The first emotional pain that I can remember experiencing was the death of my great-grandfather, “Gramps.” I was 9-years-old when he died; he was 86.
Aside from being a much older relative, I considered Gramps to be my friend. We played together every day after I got out of school. My father worked first shift, and my mother worked second shift. So, my mother would pick me up from school and take me to my great-grandparents’ house, and my father would pick me up when he got out of work.
I really liked being with Gramps and my great-grandmother, “Mama.” (pronounced MUH-muh) Mama always gave me vanilla Sealtest ice cream in a plastic cup. She would take the food coloring out of her cabinets and set them on the kitchen table so I could turn my cup of diabetic-friendly, sugar-free, ice-cream into a work of art.
She also gave me candy – the kind of candy that only old people have. It was the strawberry flavored candy with the goop in the middle or the brightly-colored hard candies that came in noisy plastic wrappers.
Gramps would always say, “Give me a piece of that candy.” I would say, “I would if I could, but I can’t.” That’s what Mama told me to say. Gramps was the reason the sugar-free ice cream was in the house. He was diabetic, and he also had Alzheimer’s disease. We went back and forth like this every day, multiple times each visit.
Sometimes I would talk to him about other stuff, like what was on television or what happened at my school that day. One time, I had marker all over my middle finger from coloring in art class. I stuck it up in his face to show to him the absurd amount of ink I had gotten on it. He immediately slapped the heck out of my hand. I had no idea why at the time. We stared at each other in silence for what seemed like a year. We didn’t talk about it anymore.
I’m not sure how long I went to Mama and Gramp’s house after school. Maybe it was 6 months. Maybe it was a year, but one day it all ended.
Gramps got sick and went to the hospital. I remember my dad taking me to visit him there. I remember seeing him lying in a hospital bed. My great aunts, his daughters, were sitting in chairs around the perimeter of his room. They talked and laughed about how he had spit something far across the room. That was the last time I saw Gramps alive. The Alzheimer’s killed him. I had no idea that he was going to die. I don’t even think death was really a part of my vocabulary.
The next time I saw Gramps was at his funeral. During his service, I read a scripture from Isaiah 41. It started with “Fear not for I am with thee…” The funeral service felt so cryptic and mysterious. Right in front of me, my great-grandfather was inside of a piece of furniture. People were sniffling. I felt numb, like I was in a dream sequence, but I couldn’t wake up.
After, I finished reading the scripture, I left the pulpit and sat next to my mom. I think it was at that moment I realized that he was never coming back, that I would never see him at the house again, and that he would never ask me for candy again. I felt stuck. I didn’t know how to express what I was feeling or what to do with my hands or legs. I had no idea how to hold my eyes or my mouth. Finally, my mother told me that I could cry, so I did. I put my head in her lap and hundreds of tears poured from my eyes…hundreds.
I went back to school afraid to die. My two best friends in my class were afraid of spiders and bugs. I was afraid of leaving the world and never coming back.
If I could go back and talk to the 9-year-old version of myself, I would tell her that Gramps didn’t leave her because he wanted to. He was sick, and his body stopped working. I would tell her that he also loved the time that the two of them shared, and that the time they shared together was special.
To this day, when I think about Gramps my eyes still fill up with tears…even now. I hate that he left me, but I forgive him. I’m grateful that I got to know him the way that I did. Not many people get to meet, let alone have a relationship with their great-grandparents. So, I’m grateful for this experience. I’m grateful for Gramps.
Thanks for reading until the end.