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I have this purple handkerchief that I like to keep with me when things get rough. I sometimes keep it wrapped in the only photograph I ever took of my grandfather, the one who owned the handkerchief before me. Today is his seventy-seventh birthday, but I won’t call him to celebrate today because on December 17, 2009, my grandfather passed away from bladder cancer, the purple handkerchief in his hand.

Before my grandfather passed away, besides a couple of cats and my mom’s uncle who I wasn’t close with, I hadn’t had to cope with the reality of death. The timing didn’t help either; we had planned to leave a few days later to spend Christmas with my grandparents, and I had finished an art project for him as part of my present just the day before. What made it all worse is that the last I had heard of his condition made me think he was getting better, that we had more time. Understandably, my grandfather’s death hit me hard. Like sucker punch to the chest meets being run over by a bus meets being kicked in the back and the stomach over and over and over again kind of hard.

Looking at or talking about anything related to my grandfather was difficult for a long time after his death. Memories that were supposed to make me smile only resulted in a messy, tear-tracked face and stuffy nose. It’s easier now that eight and half years have gone by, but easier doesn’t always mean easy. I can look at photographs of him and remember some of my favorite moments with him – like the time he asked me to help him wrap a Christmas gift in a box only to find out on Christmas morning I had wrapped my own present (it was a snare drum; my grandmother still insists she had no part in the gift) – but July 16 and December 17 will forever stick in my brain as days of absence, longing, and my first taste of heartbreak. I would give anything to go back in time to ask him every lingering question I didn’t think of until years later or even just to hug him one last time, but I’m thankful to have these photographs to keep these memories alive.

He encouraged my love of books and learning and is the reason I began to write. He’d dance with me, play ball with me, and even wore a hot pink wig of mine to make me laugh. He’s partly to blame for my addiction to milkshakes and is the reason why I judge pizza based on the level of garlic (the man once complained about hospital pizza not having enough garlic on it). He was an activist, working in disadvantaged neighborhoods in Chicago during the Civil Rights Era, and showed me you can help mass quantities of people with the right resources.

I keep a framed photograph of the two of us by my bedside. I’m about two years old, and he’s helping me to hit a plastic ball off a tee that’s about as tall as me. Every night, when I turn my light out, I kiss his picture and say thank you, hoping that wherever he is, he knows I’m grateful for all he did for me. Grandpop, I wish I had had the opportunity tell you how much I love you, but to be quite honest, I probably couldn’t find the words. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but one of you is worth millions. I used to be upset that I never got to say a proper goodbye, but as the years have gone on, I realized I would’ve rather said see you later because no matter where I go, you’re never too far away. I hope you’re proud of who I’ve become and who I am going to be, and I can’t wait for the day when photographs aren’t the only place I’ll be able to see you.

Photographs courtesy of my grandmother, Jeanne.