He was the love of my life. Brilliant, funny, handsome, charming. He was a father, a teacher, and my hero. Most days he smelled like a mixture of Old Spice and onions, a combination that on anyone else might have repulsed but on him it was heavenly. He was Bonpapa, my grandfather. My older brother and I (along with our mother) lived with our grandparents until I was 12 years old. What a blessing it was.
He was openly affectionate. He laughed loud and snored louder. He made breakfast each day before school, sometimes surprising us with Mickey Mouse-shaped pancakes or colored milk. He liked to laugh. He was infinitely patient, generous with his money and his time, and he enjoyed a good joke. He ate frozen peanut butter and banana sandwiches, put ice in his coffee, and said grace at all the family dinners. He was a godly man, a preacher at a local Methodist church who took his responsibilities seriously. He had plaques that hung in his study with sayings like "Christians never meet for the last time".
We had a special relationship, my Bonpapa and I. While my dad was involved in my life, Bonpapa was sort of my "other" Dad. Bonpapa took me to my first symphony, spray-painted my ballet shoes for my first recital, played math games with me and let me "help" him with his gardening. He taught me to love history and wordplay, and to be content with what I had. We watched "Dragnet" and "Alfred Hitchcock" together. Bonpapa sat in his big comfortable recliner, and I would sit in between his feet on the floor. We made up silly songs together, went on nature hikes and talked about Shakespeare. He called me his "little girl". And I was.
The day he died, it felt as if all the air had been sucked out of my lungs. I walked around suffocating, desperate for air, but somehow still breathing.
I had never experienced pain in my life up to that point. I thought I had, but I was mistaken. Never had I felt such a deep, soul-shattering sadness, or wept in my sleep. The tears flowed, seemingly endlessly, from a well rooted deep inside my heart. Never had I been struck with the realization that who I was at my core, my very being, had shifted. Never, until that morning.
For the first time in my life I could not convince myself that everything would be ok. Bonpapa's departure, though it came expectedly after a short battle with Alzheimer's and Dementia, sent me reeling, off some cliff I didn't know I'd been standing on, floating down into an abyss I never knew existed.
The pain was infinite and all-encompassing. My heart, soul, and body ached. There was grief, and yet disbelief. I could not fathom the absence of a man who I'd just assumed would be with me forever. I had never considered a world without him. Yet here it was.
That morning, I was at the gym very early, running (or doing something that looked a bit like running, with my large pregnant belly leading the way) on a treadmill. I looked down to see my cell phone blinking, so I stepped off to answer it. Calmly, slowly, my mom began to speak. I can't remember what she said and honestly I don't want to. I do remember kneeling on the floor of the locker room, and someone called my husband to come and take me home. I don't remember much else after that call. The funeral was hot, too many bodies stuffed into a little church and me bathing in my own hot, salty tears. I slept for a few days following the service, alternating crying and sitting in numbed silence on our couch.
Soon after, I started experiencing panic attacks. They occurred most frequently at night, even during a family vacation to Walt Disney World. By this time I was around 7 months pregnant, and I'm sure it would have been hilarious to see if it hadn't been so frightening. From a deep sleep, I would jump up out of bed, choking, gagging for air. Then I would pace back and forth in our bedroom, my big baby belly leading the way. Sometimes I'd go to another room in the house and walk in circles. Each time I tried to practice breathing exercises while praying out loud. I prayed for peace, I prayed for comfort, but most times I prayed that I would wake up and find that it hadn't been real. I was suffocating. Some nights I slept with an old photo of him under my pillow. I was drowning in grief. Heartbroken.
Bonpapa died on the 7th. Being a sentimental person and determined not to forget him, I visited his grave on the 7th of every month for one year. I brought flowers, cards, poems I had written for him. I spoke to him at length, my words floating away on the wind. I cried fresh tears for him, I laughed as I talked to him about my son. I told him I love him. Over and over I thanked him, for who he was, for making me who I am. On that anniversary of his death, I stayed for a long time. One year later, and I was still so affected, I wondered to myself if this kind of wound ever heals. Would I always cry when I talked about him?
Suddenly and without warning, a verse of Scripture popped into my head. "Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, he is risen." This is from Luke, a part of the Easter story. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Bonpapa isn't here. He is in heaven. Why do you grieve in this way? Why have you made this ritual of visiting his grave? He is not here.