I thought I knew what it meant to say goodbye. But I never imagined it would be like this.
You see, the funny thing about death is we know it’s something everyone deals with at one point in their life, but no matter how aware of the loss we are, when it happens to us we’re convinced that no one has ever felt the way we do in that exact moment.
My moment came in the form of a phone call, as it often does when you move yourself away from everyone you know and love.
I never knew that those years of constant worrying at home, those years of dreading the phone calls and holding my breath through the hushed conversations in the hallways would actually lead someday to that biggest fear. Because no matter how much I feared the death of my grandfather, I never actually thought it would happen.
Growing up I wasn’t just a daddy’s girl. No, I was a grandpa’s girl, and he was my whole world. It’s easy to make a man like him the center of the universe, because everybody gravitated to him. He was the sun.
You see, my grandfather was a big man. Think well beyond six-foot, broad shoulders, strong arms – the whole nine yards. He had a laugh that could scare away thunder and a smile that made you feel like you were the only thing he cared about in the world.
His tickles could induce accidents, his hugs were near bone-crushing and there was nothing like stealing his attention away from the world for a few brief moments.
Kids were the center of his universe and, for just a little while, I like to think I was too.
I was the second in a long line of grandchildren – 18 to be exact – and the first granddaughter. The first to don the pinks and frills.
I grew up just down the street from my grandparents. A mere eight-and-a-half minute walk from door to door and they lived right across from my elementary school – the same one my mom and her sisters attended.
The school days hardly ever ended without a trip to their house and my favorite thing in the world was sitting on my grandpa’s enormous lap, wasting time telling stories.
There were so many good ones.
There were snakes and horses, dogs and brothers. Tall tales, truths, everything.
He could make any story seem real as I sat on his lap and stared at him. I can still see the extra large plaid shirt, the big, thick glasses, the double-digit sized white shoes with the blue lines running through them and the heavy silver watch with the golden face.
He was like a character in a book. My Big, Friendly Giant.
When I was five, my grandparents took me to their condo in Florida. It was just me and them on the other side of the country, and I was the happiest girl alive.
My grandpa had the biggest heart and he loved to see his grandkids smile. So, when we got to the airport, he played a little trick on me.
He went around to every phone booth in the terminal and put change in them. Then, he told me that, sometimes, people forget their change in the phones and I should check them to see what I could get. To my delight, every phone booth offered a bounty when I pulled the change return and my pockets quickly became heavy with the currency.
I ran around to every phone I laid my eyes on and pulled the little lever to reveal my prize, never without a few coins making their way to me. My grandpa had run ahead and made sure each one had something in it.
I still check payphones for change to this day, even though there aren’t as many anymore.
Every little thing reminds me of him and I’m afraid I may have nothing left of him if I don’t hold on as tight as I can.
When I saw him last, just a few months before he passed, I talked to him with my recorder on, just to capture every last word and save it.
He was confined to his recliner most of the time and in bed for our last few hours together – forced to lie on his side to avoid worsening his bed wounds.
Watching the cancer and chemo gnaw at him physically hurt.
This was the man who used to lift me into the air, the man who played football for the Raiders, the man who could scare away the thunder. And here I was talking to him in his sleep outfit on his bed.
He’s supposed to be sun, my BFG, my strong grandfather who could make all the worries in the world disappear, but here I was talking to him about his life’s regrets and about the little red shoes he bought my mother when she was young.
We shared stories, like we always did. But this time, we both knew it was the last time. Death was there, letting me know I better make this count – putting pressure on the conversation.
It was our last real conversation.
And then I came back home where I could safely push away unpleasantness on the other side of the country.
I called him on his birthday and that was the last time I got to hear his voice. We promised to call each other later in the week, but it was a promise we didn’t keep.
The cancer took him from me on Sept. 1 and I didn’t get enough time.
Most days it’s still not real. He’s still there. He has to be.
I’m not ready for a world without him, but I don’t think I ever will be.