I was 16 years old when my grandfather died. He was my only grandfather, as both of my father’s parents had passed when he was just 16 years old. My mom’s parents had relocated from their longtime home in a Detroit suburb to live with us in a small town outside of Lansing, Michigan. Grandpa had been ill, spending his last days in a skilled nursing facility after a fall left him incapacitated. Until that point, we were not aware he was so vulnerable. But when the doctors tried to repair his broken hip and leg, they found that much of his frame had already been eaten away by the bone cancer, there was no fix.
I visited him just once when he was in that facility. I remember it being a cold and rainy day. The smell of antiseptic mixed with cigarette smoke filled my nostrils as I entered the building, my sight line filled with older people in wheelchairs lining the hallways. The whole scene was frightening to me. It was evident that Grandpa wasn’t long for this world, and I only visited him this one time. But sitting by his bedside that day was quite an experience, somber and sad as he lay motionless and incommunicado, I reached for his hand. As we touched, the sun peaked through the clouds and lit on both of our faces, and my thoughts flowed back to a long forgotten morning from many years before.
As a child, I was quite shy. The sixth of seven children, I often shrank behind the crowd that was my family, content to simply hold my mom’s hand and fade into the folds of her dress rather than try to stand out. It was a lovely life, living in the country on a five-acre plot of land in a 5-bedroom, 2-bath farmhouse. The two pups in the pole barn had a large pen and indoor shelter; many cats sauntered in and out of the house at will; we even had a chicken that lived in a doghouse. Life was fun and crazy and filled with family dynamics.
Every summer my grandparents would trek three hours north to visit us for a week or so. My grandmother was the sweetest person on earth, with an ever present smile and hug. My grandfather was a tall, gruff Irishman, with a quick wit and an incredible memory. He was a ruthless card player who would quote Hoyle and chastise his own partner for a bad play. He scared me. He was also an avid walker, putting in up to five miles daily across the span of a walk or two. As it turned out one day, I was the only one home when it came time for his walk, and being too young to stay alone, I had to go with him. Off we went down the country dirt road, he trying to engage me by pointing out trees and birds, and me just hoping it would be over soon.
We were halfway through the walk, had made the big turn and were heading home when Grandpa started whistling. He was a great whistler, he could carry a tune like nobody’s business. I looked up at him and he looked down on me, and smiling said, “Do you know how to do the Butterfly Dance?” I slowly shook my head no, a little dumbfounded by the question. He spread those great arms of his out, continued his tune, and began to skip about and flutter his arms! I stood there with my mouth agape until he encouraged me to follow his lead! I was delighted and charmed by this turn of events. He grasped my hand and we did the Butterfly Dance all the way home. My mom was stopped by a neighbor some days later who wanted to verify what he had seen – an old man and a young girl, skipping and dancing down the road!
An alert in the room brought me back to his bedside. I looked down at my grandfather’s now open bright blue eyes. I met his gaze and held his hand a little tighter, I thought I saw him smile.