A true story about the death of my grandfather.
| The worst day of my childhood started out normally enough; it was a Saturday, and like most twelve year-olds I woke up early. Unlike most Saturdays, however, I woke up excited and eager to start the day, because that was the day that Dad was supposed to take me to the store to get a new bicycle for my birthday, which was a month previous. You see, I'd spent the past summer in Germany with my grandparents and had been home barely two days.
That summer was the best summer of my young life -- it marked the first time I'd travelled by myself anywhere, and I hadn't seen my grandparents in over two years. I spent most of my days with my grandfather, Klaus, going on trips around Germany with him and spending a lot of time with him. He told me stories of his childhood -- treasured recordings which I still have on tape. Every Monday evening, we would go to the nearby Army base to the Kontakt (German-American Friendship Club) meetings and socialise; occasionally we would go on a trip with the club. Thursday mornings was his day to go to the Air Force base across the street from his apartment to give a briefing to new arrivals on German culture. At home, we would listen to music, watch television, and just generally hang out; I loved it when he would very lightly run the tip of his finger over the back of my neck.
At only 57 years old, Klaus was already retired for medical reasons, so it was my grandmother who worked during the day. Whenever Klaus and I went out into the city, he always made sure to buy fresh flowers for her before we came home. Her return from work was always a special time for me as well, because she carried on a tradition that we'd started when I was seven years old -- "magic." Magic consisted of nothing more than my closing my eyes, holding out my hand, and receiving a treat she'd bought on her way home, usually a chocolate. At eleven and twelve years old, I was on the cusp of outgrowing our tradition, but chocolate is a powerful incentive for a young boy to continue with such things. The time right before bed in the evenings was "candle time" for Klaus and me; he would sit in my room and tell me stories by candle light.
I celebrated my twelfth birthday in Germany, and the rest of my extended family in Germany came to celebrate with us. My grandmother made two birthday cakes -- one for the candles to be blown out and to share with everyone, and one for me to have to myself. The most amusing thing that happened that day was when one of the cake decorations caught fire from a candle. That evening, my parents called to wish me a happy birthday and told me that I could get a new bike when I came home. My old one had gotten run over by a pickup truck a few months earlier so I was very excited about that.
The day I left to return home was tough. I had trouble falling asleep the night before so I was somewhat tired when we went to the airport. The entire family came out to see me off, and we spent the last hour or so together before I had to board the plane. As we hugged and said our goodbyes, Klaus told me to call when I got home so they'd know I got home safely.
It was a long flight from Frankfurt to Sea-Tac and I was exhausted, yet excited, when I finally landed and saw my parents and younger brother. By the time we got to the house, I needed to sleep and didn't wake up until the next morning. That day, I went to hang out with my best friend who I hadn't seen since school let out for summer vacation. We spent the entire day together playing and I told him of all my adventures. That evening, I asked Dad when we could go get my bike, and he told me we would go the following day.
Which brings this narrative back to where we began. Like most kids back then, I got up early to watch Saturday morning cartoons while my parents slept in. When I came downstairs from my room that morning, I saw that both of my parents were already awake; I figured that meant we would be leaving soon.
"Good morning," I said cheerfully.
Dad got up from where he sat and called me over to the dining room table; he took a seat in front of me and looked me in the eye. "Chris," he said, "Klaus died last night."
The world came to a screeching halt; I must have misheard him. As I stared at him speechless, I realized what he told me and at first thought that he had to be joking. My throat clenched up and my mind raced. This wasn't happening --it couldn't be happening! I had just seen Klaus two days earlier -- he couldn't possibly be dead. The distraught look on Dad's face as he continued watching me told me everything I needed to know: he wasn't joking and this was real. My lips trembled as that realization sunk in and tears started flowing down my cheeks. A moment later, the wail building inside my chest burst through the emotional dam and I collapsed into my father's arms, sobbing. My screams of anguish were muffled as I buried my face into Dad's shoulder, and his strong arms wrapped around me as he cried with me.
Later that day, I tried spending time with my friend, but couldn't bear to be around anyone. I went back home and stayed in my room the rest of the day sobbing into my pillow and cursing God. Oh, how I hated God! How dare He be so cruel and take my grandfather away from me a mere day after I'd last seen him! I yelled at Him and begged Him to answer one simple question: "why." To make matters worse, my parents were unable to afford tickets for all of us to go to Germany for the funeral, as they'd already spent what they'd saved on my ticket. Dad's unit donated enough money to buy a ticket for my mom to attend her father's funeral; in my twelve year-old grieving mind, that was interpreted as "the Army won't let all of us go." I now hated two things: God and the Army.
For weeks after my grandfather's death, I cried myself to sleep, the only consolation being my dog who slept in my bed with me. During the day, I avoided anything that would remind me of Klaus or else I would start sobbing. School was difficult, as it was my first year in middle school and had to adjust to new friends and a new school. As time passed, however, the pain lessened and I started being able to lead a normal life again. Twenty-three years later, I no longer feel the sharp dagger of grief in my heart, as time has dulled that blade; but those first few traumatic moments are forever burned in my memory. Recalling them is like watching a movie: I can remember every word that was said, every thought that passed through my mind, and every emotion that flared in my heart. I can think about my grandfather with joy in my heart, and I am very grateful that I had the rare opportunity to spend my grandfather's last few weeks with him; it is only when I think back to that Saturday when I feel that same grief again.
June 27th would have been Klaus' 81st birthday. Wherever he may be now, I'm sure he's watching over me. Happy birthday Klaus -- I love you and miss you so very much. Rest in peace.