When Poppy Died

Nan’s house has a beautiful old red wooden deck.  I’m sitting on the deck with my brother’s black ghetto blaster, which I bequeathed after he left home for New York.  I’m about 13 years old.  At this point, I’m fully enveloped into both music and video games.

What’s great about visiting my grandparents is that my poppy has a Nintendo Entertainment System AND he has this one particular cartridge that holds over 200 games!!  Needless to say, when I visit my grandparents I spend much of my time plopped in front of the Nintendo.

This summer I’ve made a surprise visit to my nan and poppy’s.  This is my first time coming out alone – no parents or siblings.  So far, I’m having a wonderful time.  Just this morning I found an old cassette tape of Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers.  The album is called Flatout, and there’s a song on the album named “Saltwater Joys” that moves me every time I hear it.  I press the “stop” button on the ghetto blaster, pick it up, and head inside.

The rest of the evening goes rather smoothly and predictable.  We eat, my nan bustles around the kitchen – cleaning, and my poppy disappears for a couple hours in the garage.  I watch an old boxing VHS on the TV.  I don’t recognize the fighters, but I’m hoping to see a real knockout.

As I lay in bed upstairs in my Aunt’s old room (it has pinkish wallpaper and two posters – one of New Kids on the Block, the other of a kitten with sunglasses and the caption, “You’ve got to fight for your right to party.”).  I’m contemplating whether or not to join my poppy tomorrow morning.

Every morning, Poppy and I hop on his 4×4 ATV with all of our fishing gear, and we drive up the highway (at incredible speed) to the river.  The river, I believe, runs into a lake…  the lake, however, is right next to the Atlantic Ocean and so I cannot accurately recall where the river runs to.  All I can say for sure is that the river is rich with salmon.

Since my arrival, Poppy and I have gone fly-fishing every morning, bright and early.  We stand on the edge of the river in our rubber boots and with our fly-fishing rods, and we “flick” the spinner out to the river, and awkwardly yank on the fishing line until something bites.  In my case, the only thing that “bites” is my technique.  Poppy’s skills are flawless, forged over decades of practice.  Poppy loved to fish for salmon.

I’ve decided not to join my poppy tomorrow morning.  I can spend an entire morning playing Nintendo if I wake up early enough.  And so I set my alarm for 6:00 AM, turn off the bedroom light, climb back into bed, and close my eyes to sleep.  A few minutes later, the light turns back on.  My poppy has the door open and is peaking in.  “Are you coming with me tomorrow, Young Feller?”

I say something back to him.  I cannot recall what.  I only recall Nanny and Poppy bursting into laughter in their room across the hallway a few minutes later.  I’m told a few days later that they were laughing at what I had said to poppy.  Apparently, I can be quite a snarky “young feller”.

The next morning, I sneak downstairs – quiet, so Nan doesn’t wake.  She would never scold me; I just didn’t want to wake her unnecessarily.

I enter the kitchen, and take a cursory glance around for cereal.  I can’t find my cereal, and so I head for the pantry door.  Before opening the door, out of the corner of my eye I see my cereal resting on top of the white microwave in the far corner of the kitchen.  I head back to the corner and retrieve my cereal.  A few minutes later, my belly is full and I get to work – time to begin my Nintendo-playing marathon!  By this time, there’s still no sign of Poppy, and so I figure he left even earlier than usual.

—–

It’s been a couple of hours now since I began my Nintendo marathon.  It’s about 8:30 AM, and my Nan has already awoken and made her way downstairs.  She says good morning, and asks where Poppy is.  I tell her that I haven’t seen him yet this morning, and so she heads for the kitchen.  I’m enthralled with my game, holding the grey rectangular game controller with clammy hands and holding a steady gaze on the TV screen.  I barely acknowledge my nan.

Only a minute later, I hear my nan leave the kitchen and scanter down the hallway towards the living room where I am sat playing my game.  Just outside the living room, there is a small round wooden table about two feet high with just enough room on it for the telephone.  Beneath the beige telephone is a yellow phonebook, with its frayed pages hanging over the edges of the old, dark wooden table.

