There are fathers who do not love their children; there is no grandfather who does not adore his grandchild.–Victor Hugo
After grieving for Sammy throughout most of my childhood, death, at some point, became merely a distant threat again. I thought of him most days, admittedly do even now, but tears had subsided into smiles as painful thoughts became fond memories once more. Plus, going through puberty and then my high school years? I had more than plenty to keep me occupied.
I took death, in, yet again, an abstract sort of way, wrapping myself up in the communities that were Goth and Geek culture in the early aughts. This was not an embrace of death, not fully. More of keeping an enemy at arm’s length. Using the fear as a shield, and then escaping into a digital wonderland when things got too “real.”
My grandmother absolutely hated all of it: the new friends, new music, new clothes, new tech gear. My grandfather, in contrast, didn’t bat an eye. I was still his “boog” and his “sugar”, even if I had swapped pink and white for black and blue. He still kissed me goodnight every night before bed, regardless of what I was wearing or in what language I was singing. He loved me for me, which I have found a rare experience in my life.
In all of my endeavors, my Papa was there to tell me how proud he was, in his own quiet way. He would come up to me when I was sitting on the roof of his shed at night stargazing, or find me reading in a hidden corner, and he’d sit a while before murmuring a congratulations on good grades, or a solid critique on art. I treasured these one-on-ones.
He did this too, when I was sad. When fights with my grandmother reached their peak and I inevitably ran off into the woods to cool off. He’d find me and sit with me without a word. If I cried, he’d pat me on the shoulder and simply say “I know”.
When I was diagnosed with cancer at 21, he was beside himself. He paced the living room as the family was told the news, and he couldn’t look at me at first. And then the old goofball in him came back, and he did everything in his power to make me laugh, from silly songs to clacking his dentures. He told me over and over throughout the months, “you’ll be okay, Boog”, and he was right.
After I went off to college and found myself settling down in life, he was still rooting for me. Whenever I moved to a new apartment, Papa had to “inspect” it to make sure it was safe enough for me. That there were no exposed wires, broken pipes, or other dangers waiting for me in my new place. He was a carpenter by trade, but really an honest jack-of-all-trades who would fix any issues before I could call the landlord.
He fell ill just as I bought my first house. He wanted so badly to come see it, but it was hard to get him out of bed at that point. I’ll never forget kneeling down next to him at a family dinner one night in November of 2011. I told him he’d have to come see it soon and give it his standard seal of approval. He gazed past me and there was a look in his eyes, something I recognized but did not want to admit to myself. He smiled sadly and said, “Oh, I’ll be there honey. At the very least, in spirit.”
He would only live two more months after that night, and no, he never did make it to the new house while he lived. I’ve struggled with his death terribly. My Papa was, to me, a father moreso than grandfather. The only real father I’ve had in life, despite all of my little imprintings. The only one who didn’t leave. I think I finally reached a point of catharsis this January when I wrote the following about his last moments, which I’ve mostly kept secret until now:
You died on a Sunday night, seven years ago. Seven years since I last held your hand and spoke to you. Seven years and two days since I last heard your voice, your last words still echo in my memory: “I love you, too.” It was January 29th, though we cheated a little and wrote February 3rd on the whiteboard in your hospital room. We all knew you were trying to make it to your 55th wedding anniversary, so you wouldn’t let her down. You were stubborn. Maybe that’s where I get it.
That same stubbornness insisted that you wanted to be alone in the last hour. Even when you lost your voice, you pleaded wordlessly to be alone. We cheated on that part, too. One by one, we all said goodnight and left the room, as we had always done growing up. “Goodnight, sweet dreams, I’ll see you in the morning.” You fell asleep. We waited outside in the hall, listening for the steady beeping of your heart monitor to slow into the rhythm of slumber. Just as slowly, we crept back in and sat with you. My grandmother and I held your hands. You sat up one last time and looked me in the eyes, squeezed my hand as you took your last breath.
I remember those moments, forever burned into memory. I both curse and cherish them, the high and low points of eidetic memory all in one. Seven years later, you still cross my mind every day, now mostly bringing smiles instead of tears. You taught me so much: how to forgive, how to be compassionate, to love, to create. To choose kindness over cruelty. To seek truth over ignorance. That it was okay to just be me (though I admit I am still working on that one). My heart aches knowing Liam will never meet you, that you won’t be there to read him Psalm 23 before bed, or sing him silly nonsense songs. But I’ll do it for you, and maybe in that way, you’ll be there. I look through your childhood photos and smile seeing days gone by where you were happy and healthy. I love you, Papa. I miss you. See you on the other side.
That little writing in turned inspired this writing, in thinking on how things have changed so much since Papa died in 2012. I was a stubborn hold out in regards to smart phones, stubbornly clinging to my little Blackberry, and I didn’t get my first true smart phone until 6 months after his passing.
So like Sammy, no selfies with him. No Facebook updates or Instagram posts. But I have pictures. So many pictures, each lovely in their own way. And I have videos, here and there, though most of them are on VHS tapes, locked way forever. Or at least until I get my hands on a VCR and a disc converter.
Sometimes this deepens my sadness of losing him right on the cusp of the technology that we have made our new “every day”. I wonder if it wouldn’t be nice for him to pop up on my timeline. For Amazon Photos to show me his face on a “7 years ago today” update. To be able to pull up a visual voicemail from him and hear his voice one more time. We were so very close to that, but just missed grabbing that ring.
Even so, his picture is on one of my night stands, as my picture was always on his. I point to him most nights and tell Liam a story about him before bed. One day, I’ll share more about the adventurous tales of Billy Ray here, too. And of course, there’s always the cemetery. I visit him more often now, especially since I’m so close. My mother keeps his grave adorned with fresh flowers year round.
And there are dreams of him, of course. Always dreams.
I feel like this is a typical snapshot of the relationship with death in the 20th century for the average mourner. With Sammy and a lack of pictures, I mourned him as the pre-Victorians would: in memory, and with memory stones. With my Papa, I have pictures to go with the memories. Maybe some video one day, with the right tools. I have a jacket, a watch, and other small mementos. These are precious, and yet bittersweet all the same. Phantom echoes and imprints of what, and who, he was.
My mind often goes back and forth on how I would prefer it. Would I keep it this way, with photographs and memories? Or would I want those daily pangs and reminders? At the time I had no frame of reference, but I soon would.