I was 13.
I was 13 the first time I realized the impact of a father’s death. It was the first time I grasped just how big the stone is, just how small the pond is and just how enormous the ripples are that pulse out from the point of that impact.
When I was called to the office of my Jr. High School I was not concerned. I was a good student. I was liked by the office staff. Perhaps I’d won a special award or was needed to show a new kid around school. Things like that happened. When I saw my sister was already in the glass walled school office, I was not concerned. We were from a small town. Jr. High and High School shared the same building. I often saw my sister during the day. Perhaps she too had won an award. Perhaps she was needed somewhere for something. When I realized my sister was there waiting FOR ME a creepiness started at my toes. When I saw she wasn’t smiling … when I saw no one in the office was smiling, the creepy grew.
Oh. Okay. This was not a shock. We’d been warned, properly prepared. We’d had the run-down given at the dinner table a handful of nights before. Grandpa not doing well…Not much longer left…Loves you both very much. And then back to not eating my peas.
“Dad’s coming to pick us up. We’re going to Ohio.”
Now this was news. I hate to say it now but I had a much more powerful reaction to the news that I’d be leaving school in the middle of the week than I did to the news that I’d never see my grandfather again. I’d known other kids who left school in the middle of the week. Kids who for one reason or another were set free for an unheard of 2 or 3 days in a row – without being sick. I even had a friend who once went on a week long vacation right in the middle of the school year. But I was never this kid. I wasn’t the kid who missed school. Ever. Even my dentist appointments were scheduled on Saturdays. So hearing that I’d be leaving on a Wednesday, traveling to Ohio and quite possibly not returning to school until the next … what? Monday? Maybe Tuesday? Well, it rocked me.
I loved my Grandpa, of course I did. And as my sister and I gathered up our things and waited on the curb outside the school building I thought about what it would be like to have no grandfather. My mother’s father had died long before I was born so this grandpa – my dad’s dad – was my only grandpa. And now, I was Grandpa-less. I was without a Grandpa at all. I already felt a little gypped in this area what with only having one grandpa to begin with and he lived 4 hours away. And now … zilcho. No Grandpa for you. No funny faces at the holiday dinner table when he’d take out his teeth just far enough to make me scream. No more checkers with Paw-Paw in the middle of the night when we visited while he sipped scotch – ice cubes clinking in the highball glass. No more going to sleep with the sound of the CB radio crackling and hissing in the corner of the kitchen. No more silver dollars flipped from his pocket into the palm of my outstretched hand. No more.
It was a bummer. And I sat there on that curb, with my chin on my knees, hugging my legs and thought about how sad this was for me. And I waited for my father.
When he pulled into the parking lot, my sister and I stood.
There was a glare on the windshield as the Buick approached us.
He was driving slowly – as he should in a school parking lot.
As he came closer, the glare lifted. And I saw my father through the glass. His left hand was on top of the steering wheel. His right elbow rested on the console. He was shifted to the passenger’s side and his lips were pressed against his right fist. His handkerchief was laying on the dashboard.
He was crying.
It was that moment. That very moment when I realized – my grandfather is my father’s dad. He’s crying because his dad died. He’s crying. His dad died. His dad.
It was the first time I got it. The first time I realized how huge death can be. The first time I realized the man that used to carry me piggyback was once carried himself. My father was strong and wise. But once upon a time, he was small and skinny and his father held him in his lap and played catch with him and taught him lessons and told him stories. My dad was a grown-up. And he’d grown up under the watchful eyes of his father. My dad was one of the best parents I knew – and he’d once been parented by this man who was now dead – with whom he could no longer ask questions, or share joys or play cards or talk politics. My dad was shaping my future. His dad had formed his past. He’d raised him, kept food on the table, a roof over his head, kept jokes in his ears and challenges in front of him. He did some things wrong. He did many things right. Through the years they’d fought and argued and debated. And they’d laughed and sung and cooked. They were alike. They were completely different. And my father would now have to put him in the ground. His father. His dad.
The next few days were a blur. I don’t remember the drive over or the funeral or the drive back. I don’t remember much from that block of time. But I cannot shake the sight of my father though that windshield. Just a broken boy who lost his dad.
Adulthood changes so many things. But men were always once boys. And boys need their dads.
And every child will share the long, lonely night.