diedre, Lewis’ fiancée, and her daughter Jordan were there as well. Diedre was wearing a short skirt and an off-the-shoulder top with a big ruffle – she and Lewis were to be married the next day. Aunt Jessie, never one to mince words, told Diedre that she needed to ‘cut the ruffle off the top and sew it to the bottom of your skirt to cover up.’
Diedre didn’t, of course, but the marriage took place the next day anyway. Dr. Martin was Lewis’ best man. Lewis, never having any children of his own with any of his first three wives, legally adopted Jordan, who spent the one and only day they would be father and daughter sitting beside him on his bed, brushing his hair to her little heart’s content.
Lewis knew the chances of surviving his surgery weren’t good, and according to Mary Ann, he had a suspicion that it might be his last opportunity to enjoy spending time with family and friends. Therefore, he wanted to get things in order before he left – the marriage to Diedre, the adoption of Jordan, and one last night everyone would talk about for years to come.
For one last time, he wanted to perform on his final stage – a hospital bed - and be the center of attention.
After just 47 years on the planet, Lewis Grizzard exited at the top of his game.
There will never be another like him.
Bless his heart.
Scott Ludwig lives, runs, and writes in Senoia. His latest book, SOUTHERN COMFORT is his second collection of 101 columns. His first, SOUTHERN CHARM, and all of his other books can be found on his author page on Amazon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org