It has always struck me as odd that whenever a personal tragedy occurs, the world keeps on spinning. You drive around in a haze, dazed and disoriented, and everyone keeps on moving all around you.
On Saturday, July 9th, we lost my grandfather, known to me my whole life simply as “Papa.” To his family, Papa wasn’t even really a moniker or another word for “Grandpa,” it was simply his name, who he was… our fun loving Papa. I was always almost convinced that if you looked up the word in the dictionary, there he’d be.
When I got the call, my world stopped spinning. I drove past the grocery store that was buzzing with people and I wondered how anyone could be shopping on a day like this.
But the world spins on.
One of Papa’s favorite stories to tell was how it was me, newborn me, who made him quit smoking. On the day I was born, Papa was on his way out to smoke in the freezing winter cold, the middle of January. My father suggested to him that he make today, the day of his granddaughter’s birth, the day he finally quit. And so he did, just like that. He threw out his cigarettes in the hall and that was it. When I went to visit him in the hospital just two weeks ago, he proudly pointed me out to the nurse, exclaiming that it was me, I was the one he was telling her about how he quit smoking. Whenever he called me on my birthday, he would say, “do you know what day it is? It’s the anniversary of the day I stopped smoking!” I never heard the end of it. I certainly have no delusions that my grandfather and I were the closest of all the grandkids, because we certainly were not… but this story was ours. This was that special thing that only we could share.
Papa loved a good story. Telling stories and jokes was the highlight of gatherings for him. He was a cab driver and had many of them. Perhaps my favorite of his stories was one involving a couple of customers who brought a bucket of greasy fried chicken into his car and insisted on eating it. He did their voices perfectly, impersonating when the woman loudly exclaimed “this here ain’t no Benz!” after he asked them to stop. Whenever he recounted the story, he raised his voice loudly and jabbed his finger out whenever he got to the part where he told them to get out. Animated and boisterous, that was Papa. I heard the story many, many times over the years. What I wouldn’t do to hear it one more time.
As often as Papa told stories to us about his customers, he told stories to them, too. One thing I loved about Papa was his enthusiasm for all things and his pride in his family. Many times I’d get an excited phone call from him telling me that he just had a customer who loved reading/writing/books/insert my other hobbies here and how he told them all about me. He even gave people my blog address and I received an email one time from a woman who had been in his cab. He did this for all of his family members anytime one of their interests came up in conversation with a customer, and every time he called, he was full of enthusiasm and excitement. I remember when I was younger, it was always a treat when we got to go on a job with him. He answered his phone anytime he had a call with “Riiiiidge Cab,” and off we’d go.
Papa had a real zest for life and uproarious laughter I hope I will never forget the sound of. I can hear it now, and I hope I can always hear it. To him, the ultimate goal in life was just to have fun and live life to the fullest. He was not a perfect man: he called “Seinfeld” STeinfeld, and he often didn’t think about consequences. He loved to have a good time and go out with his friends. Anytime he walked into a room, he would make himself known, sometimes even inappropriately and often with a dance move or song. He was quite a character, not easy to forget. I am quite sure his unofficial motto, if he had had one, would have simply been “eat, drink, and be merry.” He loved all of those things with a passion. I remember dinners at his old apartment. He was an excellent cook who loved Rachael Ray, was heavy on the garlic, and often kept Hershey Bars in his fridge. He always had a story to tell, whether it be about his latest trip to Vegas or his most recent kooky customer. I wish I had more stories to hear.
I realized recently that Papa was a stubborn, persistent, strong-willed and headstrong man. I now know exactly where I get my stubborn nature from… the same stubborn nature that I passed down to Caleb. I got it from my Papa. His stubborn nature is why he was back in his house instead of assisted living, just like my stubborn nature is how I lost so much weight, and just like Caleb’s stubborn nature is why he slept in my bed for six months. That stubborn nature could often be frustrating to those who loved him, but he made sure to always get just what he wanted, and he lived out his last days on his terms. We loved him in spite of and because of it.
Though we had that stubborn nature in common, we were different in many ways too. If there is just one lesson for me to take away from my Papa and the way he lived, it is this: enjoy life. Love life. LIVE life. Have fun. Learn to let go and let loose. Dance in public and sing loudly. You only have one life… don’t take it too seriously. Eat the damn cake. Drink the damn drink. Be enthusiastic and passionate. Laugh loud and laugh often. I want to have that zest for life like he did. I want to stop worrying so much and just enjoy. He never stopped enjoying.
I will always remember the slight gap between Papa’s front teeth, his famous “some bunny special” drawing and caption on all of his cards, and always, always that laugh. I still, and will always, be unbelieving that he is gone. This man, so full of life, this man, perpetually 21, just… gone. And yes, the world as a whole is largely unchanged. It’s spinning on, as it always does. But the world for my family will forever feel a little less whole now without him in it. OUR world is forever altered.
I keep listening to a voicemail from Papa that I saved from when Caleb was born: “It’s Papa! Congratulations! You kids are making an old man out of me. Give me a call. When’s a good time for me to stop by to see my new great-grandchild?” Though Caleb will have been too young to remember him, I saved cards addressed to him that are signed “Love Great Papa Joe.” I will have many, many stories to tell him about this unforgettable man… just like the stories he always told us.
“What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.” – Helen Keller
(Note: I wrote this on the day my grandfather died. I needed a way to cope with the loss and this was the answer. With my father’s encouragement, I have decided to publish it.)