Letters to Charlie: On Losing Papa

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My dear child,

It’s easy to say that all grandparents love their grandchildren, but there was something truly special about your relationship with Papa. Perhaps it was because you have his name, or because he cared for you so much when you were an infant. Maybe it was because you were the son of his beloved son. Regardless, it was clear to anyone who saw you together.

We lost Papa unexpectedly a few weeks ago. He suffered a stroke following an operation, fell into a coma and could not recover.

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After the stroke, through the following weeks of unknowns, and since he died, we have all grieved. Papa was only weeks away from meeting his second grandchild, which feels bitingly unfair. My heart aches knowing your baby brother will never know him, but it shatters when I think of what you have lost.

There is so much I want to tell you about this man who easily had a spot in the Top 3 greatest men I’ve ever known (your Dad is also among that group). I’m sure you will keep some memories of Papa as you get older, but I want you to know how much he loved you and what he meant to the people who loved him.

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I could give you biographical details about his life — when he was born, where he grew up, that he fixed helicopters in the Air Force, how he met Grandma B and stayed by her side for nearly four decades, that he was a teacher for many years. But those details seem inconsequential somehow.

He was kindness. He was giving. He was bravery. Your grandfather was love.

This was the man who welcomed me wholeheartedly when Daddy and I started dating 14 years ago. Compared to my own, your Dad’s family was huge, intimidating, and so very different. Papa was my gentle guide as I slowly found my way.

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He always cracked a joke to make me feel at ease. I could count on him to have just enough room for dessert. He never complained about anything when it came to his family.

I was inspired by the love he and your Dad shared and how carefully he cared for Grandma B. He taught your father how to be a good man. He showed him how to be a great father.

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He loved nothing more than his family. Some of my favorite memories with him are spending the day together, just hanging out. You’d cuddle up next to him on the couch as he read book after book to you.

You were the one who named him “Papa,” deciding that “Grandpa” just wouldn’t do it for you. By the time you graduated from Grandma B’s Montessori preschool, all of the kids were calling him that. It’s how I mainly referred to him, too; three “Charleses” in one room could get confusing.

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His loss has been difficult on you, of course. Not really knowing how a 4-year-old understands death, we tried to shelter you from the worst of it. At first, we let you know Papa was in the hospital, that he was sick, that we were worried about him and hoped he got better. But you also saw us crying, you heard us talking about it.

You made videos for Papa that we played in his ear during more lucid moments. A tear fell from his eyes when he heard a video of you singing. He knew you loved him and were thinking of him.

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Even when it was clear we’d lose him, we chose not to bring you to see him. We wanted to protect your memory of your last time together — when you, Dad and Grandma B. ate sandwiches at a cafe a few days before his surgery.

When he died, we told you softly. You responded incredulously. “Papa died?….I had a grandpa and he died?!” Then you curled up in Dad’s lap and fell silent.

You’ve mentioned his death here and there over the past few weeks, never stopping for more than a few moments to share your thoughts or ask questions. We are letting you set the course for how much you want to discuss it and for how long.

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This weekend, you broke down. We were in the car, imagining up a story about Grandma Z and Faraway Speaker (a horse/unicorn that features prominently in our tales) riding their motorcycles in a parade.

“They were very sad,” you said, “because the one person they wanted to be there wasn’t there, and that was Papa….because he died.”

We were at a stoplight at this point, so I turned around, and put my hand on your knee.

“I can tell that you are missing Papa, Charlie,” I said gently. “I just want you to know it’s OK to miss him, and to think about him. I miss him, too.”

Your eyes filled with tears. A moment passed. “Will I never see Papa again?,” you asked in a small voice. “Never ever?”

“No, my sweet boy. You will not see Papa again. But we will always be able to remember him, and all the things we did together, and what we learned from him.”

“But…but….why did he die?”

“Well, he was old, and his body couldn’t work anymore.”

“….I want to be with Papa every day until I die.”

“I know, baby. I want to see him every day, too. But I also want you to know that I’m here, and Daddy’s here, and Grandma B. is here, and Grandma Z is here…there are so many people who love you and are here for you. You are safe.”

I continued, “And even though Papa is gone, we had the chance to have him in our lives, and I am very thankful for that. We got to know him.”

“But,” you said, tears falling. “I don’t know him anymore….”

Oh, my dear boy. That almost overwhelmed me.

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In the past few days, we discovered you peeing throughout our house — on your bedroom rug, in the closet, next to the toilet. Your teachers have told us you are pocketing small items from the classroom, saying you want to take them home.

Perhaps this is part of your grief. Perhaps it’s because Baby Jack is almost here. Perhaps it’s a combination. There are a lot of changes happening in your life right now.

What won’t change is how much we love you, my dear son. How we will walk by your side as you navigate this new and unsettling part of your life. You, me, Dad, Grandma B. – we will all get through this together, as a family.

As Papa taught us to do.

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3 Responses to Letters to Charlie: On Losing Papa

  1. mamaofbabyx says:

    So sorry for your loss. Sounds like a wonderful man.

  2. Barbara Crawford says:

    Thank you for this. Unbearable,almost unreadable through the tears, so very much a reflection of what he meant for us.

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  3. Pingback: Letters to Jack: Month 6 | Hour 23

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