My grandfather, “Papaw” Richard Fleming, passed away peacefully this morning. He was 88.
Yesterday, my Dad called me, upset, saying that after 4 strenuous months in and out of hospitals and nursing homes, Papaw’s kidneys had failed, and I should go see him sooner rather than later. I am so glad I did not hesitate, and left work immediately to go spend a few minutes with him. I am lucky to have a job with superiors who are always agreeable to family issues.
Papaw called everyone ‘Joker’, and was, quietly, one of the wittiest people I have ever known.
This fall, when my grandmother was in the hospital, I went to visit, and as soon as I opened the door I could see that Papaw clearly needed to get out of that bland hospital room.
“Hey joker, wanna grab a coke?”
Grandma gives us a look and nods. We amble down the hallway, paced by the clack of Papaw’s cane as it hits the floor every few seconds. We talk about Arkansas football, albeit briefly. (It was a rough season.) I answer the usual barrage of questions:
“Yes, Papaw, every day.”
“Finish school yet?”
“Almost, Papaw, almost.”
It’s incredibly difficult to explain what I do for work to my grandparents, but they nod and smile and are proud of me nonetheless. We are miles apart in almost every way. The world is different from when Papaw got home from World War 2 and started the job that he would work for 66 years.
I’ve had more jobs since 2008 than Papaw had in his whole life.
But in this moment, we are not an 88 year old man and his grandson. We are pals, going to get a coke.
We make it to the coke machine, and Papaw digs in his pockets for change. He, like always, refuses to let me pay. We pop in a few coins, grab our drinks.
Before heading back to the room, Papaw, with a twinkle in his eye, slips me a quarter, and with the slightest, almost in-discernible smirk, says:
“Here, take your girl out to a movie.”
Months later, Grandma had gotten better, but Papaw’s kidneys were starting to go. Today is the day they decide he will go live in a nursing home, and he is not happy.
Papaw lays in the hospital bed, with basketball on the TV. He asks me:
“What do you always look at your phone for?”
I am addicted to this stupid thing, I should say, but instead I show him that I am looking at stats for the game we are watching. As I show him, I realize how ridiculous this is, and I am ashamed.
This man fought the Japanese. I…have twitter.
We chat for a while, with Grandma chiming in when Papaw can’t hear.
I ask him how he feels about the nursing home. I am not sure whether I imagined the flash of fear in his eyes or not. But it fades, and he says to me, in a serious, hushed tone:
“Son, look at me. This is what happens when you smoke and run around with women your whole life.”
The twinkle in his eye returned, along with a much more noticeable smirk, followed by a few short and wheezy laughs of his.
Papaw was sharp as a tack up until yesterday, when I saw him and could tell he was finally fading. It was the first and only time that I have only been able to communicate with him through his eyes.
Grandma dabbed at the drool at the corner of Papaw’s mouth, and called him “hon” for the first time that I can ever remember.
Papaw’s body wore down, but his mind and his spirit did not. Before I left yesterday I put my hand on his shoulder, and looked him in the eye, telling him I loved him.
I saw the twinkle in his eye, ever so faint, as he struggled to say: “I know.”
I made a mini-doc about Papaw a little over a year ago as a Christmas present for my father. It is by no means my best cinematic effort, but I am extremely glad that I made it when I did.