I’ve never seen him cry, the man I call Papa. He’s my grandfather, the one who, as a kid I used to arm wrestle with both my hands, practically standing on his wrists with all my weight and still couldn’t beat. Not even close. He’d sit there in his spot on the couch, shoveling peanuts into his mouth and adjusting his heavy bifocal frames. He’d ask me when I was going to try before turning my wrist over and placing it gently to the end table top.
The man who, years later when I was in my late teens and at the strongest and most physically fit, I thought I actually stood a chance of beating at arm wrestling. I still couldn’t. Not even with both hands. He was in his sixties then.
He was always a big man at six-foot-two and easily a stout two hundred seventy-five pounds with tree-trunk legs and Popeye forearms. Despite his belly I’d always known him to have that got bigger with age, despite the heart attack he suffered before I could even remember, he was still the strongest man I’d ever known.
The closest I came to actually seeing him cry was the day I left for the Army. We were always close. I spent a decent portion of my childhood living with my grandparents. And when the day came he was nervous, pacing.
He jiggled the keys in his pocket, stared out the window and finally after some time of doing that over and over again, he said something to me.
“Well, you’d better get going, babe. I know how the Army is when you’re late for things,” coming from a man who’d done his tour in the Army many years ago just as the Korean War was coming to a tentative cease-fire. “I’m sure gonna miss you. I better get going. I’ve got things I have to take care of.”
He hugged me tightly, not at all like any hug he’d ever given me. He told me he loved me with a pained look on his face. If I had looked closely, perhaps I could have seen the lump in his throat.
And with that, he got into his truck and drove off. I didn’t see him again until a year and a half later.
I found out months later from my grandmother that the reason he’d left before me is that he couldn’t stand the thought of me leaving and didn’t want to cry in front of me.
And so, I’ve never seen him cry. He took his mother’s death with dignity and acceptance. She was getting worse over the years. At first she didn’t recognize her great-grandkids. Then, she had trouble remembering her grandkids. Her two sons were mere memories of little boys growing up in Melon Valley just outside Buhl in Southern Idaho. Once she got to that point is when I’m sure he felt like he had already lost her. He kept his composure through it all. Many times he even joked about it but you could hear the tinge of pain in his voice even through the jokes. That’s how Papa dealt with pain.
This was different. When I arrived at my grandparents after the news, I was the last to show. I drove cross-country with my wife of four months and my son of three weeks. This was my first time seeing any of my family since joining the Army a year and a half earlier.
My oldest brother, who was also in the Army at the time, had gotten the news before me and been there a day or two ahead of me. My brother and sister, aunts and uncles and of course my grandparents all lived within a day’s drive.
My drive took me two and a half days at roughly 2,500 miles. I couldn’t exactly afford a plane ticket for myself and my wife and my newborn son. So we drove the whole way. Naturally, we were the last to arrive.
As happy as I was to see everyone, the joy was taken away by the one simple fact of the circumstances of our reunion. Papa was the first one I hugged. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know if there was anything I could say. And so I didn’t. I just hugged him.
His hug felt more like the day I left for the Army, only tighter. It was almost as if this man who towered over me was leaning on me. I was his support as much as he was mine.
You see, I’ve never seen my grandfather cry. I’ve felt him, though. As tight and strong as his hug was, his huge frame still trembled and shook as he wrapped his arms around me. I didn’t see the tears. I don’t know if they came any closer than the bottom of his eyelids. Certainly not flowing like mine.
As a new father, I could now fully understand his love—and his loss.
I was a mama’s boy. She was a daddy’s girl. She was my mom, but my God how hard it must have been for him that she was his daughter.