By John Thomas Tuft

Pap spills some of the steaming coffee into the saucer, lifts it to his lips and blows gently across the surface. He sips, sighs, sips some more, then places the saucer on top of the cup. This ritual has helped him through many a rough moment but this one might be the worst of them all in his sixty-nine years. It is nigh on impossible. How does one trade one life for another? He puts his head in his hands and weeps. They are tears of despair and loss, the chemistry of grief. Would that he could have traded his own life, he would have gladly done so. Grief is a cold ache, an empty room that cannot be heated no matter how well intentioned the outside source of comfort–be it friend, hymn, psalm, or tears. They are mere words and gestures. Pap sits and stares, unseeing, through the thick spectacles that Ellie called his “bottle bottoms.” Somehow, over the years, she had shortened it to his “bell bottoms” and they both laughed at this incongruity. “Go get your bell bottoms, Pap,” she’d tease, “So we can all see better those baggy jeans you wear.” It was part of the sylvan weave of part teasing, part shared frailty, and part stubbornness that drew and held them close to each other.

Ellie. He whispers her name and his chest heaves with the renewed agony of grieving. He’s empty inside. His heart is shattered. There is no why to her dying. He knows why. The disease is relentless and takes no prisoners. It is the why of her living that even the thickest of bottle bottom glasses cannot discern. Why give him a granddaughter who illuminates his world, a precious gift who came into his life and captured him so completely? He tips more coffee into the saucer and practically inhales the liquid as the thought strikes like cold steel: maybe he was not enough for her. Maybe he didn’t take good care with her. Maybe he didn’t listen enough or sing enough with her. She loved that Taylor Swift girl, knew all of her songs and eras. Maybe he had been sick too much himself and had to obey the six feet rule to keep her safe, just when she needed him most. Maybe. Maybe… The coffee is suddenly cold, yet he forces himself to swallow it as penance.

She was born twenty-five years ago. She became a mother a mere week ago. She passed less than two hours ago. Pap gasps as the knife twists in his heart. “No,” he cries out. “No, no, no…please, no.” Grief is the missing yes. The missing hope, the missing sense of wholeness, the missing yes of a life that feels full of purpose. The yes of being complete. Ellie made his life complete, a complete story. He married the love of his life, Sarah. Together they begat Elena Rose. Elena Rose and her Martin, both unknowingly carriers of the nonfunctioning CF gene, begat Ellie. Which meant a one in four chance of a child with cystic fibrosis. Now there is a hole and a hole filled with pain is the spectre of hell. In a little while the doctor was going to do the sweat test to see if baby Joseph, Jr. might have cystic fibrosis like his mother. Then a full genetic workup, just to confirm what tests during the pregnancy confirmed. The genetic lottery can be most unforgiving to the best of gamblers.

Pap smiles at the memory of Ellie’s stubbornness when it came to having a child. There would be time later, too much time, to pack away the memories into boxes and put them somewhere safe. Dark and safe. Grief is built with crumbling walls around treasures in battered, forlorn boxes. The sound of the chest wall oscillator or the rhythmic thumping of cupped hands on her back to try and break up the mucus. He needed to bury that memory. The sight of the feeding tube through her abdomen. The coughing. The endless coughing. Until she retched. But those were also memories of her stubbornness.  “Ellie.” He whispers it, suddenly desperate that he is going to forget the sound of her voice. He puts his bell bottom glasses on the table and lets himself weep anew.

She was a child. And then she wasn’t. She always called him Pap. She always said it with a smile. She grew up and fell in love. She became a woman. She had dreams and hopes and fears and wonders and jokes and secrets. And she loved him, her grandpa, with all of her heart. How could something like that cause such unrelenting pain now? And she had disease. It did not define her, but it did demand limits. Yet she rose above them somehow. Now she was gone. She became pregnant. She made that choice boldly. Uncomplaining and uncomplicated. With all that she was, she chose life. For someone else. And as the pregnancy wore on she grew weaker. But she was stubborn. Oh, so stubborn. And she made it. She was able to hold her son. Then she succumbed. She was gone. Leaving it all. All her family. All her hopes and dreams and fears and wonders and jokes and secrets. Leaving him alone…

Leaving him with a great grandson. Joseph, Jr. Pap paused as the thought took root. JJ sounded about right. She trusted him with a piece of herself. JJ. He slowly picked up the thick glasses. Someone needed to teach JJ about all the little things. The things that make the day. The things that make the day a little brighter. The things only a great grandpa can convey. Pap rose from the seat. Pulled out his phone. Scrolled to the playlist that Ellie had put on it. As he walked out the door, the voice of Taylor Swift drifted up and around him. Like a warm touch…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.