Diaries Magazine

My Papa

Posted on the 28 November 2011 by M0derngirl @M0DDERNGIRL
My Papa
I've been lucky to know all four of my grandparents. One passed away 11 eleven years ago, another 5.5 years ago, and a third will likely keep going for years.
Of the four, the one I'm closest to, is currently in his last transition - the days or weeks or months before his end. I could wait and write all this stuff once he's gone, and make it into a eulogy of sorts, but I'd rather post it now. He doesn't have a computer, he's in palliative care at the hospital right now, but there's always the off-chance that my Mom or sister will mention that I bragged about him all over the internet. And that might put a half-smirk on his face, which will make it worth it.
So here's some of my favorites memories and stories about my Papa.
First, Papa was a rebel. He used to drive motorbikes, waaay back then, before James Dean. He pretty much lived his way, and kept his independence the whole time. My grandparents were divorced when my Mom was young, so for most of my life, my Papa has been a "hermit" in the country. That just made him endlessly cool to me.
I don't remember his "old" A-shaped house very much. I remember his room with tons of collectibles and paper weights - a wind-up finger that would walk, and surfers in an oil/water rectangular prism. I remember running outside around on his property with tons of produce and blueberries. He was always bringing us in tubs of blueberries, or fish, or zucchini. I remember being really little and bored with the grown up talk and going upstairs in the "a-line" and sitting on the air vent that was directly over his kitchen table. I liked "spying" on him and Mom.
When I was in Grade 5, Papa sold his "old house" in the country, and built a new one. He was 62 or 63 years old I think, and he built himself a smaller, two bedroom bungalow. And he painted one bedroom neon green (another epically cool feature). He also drove a bright orchid pink car. As someone who loves colors, having a grandfather who would pick really obscure colors was just fun. Really fun.
The drive out to his new country home was beautiful. Above 35 minutes from my parents and way out of town, you'd drive through the carved rolling hills of Antigonish. As a passenger, it was always a really relaxing and beautiful drive, and made me like going to visit Papa even more.
The basement of his bungalow was filled with woodworking machines and tools. Papa was an avid woodworker. He always made me presents that he built himself. When I was 5 and got a "real baby doll" he built me a crib for her. When I received two smaller baby dolls, he built me wooden bunkbeds. When I collected pig ornaments, he built me a barn shaped wall shelf; when I collected dragons he built me another shelf that I designed myself. When I didn't want to work on my racing car for industrial arts, he took it home and fixed it up for me.
My favorite woodworking project was my drawing desk. When I was an undergrad, I saw a picture of a bed desk that I loved. I gave Papa a picture from a catalog, and he created it. It's absolutely beautiful. It's identical to the picture a the top of the post. You can even prop it up with douls that he added.
I was close to my maternal grandmother as well (Nanny), but Papa always felt like immediate family and not extended family to me. That's probably because he spent Christmas with us. My parents were married in December, and my eldest sister was born on Boxing Day. Starting the year after my sister was born, Papa has stayed with us for Christmas. From 1979 to 2008, he slept over at our house. Growing up, it was one of my favorite traditions.
A few weeks before Christmas, Papa would always bring us a Poinsettia plant. I think he bought one for all the families on the hill. We'd have Christmas dinner on the 24th, Papa would drive in from the country and sit at his regular seat at the table. Then we'd crack open the spirits and munchies, entertain visitors, watch for Santa on the fire truck, and listen to Papa's rants. He liked whiskey, and most years that made him pretty darn entertaining (one year my brother even videotaped his hilarious rants). On Christmas morning, me and my siblings would anxiously want to open our presents, but couldn't because Papa would be snoring on the couch next to the Christmas tree. He was legitly the one thing that kept me from opening presents at 4am. Every year, at 7am, we'd wake every up, and the 4 kids, 2 parents, and my Papa would open gifts together in the living room. When everything was opened and presents were spread throughout the house, Papa would sit at the table and drink coffee, while I'd play with my latest toy on the kitchen floor. He'd sit there and watch the 4 kids and take it in. Later in the afternoon on the 25th, he'd gather up his presents and head back to the country, which kinda marked the end of "Christmas" each year.
