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Kyra Paitrick


A Memoir

I can remember the mornings when I would awake to the buzzing of my grandfather’s alarm clock. There was a curiosity and a comfort in watching him get ready for work. Still in my dreamy, sleepy state, I would venture to the kitchen in my nightgown. The smell of Folgers coffee lingered in the air as the sun peeked through the dissipating darkness. My grandmother would be at the table ironing my grandpa’s blue jeans and flannel shirt atop an old towel.

My grandpa, who was named after his father Vernon, went by the nickname Butch. Although he was married to my Ojibwe grandmother, he was a non-native man with a reddish-brown mustache and tattoos from his younger years on various locations on his body. I often wondered the stories behind the faded naked lady on his bicep and the anchor across his stomach. Perhaps they were from the short-lived days he spent in the service or maybe the time he had spent in prison. Whatever the tale, I’m sure that it included the same fearlessness and experienced attitude that resonated from Grandpa.

Even then, in his fifties, my grandpa was a stubborn, strong-minded man that I knew no one dared to oppose. He spoke his mind in straight-forward and sharp words. His temper could be quite frightening and, when mixed with alcohol, could be threatening. When Grandpa raised his voice to me, I did whatever I could to calm his anger, even if it meant lying. He still had a way of being charming and magnetic though. He had a distinguishing sense of humor and charm that complemented his rougher side.  

As a four-year old girl, the family often sat outside at the picnic table near the garage. There was a concrete sidewalk that led to the back porch and a fence creating a barrier between the driveway and the grassy inlet where we’d come together. You could see the tiger lilies growing alongside the brown house; the lilies that had been my great-grandpa Vern’s. Grandpa liked to tease and there were a handful of days when a flock of geese would fly overhead. Grandpa would say as seriously and whimsically as he could, “Look, Kyra, it’s a flock of flying turtles!”

“No, Grandpa,” I’d say as I shook my head, “Turtles don’t fly.”

“Well, yes, of course they do! You’ve never seen them?” He was so insistent and I didn’t like to disagree with him.

Well, there we were on another peaceful, sunny day visiting by the picnic table. Mom, Grandma Olson, Uncle Solomon, Aunt Tina and a handful of other relatives were gathered around. I heard the honking overhead and I was not going to miss pointing the birds out to Grandpa. I stood up so proudly and said clear as day, “Grandpa, Look,” pointing my finger up toward the sky, “It’s a flock of fucking turtles!”

Everyone roared with laughter, but Mom, correcting me immediately said, “What did you say?” The shear tone of her voice and look in her eyes made me immediately begin to cry. It wasn’t until I was living with Grandma and Grandpa in my second year of college that Grandpa reminded me of that story. We were sitting together on a hot summer day in the living room that always seemed to be almost too hot to handle. He looked over at me with a smile and said, “Kyra, do you remember that time…?”

It was around Christmas. Grandma and Grandpa had been living in Arizona for two years now. After much struggle and heartbreak within our family, my grandpa decided he needed to escape. He needed to create a new beginning away from the pain and addiction that was consuming his life. After being sober for nearly fifteen years, he had fallen off the wagon and was accustomed to beginning his mornings with a can of Budweiser. My Grandma, who did not drink, became somewhat of a supplier and, as some have called her, the enabler. She knew that if she didn’t get his liquor, she would have to face the backlash and harsh cursing from my Grandpa.

The conflictions that nest in her heart were unbearable. She remained committed to my Grandfather after 45 years of marriage and did not know what to do. The situation affected her so deeply that it literally drove her insane. She had been admitted to the psychiatric hospital for months. During that time, she claimed to see her own Grandmother calling to her to walk through the glass walls and fly out the window. She heard voices telling her to collect the other patients’ belongings and protect them. She did try to do all of these things.

It was a dark time. The family was always pulled together in waiting rooms and over the phone. I wish I could say it got better. I wish I could say that. For a while, it seemed to be past us. Grandma and Grandpa were living in Arizona and enjoying the weather. My parents had bought a house for them there. They’d spend their days visiting the casino, relaxing in the pool, and visiting with family over the phone. However, Grandpa’s drinking continued.

It was December 2008. Our family knew that Grandpa’s health was declining and by this time had forced him to stop drinking. My Aunt Heidi, a registered nurse, was living in Arizona a mile away from Grandpa. She told us he was having hallucinations and was thinning rapidly. I know now that she held back a lot of what was actually happening to him. His liver was shutting down.

The phone call came one night as we were all making dinner at my aunt’s home in Hermantown, Minnesota. My aunt answered the phone and said very little. Her eyes welled up with tears as she passed the phone to my mother. “Hello?” my mom answered. She paused, appearing to process what was being said to her. “I can’t understand you. What are you saying?” The frustration and sadness could be heard simultaneously in the tone of her voice. “Kyra,” she said to me, “You have to take this.” And she continued to speak in the phone, “….I don’t know…I can’t….it’s just too hard to understand,” she pushed the phone at me as she walk away choking on her own tears.

“Hello?” I heard nothing. “Hello? Who is this?”

Through slurring and gurgling, I thought I heard the words, “Who is this?” “Grandpa…”

I now understood why everyone cried, as I began to cry myself.

“This is Kyra.” Grandpa went on telling me things that I couldn’t make out. I listened so hard to try to understand the words that he was sharing with me, but I couldn’t make out words—just a steady stream of sounds that flowed together. In his state, I don’t know if he knew how he actually sounded. Just when I was ready to give up, I heard him say through heavy breathing and pauses, "Proud…of…you…love…always.”

Those were the last words he ever said to me. He passed away on December 26, 2008 in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. The holidays only allowed us to get four open seats on a plane to Arizona. My mom and three aunts made the trip, but did not make it there before he passed. As my mom and I reflect on that day, we realize that, maybe, it was meant to happen that way. Knowing Grandpa, he wouldn’t have wanted his family to be surrounding him when he took his last breath.

The funeral service was held at home in Cloquet. I stayed up the entire night transferring old home videos of Grandpa onto DVD so we could play them at the visitation. The videos showed him in his prime, when the house was always full of people—grandkids, foster children, relatives and friends—who, like me, enjoyed the energy, the laughter and the late night dinners around their table. Some videos showed him cleaning his fish after a day on the lake, while some showed our crazy Christmas gatherings where the kids would get lost in the mounds of wrapping paper hiding the floor and then there were those of him flirting with Grandma, squeezing her butt as she washed the dishes. I didn’t want to turn them off. Everyone gathered around them just as he said they would. He used to have that camera filming all the time and he’d say, “Someday I’ll be gone, and this is how you will remember me.”

I had not seen him for almost a year and did not know what to expect before I walked up to his casket. I didn’t want to go by myself, so it wasn’t until Grandma approached me that I agreed to go. Speaking softly as she grabbed my hand, she said, “Will you visit him with me?”

I always wonder if I’m going to cry or what I’m going to think about or say. I looked at him searching for a sign that it was him. I found it there on his gently folded hands, the faded diamond and spade tattoos on his fingers. I reached out to place my hand on his and knew that it was real. Flashing through my mind were memories; there we were, sitting on the swing together outside, I remembered him crying as he watched the movie, “Second Hand Lions”, and I saw the dance with his daughter at her wedding—the last time we both saw him. Before I left him, I leaned over next to his ear and I whispered softly, “Grandpa, when you are in heaven, I hope you see that flock of fucking turtles.”