Life is a funny thing. One day, you’re in school, not paying attention as your economics teacher drags on and on about the importance of taxes, and all you can think about is the minutes counting down to freedom while you doodle horrible scribbles in the top corner of your textbook. Then, suddenly, you’re at the hospital every day of the week, morning until night for three weeks with the worst cup of coffee in your hand and anxiety constantly creeping up on you to say hello. Life is like that sometimes; one day the smallest of things can escalate in a fashion that no one was expecting. It’s a never-ending cycle of wondering, “What terrible thing could possibly happen next?”
When I was little and came home from school, I would lay on the floor in front of the television with a jar of pickles. My papa would come home from work, step over me, get a beer, and sit in his chair to read the news. I would go over, offer him a pickle, and we would cuddle up, munching on pickles and we read the funnies.
It all started when my grandma and papa had to get groceries from Sam’s Club. He collapsed on the floor, completely pale and cold. When it came to my grandfather he was stubborn, my grandma told him that he had to go to the hospital, but he kept fighting her on it. It wasn’t until finally she was in tears that he gave in. Sitting in art class with my hands covered in a vast rainbow of paint, I glanced at my phone to see a text from my mom saying, “Papa is in the hospital, he collapsed, we don’t know what’s wrong yet, but I will keep you updated. I love you baby.” I was completely freaking out and fighting back the urge to break down. The next day, turned into not knowing what’s wrong then that turned into internal bleeding, and then more tests, and then slowly the conclusion of colon cancer, stage 4, the kind where they tell you that staying positive is somehow the cure.
When I was seven, he helped me build a birdhouse. It was white with a blue roof. He was so proud of me and he painted rose bushes along the house because I love flowers. Then he lifted me up and I put it on the highest branch I could reach, a week later it was home to a family of birds.
They told us that he would have to have surgery and have two-thirds of his colon removed. We were worried, but he told us he loved us and that it would be okay. My grandpa is very small, he is as thin as a pencil, not very tall, and very scrawny. When he was admitted into the hospital, he weighed 92 pounds. Everything was against him: his age, his weight, he was a smoker, and his diet consisted of beer and a mixed drink every night. Saying I was terrified is an understatement.
When I was ten, he taught me how to drive a tractor. I thought I was actually the most bad-ass kid in the world, and he told me so. I would race around the yard and he’d sit on the porch with a beer in his hand shouting at me, “Ya missed a spot!” and then finally give up shouting and take a nap.
After surgery he was in a coma for four days, he was living by machine, unable to breath, eat, talk, or drink. Finally, right before my grandma had to make the decision to “pull the plug,” he woke up. He was back to breathing, eating, and talking. He was different though. They had to shave his big, bushy beard to put the mask on his face. He weighed 81 pounds, and looked tired even though he was asleep for so long. They were planning chemo; doctors were visiting and trying to decide the best course of action for recovery. Unfortunately, good things don’t always last as we would like them to. Two days later, we were back in the hospital but this time to say our goodbyes.
When I was six-teen, my papa and I shared a shot of his strongest whiskey. I took it like a champ. He was beyond proud of me, beaming about how I’m no lightweight and that if I can handle his whiskey then I can handle anything. We laughed together and joked that I could out-drink him anytime.
I held his hand and I stayed by his side as he took his last breath, squeezing as tight as I could so he knew he wasn’t alone while everyone around me came up to saying goodbye. I held on tight not being able to get the words past my lips. He wasn’t just my grandpa, he was my dad, my best friend, and the man who taught me so much about life.
This past summer, I flew out to Colorado Springs, the place my papa loved, and where he raised my mom and all of my uncles. I got to visit my mom’s old house, see where he and my grandma got married and I rode on a steam train that he used to love to go on. Then I drove four hours from the Springs to Clear Creek, which happened to be my papas favorite place in the world. I was able to listen to the countless stories about his adventures there; such as the fishing trips, and camping trips. The water was pure blue, beautiful, and clear. When you looked into it, all you saw was the sky, as if it were the water, surrounded by mountains and trails, ten-thousand feet up, quiet and peaceful, and green everywhere. There were wildflowers covering the hillsides and prairie dogs poking their heads out to see the commotion. It was an indescribable feeling of complete bliss, the same feeling I know he felt years before me. I stepped out into the water, standing in the middle of the stream, thigh deep in the roaring waters. I said my last goodbye, as tears streamed down my face. I told the world how I was going to make him proud of me, I told him of my accomplishments, and how I’m going to succeed in life, just like he always told me I would. Then, finally, I opened the box and watched as his ashes flowed through the stream.