Hello, Papa. Do you know?
You made me a writer. You made me a mathematician. A thinker. An analyzer. You taught me how to observe when you took me to all those museums and libraries. You taught me to keep my eyes open and wide. You taught me the importance of words and how they must sound when spoken, and how the original pronunciations were more important than the newest version in the English language. You also taught me that temper was best used when controlled and quietly expelled. It had more effect that way. You taught me to sneak candies like 3 Musketeers and chocolate ice cream bars and Butter Pecan ice cream cones behind Mana’s back because it was fun.
“Don’t tell Mana,” Papa whispered.
“I won’t.” I didn’t think much of it, of course, while I was shoving a Musketeer bar down my six year old esophagus.
Papa and I would watch Papa’s favorite movies, one of them being The Princess Bride. I always thought the grandpa in the movie was like my Papa.
And when Papa was tucking me into bed, I always asked for a glass of water because… “I’m thirsty. Can I have some water?”
“As you wish,” Papa said, winking in reference to the movie we’d just watched…again.
So Papa went downstairs for a drink of water. As he did, I hid under the covers of my bed, flattened out my body as much as possible so that I would hopefully blend in with the thick comforter. And waited. I heard footsteps creek on my wood floor.
“Kitten Lee? Are you hiding?” he said. “I wonder if you’re in the closet. Nope. Maybe under the bed? Nope. I wonder what would happen if I accidentally poured this cup of water on the bed…”
I squealed and threw the comforter up before he dared. And this was how he always found me. It was a nightly thing, my pathetic disappearing act.
Although, there was one time when I actually did disappear for a good hour or so in Green Lake, Wisconsin. This was our summer hang for the family. I pretty much grew up there and had many adventures. One of those adventures involved me in hunting down a wild deer flitting through the thick forest. At six, I was confident in knowing that I knew these forests well, but when the deer led me in circles, I couldn’t seem to find my way back to the clearing of camping trailers. This wouldn’t have been a problem except that the sun was going down and the forest was darkening.
So, being part singer, I decided to sing loudly in the forest about how lost I was, but that it was okay. I remember vaguely that I was coming to terms with the idea that I might be stuck there forever.
And then I heard a very stern voice shout out, “Christanna!”
“Papa?” I shouted back. Because it definitely sounded like his stern, you’re-in-trouble voice.
“Get over here now,” he said loud enough for me to follow. I couldn’t see him yet, but followed his voice. As I pushed myself through sharp branches and bushes I finally reached the edge of the forest where Papa stood in a bright green clearing of grass. But I had one more step and it was through a thick cluster of grass weed, which was about my height. Tears started running down my face because I thought that there was a snake and I couldn’t reach Papa.
“Get over here,” he said again.
“There’s a snake!” I cried, shaking my head.
“Christanna,” he said with that serious tone hinting grinding teeth.
That was enough for me. Usually that meant I was in serious trouble. So I jumped through the grass weed and ran to Papa, throwing my tiny arms around his waist.
Papa held on tightly as well and said, “Don’t do that again, okay? And we won’t tell Mana.”
I just nodded. He waited until I calmed down and then I told him all about my adventures in the forest and why I got lost. It was all because of that deer leading me in circles! As he led me through the grassy meadow, he taught me the Inch Worm song.
Little did I know my entire family was out searching for me in the far corners of Green Lake.
Papa was always right about everything. He knew where to look first before anyone else. At the Father-Daughter Dance when I was in first grade, Papa went with me because my dad was singing somewhere else (as opera singers do). But that night, he won a prize for me because he guessed the right amount of jelly beans in a jar. I remember thinking I could never do anything like that. Papa always knew the right answer.
So much so that it would drive me nuts sometimes. I would never argue with Papa, but the older I got, the more I wanted to be right instead of him. So it became a challenge to be successful for Papa.
I was being homeschooled during junior high by my grandparents. Papa taught my English, Math, and History courses. Mana taught my Science and any other extra-curricular activities.
“I’m scared I won’t be ready for high school next year,” I said to Papa as we were going through our English lesson.
“Don’t worry about it and concentrate on reading,” he said.
“Would you concentrate please? And trust me,” he said sternly.
He was right, of course. When I entered high school, I was ahead of everyone in Math and English. I didn’t have a history course that year, so I couldn’t really compare that one. But I had never met a mathematician who could write, or a writer who could do algebra equations and actually enjoy it! I loved both.
One day during my freshman year, I had finished writing a Star Wars novel just for the fun of it. It involved my own original characters blended with the Lucas originals and was a story far into the future lives of the Skywalker and Solo families. I gave my finished product to Papa to edit for grammatical errors. I didn’t expect any reaction out of him.
Instead, he said, “You’re a writer. This is very good.” And I don’t think he’d ever been a huge fan of Star Wars.
The older I got, the more I wanted to make him proud of me. That all of his teachings did not go to waste.
In college, I took a Musical Theater degree. It irritated me to no end that Papa would say, “What are your real courses” when I would tell him what classes I was taking. I always thought he didn’t respect my degree of choice. I later changed it to a degree that included intensive writing courses. I did it for myself because I enjoyed it so much.
But when Papa asked again, “What real courses are you taking?” I became more frustrated. Especially when he asked every year. I was starting to think he wasn’t paying attention and that he should have been proud that I was taking writing courses.
It didn’t quite hit me until he asked again, “What real courses are you taking?” after I had already graduated. That’s when I knew the Alzheimer’s was real. That’s when I knew…my Papa wouldn’t know who I was one day.
That he won’t see me get married like I hoped. And have a family. And that he won’t be there to tell his great-grand kids about the importance of pronouncing “often” with the “t” silent because that is the original pronunciation. Because Alzheimer’s cheats.
“Why don’t you pick on someone your own size!” I would say, if it was worth it. It’s not fair to burn the brain, but keep alive the body. A person is nothing without his mind.
I always thought you would last forever, Papa, as I do everyone else who I love more than anything. But somehow death seems to be logical now. Not just any death, but a death you controlled with your last remaining thought. Because Alzheimer’s is terribly unfair when it comes to killing. Instead, you’re killing it by sleeping. By never letting your brain wake up. Taking control, taking back the pride, power, and intelligence you once had. That’s the Papa I remember.
So you were right, Papa. You were right to instill in me parts of you. I realized one day recent when I was eating my dinner, that I was eating like you. I had bits of my food perfectly organized on my plate so that I had would end up with one bite of each at the end. That’s how you ate! You were stubborn—I am stubborn. You were an analyzer—I am an analyzer. You needed control and order—I need control and order. And not just in me did you help develop, but in all the children and grandchildren that stemmed from your life you gave away parts of you.
It is good that you sleep now, taking down the Alzheimer’s with you. I was never a fan of him anyway.
We will miss you of course. But you lived fully. And you lived long. That is all that matters. This is all I need to remember, Papa. This is enough.