The Time Has Come
There’s been a song in my head all day today, even while I cavorted around the zoo with three wonderful children. It was there even as a I fixed dinner tonight. The words “how can I help you say goodbye” have lingered at the edge of my consciousness but, until now, I have not allowed my eyes to feel the stinging burn of tears that the words call forth. On Monday night, I received word that Papa, my paternal grandfather, was in the care of hospice and only had a few days left to live. I have a thing about goodbyes—if I don’t get one, it wrecks havoc on my world for years to come. The thing was, though, I haven’t seen my grandfather since I was pregnant with Breathe, eight long years ago. It hasn’t been because I didn’t want to. A few years ago, my grandmother came to a book signing and asked me and my sister to go with her to see him. We almost did, until we realized my dad was also at her house. Paralyzed with fear, we went our separate ways, shaking with indecision and outright pain. I love my family very much, but even the thought of seeing my father is enough to make me start hyperventilating. Long story short, when we got word that Papa was very ill, I wanted to see him. My sister wanted to see him too. And we knew that, if we didn’t and he died, we would live with that regret. We needed the chance to say goodbye. It was really that simple. So, on Wednesday night, after church, we drove out to the clinic. There was no one there, except my grandfather.
When I hear the word “patriarch,” Papa comes to mind. Throughout my entire childhood, he was vibrant and loud and strong. When he was a teenager, he was chopping down a tree when the ax slipped out of his hand and hit him on the head. It hurt, but it didn’t warrant a hospital. Soon thereafter, he woke up one morning blind. He’d tell you he couldn’t see anything, but he seemed like a magician to my young sister and I, because he always knew when we entered the room, no matter how quiet we tried to be. He was blind, but that didn’t slow him down any. One of my earliest memories of him is when we were riding in the car and he taught me what the mile markers meant. He’d say, “Where we at?” and I was expected to tell him what mile marker we just passed. He was one of the earliest, and staunchest, supporters of my writings. He knew the author of Walking Tall, and he sent him a copy of some book I’d written, asking for his help to get them published. I wasn’t even a teenager yet. He loved books, like me. Since he couldn’t read them, he bought them on tapes and listened to them. He liked the Westerns best of all, but he once made my grandmother buy me a tape recorder and a bunch of blank tapes so that I would record one of my books for him to listen to. He was a storyteller—he loved to recount the time they took me to the Bahamas. Sometimes we would stay with them, and I remember curling up in the recliner in their big bedroom to sleep. He was a big man, tall with a round belly. He’d always give my sister and I a few dollars when he saw us, and a hug. When I first learned to drive, a lot of my driving experience came in acting as a taxi driver for Papa. I’d take him from the house to the post office, where he and my grandmother ran the lunch room. He let me work the cashier room, he let my sister and I fill the vending machines with Cokes and, when all the work was done, he’d reward us with a Tootsie Roll or other candy from the store. I remember sitting at the tables and writing on napkins. I remember cleaning the tables and being proud because Papa was happy with what I did. In a lot of ways, he was like a lot of grandfathers—but, in some ways, he was even more than that. When things would get really bad, and we had no one to help us, Papa could be depended on. Once, my father had vanished, leaving us stranded with no money in Florida. Papa rounded someone up to drive him and rode all the way to Florida to pick us up. When we didn’t have the resources to find a place to stay, he and Grandmama let us stay with them. They lived in the same house from the time I was one years old until I was in my twenties. That address and phone number are still engraved on a piece of my heart; for pretty much the entirety of my childhood, it was the only piece of stability we knew. When my beloved great-grandmother died, I sat in the window of Papa’s house and cried. When my sister was an infant and experienced a terrifying seizure, Papa was the one who drove us from hospital to hospital, trying to get help. Sometimes he was strict, sometimes he was unreasonable even; sometimes, he even inspired a bit of fear but, underneath that bold and loud strength lay the heart of someone I believed loved me. For all that he did, and for all that he was for me and my sister, when we were little, I couldn’t have asked for more in a grandfather.
Families are often anything but simple, though. And, when I grew up, truth separated us from family. Sometimes pain will do that to people. Sometimes it hurts too much to admit truth, and sometimes the tree that falls in front of your feet is just too massive an obstacle to cross. Sometimes it hurts too much to pretend everything is like it always has been, when it’s not. And sometimes families are divided. Things are said and done, or left unsaid and undone, that act as mountains between people. So, for eight years, my contact with family has been either limited or non-existent. But just because we don’t see someone, just because we don’t communicate as we once did, does not mean the love goes away. I missed him and Grandmama, sometimes terribly so. The memories I hold of him, and of the other members of my family, are precious and sweet. It hurts my heart when I think of the cousins I grew up with, but no longer know. When I think of Papa now, I think of the man who towered over me and who walked with a cane. When I think of Papa, I think of a character not easily forgotten.
Wednesday night, my sister and I went to see him. At first, we weren’t even sure, until he spoke, that it was him. Alzheimer’s was clearly winning. He didn’t know who we were, but we had known he wouldn’t. He didn’t know how long he’d been there—he told us “a few hours.” His once strong and commanding voice was now whisper soft; his once round and strong body was frail and thin. His hair was nearly gone. But the voice was the same. I hugged him and told him a couple times that I loved him. He said the same. He didn’t understand what that meant, because he didn’t know who I was, but somewhere in his heart and soul, I hope a distant bell was rung. My sister and I both left a note by his bedside, one for him and one for my grandmother, because whatever the present or future may be, we all have the same history. We’re connected by something strong, something more than blood. We’re connected by what once was. Even if I’m no longer wanted there, nothing changes my memories.
Patty Loveless sang a song that said, “how can I help you say goodbye?” Taking the time to say goodbye acknowledges that, though there may be un-salvageable damage now, there was once harmony and love. Taking the time to give a goodbye hug assures us that we haven’t forgotten all that was good, and meaningful. Taking the time to put aside the tears for all that has been lost or broken, and for all the pain on both sides, that has been created to say “I love you” remembers the support, safety and strength that once was there. Goodbyes are important because they allow us to move on, to pick up the pieces and wake up the next day, believing that there is hope for joy after the rain. Goodbyes are important because remind us that both parties matter. A hug goodbye allows us to carry the good with us, and not the bad. Goodbyes provide healing and closure.
Papa didn’t know who I was Wednesday night. He didn’t know who my sister was. He didn’t understand the significance of our being there, or of what our “I love yous” meant. But he does now. Papa died last night. My heart hurts because of that fact. I miss knowing that he’s nearby. I miss his vibrant personality, and his strength. I miss the Papa I knew when I was young. But I was able to say goodbye. And now he knows my sister and I did. He understands. Alzheimer’s has no grip on him now. That pale, frail man I barely recognized has been replaced with the one of my memories. Familial fault lines still exist as a division that unfortunately can never be erased. The cost for truth was very high. Sometimes my pastor speaks about families. He can trace his back generations upon generations. “Going home” to him brings feelings of peace and comfort. I can’t do or say the same. But, still, deep in my heart I know and remember that I am Tiffini, daughter to Mama and granddaughter of Grandmama and Papa.