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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What I’ve Learned About Loss

Pap, in his younger years.

He wasn’t the kind of man who wanted a lot of attention, but his tall, thin frame was hard to miss. He wore blue jeans every day, regardless of the season, and often paired them with white T-shirts. He had simple tastes, and his lunch usually involved the balanced, gourmet cuisine of bologna sandwiches, Cheez-Its and Pepsi.
He was selfless and gave every part of himself to others, especially me. He gave me everything I asked for. He bought me my first fishing pole, first scooter, first pair of diamond earrings, first house and took me to my first dance.
He took care of my grandmother, who didn’t walk very well and actually spent the last five years of her life bedridden; my mother, who also didn’t walk very well but for different reasons; and me, who he never let walk alone.
He also took care of those he didn’t know. An old local newspaper article reveals he once ran into a burning house to save an elderly man. On his way to the video store, he noticed what became a four-alarm fire and was the first to respond. In a world before cell phones or 911, he quickly pulled to the side of the road, ran into the house, rescued the man and still came home with a copy of “Dirty Dancing” for me.
I had the kind of grandfather that made up for all a fatherless child would miss.
Twenty summers ago we were supposed to go on my first real vacation—that trip to Chesapeake Bay he once promised me after I finished fourth grade with straight As.
I was ready for all the perfection that was an elementary school summer: Slush Puppies, baseball games, riding my pink Huffy, Kennywood, getting lost in the magic of sparklers and fireworks, falling asleep to the sound of a window fan pulling a breeze off of the river behind our house, and the consistent background noise from Pap watching boxing and baseball on TV while my grandmother organized her coupons and medicine.
On my first day of summer vacation Pap took me to lunch and told me we should go to Chesapeake Bay, Va.
But it was just daydreaming out loud.
A few days later he told us he was dying, that a cancer had set his stomach on fire. The most magnificent man I had ever known would have no miracle cure. He only had weeks. And he wouldn’t spend them in a hospital, connected to tubes, surrounded by strangers and saints. He wanted to be home.
I wanted him to be in Chesapeake Bay. I wanted him to take me on my first real vacation. And in that moment the fire grew in my belly instead of his—but it was one of sadness not sickness. I wasn’t ready for him to die.
He needed to be there when I graduated from a bicycle to a car; from Bonnie Bell to Cover Girl, and Cover Girl to Chanel; from New Kids on the Block to Neil Young; from Paula Abdul to Paul McCartney; from Madonna to, well, Madonna. He needed to be there when I was big enough for a bigger fishing pole. He needed to see me graduate from high school, go to college, get married and have my own family. He was supposed to walk me down the aisle.
But he would never know my husband. He would never know my children. Ready or not, he was going. It was his time, he said. He wasn’t afraid of death, and so he dug his own foxhole again—this time in a hospital bed in our living room.
Pap was a war veteran and cheated death for as long as he could. He escaped enemy fire while stationed overseas during World War II and survived liver failure several years before cancer claimed him.
Even though I saw him lose pound after pound and struggle to breathe, I really thought he’d live. Just because I wanted him to.
But he left, and I knew he was gone before anyone told me. It’s a pause that comes to your heart and keeps you from swallowing, from speaking. Everything grows completely silent for that moment, as they just slip away.
The next few days were a whirlwind of visiting family, receiving covered dishes, making phone calls and distracting my grandmother. And, of course, cabbage rolls—a staple in hunky households.
It wasn’t until three weeks after he died that I really learned what loss felt like. It doesn’t hurt during the goodbye, it hurts when you’re forced to live in the void they leave. All the family and friends stop visiting, and cabbage rolls are all that's left behind.
I felt the loss when I passed his chair and still couldn’t bring myself to move the Cheez-Its that sat next to it. When I opened the closet to see shirts he never would’ve filled when he died at 63 years old and 81 pounds. When I saw the monogrammed handkerchiefs I bought him for Father’s Day that year and never got to give to him.
My grandmother watched the door every night for him at 9 p.m., as though he’d return from twilight walks he used to take around town. Sometimes he’d pass out produce from the garden we grew together. Everyone in a five-block area had plenty of tomatoes and scallions, thanks to Pap.
As I got older, I started taking those walks. And I claimed his chair. I kept up with both throughout college and my first apartments. While the chair has since moved on, I still take those walks when it’s warm. When all I need is to stay on my feet.
He was only in my life for 10 years, but 20 years later I still miss him. Life experience, and a series of good and bad relationships, has taught me that people are in our lives for as long as we truly need them to be. Every relationship has its season, and I know I had his best years. We didn’t have a quantity of years, but we made up for it for quality.
While nothing would bring me greater joy than to see him watch my son play baseball and my daughter water her garden, I know I get to share him with them every time I pass on to them whatever he taught me about those things. He’s there every time I donate to a veterans’ group, every time I watch a Buccos game, every time I celebrate Father’s Day.
The man who was supposed to love me most, didn’t. And because of Pap, it didn’t matter.