83: The Letter

83: The Letter

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Middle School

The Letter

To us, family means putting your arms around each other and being there.

~Barbara Bush

I found the letter a couple of weeks after we buried him. It jumped out at me, fluttering to my feet as I thumbed through an old photo album. Although it was addressed to me, I couldn’t remember reading the letter. Crumpled and yellowed, it was written by my grandfather two weeks after my birth. In the opening paragraph, he joked, “Gee, I probably have been a bit presumptuous about your ability to read; so if you can’t read yet, please encourage one of your parents to read this note to you.” The rest of the page welcomed me into this big, beautiful world—and expressed the hope that we would be seeing a lot more of each other.

And we did see much more of each other. I saw “Pop-pop” every year at least twice. With Grandma by his side, in his Tennessee drawl, he welcomed us into their house each time my family made the nine-hour drive to Washington, D.C. I loved their house. It was one of the oldest ones in the neighborhood, which meant that it had a backyard. My younger brother, sister and I used to play beneath the ancient oak trees and explore the bamboo forest at the far end of the yard. The house itself had its own, special smell—a bit sweet—that was familiar and safe. My sister and I slept in my Mom’s old room, and Pop-pop often read us stories before bed. I fell asleep many times to the sound of his voice—strong and permanent, protecting me.

By Thanksgiving of my year in eighth grade, things had changed. We visited D.C. earlier than usual that year. We didn’t drive; we flew. And we didn’t stay in their house like we usually did. Instead, we stayed in a hotel nearby. When we visited the house, Pop-pop wasn’t there to greet us at the door. Grandma yelled from the kitchen for us to come in. As we entered, I noticed that the good smell of the place had been replaced by the sterile scent of cleaning solution.

Mom had warned us that Pop-pop was sick, but we had no idea what to expect. How could we be ready for something we’d never seen? His bed was in the living room on the first floor—a hospital bed in the corner of the room. A moveable toilet, white and plastic, glared from the foot of the bed. Oxygen tanks stood in the opposite corner of the room, half hidden by the door. A stranger sat next to the bed—Pop-pop’s nurse, or “Hospice,” but I didn’t know what that meant. Pop-pop could still mumble things, swallow and sip through straws okay. But his skin was white and clammy, like someone who’s been in the water a long time and grown cold. His breathing was labored. I was scared. The house, the smells, the people—the scene seemed a twisted dream.

We had Thanksgiving dinner in the house, in the room next to Pop-pop’s as he lay dying. We all tried to count our blessings as we ate, but I did not feel thankful. By then, it had become clear to me that this was final. The day before, Pop-pop had stopped swallowing, and when you stood near his bed his eyes couldn’t focus on you. He was dying and we were waiting, going through the motions of having a holiday, of being thankful.

As we ate, part of me was furious that we hadn’t seen it coming. After his diagnosis, it was like a bad horror movie—when flashbacks reveal that the killer was hiding in plain sight all along. Pop-pop died of pancreatic cancer. This too-late diagnosis made his summertime symptoms make sense. I remember in late August, Pop-pop was late for breakfast. After we had all eaten, my grandma successfully coaxed him out. When he reached the table, Grandma put down his breakfast. He just looked up at her and leaned back a little, like he was catching his breath, unable to open his eyes. He was in pain, unable to really speak, and very weak—but none of us knew why. Grandma started to panic, shaking him and yelling his name. My siblings and I were swarming around the kitchen table, miming my Grandma’s alarm, all of us unsuspecting that he was terminally ill.

I kissed his cheek before we left for the hotel that night. At around 1 A.M, the phone in our hotel room rang. My Mom answered. The conversation was short, and she got up in the dark, dressed, exchanged a few words with my father, and left. We all knew what the phone call meant. I was wide-awake, staring at the ceiling.

At the funeral, I watched as the simple pine coffin was lowered into the ground. Next to the grave, there was a pile of dirt with a few shovels. I was the first to throw a shovel-full of dirt onto the coffin—to bury him. As the dirt landed on the wood with a sick thud, I knew that now it was real, that he wouldn’t come back, that he couldn’t come back, and that I would never see him again. A huge sadness washed over me, and I cried and cried, burying my face into my mother. She cried, too.

His death changed me. For the next year after he died, I went into a fierce depression. I was furious and wounded. Things around me just didn’t seem to matter. There was no one person or thing to target with my anger. The worst part was that I felt like no one else my age knew what I was going through or what I knew—that life is so fleeting, painful, and pathetic, some sort of a sick joke. I was hurt that the world didn’t stop and notice that a great man had died. Things went on, almost as if he’d never existed. I still went to school. We still visited D.C. The sweet smell had returned to the house, but Grandma wanted to leave. “It’s too big,” she said. While we were there, I kept expecting to see Pop-pop walk right in through the front door.

I look at myself, and I see a hole—one that I desperately have tried to fill and cover up. But I think we are supposed to miss the people that we love. I don’t think that we are supposed to mend.

Instead, his death also reminds me that the time we have on this planet is fixed—and that, perhaps, we only get one shot. I continue to admire Pop-pop’s courage and his strength, and I aspire to be as good a person as he was. Each time I think about how much sadness life can bring and how stressful the day-to-day can be, I also take a moment to appreciate that life is beautiful, too. I think this was something Pop-pop knew. I aspire to adopt his willingness to love and find happiness from moment to moment.

~Mariel Reed

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