The last time I saw my grandfather alive he was crying.
In my 23 years I’d never seen him cry before. There was something so unsettling, so disjointed about the whole thing that I couldn’t acknowledge it. From across my grandparents’ living room–a room I’d spent more time in, perhaps, than any other room–it was difficult to make out the tears dampening the weathered skin behind his glasses. But when he said good-bye there was the unmistakeable crack in his voice–not from age or weariness, but from a half-sob being stifled behind a strong, proud facade.
For a split second–no, that’s too long–for the shortest moment I’ve ever been conscious of I contemplated crossing the room, back to him, for a final hug before I walked out the door. But that kind of contact would only intensify the tears, the ones we’re both trying desperately to hide by casting our eyes into the glimmers of sunlight filtering through the blinds in the window. And then I’d have to acknowledge that my grandfather–my hero–is crying. That I’m breaking his heart by leaving. I’m too young and headstrong to do this, so I dab the dampness from my eyes on my grandmother’s shoulder as I hug her goodbye. I walk to the car and suffer a series of deep sobs, shoulders shuddering huddled behind the steering wheel, before composing myself to drive the two blocks to my parents house to catch my ride to the airport.
It was January, and I was preparing to fly back to California after a wonderful Christmas break spent with family. On the hour-plus drive to the airport I was haunted by the one other time I can remember my grandfather crying. It was the previous March when I was in California visiting my prospective grad school for the department’s open house. On a coffee break that morning, I had time to call home. My parents would be at school, so I called my grandparents. Grandma was at the beauty shop, or else she’d have hogged the phone for the entire call. My grandparents were thrilled by all the traveling I was doing as I visited prestigious graduate schools all over the country–so thrilled, in fact, they made me print them up a calendar with all my flight iteneraries to keep on their fridge so they could imagine where I might be at any given moment. Grandma had taken the calendar with her to the beauty shop on this particular day to brag on me to the other ladies waiting for their perms to set, so Papaw had lost track of where I was, and was a bit surprised when he heard my voice on the other end of the line on a Monday morning.
“Hey Pretty Pretty!” he’d exclaimed once he recognized my voice. “I reckon they got you out touring around some school or ‘nother. Where you at this time?”
“Stanford.” I paused. “In California, near San Francisco.”
“How’s the weather?” I knew the question before he asked it. At the tail end of a bitter winter, everyone in Ohio is California Dreamin’.
We chatted about these small things, avoiding discussing the real purpose of my visit for a few minutes. I then explained that I’d have to head to another meeting shortly when he asked:
“What do you think of it so far?”
“It’s a great school, Papaw. It would be a great place to study.”
“And what do they think of you?” This is where I heard that dreadful crack in his voice. At the time I wrote it off to the effects of a long, hard life, much of it plagued by cigarettes.
“The interviews have all been great so far; and the professors I was most excited to meet and maybe work with–they seem to be just as eager to work with me, too!” I said it a little too enthusiastically. It was a knife in his heart.
“That’s great, hon, but you still gotta visit some more schools back East don’t ya?”
“Yeah, I guess I shouldn’t get my mind set ’til I’ve seen them all. But Papaw, I kinda feel like I belong here.”
A long pause, with his labored, ragged breathing filling the silence. “It’s just … too far … away.” That’s when I knew without a doubt he was crying. It’s hard to explain what a tear sounds like. It hurts too much to even try to wrap words around it. But you know. I knew.
To quote Dolly Parton in Steel Magnolias, “I have a strict policy that nobody cries alone in my presence.” So I sat under that strange California sunshine amidst a beautiful campus that I would soon call home and hid my face from passers-by while the tears streamed down my cheeks. “I know Papaw. Don’t worry, that’ll factor heavily in my decision, too.”
“Good,” he said after a minute, some of the smile coming back to his voice, and then suddenly crushed again as he continued, “I just don’t like to think about how my life would be with my Pretty Pretty so far away.” There’s another long pause as we both attempt to recover ourselves and the conversation before I’m called off to my next meeting. “Besides, who’s gonna holler ‘Heeeeey Purdy Purdy!’ when you cross the street out there?”
I laugh, grateful to hear that familiar call when I’m so far from home. “I’m not sure anybody could ever quite match you at that, Papaw.” I’m not even sure I can do it justice with letters on a screen. There’s just something about the way he said it, the way his voice bellowed with all its Appalachian charm and cadence. I can’t capture his voice with my writing, try as I might, but it hits my ears fresh as ever almost daily, still.
To be continued…