I was fourteen when my great-grandfather died. Today, there are two things about him that I remember as if I saw him yesterday. First, I remember his wink. Even when he was sick, on his deathbed, he would wink, and somehow, that made me think, made me believe, he would make it. Second, I remember his smell, a mix of aftershave, old age, and the tobacco he abandoned many years ago.
I remember when Pap died; we all knew he would. He was sick, sick to the point that he would have blood transfusions every week. I would always go to see him in the hospital. Looking back, I wish I had gone more. But every visit, I would breathe deeply and watch his eyes, trying desperately to capture what I knew I would soon lose. Then, he died, and I discovered what people mean when they describe somebody as “deflated”. It felt as if my lungs collapsed, my tear ducts were pressurized, and in the middle of a crowd of friends, I was suddenly, overwhelmingly, alone.
At the visitation, which took place in his house, I escaped the crying and condolences of those around me and went to Pap’s room. It was exactly as I remembered it. The carpet was the same, Pap’s watch was still on the dresser and, to my delight, his scent still remained. I stood in the center of the room, hoping that if I smelled that for long enough, this would all go away and Pap would return. My father walked in and, noticing my anguish, wrapped me in a hug.
“It still smells like him,” I cried. We remained in that embrace until my father, always the teacher, looked down at me and then around the room.
“That scent won’t go away for a long time, Courtney, because dust is mostly skin cells. That’s what you smell.” It was a difficult lesson to take in, for as I looked around the room, around the house, and at the pieces of my life I was able to salvage, I couldn’t believe that such a memory, such a love, could be skin cells.
I still go to that house to visit my great-grandmother and to this day, even after almost four years, I can still smell the hero of my childhood, the friend to whom I never said good-bye, my lifelong role model. Something tells me that’s not dust I smell. It’s got to be something more than that, maybe not tangible, but present all the same. So this I believe: we should, every one of us, live our lives in such a way that we are cherished, are admired, are loved, long after the dust is gone.
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