Letters to Papa

December 19, 2008
By Shelby Colby, Rochester, NH

I could recount a billion different memories of him. I could paint you a picture with words, tell stories that would make you laugh and cry in the same sentence. I could make it feel as though you’d known him for your entire life, though you unfortunately never had the privilege of meeting him. However, I no longer need to release my emotions through the thunder of my words and the rain of my tears. You see, this time, the story is my own.

I was a little girl growing up, for the most part, without a father. It never really entered my mind that I might be missing out on something, and I don’t think anyone else felt that way about me, either, because I had my Nana and Papa. Every Friday, I’d go to Nana and Papa’s house. They spoiled me rotten and loved every minute of it. They even gave me my first horse! Papa would never fail to make me laugh. He was a big man with a lazy eye and tattoos, someone who you wouldn’t expect to know how to braid hair and tell the best bedtime stories. He meant the world to me.

When I was ten years old, Papa was diagnosed with terminal lung and kidney cancer. His body was deteriorating, yet his mind was as sharp as ever. He was notorious with the nurses in the cancer ward for cracking jokes during serious medical procedures. Even in his last moments of consciousness, he was bringing smiles to the faces of the people who loved him.

A year after being diagnosed with cancer, Papa died. He passed away quietly in the hospital on a cold November morning with his wife and sons at his side. When I came home from school that day, my mom greeted me with a solemn face and told me that she had bad news. I knew immediately that my Papa was gone. We sat in the living room crying, hugging, and crying some more. When I finally had cried all the tears my body would physically allow, I went to my room with a notebook and pen and wrote a letter to Papa.

The funeral came quickly. I stood with my family in the funeral home, clutching a typed copy of the letter I had written the night before. Papa was laid neatly in his casket, dressed in his typical outfit of a flannel shirt and overalls. I watched in silence as people stood at his casket with bowed heads, saying their final goodbyes. I don’t know how long I had been standing there watching, when my uncle put his arm around me and squeezed my shoulder, then said what I still consider to be the best advice I’ve ever received.

“Cry if you need to cry, Shelb,” he told me. Until that moment, I hadn’t considered it possible for me to be holding back any more tears, but they rushed forth once more. Uncle Tim wrapped me in a hug and held me while I cried. When I was done, we walked to our seats, and the funeral began.

The pastor talked for awhile about the religious aspect of my beloved grandfather’s death while I sat stone-faced next to my Nana. Then he picked up a framed photograph that my Nana had set next to Papa’s casket. It was a picture taken by my Nana after a family friend’s wedding. Papa was in a suit, and I in a dress. We were walking down the road with our backs toward the camera. As the pastor began comparing the photograph to Papa’s journey to the afterlife, I sat with silent tears rolling down my face, clutching my Nana’s hand. Then it was my turn.

I walked to the podium with the wrinkled piece of paper in my shaking hands. Tears that I was unsuccessfully trying to hold back were streaming steadily down my face as I began reading my letter to Papa. My voice was shaking so badly that I could hardly understand myself, but as I continued, my voice grew increasingly steady. That moment was the beginning of a pattern.

The next couple of months were rough on the whole family. It was our first Thanksgiving and Christmas without Papa. On Christmas morning, my uncle brought an extra present to Nana’s house. Papa had wrapped it in July, and had told Uncle Tim to make sure that Nana got it for Christmas. We all were crying as Nana opened her gift, a giant picture frame with spaces for multiple pictures. There was no question as to whose photo would soon occupy those empty spaces.
We spent the rest of Christmas day sharing various memories of our departed hero, reminiscing over the great man that we lost. When I was getting ready for bed that night, I felt an overwhelming desire to talk to my Papa one more time. I got out a pen and paper, and began writing once more. When I was done, I had filled the front and back of a sheet of paper with everything that had happened to me since Papa had died. I made sure to end the letter by saying that I loved and missed him. Then I folded the letter, put it in a shoe box, and went to bed.

Over the next few months, I fell into the habit of writing letters to Papa almost daily. These letters were tear-filled and angry, more like the diary entries of a girl dealing with depression than letters to a relative. I wrote about the fights I had with my mother, the difficulty I had my homework, and the drama I dealt with at school. I would write the letters, read all the letters that I had written to him already, and cry myself to sleep. Sometimes, this would occur after I had cut my wrists and thighs wit ha razor. The letters were no longer a way to communicate with my grandfather; they were written cries for help.

It took me over a year to regain my love for life. It was a slow transition, one in which I had to open my eyes and realize how much I really had. I became a stronger person, because I realized that I could miss my Papa without needing him. The flow of tears became lighter and lighter, the letters became less and less frequent, and I gradually became able to cope with the stress of daily life without sharing it with my departed grandfather.

Today, it has been exactly five years since my Papa passed away. I still have fights with my mom, but I’ve learned that if the fight is bitter, the forgiveness will be sweet. I still have trouble with homework, but I am able to ask for help. I still deal with drama at school, but I have the self-confidence to realize that I am above gossip and catfights. Most importantly, I still miss my Papa just as much as I did five years ago, but I would like to think that he would be proud of me for overcoming these obstacles and becoming the strong young woman that I was meant to be.

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