Outside, in the hallway, Nan picks up the phone and pushes a few buttons.  A moment later, I hear the words,

“He’s dead.  He’s dead!

Yes, I checked him.  He’s dead.

His face is purple, and his pants are wet.  He’s dead.”

Nan sounds panicked.  She hangs up the phone, and I hear her making her way slowly up the stairs.

I feel my entire body freeze.  The TV fades from my perception, and the room spins like a hamster’s running wheel, around and around above and beneath me.  My hands loosen their grip and the controller seems to float on my fingertips.  My heartbeat doesn’t so much accelerate as it simply increases in volume in my head.

THUMP THUMP.

A few seconds later, I realize I HAVE to check and see if what I heard was real.  Maybe I misunderstood.  As Nan reaches the top of the stairwell, I inch towards the living room door and wait for Nan to disappear completely from eyesight.  My legs are rubbery and won’t hold my weight very well as I stagger down the hallway.  Taking a deep breath, and holding it, I take a step into the kitchen.

As I enter the kitchen and glance towards the pantry, I realize that I really DIDN’T want to know if this was real or not.  I see a purple face of an old wrinkled man laying face-up from the floor.  I feel dizzy, and manage to find my way to the rocking chair.  The rocking chair is positioned right next to the pantry door, facing away from it.  As I sit, I feel my poppy’s presence on the other side of the wall behind me.  I can smell something ripe and strange, but cannot discern what it is.

—–

I don’t know how many hours pass with me sitting here.

I know it takes at least four hours to drive here from St. John’s, and – well – my parents are here now, so I suppose Ive been here for at least that long.

I rock the rocking chair with barely a motion from my tip toes.  They rest on the floor and push ever so gently to keep the chair in motion, to keep me in motion.  I cannot afford to sit still, not for one second.  My mind is swimming through an ocean of questions.  The most vivid question being asked of me is:

Do I raise him from the dead?  Do I wake him?

I can’t get this thought out of my mind.  I’m here, alive.  And Poppy is behind me, falling deeper and deeper into sleep.  I’m afraid he’s sleeping too deep now, too deep into darkness that my light won’t reach him.  I continue to push my tip toes into the floor.  I know there’s a lot of people here now, but I can’t see or hear any of them.  I can only hear the question.

In what feels like a moment later, Poppy is gone, all my relatives are here, and I can smell cooked salmon.

Poppy had caught the largest salmon in his life this morning.

They’re telling me Poppy had gutted and cleaned his catch before making his way – in excitement – back outside to go catch another one.  They’re telling me Poppy had a heart attack in the pantry, fell, and knocked his head on a table before hitting the ground.

They’re telling me it wasn’t my fault.

I know it’s not my fault, but I can’t help but feel bad.  I chose to be selfish this morning.  Rather than spend time with my poppy, I had chosen to play Nintendo.

I didn’t play Nintendo anymore that summer.

2 thoughts on “When Poppy Died

  1. Thank you for sharing this story of such a difficult day in your young life. I was very touched and felt sadness for the hurt you felt. It made me think of years ago when my grandfather passed away. I was 19 years old and in so much pain, I loved him so much. He was the only father figure my siblings and I had. One of my brothers, Troy, who was around 12 at the time was so extremely close to him, he was kind of known as being one of grandpas favorites :). There were tons of us cousins. I remember the day of his funeral getting so upset with my brother because he was just laughing and being his same old fun self on our way to the funeral. I even reprimanded him to the point that my fiancé , now husband, rebuked me for not understanding my brother’s pain. I loved my brother beyond words but got so caught up in my own grief that I felt he should be reacting to his pain just like me. I knew I was wrong right away and I have always felt sad that I did that to him. We all need to be very aware and extra sensitive to how a child or young person may be feeling when faced with a death of someone they loved.

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