For Papa

Grandparents are a gift.

On the day I was born, I came into the loving arms of my family — my mother and father, cousins, aunts and uncles. And at the epicenter were my father’s parents, my Grandma and Papa.

Many of my fondest memories involve our big holiday gatherings at their house, where everyone came together a few times a year. I was thrilled every time we drove through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, a sign that we were almost to our destination: Grandma and Papa’s comfortable ranch-style house set on acres and acres of beautiful trees and trails, which we referred to as Papa’s Woods. I loved (and still love) sitting out on their screened-in porch, stealing candy from the always-full glass jar on the kitchen counter, playing and reading in the living room where their twin recliner chairs sat side by side. It is one of the most marvelous places in the world, because it is overfilled with love.

I know I’m too old for this, but I lulled myself into believing that my grandparents would always be there. After all, for 23 years they always had been. They were happy and healthy and went out dancing every week, and life rolled along and I became secure in it.

This past summer, I got the phone call that Papa was sick. With my complicated work schedule, I was only able to get up to see him twice, but I enjoyed my visits. Despite his sickness, he seemed to be in good spirits, and we had a long talk about money and jobs and his life.

The months rolled on by, and I kept hearing that he was still doing “okay, considering,” and somewhere along the line I managed to convince myself that he would get well again.

At 11:30 pm on September 25, the phone rang. Hubby and I were told to get up to visit Papa as soon as possible. His condition was deteriorating quickly, and the doctors didn’t think he had much longer to live.

Two days later, on the 27th, my parents and husband and I made the trip up. Dad tried to prepare me as best as he could for what to expect, but it was still shocking to see Papa looking so small and so sick. I wish I could say that I was strong and stoic and comforting. I was not, and I regret that I so easily fell to pieces.

I don’t think anything can ever really prepare you for sickness. I’ve been lucky enough not to encounter much of it in my short time. I wasn’t prepared. I didn’t know what to do, didn’t know what to say — just let the day whiz by me as I concentrated my energies on trying not to cry and trying to be cheerful for my family. Finally, we had to leave.

“Goodbye, Papa,” I whispered to my grandfather as I kissed his forehead. “I love you.”

Those were my last words to Papa. I don’t know if he even heard me. I hope he did. I hope he knew.

Early in the morning on September 30, I was jolted awake, feeling very much like something was wrong. My heart thudding, I checked on the house and the dog and, satisfied that all seemed well, struggled to get back to sleep.

Several hours later, at 8:08 a.m., I got the phone call. I had just showered and dressed for work and had a slice of peanut butter toast in hand when the phone started ringing. I froze for a moment, seriously debating whether I should answer — knowing that a call that early in the morning was probably not full of good news. I picked up and heard my father’s voice on the other end.

My Papa had passed away in his sleep a few hours before, about the same time that I had been jerked out of my slumber.

It’s the first really big hurt of my life.

Both my uncle and my other grandfather had passed away when I was only about four years old; so little that I didn’t fully comprehend the losses. It’s hard for a child to understand.

This time, I understand perfectly.

My Papa was a good man, and a brave man. He spent 20 years of his life serving in the Navy: From 1950 to 1970, he sailed around the world in submarines, serving his country by capturing pirates in South America, becoming Chief of the Boat on the U.S.S. Andrew Jackson, teaching at the Nuclear Power School in Maryland, and eventually rising to the rank of Master Chief Petty Officer in 1965. By his retirement, he had been decorated with the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, the Navy Unit Commendation, the Navy Good Conduct Medal, and the National Defense Service Medal. You can still see his whole record at the Navy Log’s online records.

After his retirement from the military, he ran several H&R Block franchises and continued working on taxes from his home office until very recently. Through all of that, he enjoyed a marriage of 56 years, raised four sons, and had seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He and Grandma went to plays all over the area, and every week they went out dancing. Seeing them dance together at my wedding is one of my greatest joys. They’ve been dancing together ever since they met, and nobody (and I do mean nobody) can cut a rug like those two.

“I think Dad [...] might look back and wish he had done some things differently, but I wouldn’t change a thing,” my father wrote recently on his blog. “[I] still think he is one of the smartest people I have ever met.”

Papa had a long and full life — a life full of bravery and music and family and dancing and love. I couldn’t have asked for a better grandfather.

On the day I was born, I was lucky. I had him.

Article © 2009 by Molly E. Weeks