He always smiled. He had that rare talent of making me laugh whenever he smiled at me. He could read books and make me think I was actually there. As I sat in his lap listening to him read Rackety Boom, I could imagine the clackety-clack of the old blue truck and smell the fumes of smoke it coughed. He would draw me up on his lap encircling me in his arms with his massive hug. I would sit on his knee, content with his warmth and the spicy aroma of his after shave, and I never wanted to leave. He was strength. He was security. He was invincible. he was my Pap.
Growing up, my brother and I would spend one week each summer at my grandparents’ house in Pennsylvania. We would awaken late in the morning to the sound of lawnmowers and the muggy, sticky feel of August heat. Bleary-eyed, but fully of energy, we would bound down the stairs despite repeated warnings of, “Don’t run in the house!” As we raced to the kitchen, our sock feet sliding across their blue-green speckled linoleum floor, there Pap would be. He always waited until we were up before he would hook up the old portable dishwasher to the sink. It was time for our “train ride”.
The chugging sound of the dishwasher was our engine. Mike and I would sit in the “dining car” drinking cocoa our of our favorite plastic mugs. Pap was the engineer, and he would also fill the role of tour guide, describing the passing scenery with a zest that made me glance out the window just to be sure we weren’t really moving. After breakfast, we would run off to the next game and wait with anticipation while Pap cleaned up the kitchen mess.
Every year, during the week we spent at Pap and Nan’s, they would take us to an amusement park near their home town. Pap never rode the roller coasters because of a heart condition, but he’d ride with me on the other rides. I’d sit by his side screaming in terrified delight, knowing I was always safe under his protective arm.
My grandparents would often come to visit us at our home in the Valley, too, and they never missed a January celebration of Pap’s birthday (which incidentally is the same as daddy’s), but I had no concept of him aging. We’d go out into the biting cold and build snowmen, always making sure the head was round like Pap’s. We’d lay in the snow and make snow angels, and I could never figure out how his came out so perfect. Then we’d traipse back into the warmth of the house, our cheeks red and eyes bright. I’d curl up in Pap’s lap in exhaustion and snuggle to get warm. I loved the security of his arms.
It was around Memorial Day when I was 11 years old that things changed. Pap and Nan were visiting for a long weekend, and Pap mentioned a numbness in his arm, never complaining as I crawled into his lap or asked him to play with me. On Sunday night, when my family arrived home from church, my grandmother met us at the door, her lips pressed together with worry. Pap wasn’t well. I didn’t understand what they were saying, but I could feel it in the air. Something was wrong.
Daddy took Pap to the emergency room, and I sobbed in my mother’s arms. “What’s going to happen to Pap?” My question hung in the air. I wouldn’t watch Pap leave. I couldn’t face the reality that pap was going to the hospital. He was strong. He was invincible. Nothing could happen to my Pap.
Pap had a stroke. Nan drove him home, and he was hospitalized for a long time. Mom and I went up later to help Nan and visit with Pap. I don’t remember how long we stayed with Nan, but I do remember going to visit him in the hospital. The medicinal odors scared me–Pap didn’t belong in a place like this. I remember walking through the door to his room and seeing him try to smile, the left side of his face paralyed. Although it was lop-sided, it was still a smile.
I watched him struggle through his therapy, and saw the defeat in his eyes–the desperation to be the way he used to be. I would help him, sitting on the floor for hours and massaging his arm and leg to increase circulation. I’d sit on his good leg and make faces at him so he could copy me and work his facial muscles. He’d get discouraged and snap at me, but I understood his frustration. I can remember him crying, realizing I’d never seen Pap cry before.
It was a long hard road. And the years since then have been even harder. More strokes, heart attacks, and last year, a triple bypass at 83 years old. Pap has never had life the way it “used to be” But some things remain the same. He still gets up every morning and sit with his big black Bible talking with his Jesus. He still loves his flowers and crossword puzzles. He still smiles a lot. And though I’ve left behind the story times and the train rides, I still crawl up on his lap, and he holds me with his good arm. He’s not as strong as he was before. He’s endured more than I begin to imagine. Together we’ve learned that life is tenuous and anything can happen at any moment.
No, he’s not invincible. But he’s my Pap and I cherish his love. That will never change.