My grandfather passed away when I was finishing up elementary school. He had colon cancer: something I didn’t even know existed until I saw it written under his name on Google. Too young to notice his slow death, but not too young to recognize the pain it caused the people around me. People whom I had placed on the unrealistic pedestal of perfection began to show me what it meant to be human. They unveiled emotions that made me realize he would not be coming back.
Seeing my grandpa at his weakest stages still try to muster up the strength to smile at me changed my response to death. My brain began to send messages of fear to my body when I thought about the concept of dying. My heartbeat would increase when I was a passenger in the car with my mom. My palms would sweat whenever I turned on the stove. The thought of being on a plane made me sick to my stomach. Thinking about how at the end of life there is death gave me anxiety. We had lived with Poppy. A year passed before we had to move houses, but in my reality a week went by and then we were gone. It felt like I had to say goodbye to my grandfather and my childhood at the same time.
The brain has odd ways of coping with tragedy. I found myself overwhelmed with guilt whenever I thought about my absence during his final breaths. At the time, I was chasing my friends down a hall with a pillow in my hand and a smile plastered across my face. My only concern was who was sleeping on the floor that night. The sun came up, and my father drove me back home. “Poppy died last night,” my dad said. My initial response was to laugh because I knew it was a joke. My grandfather wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye to me. I ran inside hoping that I would find him sitting in his chair asking me to rub oil into his scalp. Empty sheets and packed bags were all I could find in that room.
I could taste the salt from the ocean that was being carried by a gentle breeze. The windows were down as my father spoke. I watched in disbelief as my dad began to cry. I remember feeling anger. Anger at my brother for not caring enough and anger at my father for caring too much. My dad’s tears stopped like they were set on a timer. When the timer ended, he no longer needed to show me that he cared. Later, I sat on the beach as he talked about Meshach Taylor; referring to him not as my grandpa, but as the actor that we lost way too soon. He clicked on videos announcing his death, and I studied them. I paid attention to how they said his name with uncertainty. To them, he was merely an opportunity to grab the public’s attention, but to me that name was a reminder of a version of myself that was no longer.
We had to put all of his belongings into boxes in order to get them to our new home. The final look at his old room brought me to tears. There was no longer any sign of life in the room. All the old memories were stuffed in the back of a U-Haul forty-five minutes from Rancho Cucamonga, the place where we were made to start over.
Time never stopped. The funeral only made losing my grandfather that much more permanent. At age sixteen, I recognize how experiencing the loss of a close family member at a young age can mess with the mind. It taught me guilt, frustration and acceptance at a time when I did not even know how to spell separate correctly. It’s a reminder that all life has to end at some point –even lives that meant as much to me as: Poppy.