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My Poppa is Peter Pan

It took me a long time to decide to write about my grandpa, but I’m one of those people who believe that writing heals. It’s a way to remember him the way he was, not the way he is now. Today, my mother assures me, I wouldn’t even recognize him. She wants to save me the pain of seeing him, because he is not and will not ever be the same.

When I think back to the hazy memories of my youth, I remember thinking my Poppa was Peter Pan. Those wrinkles on his leathery tan face were only from spending too much time in the sun. Yes, to me he was ageless and bursting with life. I spent many summers climbing the trees in his backyard like a Lost Boy reaching higher branches with each passing year. How many times had I asked him to take out the canoe so we could explore the unknown waters of his pond like proper pirates? He even taught me to fish with nothing put a stick, string, a paperclip, and a piece of bread. Poppa found endless treasures and trinkets to share with his blonde ruffians, my sister and I. When we all sat down to eat, he was the one with the most food on his face by the end of the meal. And while playing with his grandchildren, he was the one who was scolded and “sent to the corner” by my grandma for being too loud.

Many times I found myself in his office gazing at pictures of his past. There was the large black and white photo of my Poppa breaking six bricks with one hand, and then there would be a hanging picture of him in his tap shoes and coat tails on a bright stage. So many more pictures littered the walls like a timeline of adventures. The places he’d gone, the people he had met, all the amazing things that he did. There was the proof, my Poppa was Peter Pan.

But, like any reader of J.M Barrie’s masterpiece should know, Peter Pan forgets. No matter how strong, no matter how much energy flows through his veins, Peter forgets. It started harmlessly enough with what seemed to be signs of old age. Misplacing keys, being ready for church a day early, forgetting to take something off the stove. These were all indications of an 84 year-old man becoming senile. However, this in no way changed who Poppa was or how he lived his life. Poppa was as fit and happy as ever. Even now, my last memory of my Poppa was at my 20th birthday when he embraced me and said what a beautiful woman I had become. I can still remember the tears that stung my eyes at hearing those words. They are the last words I will likely ever hear him say.

Even before my birthday, Poppa had begun to say goodbye, as if he knew what storm was brewing on the horizon. He started to give away parts of his past to the children of his future. A World War II book from his days in the Navy for my brother, Chet, or his karate belts and uniform for my youngest brother, Max. When my Mom, his daughter, asked why he was giving such important things away when he was in perfectly good health, he would simply say, “I just want you all to remember your Poppa.” Perhaps he was trying to prepare us for his departure, hoping it would ease the inevitable pain in some way. But nothing could prepare any of us for what was to come.

The conversation began on a fall afternoon when the sun was still warm and the wind brought a flurry of falling leaves. It was just the four of us, my eldest sister, Becca, my parents, and me. We had all come together to talk about Poppa. Mom was the one who told the story, her face stone-cold and almost emotionless with practiced composure she had learned from her years serving in the United States Army. It had come down to this, Poppa had Alzheimer’s. He had been struggling with an internal battle for quite some time, and I had been in the dark about it until that day. Convinced that he was in another time and place, Poppa had lashed out violently at the family that had cared for him all their lives. We were liars and thieves, tricksters and strangers. I cannot retell the stories I heard from my mother that day, but be assured they have been branded in my mind with a hot searing pain that I will not soon forget. On a scientific level, his Alzheimer’s had become so severe in such a short amount of time that is brain had literally shrunk, and only his occipital lobe was fully functioning. According to several doctors, it was the most aggressive case of Alzheimer’s they had ever seen. Beyond sight, this lobe controls the most basic of human emotions, reverting back to the most animalistic behavior of fight or flight. For a man like my grandfather, this always means fight. There is no frontal lobe to add reason and sense to his actions, he can only lash out at his loved ones. On an emotional level, he was no longer my Poppa.

As my mother continued her story that still haunts me to this day, all I could do was cry. Sitting before me, I saw three faces. One, my father’s: a mixture of sadness and desperation to fix the unfixable. There was protection in his eyes as well. He did not want my mother to spend any more time trying to reach my grandfather; it would be disastrous to her mental and physical health. My sister’s eyes were burning with anger and even hatred at our Poppa, a man who had turned violently against his own family. Then there is my mother, holding herself together with strands of tremendous inner strength. To this day, I know I will never encounter a stronger woman than my mother. Lastly, there is me, a blubbering wet mess of a girl who can barely breathe let alone speak the words that are screaming in her head. Most of which say, “Why? WHY?!” My family comforts me now, and somehow that sets me off. I am not the one who needs to be comforted. I am a weak-hearted person who feels too much. But my emotions do not keep me from seeing my mother’s sadness. I can only imagine her pain and agony as her own father falls into madness. I tear away from their arms and wrap her in mine. Only then does she cry, and I can’t comfort her.

There is no happy ending to this story. All I can say is, “You’re so strong, Mom. You are so unbelievably strong.”

“No I’m not,” she argues with a tear-strained voice, and I only hold her tighter.

I will never see my Poppa again. On that day, my mother said we should consider him dead. She even thought about telling the rest of my siblings that he had passed on in order to save them from the agony that was the truth. Poppa was now barely a shadow of his former self. We wouldn’t recognize him just as he wouldn’t recognize us. How sad it was to find my Poppa was more like the Peter Pan than I could have ever imagined. Both their stories started with adventures, of laughter and treasured moments that seemed to never end for a man who seemed to never age.

Now here I am, seeming to stand outside my window waiting for Peter to remember me, to come back from Neverland even just for a moment. I didn’t get to say goodbye, no, I didn’t even get to say hello. I was forgotten. Yes, my Poppa is Peter Pan. And no matter how important the adventures, no matter how many Lost Boys and Wendys love him, Peter Pan forgets. So I continue through life, remembering the good and blocking out the bad. And although I will never see Peter Pan again, “I will tell his story to my children, and they will tell it to their children. And so it will go on. For all children grow up, except one” (Peter Pan, 2003).