My maternal grandfather recently passed away. I called him Poppy when I was very little, and the nickname stuck.
Poppy was the best person I had ever known.
I have never cried so hard in my life until my dad told me that Poppy passed away.
He encouraged me to keep drawing and painting and, one Christmas, I gifted him and my Nana a gigantic painting of their old horse, Gidget. He hung it over the sofa. I see it every time I visit, and though I have always had this feeling that I could have done more detail in my artwork, that painting remains one of the pieces that I am actually satisfied with.
More recently, he volunteered at the hospital. When Mom called to tell me that he was on a ventilator, I was having a very hard time picturing it. I’ve always been terrified to see a loved one in a hospital bed, and he seemed like his old, goofy self lately. I’m actually somewhat relieved that I don’t have the memory of him hooked up to machines.
He was almost never serious with me. He told jokes, came up with loads of puns, renamed everyday object like a windshield on a car as a “transparent wind deflector,” and was a master at long sentences of alliteration. He listened to Prairie Home Companion on Sundays and laughed when, after we saw a live performance, Mom bought him a hat for the Catchup Advisory Board and The American Duct Tape Council. He wore them a lot.
My mom had an encounter with a horned toad when she was a kid, and it scared the daylights out of her with its defense mechanism (shooting blood out of its eye). Ever since, Poppy bought her random horned toad figures every time he saw one just to mess with her. They’re sitting on the upright piano, and I couldn’t breathe when I was dusting them a few days after his funeral. I stood there realizing that we will never get another one to add to the collection. I don’t know why that thought hurt the most.
When I was very little, he tried to teach me how to do the Donald Duck voice. I still can’t do it, but I remember making him laugh with an impression of Gollum much later.
We watched WWF wrestling together. We were often the first people on Thanksgiving to head into the living room to watch football. When I was learning how to drive, terrified of the idea of the highway, he patiently taught me how to drive in his massive Chevy pickup—taking a route on !-35 that lead to Holland, TX. He made the trip less stressful and was patient with me as I freaked out when I had to drive over a skinny bridge that didn’t allow for two full traffic lanes and I had to yield to another truck. He taught me how to fully brake at stop signs, telling me that Barney Fife lived in Holland and was so bored of the small town that he would ticket people who didn’t rock back slightly when they came to a stop. He taught me how to parallel park, how to navigate the service roads and get back on the highway. He made driving a good experience, and to this day I am excellent at parking in larger vehicles.
When I was even younger, young enough not to remember it, I was sitting on his lap, looked up at him, and called him “the old man with hair up his nose.” I even did a drawing of him—a stick figure with bushy nostrils.
When cleaning out his attic, he found an old Toshiba laptop with Windows 3.1 installed on it. It was almost useless, but had a working floppy drive and Word installed on it. I wrote on it all the way up to the point that it quit working at all. He also found a massive brass shell that he gave me, telling me that he’d recovered it when he flew on helicopters in Vietnam.
He received an honor guard at his funeral. They carried his flag-draped casket to the gravesite, folded it, and knelt in front of my Nana to offer it to her. They gave him a rifle salute. They handed Nana the shells and played “Taps” on a bugle.
It was one of the hardest things I’ve gone through. His name was carved into a beautiful headstone with his birth and death years, and Nana’s name was right beside it with no death year. Just a dash that scares the hell out of me.
I was given a yellow rose to either place on the casket or take home. I took it home and hung it upside-down to let it dry.
The last time I saw him in person was on Christmas. My sister and her family, all five kids under ten, were visiting as well, and the noise of them was so loud that he and I looked at one another, and he mimed turning off his hearing aid. I could have gone up to visit him and Nana after that. I could have. But I didn’t.
Last year, I got a concussion (my third overall) that developed into post-concussion syndrome—basically categorized by fluctuating symptoms of a concussion and a headache that worsens at random. The really frustrating part about PCS is that it can go on for months or years. So far, It’s been a year and ten months. It can last even longer, and I can’t work because of it. Cluster headaches have become a daily thing for me, and my formerly annoying migraines intensified to the point where I have gone to the ER for anything to stop the pain. The fact that Nana and Poppy lived two hours away and my headaches kept me in dark, cool rooms (sometimes with sunglasses on as well) kept me at home when my parents would drive up to visit. I could have sucked it up and gone anyway. I could have said to myself: “you have had headaches that were much worse, Jenn,” and visited after Christmas.
I could have put my own pain on the back burner and made sure he knew I cared about his welfare.
Instead, I saw his navy blue casket and I listened to “Taps” while trying not to scream.
The next week, I went to see Nana even with the headache that felt like I had lava instead of a brain. I couldn’t be absent again.
She took us to their closet and opened a drawer in the old dresser there. She pulled out six boxes of medals he had earned in the Air Force. I had never known that he received these accolades. But there was one medal that surprised me more than the others.
A Purple Heart.
Nana told me that he received it in Vietnam. She recounted how terrified she was when an officer delivered a telegram stating that he was wounded in action. She told me that he earned it by being shot in the elbow with the bullet exited the underside of his forearm while he was on a helicopter.
I had never known this. He never spoke about it; which I can understand completely as war is not something that is easy to talk about.
The most I knew about his service in Vietnam was that he built C-130 Loadmasters, trained airmen how to fly them, and that he flew on helicopters during. That was it.
But so far, the most difficult thing to do has been to read his personal story. He recounted his childhood and his service in the Air Force, and I’m afraid to read the files. I’m afraid of how much it will hurt to read about, because I know I’ll end up bawling my eyes out.
I need to do it, though. It might help with the grief I’m feeling.
It stings to know that I’ll never hear him laugh again or that the humor I developed with his example is something that I will never again share with him. I think this is so hard because I loved him for everything he was. He was my favorite person to be around. He helped me. He loved me. And I still love him.