As tears formed in my mother’s eyes, my heart began to realize the awful truth. Grandpa was gone. My insides felt like scrap-metal being crushed into a heap of nothing. I looked around our living room to see the reactions on everyone else’s faces. Daddy wanted to cry, his eyes became red and glassy, but he was being strong for all of us. Mommy got up and left the room, holding a Kleenex to her face to hide her tears. Jenny took hold of my hand; she needed comfort. Matthew and Jon sat on the floor playing with their Match-Box cars, oblivious to what just occurred. Grandpa was gone. It was all too new and too real for a girl of eleven; I believed the pain I felt would never go away.
Memories flooded my mind. Lazy afternoons spent on a worn-out, brown leather couch next to Grandpa watching the Atlanta Braves lose yet another game. It’s funny; no matter how bad the Braves were losing, Grandpa and I would always sit through the entire nine innings, eating hard-boiled peanuts; Grandpa with him Milwaukee Best and me with my Coke.
That brown leather couch. I would sit next to him, leg to leg, and watch baseball games and football games and even soap-operas; we liked “One Life to Live.” He never minded me being so close to him; he always tried to include me in everything he did. He would smoke his Marlboro Reds in the hard pack, lighting each with a yellow Bic lighter, and without fail he would let me blow out the flame (it never occurred to me that the lighter went out on its own).
I was the smallest of the family, until my two younger brothers came along. I was excluded from a lot of the “big kids” games like climbing trees and playing cards. When the “big kids” got to climb the tree in Grandpa’s back yard, they would make fun of me because I was too small. I never cared about them teasing me though; I would just sit with Grandpa on his white metal porch swing under the tree. He taught me how to swing high; he showed me that when I got taller I could put my feet on the ground and push off with them.
One day I asked Grandpa what he did when he was younger. Instead of answering me, he got out an old, dusty photo album full of photographs yellowed with age. He showed me pictures of a young, handsome man with a funny suit and hat on, with lots of medals hanging from his chest. With a shaky voice he explained that he was in the U.S. Air Force. He showed me pictures of the planes they flew back then; really cool looking planes and jets that looked like they were really fast. As he brought out his old medals, he told me how he had served and fought in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
One medal that caught my eye was old and tarnished. It had a woman holding a cross in one hand and a knife in the other, her foot on a helmet and it said “World War II.” On the back it said: “United States of America 1941 – 1945. FREEDOM FROM FEAR AND WANT. FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND RELIGION.” My eyes grew bigger and bigger as details of his life unfolded before me. He had always been a strong, handsome man, but now he seemed more. All the things he had seen and done; so much I never imagined. He was my hero.
This one time when Grandpa was telling me about flying, my dad came out of the kitchen and sat down beside me. He sat listening to Grandpa and every once in a while he would say something. It seemed like Daddy had heard these stories of Grandpa’s before. He knew how fast some of the jets went when Grandpa couldn’t remember, and he even knew the names of the ones Grandpa didn’t know. I found it strange that Daddy was so smart when it came to jets and planes and war; how could he know? But he had served in the military also.
After a while, Grandpa and Daddy were talking about things I didn’t quite understand; it was almost as if I wasn’t there; I began drifting off to sleep snuggled up against Grandpa. I finally heard Grandpa say that I should be put in a bed. I pretended to be sound asleep. Daddy picked me up in his arms, my head rested on his chest, as he carried me to into Grandpa’s room and put me in bed. Daddy never knew it, but when he did this I felt closer to him than anyone, even Grandpa.
When Mommy and Daddy sat me down with my bigger sister and two younger brothers and told us Grandpa was dying, I couldn’t believe it. They told us that he was sick with cancer from all the cigarettes he smoked and soon he would be with Grandma. They thought they were comforting us by telling us he would be home with Grandma “in Heaven” but I found no comfort in the idea that he would be leaving me soon.
I watched Grandpa slowly degenerate before my eyes. He went from the handsome young man in his pictures to an old, slouched-over, feeble man. “Cancer” was taking the love of my life away and I didn’t understand why. I watched him go from a strong person to someone who couldn’t walk, eat, or talk. He no longer smelled of cigarette smoke; they took that away from him. He no longer sat on his couch with me watching television. Daddy tried to comfort me by watching the Braves with me, but it was not the same. Grandpa stayed in bed, wrapped in his blue comforter and blankets, and slept.
When it became obvious he would be leaving us soon, my mom told me to go and talk to him; she had noticed my reluctance to go in his room and see him. Although I was scared, she told me it might make him feel better to see me. I was scared because his breathing was raspy and his coughing could be heard throughout the house. As I approached his room, my palms began sweating and my heart was pounding. I wasn’t sure of what I would find on the other side of his door – would it be Grandpa? Slowly, I peered around the corner of his room, one eye at a time to allow what I saw gradually become real to me. There he was: a blue lump with a head peeking out the top, tubes protruding from his sides, that hospital smell that lingers, and the sound of his breath, a hand-saw cutting slow but deep. It was hard to look at him, because it simply wasn’t him. All I could think about was why… and how… and OH GOD!!!
A slight movement came from the bed, as his head turned towards me. His eyes were still the same deep blue and his Mona Lisa smile had not faded; “cancer” hadn’t taken everything away. I tried desperately to talk to him - talk of baseball, soap-operas, boiled peanuts, anything. But nothing came out of my mouth. “I love you” screamed through my head and heart, but the words would not form on my lips. I just sat there by his bed and held his wrinkled, blue-veined hand. No words were spoken.
At the funeral, I saw him one last time. This time he was as handsome as ever, in his Sunday best, his hair combed to perfection. I stood over his oak coffin with the pure white lining, and realized I would never see his crystal-clear blue eyes again. I spoke to Grandpa, hoping he could hear me, and I told him what I couldn’t tell him that day in his room. I told him I loved him.
During the service, I found myself talking to God. I knew little about God. I knew He was supposed to be all around somehow and He could hear our thoughts. So I talked to God for the first time.
Why had this happened? How could You take him away? What am I supposed to do now? Show me. Let me see who I can love the way I loved Grandpa. I knew no one could ever take his place, but who was I to turn to now?
As “Taps” played, I felt something I had not expected. I felt peace as I realized Grandpa was with Grandma in Heaven. He must be happy now – no more pain, no more sorrow. I felt a love I couldn’t explain, a love for my dad and mom, my big sister and younger brothers, and for this God who comforted me in my time of grief.
Budding New Author - Jaime Bernhardt wrote this short story as a tribute to her grandfather, Lt. Col. James Stanley of Sumter, S.C. She works for the US Department of Veterans Affair.