My mother’s father was a short, stubborn Scotsman with eyes so icy-blue they’d make you think of glaciers, or perhaps maybe the moon. His name was James. To most, he was Jimmy. To me, he was Papa.
Whenever I reflect on my childhood–long, harrowing years of growing up in chaos, the daughter of two addicts–Papa is the only constant I can remember. He picked me up from school when my parents were late. He took me to my first Communion. He fed me small bowls of cereal as a nighttime snack and would cook me “bacon and ketchup sandwiches” (which are exactly what they sound like!) for lunch when I stayed over. I took my first steps in his home. I spent Christmas there one year. In the hot summers, I’d have a sleepover with him and my Nana, the three of us on mattresses down on the cold concrete of the basement floor. He’d pick up books for me from the library, or at the little church he later cleaned part-time as a way to stay busy, many years after he’d already retired. Much of my youth was spent curled up beside him in an armchair, nestled in his arms and, when I grew too big to squeeze next to him, I’d sit on the carpet next to his chair. We watched Coronation Street and Gordon Ramsey, and he loved poker tournaments, so he’d often have those on, too. He took me fishing in the summers, and he’d always cheer, “Well done!” whenever I caught something, even if it was a sunfish, which is the only thing I was able to hook 99% of the time.
If love was a person, I think it might look a little something like my Papa.
In January 2010, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. The doctors gave him two months to live. I got the news over a Skype call with spotty reception while I was half a world away. I traveled home to be with him, putting my life on a pause while I grieved and prepared to say goodbye.
After fifteen months, he was still alive. The cancer had spread, and his health deteriorated quickly. He lost so much weight his bones were jagged under his skin. He didn’t eat much. Simple tasks like walking to the washroom or talking on the phone exhausted him. Yet he was still alive and, as he said many times, it was a miracle.
On the Sunday before he was moved into hospice, I had one last phone call with him. I was in Pennsylvania, an eight-and-a-half-hour drive from where he lay in what we all knew was the final stages. I told him I could be there by the morning; all I had to do was throw some clothes in a bag, fill up on gas, and I’d be on my way. His voice broke, the first time I think I’d heard him cry in all the years I had known him. He passed the phone to my aunt, who tearfully told me Papa didn’t want me remembering him like that. He was crying, unable to speak any more, so I asked my aunt to hold the phone up to his ear. “I love you,” I told him, over and over as the tears fell hot on my cheeks. And I did. I loved him more than I had loved anyone or anything before. I knew I’d been given those fifteen months so I could prepare for the loss that was imminent. It was a miracle. A gift.
He died on March 31, 2011, at 5:15 pm. Six years ago today. There was no proper funeral; he was never one for pomp and circumstance. Yet still — almost two years passed before I felt ready to cross the border into Canada. The country just didn’t feel the same without him.
Once in a while, I’d spend some time reminiscing about my Papa and the life he lived. Not necessarily in a sad way, though the grief is still sharp in my lungs sometimes. Mostly, though, it’d be in a thankful way. From a place of peace. I’d look at old photos of him, thrilled to see that I have inherited his smile. I let myself go back to those memories of sitting beside him in the armchair, let myself breathe in his smell, see the blue of his eyes, hear his voice and its thick Scottish accent. He was an incredible man, and I am honored to share his bloodline. He showed me love, love, love, all the days of my life, and his legacy has been passed on to the future generation.
My son is named Atticus James, his middle name, of course, after my Papa. I would give anything for those two to have been able to meet. One night, when Atticus was only a week or two old, I had a dream, clear as day, in which my Papa knocked on my front door and came in to meet and hold his great-grandson. He cradled Atticus in his arm and stared down at him, stroking his cheeks, tracing the outline of his features. And all the while, Atticus slept peacefully in his namesake’s arms. I woke up from the dream with tears in my eyes. Sometimes a dream is just a dream, but I believe sometimes, they can mean more. I think that dream was meant to tell me my Papa is smiling down with love, as he watches little Atticus James grow and change every day. And I’d like to believe he is so very proud.
Today it feels right to remember him. It hurts more than it has in other years, but I have learned to pay attention to the sadness in life, to sit in it and let it move you.
Today it feels right to hold his photographs in my fingers and show them to my son and husband.
Today it feels right to hold my baby and call him by his full name, Atticus James, a strong name for a strong soul.
Today it feels right to find a recipe for steak pie, to roll out sheets of pastry and make a thick gravy. My Papa had been a chef in the castle back in Edinburgh, and often we’d sit down to a dinner of steak pie and he would tell me stories about what it was like when he lived in the old country, when he’d ransack neighbor’s gardens as a boy, looking for vegetables to carry back to his mother so they could eat.
Today it feels right to tell the story.
Grief is a complicated beast sometimes, I think, because it’s both necessary and dangerous. Recently, I heard someone say that it’s impossible for us to have hope if we haven’t first grieved well, and that sentiment has stayed with me, ringing true in the deep chambers of my heart. Grief is part of the story, but it’s only a chapter. We enter dangerous territory when we read the same chapter over and over again without ever turning the page. There is a hole in my life-story where my Papa used to be, but with that comes a beautiful hope from seeing his legacy alive and well in my son. There is a sadness that comes in waves once in a while, but it is followed by the sweet peace that comes from knowing we will meet again some day. Death, you see, is not the end of the story.
And so I choose to remember, knowing full well that remembering, as Kelley Nikondeha says, is the first step in the resistance. Grief, you don’t get to have the final say. Memory–to light a candle in the darkness, to think back and remember that there was good, so, so much good, and I lived in it–is how I choose to fight the despair. Where, o death, is your sting? Where, o death, is your victory? For I am part of the resurrection people, and my hope is fully alive.
My dearest Papa, thank you for showing me the heart of a father. Thank you for being my safe place, my constant, my always-present, my haven. Life isn’t the same without you, and you are missed more than words can say. I remember, today, and always. I remember how you’d always wear a pair of dress slacks when you were going out because you were proud, and respect was important to you. I remember how you would come to my rescue and pick me up whenever things got too heavy at home. I remember how you’d sneak me bits of chocolate bars before dinner, and how my mother would protest, but you loved to spoil me. I remember how you took me to the park and played with me on the merry-go-round, and how one time you missed the step because we were going too fast, and you hurt your back, but you never once complained. I remember all of it; it’s how I keep you alive. I wish you had gotten the chance to meet Atticus James. He’s pure Scot, it seems, ruddy and strong, already stubborn and tenacious, so much like you in so many ways. I promise to tell him about you. I promise he will know your story.
Until we meet again,