Nearly nine years ago, in a fairly unforeseeable turn of events, I found myself in my pajamas, sitting cross-legged on the floor of my grandparents’ bedroom in the faint early morning light, my hair tied back loosely from my face. I could hear Bandie’s deep, regular breathing in the background, but Papa and I were entirely focused on each other. Our eyes met in the pale blue light, a withering smile passing between us.
It wasn’t exactly a tender grandfather-granddaughter bonding moment. In fact, he didn’t offer me ONE SINGLE WORD of wisdom or life lessons.
Instead, I was using most of my body weight to force down the plunger of a large syringe full of hot water into a frustratingly small plastic tube that went directly into my Papa’s stomach. The goal was to dislodge a hard, congealed clump of dried liquid nutrition that was clogging the tube; we joked that when it finally broke free it would shoot right out the back of him. And we’d been trying for nearly a half an hour.
We did eventually force that chunk free, and lots of others, too. We spilled bright red Gatorade on their pristine bedroom carpet in the middle of the night. We survived a potentially fatal medication error (thank you, moron pharmacist), and we survived him re-learning how to drive, including a near-miss with a semi-truck. His slow reflexes pulled our car right in front of the speeding truck, and when he realized what he’d done, my Papa swore—loudly, clearly, and intentionally. I didn’t mind; it was good to hear his voice. We covered his swollen, flaky legs in lotion. We made a few trips to the ER to reinsert the feeding tube into the open hole into his abdomen until I finally learned how to fix it myself, and we entertained a parade of therapists and nurses who slowly nursed him back to health after a devastating aneurysm repair over the course of one impossibly short college summer break.
That summer I spent hours weeding his impossibly congested flower beds, and he took wobbly steps outside to inspect and critique my work. It is only now that it occurs to me that perhaps his impulse to be completely in control of those petunias was more about his own inability to be at all in control of his own body’s painfully slow recovery. Purple petunias, I guess, can handle the grumbling.
Last Friday night, my Papa died.
And while I have wrapped my head around the idea that he is gone today, it is somehow impossible to wrap my heart around the idea that he will still be gone tomorrow—that when that garage door opens to let me in the next time I visit, he won’t be standing at the top of the stairs, his hunched shoulders leaving him shorter than his regular six-foot four height.
I have memories of my Papa that are different than many of my peers’ memories of their grandfathers. When I was young, Papa was strong and robust. He taught me to ski and built me bedroom furniture. Maybe other people haven’t seen their grandfathers in swimsuits; I have swum with mine in the pool behind his house in California more times than I can count, both before and after he acquired the long purplish scar down the front of his chest. When I think of my Papa, I think of his tall frame and strong arms, his thick, course, wavy hair forced into perfect submission with gallons of hairspray and the sheer, overwhelming force of my Papa’s will.
It was inconceivable that he look the least bit disheveled. Other people look disheveled. Papa looks perfectly composed, pressed shirt tucked in and slacks perfectly ironed and belted, and he smells of Drakkar Noir.
That summer, after weeks of leaving me solely in charge of his nutrition, hydration, and transportation, the day finally came when the speech therapist asked us to bring solid food to the appointment. Weeks of strapping electrodes to his throat by wrapping his neck and face in CoBand (“I look like a nun”, he’d point out, wryly) had paid off, and it was time to try to eat. A turkey sandwich was on the menu.
Though I had single-handedly dosed his medications—blood pressure, anti-coagulation, supplements, pain medications—without the least bit of supervision, he hovered anxiously behind me while I pulled the condiments from the fridge.
“Mayo on that piece, and mustard over here. You can put the lettuce wherever you want, but the turkey has to go that side and the avocado over here.” He directed, squinting just slightly in concentration.
I put the knife down and turned to him slowly, one eyebrow raised to show my mild displeasure at his coaching. He smiled, understanding the irony of his bossiness without a word, but unrelentingly added, “And don’t forget the pepper.”
Papa was back.
Once, when I was too young to fly by myself, my Papa drove me from Utah to their home in Northern California. I remember very little about the trip, other than that we went together, just the two of us, in his old, brown Honda, and that we stopped on the salt flats to let me stretch my short legs. I must have made him crazy with my incessant four-year-old chattering.
He bought me fruit snacks.
I never got fruit snacks.
Years later, we made the trip many more times with my siblings and grandmother. We towed his trailer over long miles on the way to the redwood forests, playing a silly game where we picked at item on the horizon and guessed how many miles away it was and then watched the odometer, cheering at whoever guessed closest, all the while Bandie snoring contentedly in the passenger seat. Traditionally, on the way from our home in Utah to his, we stopped at the Peppermill Casino in Wendover for brunch, and Papa put the change from our check in the slots on the way out. I remember his wide grin when he made a few quarters, and his refusal to put them back in the machine to try again.
“Nope,” he said, with finality. “That’s how they get you.”
Before that day with the turkey sandwich, Papa was prohibited from swallowing, including his own saliva. He had a suction machine at home, but on the long road trips to appointments, he brought a long a small Dixie cup and every few minutes, he’d quietly spit in to it. It must have been torture for my proper Papa to find himself spitting into a cup. It must have been nearly unbearable.
At least that’s what I tell myself when I remember the time he asked me to pull to the side of the road a mere 6 houses away from home, apparently unable to wait a moment longer to throw out the offensive cup. He unrolled his window, and took aim at the open garbage can a neighbor had left out on the street for pickup.
He missed. Widely. The cup bounced off the can, flinging his last hour’s worth of spit all over the can and road.
Enormously amused at himself, he laughed out loud, and then turned to me without hesitation.
“Just leave it. Let’s go home. They’ll never know.”
Papa wasn’t a perfect person. He made mistakes. He could be formal and stubborn and old-fashioned, he cursed, he grew short-tempered when he didn’t feel well, and as it turns out, he was persnickety about the construction of his turkey sandwiches.
Who wants a perfect person around, anyway? All I needed was a perfect Papa.
I miss you, Papa. I love you. Slug bug green.