The Shirt

It’s been a long time since I’ve had to get a kid up in the morning and make sure she is ready for school. This is work for young parents. Twenty and thirty-something-year-olds who have no clue where being a parent will take them, but who forge on amid the piles of dirty clothes and toys scattered across the floor.

My dad was straight up about it. I’d be in my bed in total darkness. No streetlights where we lived. I was well beyond the age of having a night light in my room. My cheek is lying in a pool of slobber on my pillow. He’d throw the door open and hit the light switch.

“Time to get up. Breakfast is ready.”

That was it. No head pats. No soft morning voice. It was time to get with it.

I learned to walk to the kitchen table with my eyes closed. I could sit in front of a bowl of cereal and spoon feed myself without ever cracking an eyelid. Shoulders slumped. Head tilted. Trying to stretch out a few more winks.

Mama would try to bring me to life. “You sleep good?”

“Ummm hmmm.” I was barely conscious.

“You say Yes ma’am’ to your Mama,” came the alpha male voice behind slurps of coffee.

“Yesss ma’yam.”

I have been thrown back into this routine with my oldest granddaughter. She has a new baby sister on the way. Her mom and dad are at the hospital, and I am the backup plan. She is to stay with me for a few days. My job is to cover homework assignments, make sure she gets to bed on time. Then drive her to school in the mornings to get in line with all the other minivan moms.

I am not intimidated by the job. It’s just been a long time. I might be a little rusty at this. It’s like, I used to be able to work calculus problems on real paper without a calculator, but I’ve forgotten all that now. You don’t use it, you lose it. Right?

You’d have to know my daughter to get this completely. She has high expectations. She wants order in her life. Even this labor and delivery is planned. If she waits four more days to her actual due date, her doctor might be out of town. So, in order to make sure that her doctor is available, not some stranger, they have scheduled a time to induce labor. Very neat. Well-thought out. Most every possibility for surprise eliminated.

When she drops her daughter off at my house, there are instructions. And look, I’ll take all the guidance I can get. Like I said, it’s been a while.

“I know that when she’s here normally, she goes by Grandpa’s rules.” What she means is that there are almost no rules for bedtime or snacks or fun. She knows me too well.

She continues. “But this is a school night, and she has homework. I need you to listen to her read. She has two books for practicing, then you need to ask her questions about what she read.”

“Yes ma’am.” I remember my manners.

There’s more on her list. “She needs to get her bath and be in bed by 8:30. She needs to put lotion on her elbows, and she has some cough syrup to take. She’s been coughing a little at night and it will help her sleep.”

“Yes ma’am.” I’m such a good Grandpa.

“Oh, and don’t forget to get her to brush her teeth. She can do it by herself, but you’ll have to tell her. Like maybe three times.”

“Got it.” I’m getting the hang of this. It’s all coming back to me.

“Any questions,” she asks.

“Just one.” I don’t mean to imply that this has not been a thoroughly vetted and strategic plan. But certain items have been forgotten before. “Does she have plenty of clean underwear?”

So, mom and dad are off to have a baby and the two of us gather under a blanket on the couch to read books. I have read hundreds of books to this little girl, but she is 7 now and it’s her turn to read to me. I’ve known that she can read, but it hits me that I’ve never heard her read a book until now.

I’m surprised at how well she reads. Sounding out compound words. Voice inflection. This is not “see spot run.” It’s kinda nice to see how much she’s grown up.

The books are done and I’m following instructions. Bath. Lotion. Cough syrup. Teeth. I manage to remember everything without handwritten notes. In the back of my mind, I’m a little on edge by what the morning might bring. What if I turn in the wrong drive at the school? But I’ve got the bedtime routine down pat.

It’s dark where we live. No streetlights. I hunt down the nightlight. She crawls into bed.

“Can I have a cup of water?” she asks. Oh, the old cup-of-water routine. Almost forgot about that. “And a box of Kleenexes?” I’m already past 8:30, so I failed at one rule.

She settles in and I’m sitting on the edge of the bed with her. She says, “I need my bunny and my shirt.” I hand her the bunny.

“What shirt are you talking about?” She has on her PJs.

“I have one of Nana’s shirts that I sleep with every night.” I clear my throat. “It’s in my bag. I like it because it smells like her.”

“Grandpa?” Her voice is soft and sweet as honey. “I know you miss Nana the most, but I miss her, too. Mama says I can keep the shirt as long as I want. I hope that’s okay. She says I can get Miss Jerita to make a pillowcase out of it for me some day.”

For the first time I realize just how far our loss reaches. The emptiness is not mine alone. The longing and the tears and the memories belong to all of us. Especially to this little girl snuggled down in her bed.

It’s so easy to think that nobody understands. That I’m in this void all by myself. And that’s simply not true. My girls feel it. My son and I have talked about it. I’ve had friends tell me that they think about Beth all the time.

Maybe I do miss her the most. I have earned that. But I have to give room for others to miss her along with me. A shared sorrow is not so heavy as one hoarded alone.

“You keep Nana’s shirt as long as you want, sweetheart.”

“I love you Grandpa,” she says.

“I love you, too.”

I kiss her on the forehead, turn away and close the door behind me.

Yet another sign that healing is taking place for me, because my hurt is held in the heart of a 7-year-old little girl asleep in the next room. Maybe she’ll read this one day and know how thankful I am.

I know this. I’m not scared of the drop-off-line at school in the morning. I’ve got this.

6 thoughts on “The Shirt

  1. Darn it, Paul, quit making me cry! You made me think about my 9 year old grand daughter, and how she would miss her Cici if she were in your grand daughter’s place. I can only pray that I would hold up as well as you…keep them coming.

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  2. Dear Paul, Since Marty has Parkinson’s some things are difficult for him. Reading can be. Many times I have read your stories out loud to him. Marty has always been an emotional person but is even more so now. So I read and we laugh and cry together. We cried together over this one. We did not know Beth, and I only have faint memories of you growing up. But we still grieve with you. Thank you for sharing your heart and the heart of your granddaughter. Your stories enrich us. All that said….I can certainly hear your Dad. And I hear my Dad through what you wrote about saying yes mam! It was engrained in me for sure! Have a good day. Blessings, Jeannette

    Sent from my iPhone

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