On a hot day in May 2004, my mom took me and my friend Dora to my grandparents' pool. We were celebrating the end of sixth grade and the beginning of summer break. We played with the beach ball while Mom and Nana lounged with big sunglasses and hats on. Occasionally, we splashed them to be annoying. It worked.
Around 3 p.m., Mom told us to get ready to go. We put on dry clothes, cleaned up the pool area and waited for Mom to tell us to go to the car. On the way out, I told my papaw goodbye. "I love you!" I said, patting his thin shoulder. He had just finished another round of cancer treatment and was as frail as I'd ever seen him. He said he loved me, too, and Mom ushered us out to the car.
It was a normal day. It was a great day. It was one of those days you reminisce on when you think of your childhood, before you realized how random and cruel the world can be. Unfortunately, I figured that out the next morning when Mom told me Papaw died.
She didn't sugarcoat it for me. Mom never did that. When I asked her how he died, she told me the truth. "He killed himself," she said. I felt like a weight had been dropped on my chest. Papaw had been sick for a long time, so we had been preparing for his death for quite a while. We hadn't prepared for him to kill himself ... for the kind of anger and bitterness his last act would inspire.
I was 12 years old and it had never occurred to me that people can choose whether or not they want to be alive. And even if I had considered that, I never would have thought somebody I loved would remove themselves from my life willingly. Papaw was sick. I knew that. It didn't make the way he died sting any less. It didn't make me feel any better about the position he put me and my mom and my nana in.
A few months before he died, Mom tried to tell me how sick he was. I finally caught on. "He's not going to be there for my high school graduation. He's not going to be there for my wedding," I said. "He won't be there when I turn 18. He won't be there." I thought I had prepared myself for his death, as much as a person can accept the imminent loss of a loved one. I think we all thought so.
When it actually happened, we all fell apart in our own ways. I couldn't believe he had killed himself. I spent much of the summer in disbelief, and it carried over into the fall when I started the seventh grade. When I turned 13 that October, I couldn't help but feel the void Papaw left behind. I was still so bitter that I hadn't gotten a chance to mourn his death. In the years since, I like to think I've grieved properly. The bitterness left eventually, and then sadness set in. That sadness hasn't ever really left. It's always there, waiting for something to trigger a memory that sends me into one of those really uncomfortable spirals.
As I've been planning my wedding, the sadness has come to surface a lot more. Papaw probably would have walked me down the aisle. I think he would have liked my fiancÚ, Gideon. I feel so sad when I realize Gideon will never get to meet him.
This Saturday, I'll turn 25. I often wonder what Papaw would think of what I've done with my life so far and whether or not he'd be proud of me. I'll never really know, but there's one thing I'm sure of.
Today, tomorrow and 50 years from now, I'll be missing him.
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Samantha Jones is associate editor for Carroll County Newspapers. Her email address is Citizen.Editor.Eureka@gmail.com