Part of growing up

“It’s Wolverine, Dad. X-Men,” he said when he’d turned on the TV. The look on his face let me know that this was not a show his mom would let him watch. The boy was entranced and shamelessly absorbing the kind of shows big boys get to enjoy.

I paused the television and called my son over to me. We were surrounded by the detritus of seven hours being alone in the house. We were a father and son left to our own devices and the room looked as carefree as my son. He obediently popped up off the floor and walked over to me. The look in his eye suggested he thought he was going to have to clean his room or, at worst, bathe. He didn’t know I was about to do something I’d never done before.

I took him by the shoulders and held him a little tighter than I normally would.

* * *

One of my earliest memories that has stuck with me until adulthood was my little brother waking me up. He was shaking with tears and inconsolable. He was a chubby, freckled little kid that I gave way too much grief for just about anything he did. Shaking me awake with a tantrum was the type of thing the kid had learned not to do.

I was still coming out of the clouds we he yelled through his tears, “Grandma Roxie died!”

Grandma Roxie, my mom’s grandmother, was the last of my living great grandparents. Both of my father’s grandparents had died before I was born and my mom’s Grandpa Doyle had died when I was still a baby. Most of what I remember about my mom’s grandma and grandpa is collected from memories shared after their death–how Doyle would eat a dozen eggs and pound of bacon for breakfast, for instance. Only in very vague glimpses do I remember interacting with Roxie, but in those glimpses she is a soft, kind woman with a ready smile.

I don’t recall my reaction when my brother woke me up with the news the Grandma Roxie had died. It didn’t occur to me then, and in fact, didn’t occur to me until now that it was the first time anyone had ever told me that somebody I knew had died.

Grandma Roxie was the last person close to me who died until I was in my teens. The very next time, I was standing in the hallway of a Springfield, Missouri hospital near midnight. I’d heard through the grapevine that two of my close friends in separate cars had been in a bad accident. The moment I walked into the emergency room, Marcie Welsh had run up to me in tears.

“James is gone,” she said.

Again, my reaction is lost to memory. The next thing I remember is calling my mom from a pay phone in the hospital waiting room and telling her the news.

There were many others throughout the years. John died in an accidental fall. My ex-girlfriend Connie and my cousin died in separate car accidents. A couple of people killed themselves. Gulfman succumbed to an undiagnosed brain tumor. Each of those deaths touched me in powerful and different ways, but I honestly can’t remember who broke the news.

Funny, the things the memory holds on to.

* * *

“My grandpa died,” I told my son. X-Men was frozen on the big screen, but suddenly the five-year-old kid in front of me didn’t care. His eyes projected the gears turning in his head. His face was stoic.

“Why?” he asked.

Why, I thought. There was no really good answer I could fit into words even my exceptionally smart kid could grasp.

“Grandpa got really sick,” I said. “He was old and his body couldn’t handle being sick.”

Still stoic, my son repeated the words back to me and continued to process what was happening. Because we live so far away from where I grew up, my boy had seen my grandfather only three or four times in his life. Still, there was something powerful happening in the kid’s head. It was as if I could see him running around my grandparents’ back yard, chasing the little the dog though the grass, staring mouth agape at the swarm of hummingbirds, and walking down the country road to check out the cows and horses. He may not have grown up with my grandpa, but he had memories.

d-backyard-07

The boy, age two and a half, in Grandpa’s back yard — 2007

“So, we’re going back to Missouri in a couple of days,” I told him, “and I’m going to need you to be a big boy and really nice, because your Nanny and PaPa are going to be very sad.”

And there it was. His mouth twitched and his eyes blinked hard a couple of times. He put his face in my shoulder and cried for a few seconds. Then, without me saying a word, it was as if something told him he had to be tough. He stepped back and used a couple of clenched fists to wipe his eyes. He asked a few more questions about funerals and what happens next, then resolved to be a big boy when he needed to be.

It struck me last night that the moment may be something my son remembers when he is my age. I wondered whether I should’ve sugar-coated it, or just not told him at all. The reason we were alone in the house in the first place was that my wife was on the road to attend her aunt’s funeral. The boy didn’t know that aunt and we hadn’t bothered to explain why Mommy was taking a trip. Death is such a big concept, it’s hard for most adults to grasp in any kind of rational way.

Eventually I decided what I’d done was in line with how we’re raising the kid. We’re honest, open, and letting him experience as much of the real world as he can handle. So far, he’s proven to be mature beyond our expectations. This was no exception.

A few hours later as I was putting him to bed, my son stopped and said, “Dad, I’m sad because your grandpa died.”

I patted him on the back and kissed him on the top of the head.

I said, “So am I, buddy.”

grandpa-2007

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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12 Responses

  1. StB says:

    Sorry to hear of your loss.

  2. JJ Lassberg says:

    I so sorry to read of you loss. I will be holding you and your family in The Light.

  3. flopped da joint says:

    i lost my dad last year, this post had me in tears. i dont believe in god, but i will hold a good thought for you and your family.

  4. Dr. Chako says:

    Having experienced loss recently and also sharing similar conversations with my kids, I’m with you. Simplicity and honesty are always the best. What you want to avoid to being too complex. THAT will create a memory that will last into adulthood.

    And it would probably be the intro to the book he’ll eventually write.

    -DrC

  5. Rob says:

    This post really hit home Brad. I’ve got two little boys, 4 and 18 months. My mom is battling cancer but no one figures she has too long left. I’ve already thought about it, but reading this made me all the more aware I’m going to have to tell my boy sometime in the near future that his Gramma died. I hope my boy is as strong for me as your’s was for you. Thank you for taking the time to write and share this with us.

  6. pokerpeaker says:

    Lost a good uncle this year. My thoughts are with you. And good post.

  7. Skip says:

    Well handled, my friend. I can only hope to raise my girl to be so mature as D. So sorry for your loss- made me painfully aware of that same conversation I will be having some day, too. Pic at the end really hit home, brought me a smile and a tear at the same time.

  8. Tammie McGoldrick says:

    Beautiful story Brad. I think you handled it very well. I only met your grandfather one or two times, but after putting the proshow together a few years ago I felt I knew him quite well. He was a strong, loving man. Built of fiber that every man should be. I know he will be missed by all who knew him, especially your mom.

    Your dad said he was a rock for everyone, and I believe that completely. I will keep you all in my thoughts and prayers.

  9. The Wife says:

    Made me cry – feel your loss, and the burden of having to help your son understand reality. Good man.

  10. Very sorry for your loss, friend. Just a wonderful, moving post — indeed, was moved even when telling Vera about it later. And just an awesome smile, too.

    As we all eventually figure out, they stay with us. In our memories, and in words and pictures like these, they live on.

  11. Maudie says:

    Hey – can I buy you a drink when next we meet?

  12. Da Goddess says:

    Someday #1 son will thank you for your honesty and for allowing him to learn how to process his feelings in such a gentle, loving way.

    I’m really sorry for your family’s loss.

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