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“Poppy, do you know what next year is?” Anna jumped around her grandfather; her dark brown eyes sparkled with excitement. Her curly, black hair framed her face and bobbed up and down with each step she took, which gave her an almost comical disposition. Her Poppy glanced down at her. His blue eyes sparkled just like the pool in their backyard that glistened on a summer day. He took another step towards the garden in the backyard of their large, red house. Anna’s mother was inside the house, most likely working on a lesson plan for her new First Grade class. She would do that a lot during this time of the year. She always said you can never plan enough ahead for a group of six and seven-year-olds. Anna could imagine her sitting at the desk in their living room, with a plethora of colored folders spread across the table. It may have resembled something close to their garden, with the many colored folders acting as the petals. They were in full bloom, for summertime was already a month along.
“Hmm, I’m not sure Anna, what is it next year?” He played this game a lot. He pretended to not know what the upcoming events were.
“Come on Poppy! I know you know, because you told me just last week!” Every day since her Poppy had told her that she’d be turning 10 next year, Anna reminded him every day after that. She tugged on his grey flannel shirt
“Double Digits.” He smiled his crooked smile and placed his hand on her shoulder, “Double Digits means you’re growing up, which means I get to see you grow up.” Anna smiled and skipped along next to her grandfather as they began to walk around their backyard once more.
“I get to see you grow up too Poppy.” She remarked. He looked at her and shook his head.
“I’m already grown up! I’m old, older than the dirt in this here backyard!” He laughed. Poppy laughed often, and Anna loved it. She knew that when Poppy laughed everything was alright. She felt comfortable when he laughed, because it filled her heart with a lightness that only happiness could. Anna was happy when he was happy.
Together they walked around Poppy’s house and laughed some more. They laughed about the weather and the clouds, and the birds that would fly about the sky.
“I’d like to be a bird, Anna, do you want to know why?” Poppy looked down at Anna, who nodded questioningly.
“Because birds are free,” he said as he looked up at the sky. “They can fly. They can soar above mountains that I will never see. Birds are wonderful, Anna. Live like a bird; carefree and cheerful.”
What Poppy has is like any other sickness, the doctors said. That was when they gave him the diagnosis. Anna thought it was like the kind of sickness that makes kids stay home from school some days, or the kind that gives you runny noses and a cough. Anna was sick once and she got better. That’s what Cancer is, right? Just a sickness? Poppy would get better. That’s what they told Anna.
It had been eight months since Poppy first went to the hospital. Eight months of losing hair; of big grey tanks filled with air; of tubes of every length everywhere. Anna wasn’t worried though. She knew that if there were something really bad going on, Poppy would be silent. He wasn’t though; he still smiled. He just lost weight, and his scratchy beard that had always been with him now was shaved. He said it made it easier. “Easier for what?” Anna often wondered, but never asked.
Poppy would sit in the big blue chair and look out the windows every morning. Right outside there was a nest of little brown birds in a bush that chirped every day, at about the same time. Anna would sit on the arm of the chair with him and observe the birds. One day a bird flew away from the nest, only to fall to the ground and squeak with pain. Anna started to move, yet looked up at Poppy who only said,
“Let it be, Anna. It needs to do this alone; without help.”
Anna sat back down and contemplated this statement. She waited for Poppy to fall asleep, which he often did. Then she quietly got up out of the chair and walked outside. Looking down at the little brown bird who flinched every so often, she cupped her hands and gently lifted the bird up to the nest. Its head was limp, and its black eyes closed slowly, then opened again.
“What a cute little bird you are,” she commented. With that she placed the bird in the nest, and walked away.
A few months later, he came home in a beautiful, mahogany box which sat on the top of the fireplace. It was the fireplace in the family room, with the big painting of a boat hanging above the mantel. The boat was in a rough ocean, and Poppy’s face was the focal point of the painting. It was almost as if he was remembering the memories that he had once had all those years ago. His name was taped over the top of the box, and below was a picture of an American Flag. After all, he had served in the Coast Guard.
Ever since he came home from the memorial in the box, Anna had said goodnight to it every evening, and good morning every time the sun came up. Anna also cried often; so did her mom. Poppy’s laughter no longer filled their home, but his spirit was always there.
When he passed it was abrupt and unexpected; Anna’s mother did not know what to do. Anna often remembered that day, for it wasn’t that long ago. She remembered it clearly, and usually wished she could forget. Every time the thought popped into her brain, she’d cry. She marked days off on the calendar with a frowny face and a number, counting down until her birthday on August 15th. Now as she stared at the calendar that hung by her window, she sighed.
Today was August 15th.
Anna quietly got out of bed and walked downstairs. She entered the family room and sat on the edge of the fireplace. No one else was up in the house yet, for it was a Saturday morning. She leaned against the cool, red brick and stared up at the ceiling. The painting hung above her, and his face showed his wonderful smile. Slowly, she took in a deep breath and began speaking softly.
“It’s my birthday Poppy,” she hesitated, waiting and wishing that someone else would answer her, “but you probably already knew that. You know everything. I know you’re still sleeping in your box. I know that if you could be here for me you would. But it’s okay, it’s not your fault... I understand,” a tear rolled down her cheek. “But Mommy says you’re not in pain anymore; I don’t want you to hurt. It was like that bird, from a little while ago. You remember, don’t you? I put it back in its nest even though you said not to touch it. I couldn’t see it die like that Poppy; it was all alone. So I put him with his family. You would want to be with your family too, I know you would. That’s why you’re here; with me and Mommy. But I just wanted to remind you of something.” Anna stood up from the fireplace and stepped away. She turned and looked up at the box, and smiled although her tears were falling silently down her cheeks.
“Double digits.” She whispered, and somewhere she heard a reply; whether it was really someone speaking or just her mind trying to find comfort,