Once when I was young we drove to the farm to show my grandpa our new camper. He jumped from the combine, waving when we turned onto the long driveway. As we came closer my sister, brother, and I noticed something was wrong. He wasn’t waving anymore. He was stooped over, groaning.
Dad’s truck skidded to a stop on the gravel, sending up a swirl of dust. He told us to wait in the camper and ran across the field. Pain sounded in Grandpa’s voice through the screened windows. The men staggered to the truck and Grandpa sat across the table, rocking, clutching a paper towel to soak up the blood. He’d cut a chunk from his hand when climbing down from the tractor.
It was the only time I recall seeing him hurt. And for some reason, it was all I could think of the moment I hung up the phone with my dad, taking the time to allow the word “tumor” solidify in my mind.
My flight out of Charlottetown was quiet. The snow had melted from the hills below to reveal red patches of field checker-boarding across Prince Edward Island. I toyed with my seatbelt, hoping my husband would enjoy a week alone with the kids. I landed in Toronto only to take off an hour later. Winnipeg greeted me in darkness.
“You’re at your mom’s?” His voice was deep as ever, the Frisian accent thick and endearing. “Well, shoot. That’s great. I didn’t know you were coming home.”
“I just . . . thought I should.” For months I’d ignored the urge to plan a trip back home. But, two of my cousins had scheduled their weddings within a week of each other. One of my best friends was about to have her second baby. My grandpa has a tumor. I wrapped the phone cord around my finger. “Can I come over?”
In twenty minutes I was out of the city and on the highway. I loathed the desolate landscape when I left Manitoba fifteen years before. But now, the drive to the farm was beautiful. The prairies were my home. The place where I came from. I stared out at the open sky and turned up Wheat Kings the moment it hit the radio. My hands tightened on the steering wheel as I passed the penitentiary on the hill. Grandpa had retired from thirty-two years as a correctional officer long before– without taking a single sick day. At the end of his last shift, each and every inmate inside had lined up to shake his hand.
My sister’s van was parked in front of his barn, the Alberta license plate still dirty from the drive. Grandpa stood waiting for me in front of the shed. His shoulders were hunched, his shock of white hair thinner than I remembered. But, he was as handsome as ever. I rose to my tiptoes, hugging him tighter than I should.
“Well, look at you!” He laughed, stepping back to examine me, lines crinkling around sharp blue eyes. “You look good.” He winked. “Even if you are a little thin.”
We sat in the sunroom while my sister’s kids examined the toys we’d played with almost three decades before. I was next to Grandpa, resting my head on his shoulder as the sun danced between looming branches outside.
“I’m thinking of having the operation,” Grandpa said. His arm was around my neck, his hand engulfing my shoulder. He’d immigrated to Canada sixty-five years before. A Dutch giant, scooping up a piece of prairie farmland after the war. He was just eighteen then, a year younger than I was, when I left home.
“It sounds like you should,” said my sister.
I agreed without thinking of the implications–without entertaining the possibility he might never recover.
“It’s funny,” Grandpa said. “I never thought about dying before.”
My chest tightened. “No?”
“Oh you know, not really. I feel the same as I did before. It seems soon.”
The days were a blur of family visits, driving back and forth along the impossibly flat landscape. My friend’s house rose like a fortress in the woods on the outskirts of bear country. She was beautiful, pregnant and perfect. The first wedding began without me: the tendency to be late a family trait. Grandpa arrived a half-hour later.
The second wedding rounded off the very end of my trip, held at my old church: the sanctuary untouched by time. When the guests stood for a hymn Grandpa’s voice boomed over all of the others, fervent and on key: just like every Sunday of my childhood. I fell silent, listening, unable to sing anymore.
Grandpa chatted with each and every guest at the reception. I stole quick glances from across the room, fighting a lump in my throat. It was late by the time he arrived at our table. We talked for a long time, joking and exchanging stories while my sister and I dabbed Kleenex at our red-rimmed eyes.
Midnight descended on the reception too soon, a member of staff announcing it was time to leave. I had to fight the overwhelming urge to beg her to let us stay, noting the tired lines under Grandpa’s eyes. We’d kept him far too long already. I stood on my tiptoes, hugging him tighter than I should, staining the lapel of his new suit with a few rogue tears.
And then I let him go one last time, the man where I came from.
On the third anniversary of the day he moved on, May 4, 2015.