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Losing Papa
How could my beloved grandfather just walk away?
C.R.
headshot

Papa is the name my grandfather was given when he became a grandfather. He and my grandmother lived in Pennsylvania, and I lived with my parents in New York City, but we were close.

Whenever my two sisters and I went to visit my grandparents, we slept at the foot of their bed. Before we fell asleep, Papa told us bedtime stories, and my grandmother taught us old church hymns. She watched us in the daytime while Papa worked as a nurse at a hospital.

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At night, Papa cooked in the kitchen, talking to me and my sisters while we played with the magnets on the fridge. He took us to museums and the movies on his days off.

Their yard overlooked horses on the neighboring farm. When I sat on the porch swing, I swayed and felt the wind through my hair as I gazed out at the horizon.

In the evening, bats flew high above the rooftops. My sisters and I caught fireflies as our grandparents looked on. Papa poked holes in the top of a mason jar so we could hold them in the twilight.

When I think now about what a wonderful grandfather Papa was to my sisters and me, I feel bad. Because suddenly, six years ago, he vanished.

No One Would Talk About It

When I was about 10, I started seeing less of my grandparents. After a few months, I began visiting my grandmother again, but not at her house like we used to. Now we only saw her at other relatives’ houses. Papa was never with her, and no one said why.

I didn’t understand why everyone seemed to ignore his absence, and no one asked where he was. But I was raised to be respectful and careful with my words, so I didn’t ask about him. My mom says, “Stay out of big people business and conversations.” I didn’t even mention it to my sisters, who were my most trusted friends. After all, what could they know that I didn’t?

After about six months, one night my dad and I were home alone. I was in my room, watching TV. George Lopez flashed on the screen, so I knew it was late.

My dad called me into the living room. He was sitting in his button-down shirt and work pants. He worked in our building as the super, so he was on call 24/7.

I crawled into his lap. He had a serious expression, but I didn’t think I was in trouble.

“Papa always wanted a motorcycle. But Gramma never let him get one. Now he can,” he said.

He asked me if I understood. I said yes and returned to my room. What my father was saying was that my grandfather felt he needed to leave my grandmother to feel
more free.

But I didn’t think that meant I would never see him again. I thought he was just taking some time to himself. I started watching George Lopez. George’s mom wore scrubs in the factory she worked in. As a nurse, Papa wore scrubs too. I missed him so much.

Gone Without a Trace

When Papa left, everything of his vanished from my grandparents’ house as well as mine. Photographs of him disappeared. Papa’s infamous Christmas mini-houses that he decorated our house with during the holiday also disappeared. My dad said he didn’t know where they were.

It was like he never existed.

I don’t know what made me afraid to ask my relatives why he left. I guess I didn’t want to risk angering them; they’d made it clear without saying a word that they didn’t want to talk about him.

Since Papa’s been gone, he’s missed out on birthdays, surprise parties, new births, and family reunions. Because these are such big events in our lives, it made me wonder if it was someone’s fault that he’d left. I started to think that “someone” was me.

A Card, But No Papa

When I was in middle school, during the first few years without my Papa, he sent me a birthday card.

It meant so much to me. It told me that our relationship still mattered to him. I sobbed and sobbed.

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My dad heard me crying in my room and knocked on the door.

“Come in,” I said. The big window let natural light in. He sat on the floor with me.

“I just can’t feel his love for me when he’s not here,” I said.

“I know,” he said, hugging me. I smelled his sweet deodorant. He stroked my hair. My dad’s hugs are so great. They reassure me that everything is going to be fine.

“You know I love you, right?”

I smiled into his shirt, which was now stained with my fresh tears. “I love you too.”

The Courage to Ask

Now I’m almost 16, with only childhood memories of my Papa. It’s been three years since he sent that birthday card. I still can’t wrap my head around how he could just throw me away.

I recently got up my nerve to ask my dad about him. I hoped that maybe because so much time had passed, he’d be willing to talk more clearly about why my grandfather had left us.

I learned that Papa had been raised in a strict Christian household. His father, my great-grandfather, was a preacher, and he raised my Papa to be super proper. Great Granddaddy didn’t hug very much.

Papa’s mother was strict, too. She believed there were certain negative emotions, like jealousy, anger and sadness, that God doesn’t want us to feel.

I realized that Papa had probably struggled to express himself his whole life. I could see how this would cause problems in his marriage, and as a parent himself.

My grandmother was the opposite. She was one of eight kids, and her family expressed themselves freely.

As I think about my grandparents’ relationship, it must have been hard to have a wife constantly thinking, “Can you just feel something for once?” and a husband thinking, “Why do you have to express what you’re feeling all the time?”

My dad was their first child, and he saw the struggles at the beginning of his parents’ marriage. The relationship between my dad and Papa was also strained. When my dad graduated high school, he enlisted in the Marines, and grew even more distant from his father.

I never knew any of this.

I No Longer Blame Myself

Knowing the way Papa grew up and the difficult relationship he had with my grandmother and dad makes it easier for me to put the blame on Papa instead of wondering if it was partly my fault that he left. Whatever his struggles, he made the choice to pack his things and leave our family. It had nothing to do with me or anyone else.

Whenever I bring up Papa now, my mom says, “I don’t get it. What is he going through that is so bad that he thinks leaving the best little girls in the world is going to make it all better?” When she says that, I smile because at least I have a mom and a dad who know how special I am.

I used to imagine him coming back. I thought it would be some dramatic event: He’d try to talk to me, but my father would pull him back. I’d then tell my dad to let him stay, so I could hear what Papa had to say. I planned it out. But it is a fantasy.

For years I thought he was punishing me for something I did by taking away his love. But he’s the one who left my sisters and me. I think it’s selfish of him. He divorced my grandmother, but he didn’t have to divorce us.

Papa hurt my family a lot by leaving—enough for them to pretend like he wasn’t ever in their hearts so they didn’t have to ache for him. Unfortunately it took me years to figure that out on my own.

I’m about to celebrate my Sweet 16. I’m coming of age, and Papa won’t be there. I don’t know where he is, or what his life is like. I don’t know that I forgive him, or if I want to see him again. I think that’s OK. Now I know it’s also OK to ask my family questions.

If I were to meet Papa alone sometime, I’d probably hug him and cry, because at least I’d know he’s alive. I’d also ask him why he left. I think I deserve to know that.

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(NYC-2018-03-14)