I woke up yesterday with a heaviness in my heart. It didn’t take long to realize that it was the four year anniversary of the last time I saw my Pawpaw. It is a memory that’s like a Polaroid. Crystal clear in spots but fuzzy round the edges. He was tired and weak but happy. We’d all been up late the night before celebrating his and my Meme’s 50 year wedding anniversary and The Hubs has proposed right there in front of everyone. It truly was the perfect night. The next morning we had breakfast together complete with leftover cake.
I snapped a picture of him dozing right before I left. Something told me that it would be the last chance I had to do it. Part of me hates the picture and part of me cherishes it. I hate it because for my whole life I was blessed with seeing him healthy. In the picture his cheeks are sunken. He radiates exhaustion. Who wouldn’t be exhausted after what he’d been through though? He’d endured years of treatment for Mesothelioma, a heart attack and triple bypass surgery, and then the final diagnosis of stage four pancreatic cancer. He fought the whole time. In the picture, he’s peacefully snoring as always. He’s tucked in under a beautiful quilt made by the loving hands of his family. I love that he’s under that quilt. It meant so much to him.
In the 25 years that I was blessed to have my Pawpaw around I racked up thousands of memories. We were so close. My Mom and Dad tell stories about us living with him and my Meme when I was an infant. He’d come into my room from working the night shift and “accidentally” wake me so he could spend time with me. I’d curl my chubby fingers into his beard or chest hair and yank it. We’d sit together in his favorite spot on the couch and watch TV. When we moved out we lived in a house right around the corner. I spent so many nights at his house. It was my second home. We’d watch Antiques Road Show and This Old House. I loved Antiques Road Show but This Old House was the worst. When you stayed there you always knew that an early morning wake up call was in the cards. He’d come in and holler, “Come on, get up! Let’s go get some breakfast!” I still eat at his favorite spot sometimes and I bring my kids too.
During weekends and summers we’d get into all sorts of trouble. Some days were trips to the store that took all day. My Meme taught me early on to always keep a book with me because you never knew when you’d have to just give up and go sit in the car to wait for him. He’d talk to anyone and was curious about everything. A trip to Lowe’s lasted hours. Trips to our local Hobby Store went on for eternity. God forbid he’d run into someone he knew or someone who was working on a project that interested him. Lord love him, that man could talk and he always seemed to be working on another project.
As the grandchild that lived the closest I went on a lot of the camping trips too. Sometimes we even got to take the RV to see my cousins. Those trips were great because we all loved playing together and seeing one another. As we got a little older and they moved closer he started taking us fishing. I hated fishing but I loved being on the boat and eating Vienna Sausages on Saltine crackers. I loved being with him. I’d bring my book and start reading after about 30 minutes of fishing. He loved being outdoors and went fishing almost every day after he retired.
He taught me so much about nature and the environment. Not in a hippy dippy way, I’m pretty sure that’s impossible for a grizzled old Marine to do, but he taught me about nature and how all life is related. I loved to help him clean the fish we’d caught. He’d point out all of the insides and tell me what they were. He directed my very first dissections and the biology lessons that I remember most clearly. I can still clean a fish although it’s been years. He also taught me how to fry the fish perfectly. That part, I fortunately remember.
He had the most wonderful and mischievous sense of humor. He picked on anyone and everyone but it was always good natured. The man could read people. I never remember him making people uncomfortable with his playfulness. His eyes always twinkled when he was up to no good. My daughter has inherited that and it makes my heart swell when I see it. He loved to tell stories. I’ll have to share some on here one day. Stories of people he knew, things he’d seen and done. I loved them all. I never got tired of hearing them. It never even mattered to me that so many were “fish tales” embellished for the telling and made perfect over the years. My Husband is the same way and it’s one of the things I love most about him.
He was no saint. Lord knows he had his flaws. I inherited some of his temper and his love of the F word. As his grandkids, we got to grow up with his softer side. The years had taught him patience and made him more gentle. He was still loud, but I’ve often felt like that was a combination of his time in The Corps and the hearing loss that he denied having. For all his faults though, the people who loved him loved him deeply and without pause.
Pawpaw inspired such loyalty in other people because he was such a loyal person. He’d do whatever needed doing to help a friend. He didn’t care what you looked like or where you were from. As long as you were “good people” as he’d say, he was there for you. I remember him cutting the grass at the little neighborhood church across the street from his house. The man only went to church when frog marched there for funerals and weddings but he freely did this act because he knew they needed it. He’d stop to help people who’s boat ran out of gas, take a look at your car if it sounded funny (he spent many years as a mechanic), and even give you a place to stay if you were a friend in need. As an adopted child himself, he knew that family meant more than blood and raised us all that way. I was 7 or 8 before I realized that my older cousins were adopted. It never mattered to him. He loved each of us as we were and regardless of bloodline. He was ours and we were his. I’m thankful for this teaching because I know it makes me a better Bonus Mom.
As he got older he loved to have all of us come visit at once. He’d convince everyone to come up for a weekend. We’d all pack into his house and then once we were all settled and being loud and crazy he’d go out fishing. My Meme used to fuss at him but I think I understand it better now. He loved having us all there under one roof. He hoarded us like dragons hoard their treasure. Once we were all there and safe he went happily about his business, a King surveying the spoils of his domain. We drove him nuts when we all got together but he seemed happy just knowing that we were all there under one roof.
I know that the family he helped to build was one of his proudest achievements. He loved each and every one of us with every fiber of his being. He celebrated our achievements great and small. I know that wherever he is now he’s still proud of us. In my head I can still see his smile and hear him say “Oh wow! That’s great baby!” when I do something that I think would make him proud. It breaks my heart knowing that he never got a chance to meet any of my babies. He would have loved them so much.
I miss him every single day. I’d give anything to go back to that last “I love you” and hold him tighter for just a little bit longer. I know we all would. I’m sure he’s out in the great beyond, fishing and happy knowing that we’re all still here.
**Edit 5.18.2020: For anyone who is interested in learning more about my Pawpaw, you can read his Bio from Mt. Soledad here. Thank you to everyone for your kind words and support! Pawpaw has very much made his presence felt to our family in the last couple of days. Little reminders from him everywhere.