Last month, I had a sort of impromptu visit to Las Vegas. When my grandfather died Feb. 1, my dad and aunts were already there. He had been ill, and they knew he didn’t have long.
Papa passed away just before the Super Bowl, and it turns out, Vegas is about as busy for the Super Bowl as it is for New Years Eve. This made plane tickets for his funeral $2,000 more than they would have been otherwise. Alas, I did not make the funeral.
Instead, I visited a few weeks later, to spend time with Nani. I have an aunt and cousin who live in Vegas near her, but most of our family is in Illinois. So after Papa died, Nani was alone, and she was lonely. She and Papa married when she was 18–he was 28–in December 1955 in Tehran, Iran. They met at a Bingo game at Nani’s neighbor’s home. She caught a boy’s eye, and he rushed home to tell his older brother about the pretty girl. He said, “If you don’t hit on her, I will.”
At the next Bingo game, Papa was sure to be there, to meet Nani. A week later, they were engaged. A week later, they were married. Nine months later, my dad was born. Ten months after that, my aunt was born. Three more aunts followed over the next seven or eight years.
When Papa died, he had just celebrated his 86th birthday. My grandparents had been married for 59 years. Nani, 77, is alone for the first time since she was 18 years old.
This is a simple fact, but my brain cannot comprehend it. At 18, a girl is not quite a woman yet. I’m not sure what it is that turns one into a woman, but I don’t think it’s marriage or a child. It’s something that happens over time, as life happens, as sadness and happiness transform and mature a person.
So for the first time in her adult life, my nani is alone. She misses Papa. For the past few years, he wasn’t doing well. He’d get lost in their small one-story home, unable to find his way from the kitchen to the bedroom, a trip that takes a dozen steps. This put a damper on Papa’s walks. He always was a walker; when I was little, he’d take me to the mall to walk. I used to run ahead like a drunk toddler, stop, check to make sure he was still following me, and race ahead again.
Papa didn’t speak English well. Oh, he could communicate the important stuff, but for a toddler who just wants someone to take her to Showbiz (long before it was Chuck E. Cheese’s), Papa was my favorite playmate. Unfortunately, English conversations with Papa never went much beyond, “Hi, Papa!” and “Love you.” But he IS a grandfather, and grandfathers have favorite stories about their grandchildren. His favorite one about me went something like this: “At Showbiz? You said, ‘Papa, more money!’ and I said, ‘No, no more money!'” and he’d demonstrate how I’d move from game to game, checking the coin return, determined to find a spare quarter before I’d give up and go jump in the balls.
But he understood way more than he let on. My sophomore year of college, my parents moved from the Ohio home where I grew up into their Illinois home, where they still live today. They bought me a plane ticket from Kent to visit for Thanksgiving, and it would be my first visit to the new house.
A friend dropped me off at the Canton/Akron airport, and I saw that my plane was delayed. I wanted to be sure my parents knew, but calling them was proving difficult–I did not know their new phone number. I had two family phone numbers memorized; my mom’s parents weren’t home, so I dialed my dad’s parents, chanting under my breath, “Please be home, Nani. Please be home, Nani.” Papa answered.
“Papa, hi! It’s Jaclyn!”
“Batta Papa, how are you??” (“Batta Papa,” or “Batta Nana,” as my grandmother calls me, means “of Papa’s heart,” or “of Nana’s heart.”)
“I’m good! Papa, is Nani there?”
“Nani, is she there?”
“Oh.” Shit. “Papa, I’m at the airport and my plane is delayed. Do you have my parents’ new phone number?”
“OK.” And he walked away from the phone. I had no idea if he would come back.
Miraculously, minutes later, he returned–with their phone number. Thus, teenage Jac learned that Papa was just pretending he didn’t understand what was going on. That man knew what was up.
Once, Papa saved my life. I shared that story with my nani on my visit, but I’ve never told another family member. We were swimming at a small beach, me and my cousins and Papa. Three of them were on a raft that Papa pulled, and I held onto the back, kicking my legs. I let go, thinking we were in more shallow waters. I could graze the sand with the tip of my toe, but the water level was just at my nostrils. I remember trying to flail, and thinking a 6-year-old version of “Oh, shit.” After a few moments, I felt an arm clothesline me across the belly, and Papa charged me up and out of the water, onto the sand. He didn’t yell at me, he just bent to look me in the face as I coughed and sputtered. I’ve thought about that a lot recently, and I wonder if he remembers this. If he remembered.
The last time I saw Papa, it was a happy occasion–it was my wedding. He wore big giant sunglasses, and we all joked that Papa was a rock star. I was the only grandchild he saw get married. In fact, as a 30-year-old woman, I had all four grandparents seated at the reception table with her parents. This makes me the luckiest.
Papa was quiet through most of the event. I’m not sure how much he realized what was going on. But when the DJ started to play the Assyrian music, the kind you dance to as a snake winding its away around the dance floor, holding hands with your neighbors, we all saw his face light up. He used to lead those dances at weddings, but at mine, he just sat in a chair, watched, smiled, and bounced his leg while his son, the father-of-the-bride, took over and led the the strand of Americans, who had no idea what they were doing (including this one).
In retrospect, I’m glad I visited Vegas when I did. A few weeks after the funeral, everyone had gone home. I got to spend a long weekend with my nani, talking, keeping her company. We drove to the cemetery and I got to say goodbye to Papa, and I got to hold Nani while she cried and told him she missed him.
Because he lived far away, it doesn’t seem real that he has died. Even while I was there, in their home, spending my days and evenings with Nani and not Papa, it felt like he was just in the back room, or maybe he was on the couch next to me, just out of my peripheral vision, watching John Wayne shoot people, or just in the family room, out of eye shot, playing solitaire.
During the final years of his life, Papa got religious. He’d pray, and he’d tell my dad, “Just in case.” He’d also tell my dad that he worried God forgot him. He was ready to go, and knowing that, it makes things easier for a granddaughter.
But I’m not so sure it makes it easier for a wife.
Jeff and I will have our first anniversary in May. Periodically, I think about what will happen when he’s not around anymore. What I would be like as a widow. How I would cope. The thoughts can’t come. I can’t imagine it. I cannot fathom it. All I see is empty. I see holes, and what once filled those holes was light and love and a piece of self that never grows back.
Fifty-nine years they were married. Five children. Eight grandchildren. An across-the-ocean move. But what remains?
A wife. Those five children, and eight grandchildren. That backgammon board Dad will take the next time he visits my nani. And memories, the kind that flood me when I see a little girl and her grandfather at the mall or catch a whiff of Earl Gray tea.