Papa always tried to act gruff and distant, but I've always seen him as a softy. He'd always do stuff for us when we needed him. He was always available to drive me places like medical appointments when my parents were working, or to St. F. X. for special events because it was just past his place. I remember me and him going to Antigonish together and eating at Dairy Queen.
When I was little, he always called me Matilda or Medusa, and he liked teasing me. At the same time, he liked giving me collector's coins, and random collectibles that he found. Whenever he got a reader's digest bonus gift, he'd show up and give it to me or my sisters. When both my parents were working and me and my brother were left home alone (as adolescents), Papa would always stop by during "lunch" to check up on us. I liked his lunch time visits with just us. I'd get to sit at the table and talk to him without all the "adult talk." When I got older, I started taking part in the adult talk anyway, because I liked Papa's stories so much.
Papa was retired for most (if not all) of my life. Before retirement, he was in the Navy for 25 years. I liked hearing his stories about traveling the world, and I was upfront about my desires to travel. When I graduated high school, he bought me an ornament of a pig and a microscope. He said there was also a pig and a globe, but he didn't want to get that because I should be studying and not traveling!
But it was Papa's fault that I like to travel. My immediate family never really left Nova Scotia (our first family trip to PEI was in 1999 when I was 16), but Papa would regularly drive from Nova Scotia to Ontario to visit his sister and parents. Ontario seemed really far away, like another country. In 1990, when I was 6 and Papa was 58, he drove me, my mom and my sisters to Toronto for a week to stay with my aunt. We also go to meet Papa's family. I was always super grateful for that trip - it's be another 21 years before I had to explore Toronto in-depth like that again. It definitely sparked my interest in traveling.
He always liked to tease. And I'd tease him right back. At family get-togethers, he'd sometimes play the "grumpy old man" role, but I'd see right through that. At my sister's post-wedding bbq, there were tons of chairs and benches, but Papa sat on a sideways wooden block in a corner. Just as he was saying, "Wow this seat is stiff," I said, "Papa, smarten up. You shouldn't be sitting on a wooden block!" And he smirked. Sometimes I swore he just did funny things like that to say he did it.
I always liked his company, and I liked doing things for him. At family gatherings, like bbq parties at my uncles, I'd sit with Papa and run to get him food when needed (it gave me an excuse to talk politics and current affairs with the men, rather than gossip with the women). I liked visiting with him. Once me and my Mom brought him pizza for lunch, and he wasn't home. We tidied up a bit and I wrote a note about the pizza. He left my pizza note on the fridge door for at least a year, because he's funny like that.
When we were little (and birthdays still counted) Papa would give us birthday money. He had a wall calendar with everyone's birthdays written on it. But it was an old calendar - like a 1992 version. He was still using it in 1997 or so, and complained that the days of the week didn't match up right, but he couldn't get a new one without all the birthdays written on it. One year for Christmas, I called all the relatives and got everyone's birthdays and wedding anniversaries and made him a new calendar. He liked it, but thought it was funny that I'd put wedding anniversaries on it, "I don't buy presents for those!" he'd say. "Well, you might want to say 'happy anniversary!" I'd reply.
Papa has always acted nervous and stand-offish with really young babies. But I know one of his greatest joys in life has been watching and knowing his 12 grandchildren (and 4 great grandchildren). He loves to hear about our comings and goings and genuinely cares. Aside from kids, he's also a dog person, even though he might deny it. When he was in his early 60s, he somehow wound up with a dachshund, and those two were a great pair. They both always smelled like woodsmoke, and both had a charming but gruff attitude.
Papa has always been there for the big moments in my life. Every Christmas, every Thanksgiving, a few lunchtimes a week, and most Sundays when Mom would cook a big dinner. He was at my high school graduation, and even my university graduation in another province. He was 74 at the time, and my parents were trying to tell me that an 8 hour drive might be too much, but I was really happy Papa came. He was also the catalyst for me dumping Mr. Wrong (because he was the only one who would be bluntly honest with me about the jerk I was dating).
