Dear Opa. I stared at my paper, eyes rolling over every dip and curve made in my blue cursive scrawl. Dear Opa. The first two words of the hundredth draft of letter whose recipient will never read. Dear Opa. The words are jumbled in my head as my pen spits out tangled sentences laced with bittersweet greetings and pained conversation pieces. Recently, I have started to have trouble remembering the smell of his clothes or the exact octave of his laugh ringing through the house, yet I can still remember the day he left me like it was moments ago.
Saturday, April 26, 2013 was the third day of my middle school's Vocal Trip to the great city of Boston, Massachusetts. The day had been spent by historical walking tours throughout the city, hours shopping in Boston’s famous markets, and finally a dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe.
Filled with a buoyant energy, I bounced through the restaurant fueled by the adventures of the day. When I reached my designated table, I hastily slid into my chair waiting for my friends to fill up the seats around me, eager to hear the stories of their time around the city.
The table filled up quickly and we all sat around chattering as waitresses and busboys scurried around us balancing trays of food and tubs of dishes in their arms. Upbeat alternative music blared through the speakers, adding to the room’s unique energy and raising our spirits higher. Kids began to sing along quietly at first then gaining confidence, we began to serenade one another. I felt content with my life in that moment as I sat surrounded by friends laughing and talking about everything and nothing at the same time.
In the midst of conversation my group’s chaperone, Mrs. Wadonly appeared beckoning me to leave my table and come talk to her. Her face was solemn and stony and suddenly my joyous high came to a crashing halt.
Apprehensively, I wove my way through a clutter of chairs and boisterous middle schoolers until I finally arrived within Mrs. Wadonly’s reach.
My immediate instinct was to ask her what I did wrong as my thoughts became an irrational anxious bullet train that sped past any stop of reason. I stared at her waiting, my anxiety creating a whirlwind of consequences for my horrible imaginary crime.
“You aren’t in trouble at all, sweetheart.” she said catching the look of panic in my eyes.
I almost believed her.
“You need to call your mom, Liv” she said in a quiet voice.
The words sounded carefully arranged, as if on misstep could cause the dam to break. It did nothing to ease my anxiety instead sent my heartbeat running at an inhumane rate.
As we made our way away from the music and laughter, I took one last distressed look toward my friends searching for some type of reassurance but none of them noticed me. Defeated, I faced forward again following closely behind Mrs. Wadonly as we ducked into the Hard Rock’s large restroom.
Quietly I dialed my mother’s number as we leaned against the wall across from the mock marble sinks and the red rimmed mirrors above them. As the phone rang, I stared at myself in the mirror searching my own eyes for some type of answer to a question I didn’t recall asking. My eyes looked distracted and glassy as my free hand twisted and pulled on the buttons of my jean jacket. What was taking her so long? How hard is it to pick up a phone?
After a few more moments of agonizing ringing, the other line picked up and I heard my mother’s shaky voice rasp out my name.
“Yeah, Mom? What’s wrong?” I asked in a hushed tone, fully aware of the other women rushing in and out of the stalls around me.
Why was she whispering? Why was her voice like that? What was wrong?
Did I even want to know? A million more questions shot through my head as I waited for her frail voice to speak again.
“ I didn’t want you to find out through Facebook like you did for your cat,”she started “but..” Her voice broke as she choked out the word.
Pause. Start again.
“ ...but this morning Opa passed away down in Florida”
Her voice broke into a sob on the word Florida and I could hear her tears through the phone line. I felt my chest tighten and my heartbeat speed up then stop all together. She was lying. She had to be.
“ Oma was with him in the hospital and so were all of your great aunts and uncles. He wasn’t alone” She whispered barely audible over her own whimpers.
She said it reassuringly as if the fact that he wasn’t alone when he left somehow made up for the fact that he was gone. The air in the room became stale and sharp as if I was breathing in shards of glass, each inhale embedding new fragments into my trachea. How could this have happened?
Slowly trying to control my shaking voice, I whispered, “How did he pass, Mom? What happened?” I needed to know if there was some way I could have stopped it.
“ He had been sick for a while, sweetie, his kidneys failed” she said.
Suddenly, I was furious, absolutely seething through my tears. He was sick and no one told me. He was in pain and no one thought to tell me. He was gone and I didn’t even get to say a proper goodbye.
I was bawling now as sobs wracked through my body. The phone shook in my hand and my vision was blurred. I felt as if someone had ripped my heart right out of my chest. I could barely breathe as my throat closed around each whimper.
People were staring now, but I couldn’t stop it. I had lost control of myself completely. I felt myself pulling apart at the seams.
Mom offered to make the five and half hour drive to Boston from Wilmington to take me home but I couldn’t bare the idea of abandoning my trip with only two days left. I slowly tried to get myself together so she wouldn’t worry then after a few more minutes of comforting exchange we said our goodbyes.
As I hung up the phone, Mrs. Wadonly pulled me into a big bear hug squeezing me tight telling me she was so sorry for my loss and that everything would be fine. My sobs had died down to sniffles and whimpers as I muttered a small thank you.
We walked out of the bathroom towards our group, I felt everything pass me in slow motion. My body felt as if someone had filled my bones with concrete when I wasn’t looking. My arms hung limp at my sides as I hunched forward shuffling until I reached the small cluster of couches by our tables.
Collapsing into one of the big brown leather couches, my eyes fixed onto a glass table, my vision tunneling until nothing else around me was legible. People came up trying to console me but their voices were lost and their image blurred. Someone offered me their desert placing it on my glass corner but my appetite had died.
The only voice that was able to pull me out of my spiral was the soft whispers of my best friend, Emma, as she squeezed my hand tightly. She was the only one who could get a word out of me and get the overwhelming numbness to go away even if it was just momentarily.Slowly, the dissociative trance began to fade away and my surrounding slowly came back into focus.
My vocal teacher, Mr. Lassman sat down next to the two of us and in a soft voice began to ask me about my Opa. He asked me tell stories about him no matter if they were funny, happy or sad, he sat and listened. The three of us sat there for at least an hour talking over everything and anything about my Opa. Tears started flowing again but this time just the silent fat ones that roll down your cheeks when you are too emotionally exhausted to muster anything more than a few deep breaths.
I told stories about how he reused the same one liners and made up songs about each grandchild. He used to give us a dollar right before we left his house telling us thank you for eating all his food and sleeping in his beds. He would call all the grandkids and ask us to give him sports reports if he couldn't make one of our games. When I was in musicals and he couldn’t attend he insisted I sing every song so he wouldn’t miss a thing. Every Sunday morning he would call each of his children and grandchildren just to remind us that we were loved and that he missed us.
John, my great grandfather, loving called the German translation "Opa," was one one of the most caring considerate man I ever met. was there for any of his family or friends whenever they needed a shoulder to cry on or just someone to share a drink with. He went out of his way to make sure the people around him were content and taught me to do the same. He was the father figure that I never had and I would not be who I am today if this wonderful soul wasn’t apart of my life.
I look back down at the tear splattered blue lined paper. The ink has frayed out causing my words to create small tree like branches around each sentence. Dear Opa. I read over each letter one last time then carefully fold the paper and seal it inside a manilla envelope. Opa once told me that every prayer and every message no matter its length or content will be answered.
I am hoping he’s right.