You didn’t know him. In fact, if you did, you probably wouldn’t even like him. Growing up, we always heard stories about how terrible he was to his numerous children and to his wife. He was an immigrant who brought this family from the Azores to the United States to start a better life. I never understood this, in the Azores he had a good job and they did okay for themselves (from what I’m told). Everyone around us, judging him and talking about him as if we weren’t standing right there. “We” being his grandchildren, the people who saw a side of him that no one else knew or understood. Sure, we only knew him as our avô, but that’s just it…That’s what mattered to us. Yes, he was a hard man who rarely smiled and had a pretty aggressive personality, However, his grandchildren always made him laugh and smile. We were his weakness.
I remember the days when he’d watch me after school because my single mother worked all hours of the day and night to support us. He would walk to the school and we’d walk back together, hand in hand. I did most of the talking, of course, but he didn’t mind. He would listen patiently and finally ask if I’d like to help him in the backyard. He loved his garden, his pigeons and his paint. He ended up moving to a different town with my grandmother when my mom decided it’d be a good idea to move in with her boyfriend’s family. My grandparents lived in a small trailer where my avô had the freedom to plant and paint whatever he damn well pleased, and he did. I joke that the only thing keeping that trailer together, until this day, is all of the layers of paint. I spent a couple of weeks every summer at their house until I turned 18, after that, I visited at least once a week. I could sit and talk to my grandparents for hours, listening to their stories and advice.
My avô would sit at the kitchen table every day and watch soccer or some other crappy show on the Portuguese channel and complain the entire time. I think I was the only person who didn’t mind this, it always made me laugh. I would sit and vent to him about various things and he would just laugh and tell me how dramatic I was being. My grandparents didn’t speak English, so other cousins only really came around when their parents were around. I tried to make it a point to visit as often as possible since I lived so close by and I liked to help whenever they’d allow.
When I became pregnant, my grandfather would always say he wouldn’t be alive to meet Victoria. The joy in his eyes when that day came was something that I will never forget. He would just watch her in awe, mostly because it had been about 10 years since anyone in our family had a baby. Once Victoria started growing, she became more active and was no stranger to getting into trouble. When I would scold her my grandfather would knock me on the head with his middle finger and tell me to leave her alone…She’s a sweet angel. I always laughed at this and I would remind him that she’d be worse once the teenage years approached…In which he would remind me that he wouldn’t be around to see that.
And he wasn’t.
He fell ill, recovered, and then fell ill again. His hospital visits were becoming more and more frequent until finally he had to use an oxygen tank and was too weak to stand for too long. I started visiting more frequently, much to my ex’s dismay. I tried to keep things as normal as possible by doing what we always did with each other and following the same routine. I would walk in, give my grandmother a kiss, leave Victoria in the living room with her toys, and walk straight to the backyard because I always knew he was there. It was like he was waiting for me every time. I would call him from the door and he would whistle, letting me know where he was. It was always a hassle getting to where he was sitting, in the middle of his garden. Grape vines, tall leaves of Kale and various fruit trees he invested all of his time in, covered the entire area. I would peak through the hanging leaves and he would look up at me and smile while sitting in his favorite chair. I would give him a kiss and he would say, “you get uglier and uglier each time I see you”.
This time, it was different, he was different. The process remained but his eyes were so empty. He looked so tired, but his humor remained. Right on the other side of his trailer was a cemetery, and we could hear mourners sometimes, it would always creep me out. He would say, “look at that, all I have to do is jump the fence when I’m dead!”, and I would giggle because it was uncomfortable but funny. I would sneak him packs of cigarettes because they’re what kept him happy. He had been smoking since he was 12, so quitting would just kill him faster. He would hang the oxygen tank hose on the fence and smoke his cigarette; sharing stories with me and joking about how my grandmother would kill us if she found out he was smoking. As strange as this memory is, it always makes me smile. He was always going against the grain, thinking his own thoughts, quoting his own words. I always admired that about him, he always reminded me to be my own woman and to not let anyone call the shots. He was my male figure at the time, the man I looked up to, there to give me advice when I needed it (besides my Uncle Troy). I hadn’t spoken to my father for four years at the time and didn’t start speaking to him until I left Robert.
Shortly after when I went over, he was sitting on the couch with a vacant expression on his face, eyes glazed over. I gave my grandmother a kiss and walked over to him and sat down. He didn’t look at me, but I started talking to him anyway. He never responded but I knew he was listening, I also knew his time was coming and that scared me. His health deteriorated so quickly, I didn’t have time to take in what was soon to come. We’re never really ready are we? I got a call the next morning…He’s passed. In my kitchen, making breakfast, I turned everything off and walked to my living room. I sat on the floor, I had no idea how to feel or how to react; I felt so empty, so confused, I couldn’t even cry. I left my daughter with my ex and drove over to where my family was, it wasn’t until later that day that it truly hit me. He was gone. Who would pick on me and call me “too skinny” now? Who would tell me that boys ain’t shit and my daughter would punish me by being just like me? Who would paint the trailer and take care of the garden? Who would twist my ear when I said something stupid? Or talk about soccer with me? Or sit in silence with me and stare out at nothing, in a garden near a cemetary?
I didn’t know. I just wanted him back. I was asked to write a eulogy in Portuguese 30 minutes before the funeral, which I was fine with, but I was nervous and scared and sad. The last thing I wanted to do was talk, if you could believe it. The service was beautiful and so was my cousin’s eulogy. I had no one to vent to or cry to during this time since my ex kept telling me, “Oh, my dad died, you’ll be fine and get over it. It happens everyday”. Not a hug. Not an, “it’s going to be okay”, nothing. I’ve never seen my grandmother react the way she did that day, in fact, I had never even seen her shed a tear before that day. She sobbed and begged for God to bring him back. I stood up to speak at the podium and I was surprised at how many people showed up to pay their respects, he didn’t have friends and didn’t talk to his extended family. It was nice to know that there were those who actually cared enough to show up, even if it was just for my grandmother’s sake.
Months later, my grandmother had someone gut the entire backyard. She said she just couldn’t take care of it by herself, but I think it was mostly because it hurt her to see it. I think about him a lot. I remember one day, a month or so after I left Robert, Victoria came to me in the early morning and gave me a big hug. I smelled cigarettes and Old Spice in her hair and on her clothes, it was the strangest thing. No one else was in the house, it was just us, and she smelled just like my grandfather did. I couldn’t hold back my tears,I just held her close and she started telling me about a dream she had. “Avô was there and we were at the beach!”, she exclaimed. I looked her in the face and asked if she talked to him a lot and she said, “yes mommy, all the time!”. I am Catholic, but I never believed in any of these things before she came to me that day. Every once in a while she’ll talk about him until this day, or the smell of cigarettes and Old Spice will wake me in the middle of a dead sleep.
I miss him so. He’s taking care of us, I just know it. It’s been three years this past Monday, and I can still picture his piercing blue eyes.