Her family referred to her as a darling little girl. Michelle, now twelve, rolled her eyes at every word that fell from an adult’s mouth. Dreary is how she would describe her current living situation, which consisted of her mother, father, little brother, and Grandpa Willy. Grandpa Willy was the only interesting person in the house, often sharing his way-back-when stories; never to leave out any details about getting drunk and brawling at some faraway place. Unfortunately, Grandpa Willy was starting to become forgetful, and he often repeated his stories or mixed them up. His stumbling made Michelle uncomfortable and impatient. To avoid squirming and counting the seconds that ticked away with a story she had heard twenty times before, she began to keep her distance.
On Tuesday afternoon, she walked by Grandpa Willy’s room and noticed her mother was taking the sheets off of his bed. The smell that assaulted her senses confirmed that he soiled himself during his nap. The curtains were drawn and the room dimly lit, and Grandpa Willy stood in the corner with nothing on below the waist. She didn’t mean to stare, but something in his face made her feel regret spiked with fear. He stood perfectly still, arms hanging low with his hands clasped in front of his lower naked half, though not in a way to hide himself. With his sunken shoulders and a drooped head, Michelle felt the need to cover and comfort him. Despite that, her feet remained firmly in place, and words failed her.
She thought of all the stories he would tell her about his younger days. One story he loved to share is when he bravely fought off a group of Irishmen in a bar with one hand.
You should have seen it, Michelle! I wasn’t always this old walking bag of bones ya know. I stood up to these Irishmen in a pub once. There had to have been at least five or six of ‘em. In one hand I grasped my pint and kept my cig in my lips the entire time. I dropped ‘em! Boom! Boom! Bam! They didn’t know what hit ‘em. I never spilled a drop of my beer, neither.
Grandpa Willy’s eyes would twinkle as he reacted to his story, throwing fists into the air and pretending to clench his lips like a cigarette still lay between them. Now as she looked over at him in the corner of his room, his eyes lay expressionless and hollow. Without moving his head, his focus went from the floor then past his eyebrows and onto her.
Sucking in a breath, she quickly moved out of sight. Michelle’s face grew warm. The walls of the house seemed closer than before. Or maybe it had always been this way, and she was only just noticing.
“Michelle?” her mother called to her at a soft volume. Unsure what to do, and with a racing heart she turned on her heels and walks down the hall. She had to get outside. The cold fall air punched her in the face, reminding her to breathe. One foot hurried in front of the other, in a rush not to be seen.
Turning the corner, she found her father scolding her younger brother for riding his bike without a helmet. He looked up at her. “Michelle, darling? Is everything okay?”
She shook her head, unable to prevent the tears from coming now. Her father walked over to her and stood in front of her, allowing her to push her head against his chest and heave a wet, snotty sob into his sweater. Her father kissed her head and patted her on the back. His eyes darted around the yard in hopes of seeing her mother appear, she always seemed to know the right thing to say. He stood there unsure how to convey his uncertainty.
“Can you talk to me or should I get mom?” He pulled her away just a little so he can see her reddened face.
“It’s Grandpa. He just – he’s just so sad,” she sobbed.
Michelle’s dad assured her that Grandpa would be okay; he had bad days but most days were still good. He assured her the best thing she can do was to talk to him and treat him as she always had. That night Michelle lay her in bed unable to sleep. Her thoughts spiraled around the inevitable process of getting old. She wondered how and when old age would take her parents. They weren’t as old as Grandpa Willy, but she had seen pictures of him and understood that he didn’t always have gray hair and soft folds on his cheeks that made his whiskers shoot out in random patterns. The uncertainty troubled her young mind.
After a fitful sleep, she awoke to the smell of doughy pancakes wafting into her bedroom. A smile slid across her face as she strode to the kitchen anticipating what she would find. Grandpa Willy was making his famous blueberry pancakes. A stack of purplish-blue flapjacks sat awaiting her and her brother at the table.
“Hey there kiddo,” he said with a smile. Michelle walked up to him and held her cheek out so he could give her a scruffy peck. Then she wrapped her arms around his waist; biting back tears, she squeezed hard enough that he stepped forward and had to shuffle his feet to regain balance. When she pulled away, she realized his scent of Old Spice and pancakes clung in a comforting way.
“Thanks for the pancakes, Grandpa Willy.”
“Anything for you, my darling little girl. So, what are we going to do on this dreary day?” he replied.
The two devised a plan to spend the day watching old movies and then taking a walk down to the park. He shared the same stories he always did, though this time Michelle heard them differently. Her grandfather’s tales were strong and independent; she realized he was scared of absolutely nothing, not even death. She wondered if she would be like that one day.
The house returned to its standard size, and a lightness seeped in. Even when Grandpa Willy had hard days, she embraced every moment she could spend with him.
A month later, Grandpa Willy fell asleep on the couch and never woke up. Michelle looked at his body. He looked peaceful and complete, almost as if a part of him that was still alive simply got on a bus and headed for his next destination, leaving behind the shell he no longer needed. While sadness fell upon her and her family, she found herself stronger than before.
Grandpa Willy’s memorial service was to be held two days after his death. Michelle’s mother became withdrawn, while her father stayed busy with whatever he could find. When the day of the memorial service arrived she put on a new lovely dress, which she instantly hated, knowing that the memory of burying her grandfather would stain it. At the service a man unknown to Michelle spoke of her grandfather. She suspected that he was hired by the funeral parlor. Her palms sweat, her face burned, and her feelings were a mix of fear and frustration. She felt insignificant in this large room filled with older people, most of which she didn’t know. Her fists and jaw clenched; she stood up.
“Can I speak? About my Grandpa Willy?” Her small voice squeaked. Her mother reached for her hand, a stunned look on her face. Her own limitations induced by grief prevented her from standing, though her daughter stood now, proud and tall. The man at the front of the room stepped away from the platform and motioned for her to come forward. Wiping the sweat from her palms, she walked towards him.
Standing at the podium, she looked at the audience and saw heads, lots of heads. All foreign and unfamiliar other than her family. Clearing her throat, she began, “Let me tell you about the time my Grandfather laid out five Irishmen in a pub, without spilling a drop of his beer.”
Her mother spat laughter that formed in her chest and burst through her nose. Everyone in the room joined the chorus of joyous souls remembering life. Michelle did inherit her Grandfather’s strength, and no one called her that silly name she despised, Darling Little Girl, ever again.
This is an updated version of one I posted several months ago. Cleaned up, better ending.