Disclaimer: This story about my grandfather is written as I remember it. Not every part of it is aboslutely factual, but rather written from the perspective of a young girl (me). That being said, while some of my family may have different accounts, this is my story of an amazing man that left my life too soon.
There’s a story that my mom loves to tell about my grandfather and me. She says that when I was a young girl, she told me that my papa was part Indian (meaning part Native American). I told her that it just couldn’t be so because I had never seen Papa doing an Indian dance or making an Indian call like I had seen so many times on television. She told me that he did do those things, he just didn’t do them when people were around because he was shy. My mother must have recalled this story to Papa, because I remember well going to my grandparent’s house some time later, getting out of the car and seeing my papa dancing in the window and making his Indian call. I remember the feeling of awe and excitement when I snuck up to the window (they lived in a trailer) and peeked inside. It is one of my most memorable childhood experiences. And, for the record, my grandfather’s family history traces back to the Iroquois Indian tribe, so he truly was part Indian.
Another fond memory that I have of my Papa takes place during the days when we used to spend time with him at work. Aptly named “Papa’s Exxon,” Papa ran his own business as a mechanic. He worked hard and was well respected by his clients for his honesty and fair prices. In fact, I remember being at his wake years later and hearing one client telling my mother that Papa had put a whole new set of tires on her car so that it would be fit for the road, and he hadn’t charged her a dime. He had told her to keep working like she was working to “keep her children in school and off the streets” and that would be payment enough. Anyways, my mother would often help Papa out at his Exxon by taking care of his bookkeeping and pumping gas. That meant that my sister and I would be right there with her. I remember so clearly watching him work with precision, a white rag tucked in his back pocket to wipe his greasy hands with, and a brown ball cap that matched his uniform sitting on top of his head. On his break hour, he would gather my sister and I up in his arms and sit us on the counter so that he could feed us red hotdogs from the steamer that he kept running for such occasions. He’d crank the country music up loud and dance foolishly until he made us roar with laughter. I still can’t eat a red hotdog or listen to Patsy Cline without pictures of those wonderful days running through my mind.
Some years later, my immediate family, along with my extended family, was attending a vow renewal service for my grandparents when my papa started to act very odd. First, he couldn’t speak without fumbling his words and one side of his face was drooping. Nan and Papa made it through their renewal service, at Papa’s insistence, and then an ambulance was called. Soon after, Papa was diagnosed with a cerebral hemorrhage. In other words, he had a bleed on his brain that had caused a massive stroke followed by several more, which did irreversible damage to his brain. He was 58 years old.
All of a sudden my papa’s whole life changed. He went from a man who owned his own auto mechanics shop, to a man who was incontinent, couldn’t speak, and had the aptitude of a five-year old. He was a man who had smoked since the ripe old age of twelve (which was probably the cause of his ultimate demise) to a man who had no recollection of what a cigarette was. As it turned out, most (if not all) of his recent memories were gone and would never be recovered. He still had many of his long-term memories, but would need extensive therapy to regain the most basic of life skills. My mother quit her job to help take care of him.
My nanny struggled to come to terms with Papa’s condition. It was as if she was mourning Papa’s death while he was still right there, and instead of finding the strength within herself to carry on, she started to revert to her own sort of childish ways. She used to lock herself in the bathroom and smoke (we knew this because we could see the smoke wafting out from under the bathroom door (and did I mention that Nanny had never smoked before this?). She would stay in there for hours. Once in a while the sound of muffled sobs would come from her direction. But, who could blame her? Nanny and Papa had had the sort of marriage that many only dream of. This man that she had borne five children with barely remembered who she was. It was as if he died suddenly, changing completely without warning.
I remember one day, in particular, a while after my Papa’s stroke, that we were at their house and Papa got angry with my sister- for what I can’t recall. He grabbed her by the arm and got ready to swing at her before my mother saw him and yelled for him to stop. This man, my Papa, who used to sit us girls on his lap and smother us with love and terms of endearment, and never said a word in anger to any of us as grandchildren, couldn’t even seem to understand why what he was about to do was wrong. My same Papa who, in the past, had shaken his finger at my mother for talking crossly to us girls at all, now felt that corporal punishment was acceptable. After that, things in the house got very quiet and it was my own mother’s muffled sobs I heard coming from the bathroom. I think it was in that moment that she learned how much her role with her father had reversed, from child to caregiver.
