Rivers and Roads: On Saying Goodbye

Pawpaw and Memaw with August at his first birthday

I have to leave today. Noon. I’ve packed and planned. It’s been a long visit that coincided with his stroke and I have watched him shrivel.

In fact, I’ve watched him shrivel for five years now. Maybe more. Of course, he’s almost 90 years old: A long good life. A life that could have been cut short in 1945—the fiery plane, the parachute crash into enemy hands. His living was always grace.

I’ve packed all morning and August wants to come along. I’ve encouraged him these past weeks. I’ve said, We should always take care of old people, even when it’s hard, even when they look scary. I’ve said, Your great grandfather loves you and he loves to see you.

And August has made me proud. He hasn’t shrunk. He’s played and told stories to the old man in the hospital bed. I’ve reminded August that Pawpaw is my favorite storyteller. I’ve sat beside my grandfather and spoken memory. I’ve sung him the old hymns at nighttime.

The night I sang him hymns, as my father helped remove the false teeth from his mouth, I said, August, when I was little, Pawpaw used to take out his false teeth and do the belly wave with his shirt off!

And Pawpaw, hearing me, barely able to communicate, became alert again, said: You remember that?

Yes, Pawpaw. Of course I do. We would all laugh hysterically, remember?

We always laughed with you.

There are the moments that shape you in childhood. But, really, the moments that shape you aren’t really moments at all. They’re relationships. They’re people.

And Pawpaw shaped me to laugh. He shaped me to know a good story.

We have planned to leave today. And how can you wait for someone to die? It could be weeks. No one knows.

August wants to come along and I strap him in and listen to a song all the way to hospice. Rivers and roads, I sing.

Rivers and roads, rivers till I reach you.

August is in the back seat singing along. How do I say goodbye to someone who gave me my blood? How do I touch his face for the last time? How can I bear it? Who can ever accept death? Even now. This long good life. Death is always the enemy. Always taking.

I breathe deep. August holds my hand in the parking lot. We walk the hallways turning and turning, a long maze toward the long-waited ending.

I walk in and kiss his cheek. His eyes are open. Pawpaw, Memaw says, do you remember Micha?

I do, he says, his deep bass.

Those last words. Of course they’d be a vow. His eyes open at me. The most beautiful blue eyes.

If only you’d seen them when he was young, Memaw would say. But even now, my aunt says so again. And we touch his full head of silver hair. Such beautiful hair, we say.

Just like his daddy’s, my aunt Cissy says. He looks just like his daddy.

Pawpaw’s eyes are looking at mine. He can’t talk now. But he looks at me with confused eyes. His mind can’t tell him who I am, but his soul knows he loves me. I know it. Those eyes following me.

Pawpaw, I try to say. I have to go home today. I have to go back to Austin. He just looks at me. What can I say? All these years. The long afternoons after first grade in his backyard on the tree swing he built for us, him pushing me higher and higher, straight to the great big sky.

That year I found a book in the church library about a little girl whose grandpa dies. I made him read it to me every day for weeks. Poor Pawpaw. He laughed and read.

There is never a moment when goodbye is easy. Not when you’ve loved well. Not when you’ve sat at his table on sick days and let him make you grilled cheese on his homemade bread, watched him from the couch, paints and brush in hand forming what you believed were masterpieces…every one.

Memaw has taken August to the show him the hallway. I hear them talking. Pawpaw’s eyes are so tired. You can go to sleep, I say. Just go to sleep. How many times have I uttered those words to my little boys? How many times did Love say the same to my grandfather, her sweet baby boy?

Just go to sleep.

I hold his hand on the bed. He’s falling deep into the sleep that will pull him further and further away. How could I have known that would be the last time a mama soothed him to bed?

You can go to sleep.

I whisper to him. I know it has to be over soon. I say, I’ve always loved you, Pawpaw. I’ve always loved you.

I say, I’ll miss you.

How can we ever say goodbye? We were never made to lose each other. It’s never right, even now, even in his old man face, his tired, broken body.

Memaw comes in with August. She knows. His skin is grey. She knows.

Mommy, let’s go! August says, across the room.

Oh, God. Don’t make me do this.

But I do. We always do, don’t we? Every zurbert I’ve ever given his cheek, all these thirty-three years and I lean in and do it again. Because he would want that, wouldn’t he? He’d laugh like he always did.

And then I touch his hair again and kiss his lips, his cheek. I rise and walk with my grandmother down the hall, August running ahead.

He turns and looks at me. Don’t cry, Mama.

Baby, it’s okay to cry if you’re sad.

And I hold my grandmother, partly to hold myself, partly to give her all I have in this moment, these days (weeks?) I’m leaving her to face what’s coming. I’m getting in a car to drive home. I’ve packed my suitcases.

She’s strong and brave. She always has been. And she’s always loved him. Those blue eyes. His stories. His big laugh and the way every one couldn’t help but join in.

I leave Memaw at the door and walk with August to the car.

Do you know why I’m crying? I say.

Why?

Because Pawpaw’s going to die. He’ll die soon and we won’t see him for a very long time until we’re together with him in heaven.

August thinks about it while I help him buckle his seatbelt. He puts on his serious face. Don’t worry, Mama, he says. Don’t worry. He’ll come back soon for your birthday.

Thanks baby, I say and he opens his arms to hold me and I can’t help but lay my face in his lap in the back seat of the car. He strokes my hair and I cry.

Don’t worry, Mama, he says.

Thank you for being sweet to me, August. Thank you, I say.

I move to my seat, start the car. Hit repeat on the song.

We both sing at the top of our lungs:

Rivers and roads, rivers and roads. Rivers till I reach you.

Rivers and roads, rivers and roads. Rivers till I reach you.

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