Papa – Emily Carroll

My grandfather is dying. 

I cannot see him. 

Who is this skeleton man who swims in his sweaters? Who smiles hesitantly, as though he is laughing at a joke he is too polite to ask the context of? Who is the man who we celebrate being well enough to eat a hot dog on Memorial Day in the outdoor cafeteria of the hospital he has made his home? He did not complain when the ketchup and mustard stained his shirt. 

I read an article that said Americans have lost the art of dying gracefully. 

My grandfather is still alive in my heart. 

I can see him. 

I linger in my memories, meandering back to the lazy summer days of my childhood. 

The sun arches high in the Georgia air, and the humidity is thick. You can feel how pregnant the atmosphere is, as a thunderstorm sneaks its way across the blue to crack against the sky and dump rain down from the heavens above.  

I am eight years old. I dance in the rain and as the heavens break themselves to pieces with the sound of thunder, I fear nothing. My grandfather watches me from the garage. His sweater fits perfectly, and there is high color in his cheeks. He smiles as he takes pictures, he is my concern as the rain sheets and bites ever harder against the waterlogged grass. 

“Emily, come in, you’ll catch a cold” 

But I am not afraid of death. 

He comes outside, white tennis shoes splashing through the torrents, khaki pants soaked to the color of wet cardboard within three steps. He takes my hand. We step back inside. 

My grandfather is alive. 

I can see him. 

He constantly cleans and orders his home. I am so annoyed by it. By him. By the obsessive need to clean. He steals food off my plate – “Just a taste” he says. A single concession becomes blanket permission. I hate it when he takes my cantaloupe slices but I always let him have my honeydew. He does the dishes in a fastidious way. Silverware, then plates, then cups. Each one takes an ordered position in the dishwasher.  

He is a meticulous man. Everything has its place.  

I am a child. 

I stain my clothing with red clay – the lifeblood of the Georgia earth, and he yells at me. 

Even at ten I wonder, who buys a kid white pants to wear to the park? 

I never noticed until I looked back that even when he played with me, his white sneakers and tan khakis would never get stained. 

My grandfather is alive. 

I can see him 

He is tall and robust. He smiles in half-smiles and makes jokes I can only gingerly grasp the edges of. He teaches me how to fish. He is a million miles tall. He walks with purpose. He is unbroken by age, but he always gets down on one knee so I can look him in the eyes. He falls asleep on the sofa during hot afternoons while we watch It Happened in Sun Valley. 

He takes me there to ski in the winter. 

I collect this disjointed picture of him when I grew. It became him, bits and bobs pulled lovingly from the junk drawer in the corner of my memory. 

And for years I do not see him. 

He messages me a few times a week, encouraging me on every achievement I make. There is never enough time, I rarely respond. 

I am an adult. 

We go to southern California. I am turning 26. 

My grandfather is. 

I can see him. 

He is no longer a million miles tall. Age has broken his back. He moves with pain. He cannot get down on one knee to talk to me as I float in the sky-blue pool. The sun beats down. There is no humidity in the atmosphere. He sits in the sun by the pool under an umbrella, and eats all my cantaloupe. He tells me stories of his life. 

I never realized before just how interesting he is. 

It is the last day of the trip, it is too late to ask questions. 

When I hug him, his skin feels soft and thin like linen.  

My grandfather is dying. 

I cannot see him. 

From his hospital he texts me every day to tell me how proud he is. My family sends pictures, one after the other. I watch the meat fall from his bones until he is a paper man. His sweater doesn’t fit him anymore. My mother sends one. He stares at the camera from his hospital bed. His eyes are foggy and confused. He is no longer a million miles tall. I feel as though I am taller than him for the first time in my life.  

He calls me, and he sounds so tired. I can feel the weight of all his years on his shoulders. 

I know death now. I am an adult, and I am afraid of thunder. 

From his hospital bed on the other side of the country, he facetimes me. He struggles to remember, but not my face. Not my name. Emily. He is proud of Emily. He loves Emily.  

I could text him every day. I don’t. 

My grandfather is dying. 

I want to turn back the clock. I want to be a child standing on a small dock, struggling with a lure. 

I want to watch old movies in black and white, driving toy cars up his sleeping legs. 

I want him to still be a million miles tall. I want his sweater to fit. 

I want my grandfather to be alive. 

I want to have been better. 

But now that is it the end, all I can do is love, and when it becomes too hard to bear, love harder across the distance.