Because Papa still had most of his long-term memories, not all was lost. We heard many stories from the days of his childhood that he had never wanted to share before. He talked about his time serving in the Korean Conflict (as it’s called now), which had been a taboo subject prior to his stroke. Papa had a brother who was in his unit that was actually shot and wounded. Turns out, my grandfather held him and cried as they waited for medics to show up, holding pressure on a gaping wound from Uncle Newman’s chest (he survived, and lived long after my grandfather did). He would cry as he told of the fear of being so far away from his family in a foreign land where he didn’t speak the language and lost his friends to injury and death nearly every day. While Papa had always been a loving man, the shedding of tears was a new thing for him. He had always been very reserved and would never have dreamed of shedding a tear in front of anyone or even accepting a handout. However, after his hemorrhage, he loved to go shopping and would whoop with glee if my mother bought him anything, or if he got anything for free.
But every time my Papa would make progress, he would have another stroke. There was nothing that could be done to stop it from happening. And every time, we lost a little more of him. In one moment of clarity, he begged my mother not to ever put him in a nursing home, and she promised she would not. It was a promise that became hard to keep.
When I was fourteen years old, Papa had his last and worst stroke. A family meeting was called, and against the wishes of my mother and my aunt, but in line with the wishes of their brothers, my papa was sent to a nursing home. There are many things about my papa’s illness that I don’t remember, but I remember the day he went to the nursing home with absolute clarity.
While my mom was talking to one of the nurses, I went into the room to see him and before I could open my mouth he looked at me with an unyielding look on his face and said “You get out of here you bitch.” He was angry to be there and he thought I was my mother. And although I know that wasn’t really him, it was his illness talking, I can’t even write about it today without tears clouding up my vision.
My father was a good dad when we were children, but he was not present. He spent hours and hours at his job so that my mother could stay home with my sister and I. He was usually home long enough to eat and sleep, and was gone by the time we got up in the morning. And while he did spend some quality time with us on the weekends, Papa had always been my father figure. He was the kind of man that showed his affection openly and without having to say a word. He was the first man in my life that showed me what it felt like to have a man love me without conditions.
The day he scorned me was one of the worst in my life to date. The days after that were long. Papa was having many hallucinations. One night we went into his room and he was hauling traps and banding lobsters. Another night he asked my mom to take the cat off of his feet that wasn’t there. And the last night I saw him he pulled his Johnny off, flashing everyone in the room. To this day, I’m not really sure what my mom was thinking, having my sister and I there to witness these things, except that she didn’t have any other place for us or maybe (and this is the more likely scenario) my mother was so distraught, she just couldn’t think clearly.
On the last day of his life Papa was restless. His fever was high and systems seemed to be shutting down. My mother sat by his bed, along with her sister (as the brothers seemed to disappear after they made the hard decisions) and waited to help usher Papa out of the world that he had helped to bring them into, until a kind, elderly family friend reminded them what a proud man my Papa was. He told them that Papa might have been holding on because he didn’t want them to watch him go. After much discussion, and tears, they decided this family friend might be right. We all said our goodbyes (although I don’t remember this part, but I’ve been told), and everyone left.
Very soon after he was gone.
Mum knew before we did because she said she had fallen asleep and had dreamed he was there in her dream, waving goodbye and blowing her kisses. She knew as soon as she was awakened by the ring of the phone. He was 63 years old, only one year older than my own father is now.
At family gatherings (which still include my eighty-four-year-old grandmother), Papa’s absence hangs in the air. He would have been so proud to see his grandchildren grow up to produce a whopping twenty great-grandchildren (with more on the way). I wish he had been able to meet my husband, witness my high school graduation and see me walk down the aisle. I wish that he had been able to meet my three wonderful children and bless them with the love that he gave to me, telling them stories and showing them his Indian dance. I have hope that somewhere in the great unknown he sees these things and knows how our lives turned out.
I believe that every person we come into contact with leaves an imprint on our lives, regardless of how much or how little time we spent with them. My Papa was no exception. It has been twenty years now since his passing and I have never been to pay my respects to his grave. I don’t believe that he is there. He left that body long before his death. The person who swore at me and acted aggressively towards my sister wasn’t the grandfather that told me his fingertip was missing because it got stuck up his nose while he was picking it (and not because he cut it off with a table saw, which is what actually happened). That was not the same papa who sat and watched The Sound of Music with me for hours while I sat in his lap and took in the scent of him; motor oil and Old Spice. When I want to pay respects to my Papa I don’t think about going to his grave. I close my eyes and think about all the wonderful memories he left for me, and thank him silently for teaching me what unconditional love is.