I've lived away from home for 10 years. Every time I return, Papa comes to visit at my Mom's house either the day I arrive or the day after. And he's always there the day before I go back. It's flattering. I know he's excited to see me. It's one of the most welcoming gestures I receive when I come home.
We all have vices, and Papa is no saint. He has always like smoking and drinking a bit too much, and has hard time with dealing with clutter (and dust). But all things considered, he's had a pretty good run. I knew it'd take a lot to slow him down.
When I was in Grade 3, Papa lived with us for a month (at age 59 or 60) because he dropped a tree on himself in the woods and shattered his leg. Maybe he didn't cut trees as much after that, but he got healed up ok as far as I know. Then he had another forestry health hazard - he developed skin cancer on his face. Papa's always had dark, leathery skin from the sun. I remember being worried, but he was treated and good as new. He's always had a terrible, rattling cough, but it never seemed to slow him down.
Here comes the sad stuff...
Since he's 70th birthday, there's been various health problems that Papa has overcome. A few years ago (around the age of 75), Papa was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He underwent surgery and radiation, and it took it's toll. He had to travel a lot for treatment, and had to stay in Halifax. Then he stayed with relatives for a few months until he got back on his feet. It took him a long time to heal, and afterward he was noticeably slower.
In Summer 2009, at the age of 77, Papa moved out of his country bungalow and into an apartment next to my parents' house. That was a sign that times were changing. All the woodworking machines were sold, everything was downsized. In November 2010, my parents, my brother, and Papa took a drive across Canada. Except for a trip in 2000 with my Dad and a great uncle, he had pretty much stopped his trips from Nova Scotia to Ontario. The 2010 trip would be his last. They visited me at grad school, and visited Papa's sister in Ontario. In December 2010, Papa moved into an independent-living apartment next to a nursing home, which was next to a hospital.
In May 2011 at age 79, Papa was diagnosed with lung cancer. We all feared the worse. He had so many encounters with different types of cancer, I felt like I knew it'd happen eventually. He went for radiation therapy in Halifax, 2 hours away. He drove himself down on Sunday and back on Friday for 6 weeks all summer. I went home the week before he started treatment and saw him. When we were saying our good-byes and Papa asked when I'd be home next, I choked. My Dad told him my wedding was the next June, 11 months away. Papa completed his lung cancer treatment in August 2011.
Two weeks ago, on November 14th, 2011, Papa had a car accident. No one was physically hurt, but it was the catalyst that made Papa open up about the headaches, the dizziness, the light-headedness, and the vision problems that he's been having for weeks. He had also dropped a lot of weight. After spending a few days helping him with meals and self-care tasks, my Mom and her siblings knew something was wrong.
On Friday, November 25th, Papa went to the hospital and had a CT scan. He was told that he had 5 brain tumors. Saturday, he was moved to palliative care in the hospital and given drugs to shrink the tumors and ease his pain. Today, on Monday, November 28th, he was told that he has 1-3 months left.
Part of my heartaches because I wish I could be home. Part of me knows there's nothing I can do, and that this is a completely natural and expected process. Death is simply our final transition. I know he's being treated well at the hospital, and I know he's not suffering in pain, so that greatly comforts me. But the bigger, more important comfort, is being able to reflect on all the great stories and memories I have with my Papa.
Death is sad because it's loss. I know I will be losing him, and I will be losing future moments with him. But I find comfort in the fact that I have known him for 28 years, and he's been a really awesome grandfather to me. He's done all the grandfatherly things, and I have tons of happy, warm, grounding memories.
I didn't write this post to solicit sympathy because my Papa is dying. I wrote this post to celebrate and share all the wonderful moments I'd had with him, and to honor him. He's been an absolutely great Papa, and he deserves to have a written record of that preserved for all of you to see.
We all find peace in our own ways. Mine was choosing to write this piece to honor him. I chose to honor him now, while he's still living, and seeing, and hearing, because once he's gone he won't know I've said all these embarrassing and flattering things. And if I can elicit a few final smirks on his face it'll be worth it.

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