I lift my heels as I reach out for a perfectly imperfect golden peach. It is just barely out of reach until my grandpa wraps his arms around my stomach and lifts me off the ground. His frail arms begin to quiver, so I wrap my hand around the fuzzy fruit and pull until I feel the branch give up its tiny fight. He lets me drop down from his familiar shape and we share a smile, his mouth knowing and sorrowful.
I trail behind my slow-moving grandpa and my mother. Dancing around the now fruitless peach orchard, stepping through rotting peach juice and eavesdropping on their conversation. I´ve never seen my grandpa look so small and I want to know the reason. The man I have always looked up to when he grabbed my hands and squeezed repeatedly until I could feel his love pumping through my veins looks, for the first time in his life, scared. I tiptoe closer and I am met with something I don’t expect. My mom with tears in her eyes, her mouth forming a question of how long. Six months. All I hear and all I need to hear to understand is that number. But that is a five-month lie.
My mom and I move away. We move away from the familiar country smell and the Ohio River, the one that always leads us back home after getting lost in the darkness. We move away from the stars, brighter than Maryland could ever see. We move away from him when he needs us the most.
My mom and I make new worlds, fantasies of a perfect life during our road trip towards pain. We always start with skating on the river away from the pressures of this life. Away from this surreal nightmare we are living in. We imagine a purple sky promising a thunderstorm we can watch while we sit on the porch swing, my head in her lap. We imagine all 80 acres overflowing with pink peach blossoms floating along the breeze. We imagine a yellow house sitting on top of a grassy hill, with the curious eyes of deer pointed right at it. A house where impending doom doesn’t exist. Where death and pain doesn’t exist.
September 14, 2006. Happy Birthday, Mom. Guess what? They missed a few tumors. Tiny ones running up his spine. Too small to see but not too small to cause damage. His legs are paralyzed. At this point we realize he doesn’t have six months to live. Like I said, it was a five-month lie. He only has a few more weeks, at most, for us to call him addled. A few more weeks to play tricks on us. A few more weeks to learn how to die with courage and teach his family not to fear death.
I sit in the dining room drawing pictures of dogs, purple skies and peach orchards. When I look up to see my grandpa staring at me, I grab a poor scribble of a dog named Floor and take it over to him. As I move closer, I can see his eyes, tears threatening to fall. And they do. They fall and he covers his face. He is sad he would never get to see me grow up. I grab his hand and pump my own love through him like he always did for me and he stops just as quickly as he started. He wants to stay strong for me.
We want to keep him at home for as long as possible but he’s beginning to have hallucinations of his dead mother and sister. He makes promises to ghosts that none of us wants to believe in. When they fade from his mind he turns to my uncle and desperately asks him to get his gun from the garage and shoot him so he can be with them. We share a knowing look across the hospital bed that sits in the middle of my aunt’s living room. We will move him to the hospice one town over.
We can’t talk to him anymore. He’s in a drug-induced sleep and I’m too scared to hug him, talk to him, say goodbye to him. I keep my distance from the stranger on the bed and I’m filled to the brim with dread.
We sleep on the hopeless grey tile in his room for several nights. My cousins and I do everything to ignore the shape, barely alive several feet away from us. After long days and nights, that previous feeling is confirmed when my mom softly blurts out that he’s not breathing. I find myself next to him and he is no longer a stranger when I see the last “I love you” fall from his left eye in the form of a tear. I squeeze his hand wanting to feel him squeeze back but his hand lacks the tension of life. I can see everyone crying but I stand there, confused. I stand beside him, forcing tears to roll down my face even though I know he would hate this scene. When I step outside I see him one last time in the purple sky holding our sadness inside, ready to burst.
Dear Grandpa. I see you every day even though you aren’t by my side anymore. I see you in your beloved purple skies with grey clouds spread across the surface. I see you in the black-and-white dog that lives two doors down. I see you in the kitchen, soggy Oreos in hand. But, most importantly, I see you in myself. I see the impact you have made in my heart, my eyes and my soul when I look in the mirror.
September 24, 2017. I don’t think of him. For the first time in 11 years, I don’t remember to keep him alive within me. I hope he can forgive me.