Tuesday, April 28th, 2009
When I was a kid, if I couldn’t fall asleep at night, I had a trick. I knew crying made me tired, so I would think of my grandfather, my Papaw, and every time, it would make me cry, and I would fall asleep with tears on my pillow, his face in my head. I don’t know why thinking of him made me so sad. Maybe it was because I missed him. Maybe it was because I never doubted for a moment how much he loved me, completely, even when I was bad.
Though Papaw hasn’t known me for a while now, even though he was weak and barely himself for months before the end, I wasn’t prepared for him to die. He has been gone three and a half days now, and it’s just like when I was 9 years old, clutching my teddy bear and crying myself to sleep. Last night at New Era club, I looked out at our host’s manicured flowerbeds and almost lost it, thinking of Papaw leading us through his garden, showing us with pride his new watermelons and squash. I am bone-tired from all the crying, and from watching my mother and grandmother cry, and from staying up late two nights in a row with my sister, making a photo slide show DVD and burning copies of it for the family. Even though I got to sleep in my own bed last night and slept till 10:30 this morning, still I am worn out. D is tired and sore, too, from helping dig Papaw’s grave, an unusual necessity because the family plot is in a small church cemetery with no room for digging equipment.
Now I am watching the DVD my sister and I made, with the song “Man of the Hour” by Pearl Jam playing in the background of the slide show.
“Now the man of the hour is taking his final bow
As the curtain comes down
I feel that this is just goodbye for now.”
There is a picture of my sister and I with him, wearing Mamaw’s old nightgowns, the way we used to do when we spent the night with them. There is a picture from the family reunion of 1984; I am on Mamaw’s knee, and my sister is in Papaw’s arms. There are pictures of Papaw dancing, because he loved to dance.
It makes me wish I had spent more time with him after I was grown up. Makes me wish I could go back and visit those summer days when he would let us build things with him in his workshop; feed us cheese curls, pink hot dogs and Hydrox cookies for lunch; take us fishing with cane poles at Uncle Harvey’s catfish pond; buy me a cheap doll when we went to the grocery store, and I would treasure it because it was from him; put a switch from the peach tree on the top of the refrigerator but never use it; let us ride up the road in the back of his green Chevy truck; sneak us butterscotch candies in church; and wake us up before dawn with a little dance and a rhyme. I wish I could remember everything, every word he ever said to me, every thing I adored about him, but my memory is full of holes. It has been so many years since those summers when we spent a week at a time in his care, going on adventures with him and getting dirty and loving every minute of it.
Here is what I know about the man he was, before Alzheimer’s: He was a quiet man, especially as his hearing got worse, but he also liked to joke and tease. He was generous. He liked to read the paper and watch General Hospital. He dipped Prince Albert snuff from a red can. He liked to eat sliced white bread with dinner, no matter the meal. He never had a cavity in 88 years of life. Every day, he wore tan pants, white ribbed undershirts, and plaid button-front shirts. He styled his hair the way he had in the 40s – waved back from his forehead with pomade – and it looked good on him. He was in the Army during World War II, serving mostly as an orderly at hospitals, and he liked to talk about those years. He kept his nails a little long and very neat. His favorite song was “How Great Thou Art.” He worked hard all his life, and though he didn’t have much money to show for it, he had a house and a little land and a thriving family – a wife of more than 40 years, six children still living, 19 grandchildren, and 21 great-grandchildren.
He was the best person I ever knew.
Eighty-eight years is a long time to live, and for most of it he was healthy and whole. I feel lucky to have known him for so long, but I am sad my children will never have that privilege. And I am sad for myself. He was my Papaw, he was my last living grandfather, and he is gone.
The world just feels different without him in it.