My first experience with death was my grandfather’s, when I was eleven years old. Both of my maternal grandparents (Nana and Papa) lived with us in our big brick house in New Jersey, and had for as long as I can remember — possibly since before I was born. My grandmother had one of the four bedrooms on the second floor. My grandfather, for reasons unknown to me, lived in the finished bedroom up in the attic for many years. After he had his first heart attack, we turned the den on the first floor into his bedroom, adding an accordion-pleat door, because he could no longer manage the two flights of stairs to the attic.
I loved my grandfather more than anyone else in the world, even more than my mother. He was kind, and patient, and so loving. He never criticized, and was interested in everything. He told fascinating stories about “the old country” and of his escape over the border in the bottom of a wagon, covered with hay. I always thought I was his favorite grandchild. Many years later I discovered that every one of his five granddaughters believed herself to be his favorite. That just shows how amazing he was, that he could make each girl think he loved her the best — although of course I am sure that the other four were mistaken and I was the real favorite!
Papa used to make breakfast for me every weekday morning while my mother slept in. On rainy or snowy days, or if I was going to be late, he would drive me to my elementary school. which was about half a mile away. Right after I turned eleven I started seventh grade at a six-year high school which was in another town, and carpooled with the one other girl from my town who went to that school. Her mother drove us in the morning, and my mother picked us up in the afternoon. Papa still made breakfast for me, and then walked out to the curb with me to wait for my ride.
One morning we were standing at the curb, as usual. I think we were holding hands. Suddenly, I felt a jerk on my hand and turned to see Papa falling to the ground. I didn’t know what he was doing. I wondered if it was some kind of joke, but it wasn’t funny. I said, “Papa, Papa, get up, what are you doing?” but there was no response. I wanted to run inside to wake up my parents, but I didn’t want to leave him there alone on the sidewalk. I stood there, frantic. Then my ride arrived and pulled into the driveway. I pointed to Papa and said to them, “wait here, I’ll be right back.” I tore into the house, screaming for my parents. My father, who was a doctor, grabbed his medical bag and went outside with me, then told me to go to school, everything would be okay. So I went to school. At lunchtime, I called home from the pay phone at school, and my father answered, which was surprising. (What was he doing home?) I asked “how’s Papa?” He replied “Who is this?” That was even more surprising. I said “It’s Suzy!” He said “Papa’s doing as well as can be expected.”
When I got home after school, I learned that Papa had died. I never got to see him to say goodbye. I wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral. I don’t even know where he is buried. And I was haunted for years about that couple of minutes between the time he fell down and the time my ride arrived for school. If I had run to get my father sooner, would that have made the difference? My father reassured me that it would not have, but I didn’t know whether to believe him or not.
I still miss him.