I wrote the last line of this piece in a creative writing exercise in college. It, and the memory attached, have stayed with me. Recently, I wrote a more complete reflection around it. Here's to you, "Gimpa."
When I was 7 years old, we went to Georgia for a gathering with my dad’s family. The drive felt eternal, though it was a mere few hours long. My brothers and I were full of anticipation, looking forward to reconnecting with cousins, exploring the woods on my Uncle Terry’s property, and jumping on the trampoline we weren’t permitted to have in our own backyard.
I hadn’t realized yet that the sole purpose of our journey was to say goodbye to Grandpa. In truth, our road trip was only occurring because his own had been cut short. He and my Granny had climbed in a camper and embarked on a family farewell tour that was meant to make it to us in Florida. But his health had been failing, fast, even before they began traveling. By the time they arrived in Georgia, they decided one destination was enough.
So we drove instead. I sat in the back of the minivan, passing the hours in the pages of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Just a month later, I would pick up with Prince Caspian, when we went to Ohio for the funeral.
I didn’t really get to talk to Grandpa that week. I was often a shy child, even with people I loved. But by then, the tumors had ravaged his throat, and when he spoke, it sounded low and raspy, like the words were scraping out the last dregs of his voice. Still, he did his best. My parents recall him coming into the kitchen to tell them he longed for nothing more than a bologna sandwich. I remember him walking out to have a short conversation with me at the trampoline. I sat on the edge near him, my legs dangling, and he called me “Queenie.” The punchline was that I loathed this nickname; I didn’t want to be a queen, I wanted to be a princess. I’d been begging him to stop calling me “Queenie” since I was a toddler. Thus, it stuck.
The kids continued to enjoy themselves in the way that only children can in the midst of tragedy. I collected relatives’ mailing addresses for my growing collection of pen pals. Someone took me on a golf cart ride, out to a stable where I met a horse who was named Lightning or Thunder or something romantic like that. Without parental approval, my brother and I borrowed Goosebumps books from our infinitely cooler older cousin, Jessica. We showed off our new baby sister, Greta, who was barely a bundle at two months old. These are the things I remember.
I don’t remember Grandpa tearing up and collapsing a little when he first held Greta. It wasn’t because he was weak, my mom tells me now, his legs were fine; he’d simply been overwhelmed, looking at the last grandchild he would ever meet. I don’t remember that he was rushed to the local hospital at one point, where he apparently befriended nurses and mumbled that he was just sick “from the neck up.”
But eventually, as it always does, reality came charging in, breaking down the borders in my sweet, 7-year-old thinking. This I remember, with cutting, beautiful clarity.
On the last night we saw him, the mood changed quickly. No more playing outside, no more games. Grandpa wasn’t doing well, and they’d decided to pack up the camper and leave early, that very evening, to drive back to Ohio. This was it. It finally registered: This was why we were there.
We gathered in the living room to pray, all of us in a lazy circle. It was a long, emotional prayer. My eyes wandered around the room, looking at my Grandpa, with his neck wrapped tightly, watching my family cry. It’s awful, as a child, to see adults cry. I felt heavy, sinking emotions I’d never faced before and can’t quite name today. Thankfully, we found levity as the prayer ended, when my cousin could no longer let anyone ignore the snot pouring in a stream from my uncle's nose. Everyone laughed, relieved.
It was dark and cool when we went outside. There were lingering, quiet hugs, and then Grandpa and Granny Vera settled into the camper. My dad let me climb on top of his shoulders, which usually meant something grand was happening — a parade or fireworks, maybe. But this was a different sort of finale. We all followed the camper as it began to pull away, waving, yelling. My dad called out a goodbye to his father, but I heard it get lost in the crack in his voice.
And then, there was a light.
A flashlight, specifically, shining through the rear window of the camper.
It was Grandpa, waving a beam wildly. The wheels slowed on the gravel road so he could share his message, frantic and refracted. It seemed to carry all the things he wished he could have said, the sarcastic remarks I'm sure he wanted to leave us with. We watched the beacon’s desperate dance in awe. It was a revelation, though of what, I couldn’t say. Finally, the camper rounded the corner.
The last thing we saw was that narrow ray of light, pushing through the pane, touching anything and everything — simply to touch, to shine.