Thirty one years ago, I was born to a seventeen year old girl. My mom was young and unsure of what the future would hold for the two of us. There were two people who were absolutely sure that they that would take on whatever role necessary to secure a good life for me.
My Grandparents were amazing people. From the moment I was born, they were helping with every aspect of my raising. They faced choices that it pains me to think about when they learned that their oldest daughter was sixteen and pregnant. The choice they made was to support her and as a result, to support me.
I called them Mamaw and Pa Pete. While they were both very special to me, I found myself driving today with tears rolling down my cheeks because the words of a silly country song reminded me of something funny that Pa Pete used to say. I missed him as much that moment as I did the day after he died in my arms over thirteen years ago.
I’ve heard that the Pa Pete that existed before I was born was a stark contrast to the man he became after I came along. His children remember him as a tough and often unemotional man. They say that the image I have of him is viewed through rose colored glasses. Perhaps that is true but my memories are just that…mine.
I remember him as a man who loved to be with me. We didn’t need an occasion. We didn’t need to talk, though we often did. We just needed to be together for me to feel the love he had for me. When I was a kid, I’d tag along anywhere he needed to go just to have a few minutes of him all to myself. We’d stop for a fast food breakfast and I’d laugh at the funny things he’d say. His sense of humor was the best. He was gentle but firm. He was loving and kind. I don’t remember him ever being angry with me or punishing me yet my biggest fear in life was letting him down. That didn’t come from a real fear of him but rather from respect for him. His fiery red hair and fair skin were so beautiful to me. I have him to thank for my freckles, pale skin and sometimes feisty personality.
I get teased often in our family because I’m one of the only people who ever got what I wanted just by asking him. I knew that if my parents said no, I could call Pa Pete and my wish would be granted. Isn’t that what Grandparents do? There was a time when I went shopping with my Grandparents and I saw a stuffed monkey that I loved. That thing had the wildest hair and when you squeezed it, he made the most awful monkey sound. My Memaw rushed me on past it and told me I didn’t need it. Pa Pete followed without saying a word. A few weeks later, Christmas morning came and the last gift passed was to me. No one knew about it until he brought it out of his closet. Bought and wrapped all by himself, he presented with me something he wanted me to have because he’d seen the way it made me giggle several weeks before. No one knew how or when he did it. He didn’t want any accolades for doing it. I get teased to this day about Petey (the name I gave the monkey) and my ability to wrap Pa Pete around my little finger.
The day we found out that he had cancer ranks among the worst days of my life. It was the summer before my senior year of high school and he’d had an awful cough for weeks that just wouldn’t subside. We finally convinced him to go to the doctor, something he rarely did. The diagnosis was lung cancer and my world changed in an instant. From that moment, it took so little time for my Superman to become very weak and ill from the treatment, more than the cancer itself. My view of him never changed. He was still Superman but now I got to take a turn and do things for him. I could have never done enough to repay all of the things he’d done for me but I was willing to try.
Often, I’d get to drive him to and from doctor appointments. One day after an appointment, he asked me to take a turn that wasn’t on our way home. I didn’t question him, I just took each turn as he directed. Soon, we were in front of his former workplace. I took a parking spot away from the front and we sat there. I asked if he wanted to talk and he didn’t. He just needed to see that things were going ok without him. We sat in silence for a few minutes and through tears, he told me he was ready to go home.
Within the next week, he handed me an envelope and gestured for me to take it without questioning. I opened it to find money in a neat stack. He told me that he knew that the deposit on my dorm room for college in the fall was coming due and he wanted to pay it. I tried to hand it back and he simply held up one hand and said, “I’m doing this.” What those words really meant to me were, “Please let me do this. I’m so proud of you but I won’t be here to see your dreams of attending college come true and this is all I can do to be a part of it.”
A very short time later, I came home from work and sat down on the footstool in front of his spot on the couch. He seemed to be doing so much better than he had been in the previous days, even joking with me a little. I filled him in on my evening and went to bed. A few hours later, my Memaw woke me to say that he had fallen and she needed help to get him up. I went into the living room and he was laying on the floor. I sat next to him and he leaned over into my lap. I knew that he didn’t need help getting up. I just needed to hold him. And so, I held him. He took his last breath with my arms wrapped around him so tightly, afraid to let him go.
Forgive me for the length of this but this could well be the first time I’ve put all of these thoughts, memories and emotions together in the thirteen years since his passing. For years, I couldn’t get through the anniversary of his death without mourning all over again. Today as the thoughts of him flooded my memory, I realized that I hadn’t been sad at his memory in a long time. That broke my heart but I know he wouldn’t expect me to sit around mourning so many years later. I realize that I’ve become who he dreamed I’d be. I truly believe that when his teenage daughter came home and announced that she was pregnant, he knew that his responsibility was to give me a future. He held up his end of the bargain and sincerely hope I’m holding up mine.