Five years ago this April, my grandmother was staying with my mum and my younger brother. Like William, she had stopped chemotherapy in favor of making the best of the time she had left. But a small infection was too much for her immune system to take and, in a matter of days, her health deteriorated. All she wanted was to go home and be with her mother. She wanted to go back to England, to the home she had shared with my grandfather, and look out of the window and onto her beloved garden we all spent so much time in as a family. Just like William, she did not want for my brother to say goodbye looking down; just like William, she knew.
The outside world may see the sickly body struggling, but as long as a smile is still firmly planted on the pale face, as long as the spirit is still very much alive, it’s hard to imagine that the dying person is very much aware of their hands gripping heaven’s door-handle. Despite Randall and Beth’s efforts, William knew his time was coming—and quicker than expected. And in a way, I believe, so did Randall. Though the anxiety attacks that left him paralyzed and vision-impaired were brought on by an accumulation of exterior and self-inflicted pressures, I am sure that his high levels of empathy somehow tapped into William’s restlessness. Deep down, I think he knew what was coming; he just didn’t realize it was coming so soon.
As I’m writing this, know that I am snotting all over my keyboard and can hardly make out the words I am typing through a curtain of tears. The only thing that is stopping me from curling up into a ball and grieving William for the rest of the day are the tunes that mark “Memphis.” I think the last TV character I mourned like this was Nate Fisher (Peter Krause) on Six Feet Under, and that says something: It’s taken 12 years for a TV series to develop characters I could love and relate to as much as I could to Nate. Honestly, I’m surprised to have found them on This Is Us, but how can you not be completely taken with Randall and William, the characters and their past and present stories?
“Memphis” focuses entirely on William’s background and Randall finally discovering his own roots. Set to a soundtrack of The Emotions, Memphis Slim and Junior Kimbrough, this road trip episode pays tribute to William’s former life as an artist, and to a growing father-son relationship on a time-limit. As William shows off his old haunts, introducing Randall to his favorite eateries, clubs and the barber shop he got his first haircut in, the emotional importance of this trip is emphasized not only by the fact that it will be their last, but by all the ways in which Randall finds a new sense of self. Though he recognizes the sensitivity of the situation when William reconnects with his cousin Ricky (Bryan Tyree Henry) after more than twenty years, Randall can hardly contain his excitement over getting to meet his second cousin. His face lights up when Ricky likens his looks to William’s, and he blames his inability to refer to him as “cuz” on the fact that he was raised by a white family.
Randall is finally starting to feel a connection to the black experience that he could not as a child, even if only through William telling stories of a past Memphis where the school’s water fountains were painted, respectively, black and white, and where William’s uncle used to sneak him into the Peabody Duck Hotel back when it was still segregated. This Is Us’ casting directors did a fine job casting Jeremel Nakia as a young William and Lonnie Chavis as a young Randall: They both exude this warm, poetic sensitivity; they both speak through their eyes and timid body language. Upon getting to see more of young William in “Memphis,” it’s not only Randall who finds this connection to his biological family—as a viewer, we get to feel and see some of the traits that shaped Randall even from a distance.
“Memphis” is all about celebrating Randall and William’s journey, but Papa Pearson’s presence was still felt throughout. Even though visiting Jack’s final resting place is a half-day detour, William convinces Randall to let go of his schedule, roll the windows down and turn the music up, allowing him to pay his respects to the man that fathered him. William wants to know more about Jack and the father he was to his son. Upon hearing Randall’s stories, William decides he likes Jack, and although he’ll never be able to cup his son’s head and help him breathe through a panic attack the way Jack did, he has something just as memorable to give: his words. Words capturing the saddest moments and the happiest occasions of his life, bundled up in his final volume of poetry. Words encouraging his son to let go, “crank up that ‘fro” and let someone else make the bed.
After one last night playing good tunes on stage with Ricky, after getting to show off his pride and joy, his son, William’s body is ready to let go, and Randall is there to assuage his fears. Holding his father’s fragile head with his hands, they look deep into one another’s eyes and breathe together until William has no more breath to give.
On the drive home, Randall comes to a full stop on the seemingly endless highway when the Peabody ducks his father had hoped to see one more time cross the road in front of him. It’s a difficult moment, one Randall chooses to honor by rolling his windows down and cranking the music up. These moments, as clichéd as it may sound, are the ones that give us the strength to continue in the wake of a loved one’s death, reminding us that not all connection is lost.
Following the news of my grandma’s passing, I hung up the phone to find a bird we both used to admire sitting on a tree in my garden. The weight of my heart reaching to the pit of my soul was indescribable, but as I looked at the bird an inexplicable wave of peace washed over me. I could hear the final words of wisdom she imparted on me as if she were whispering them in my ear: “Life is not a rehearsal. Make the most of every single moment.”
For me, the only consolation to this intensely moving episode was the thought that, for a moment, Randall too experienced this undeniable connection, this painful sensation of peace, knowing that, at the very least, he had brought his father home.
Roxanne Sancto is a freelance journalist for Paste and The New Heroes & Pioneers. She’s the author of The Tuesday Series & co-author of The Pink Boots. She can usually be found covered in paint stains.