Learning the hard way

Learning the hard way

Story by Mackenzie Phillips, Staff Writer

Death. It’s a hard thing to fully wrap your mind around until you’ve experienced it.

When I was a kid, I didn’t really understand it.

I had the idea that good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. But I didn’t really understand what it meant. How it happened. Why it happened. What it felt like for someone close to you to die.

But that changed.

One sunny day turned into one of the worst days of my life with one quick, out of the blue phone call to my mom. Before this day, death had made no sense to me at all. But, with time, I  began to understand what death really meant.

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It was June 3rd, 2006. I was 11 years old. The weather was great and it was a beautiful day. My mom and my sister were walking in the neighborhood, and I was riding my bike along with them.

We were having a great time just spending time together.

My mom’s phone rang. Of course I didn’t think anything of it. I was too wrapped up in trying to teach myself to ride my bike with no hands to notice or care.
But there was something wrong.

She hung up her phone and just looked at me. She had something to say, but she wouldn’t say it or she didn’t know how. I just wanted her to spit it out.

Now I wish she hadn’t said it.

My grandpa had died.

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My grandpa. He was the best grandpa I could have ever asked for. He was my Pa.

He wasn’t actually my biological grandfather. My dad’s mom married him after her first husband died. Both of my biological grandfathers died before I was born, so my grandma’s second husband was my grandpa in every other sense.

I can still vividly remember what he looked like. He was tall and somewhat broadly build. He always wore a long sleeve button-up shirt and overalls. What was left of his gray and white hair was always slicked down and kinda oily. He had a soft, friendly face, and he always seemed like he was smiling.

We were like best friends. I remember watching Wheel of Fortune together in his easy chair. I remember watching him read the paper with his big, old-man glasses every morning. Trying to braid his barely-even-there hair. Playing Pog on the old yellow shag carpet in the living room. Going on long trail rides with him and my grandma and their friends through the middle of nowhere.

But the thing I miss the most is going camping with him and my grandma.

At least once every summer, we packed up some food, clothes, the dogs, and the camper, and would go camping at some campground in Arkansas. We would always have fun.

I’d go swimming almost every day, we’d explore the campground, make s’mores, and sit outside when it was just getting dark and everything was quiet and peaceful.
I loved going camping with them so much. It was like we were going on our own little adventure. I could always count on going camping every summer. It was something I felt I would always have.

**********

At first I was in complete and utter shock. I couldn’t say a word. What would I possibly say even if I could?

But I did manage to get out a “How?”

All my mom could tell me was that he had been doing some sort of yard work and something had happened.

Later, I got some more details.

He had been getting a tree cut down on some property of his. The tree ended up falling in the wrong direction, towards him. The doctors thought he might have possibly died from a heart attack before the tree even hit him, meaning his death was quick.

But, honestly, it wasn’t the ‘how’ that mattered so much to me.

It was ‘why.’

I was heart broken. I didn’t just lose a step-grandfather. I lost a best friend. And without warning. I just didn’t understand. I had to ask myself the cliché, “How could fate be so cruel?”

I spent the rest of that summer at my grandma’s. I never wanted to leave her side.

We cried for days and days, practically bawling.

People visited, paying their respects, I suppose.

We only left the house when necessary.

I just couldn’t comprehend how my grandpa could just be taken from me and his family like that. He was the nicest, most endearing man I’d ever know.

He didn’t deserve it, right?

**********

After pulling myself together and getting back to “normal” life, I began to realize what death really was. It wasn’ t just someone dying and either going to heaven or hell.

It was much more complicated.

Death wasn’t just about death.

It’s about the person’s life and how they lived and affected others up to the point of their death.

My grandpa showed me how to be nice and friendly. He taught me compassion.

And, with his death, I learned how to cherish my time with others.

I learned that I can’t control death or explain why someone has to die (besides the obvious fact that we’re human).

Most of all I learned that, even though death is extremely hard to deal with, it really shows you how much someone meant to you, which is something you’ll never forget.