…but seven years ago. Senior year of high school, and I’m asking the main office to let me leave school and go to the hospital. “I have to see my grandfather,” I remember saying over and over. And my principal, bless her heart, simply said, “I’ll get someone to drive you.”
The funny thing is, we kind of got lost, my school counselor and I. We took the long way around and got stuck in traffic and took way longer than expected to get to the hospital–so much so that my principal, who left after I did, was already there when we arrived. After I stepped out of the elevator, everything became a blur. All I have are these vivid, disconnected images of the rest of the day; it’s like I lost the reels of that day’s film and all I have left are some promotional stills and a trailer.
I remember a human fence (my grandma, my eldest aunt, my mom) in front of his room, telling me that he was gone. Walking in to say goodbye before they took him and realizing how much smaller he’d become… I’d never noticed because he was so loud and his personality just filled every room he walked, or wheeled, into. Burying my head in my counselor’s shoulder while being shocked that Sister Vivina (our diocese superintendent) had a cloud of red hair under that white habit. Leaving my then-boyfriend a disbelieving voicemail. Organizing funeral arrangements with my grandmother, down to picking out a suit from his closet. My aunt’s face crumpling when we finally saw each other–her flight from Mexico had also arrived too late. Holding on to my grandfather’s fraternity and Mason pins while we packed up his stuff for the funeral home. Pinning them to his suit at the wake that night with shaking hands. Wanting something I could hold to remember him by, but never asking.
You would think that, considering all I remember and how hard this day is for me every day, I would’ve been thinking about it all of today. But the truth is, the same thing happens every year–I dread this day, the hardest day of the hardest month as far as my emotional health is concerned… and then it sneaks up on me anyway. Every single year, up until the day before, I am keenly aware of it–and then the twenty-seventh dawns and I forget what day it is until I’m halfway through it and something brings it back all of a sudden.
Today, I was in the middle of teaching my seventh period class when it rushed over me, sudden and heartbreaking. I was suddenly buckling under the weight of all of the recollections I’ve written here, tears running down my face. But, for the first time in a long time, despite the fact that I am going through what seems like my worst depressive relapse yet–it was a positive sort of remembering. I’d already thought of him this week when the Burger King lady knew my order (who else orders a Whopper only ketchup no cheese with a Coke icee?)… when I was in middle and high school, before I could drive, my grandfather would often pick me up from school and we’d stop at the Burger King just outside of town, where we both ordered the same exact thing every single time. After a while, he’d get up to the drive-thru window and greet the employees before cheekily saying lo mismo, the same, when asked for our order.
That’s how I like to remember him–cracking jokes and going through his routines with a twinkling in his eyes. Or bent over his ledgers (he was treasurer for his Lodge), carefully working on the accounts, especially because after his arthritic hands started giving him trouble I would scribe for him at times. Or in the kitchen, making a delicious and labor-intensive asopao once in a blue moon. Sometimes in the formal living room no one used, drinking some whiskey and listening to old records on vinyl. But, in all cases, my memories involve him being there–at my award ceremonies, my elementary and middle school graduations, my birthday celebrations (dinner and cake on his dining room table), my aunts’ and mom’s weddings. And so, when he could not be there anymore, when I walked across the stage and won a ton of awards during my high school graduation, or attended multiple honors convocations and graduation ceremonies in college, I felt his presence much more acutely than I’d expected. He was, after all, the closest thing I’ve ever had to a father–and I know I’ll feel his absence more than anything if I ever get married and I have to decide who will walk me down the aisle. The role was his and his alone–and to give it to someone else feels a little sacrilegious.
Yet, somehow, despite this Papá Huchy-sized hole in my chest, I’ve kept going. I’ve done things. I’ve grown. And, sometimes, it almost feels like he’s there. When I’m back on the island, I can almost imagine he’ll be waiting in his office room at the back of the house, or he’ll be somewhere in El Maní waiting for me to drive through Joyuda. I can see his crinkly-eyed smile on a cousin’s face, sometimes–and his gruff tenderness in another. Driving home always reminds me of that time we rescued a dog and gave it to his friend (who lives nearby), and if I hear a hissing noise I automatically remember his oxygen tanks. Every time I look down at my fingers, the tips of which have started curving with the warning of arthritis to come, I find myself smiling a little because they make me think of him. And I know that, when I hold my baby cousin in a couple of months, he’s going to be right over my shoulder, meeting his third granddaughter in spirit with a proud smile.
I think that same smile will find its way onto my lips at some point during Kaddish, if only because he will be tapping my shoulder to make it so.